Ibri, Nizwa, Wadi Bani Khalid, Wadi Tiwi, Muscat, Sohar.
Initially we planned to visit Oman only for 10 days, but after so many recommendations of other overlanders and residents we plan to visit 3 to 4 weeks, before heading to Iran. Our actual route will be different from our planned route...
Border crossing and Sohar
Exiting the U.A.E. went very smoothly. We had selected a small border crossing (as it turned out, there are two border crossings at Al Ain) and after waiting in line in our car at the ‘drive in’ border, we were directed into the customs office and the immigration office to immediately receive our exit stamps. Back in our car, we needed to make an interesting U-turn towards Oman, crossed the police check point of U.A.E. and found ourselves at a police checkpoint for Oman…after a friendly conversation, they directed us towards the customs and immigration office: “turn left here and go straight…”.
After turning left, we found ourselves in a narrow street with some shops, but no customs or immigration. The road became wider after 500 metres, but still not customs or immigration…after about 3km’s, we decided to ask someone. Instead of being told to turn the car and go back, the guy told us to continue another 6km’s… and so we did. After a couple of km’s we indeed found a large government looking building with police guards. At the gate, we asked if this was customs and immigration, the officer let us through and directed us to the last building in sight. At the office, we found out (at least this is what we made of it) that since we did not have our visa yet, this was not the right office… we had to go back to the main road and continue straight for 20 km’s… and so we did J
Around 20km further, we found a small shop and an insurance agent, but still no customs or immigration. Wilfred walked into the insurance agent to inform on the insurance options as well as the location of customs and immigration; we were instructed to follow the road for another 10 km’s. A mere 4 km’s down the road, we were pulled over by a police car. With Africa still in our veins, our initial though is: Oh boy, now we are screwed…how in the world are we (as experienced travellers) going to explain that we are 30km’s from the border and still have no visa, no car insurance and have driven a car knowingly into a country with our declaring it. But of course, the guy had seen our foreign licence plate, was very interested in what we had done and in what we were going to do, so after a short chat and a look at our passports, he told us to continue for another 6 km’s. Very re-assured that we had not missed immigration, we continued the last 6kms to the official border post.
Formalities at the border post were fast and after buying the car insurance, the insurance agent took us to a little tourist information booth. It turned out he was also a guide (in the winter months). He was so enthusiastic about his country that we spent the next 30 minutes chatting with him and listening to all the locations, attractions and wild camp spots we should not miss…on his advice, we continued towards Sohar (his home town, he proudly told us), ate at the Turkish restaurant famous for its fresh grilled fresh fish opposite the fish market and camped next to the Radisson Blu, right on the beach and next to a beautiful park…what a great start in Oman!
The next morning, we visited the fish market. This market is built in the shape of the famous fishing boat, called a Dhow. We bought ourselves a kilo of very fresh yellow fin tuna for only €5,00 and were very tempted to also take some shrimps and lobster…if only we had a larger fridge.
Coastal route to Muscat
The rest of the day, we visited some castles on the coastal road from Sohar to Muscat. They all looked very well restored and kept, but only one was open for the public to visit. All castles/forts were built on the edge of the sea and any were not sign-posted, but as long as we drove towards the sea we could find the right place. Just after lunch, we passed ‘Muscat City Centre’ (a large mall) and its Carrefour and bought matching ingredients for our tuna steak.
From the mall, we followed the highway towards one of the first beaches of Muscat and found the spot where other overlanders had stayed a month prior to us. It is a very relaxed spot; a little bit busy at night when locals come to swim and picnic and really quite in the morning. To our surprise, there are even fresh water showers. What a welcome treat after 5 hot days without a shower…
Beach camping in Muscat, Old Muscat and Yiti
Camping at the beach in Muscat
We had parked the car on the beach not too far from the showers, but Wilfred wanted to turn it around to have a better position towards the beach and sun in the morning. When he tried to start the car, we only got a dry click…the battery monitor told us, that the battery was on 9 Volts. Strange to say the least, as we had been driving almost the whole day, with at least 20 minutes of driving between the various stops…
The next morning, our aim was to drive to the Iranian Embassy to have the electronic form pushed to Tehran…waiting for the sun to have charged our battery, we enjoyed a very slow morning with lots of coffee. Close to 11.00AM, the monitor tells us the battery is over 12 Volts and we made ourselves ready to leave. Like the last time in Zambia however, the 12 Volts is not the best indicator…and still nothing happened. Wilfred walked to the official parking to found someone that could help jump-start the truck and was back in two minutes. The first Omani he noticed, immediately asked him to jump in and he drove onto the beach to the truck…alas, a jump-start did not work either…we dismantled the battery and thanked the guy for his help. He would not hear of it and pointed us to his car and we drove off to get a new battery...after two shops, we found a battery that would at least fit and an hour later, we are back at the car. Eureka; it started!
Too late to go to the Iranian Embassy, we drove again to the Muscat City Centre mall where we had also seen a Toyota dealer and service station. We asked them to check if the battery charging system. All mechanics are out for lunch, but the guy asks us to switch on the main lights, turn off the car and start it again… It still started without hesitation and he said: ‘You’re good to go’.
Back at the mall, we got ourselves a local sim card (the previous day we could not as they refused to use our drivers license for registration) and had lunch while Wilfred searched the internet for causes of our dead battery. Was it the many start-stops on one day? Could the air-conditioning have drained it? Has the heat such an impact? (in Zambia it was also extremely hot when it happened). We had noticed that the same fuse that had blown in Zambia, was looking less clean as it used to, but certainly did not look like it was blown…anyway, something to be checked when back at the beach.
At around three, we walked went to the Carrefour for some pre diner snacks and headed back to the beach. We planned to bbq at night, but so many people stopped by to look at our truck, interested in our trip, asking to see the truck, where can I buy such a truck?, etc. So in the end we just had some French cheese and crackers for dinner.
The next morning we did a second attempt to get to the Iranian Embassy. When we got there we noticed an announcement above the entrance that if individual want to apply for a visa they must use one of the travel agencies listed below…the window opens and a friendly man asked us if we were here to apply for a visa…yes, we are. ‘Online?’ he asked…yes, we did. After a phone call we were allowed to go to the visa section. As the online process is fairly new (implemented (somewhat unsuccessfully) since last January) the man behind the counter asked us to fill in the normal application, we paid for the two visa and were told to pick up our passports on Monday…can it really be this easy. Guess we will find out next Monday!
It was also time to do laundry again and this time we had a huge bag of laundry (maybe more than 8kg), but all laundry shops charge per item, making it extremely expensive to have our laundry done. So, when a someone stopped by our truck to ask about our travel, Wilfred asked her if there is a Laundromat in Muscat where we can do our washing…and she replied: ‘You can do that at my house’. We spent a couple of hours at her house, drinking coffee, chatting, getting tips for our trip in Oman and updating our travel blog.
After three nights camping on the beach, just south of Muscat Centre we were finally ready to visit some places in Muscat and Old Muscat. We drove towards Qurum Beach where there are some nice places to have breakfast. After that we drove towards the port of Muscat where a lovely drive along the corniche started. We made lots of stops to enjoy the views of the harbour. The fist picture stop was Fort Mutrah, a fort built by the Portuguese and still used for military purposes. We made a short stop at the restored watchtower (also built by the Portuguese) sitting proudly on a promontory out the sea. Passed by the Riyam monument, a giant ornamental incense burner, took a short stroll in Kabul Bay Park. Then we reached the gates of Old Muscat. This is a newly built gate for the city and the old gates are housed inside the museum. Until 1970 the old gates were closed every night (but not since the current Sultan is in charge). But as it a Friday the museum is unfortunately closed. So we continued to Old Muscat and our first stop is the Sultan’s palace (Al Alam palace), an enormous palace with very distinctive pillars made of blue and yellow, called mushroom pilars. It is built on the former site of the British Embassy and there used to be a flagpole during the slave trade with East Africa. The legend is that if a slave was able to reach and touch the flagpole he/she would be granted his/her freedom. Guarding the east entrance of the harbour is Fort Al Jalali, also built by the Portuguese and it can only be reached by a very steep flight of steps. Making it perfect to house prisoners for many years. Next we walked to Al Mirani Fort, perched on a small hill overlooking the sea and guarding the west side of the harbour. Legend is that this place contributed to the fall of the Portuguese in Muscat; the Portuguese commander fell in love with the daughter of a Hindi supplier. The marriage did not take place because the Hindi supplier refused based on a religious match. He was threatened by ruin, but convinced the commander that the fort supplies needed an overhaul. But instead of resupplying the fort supplies he gave a nod to Sultan Bin Saif, who retook the Fort in 1649 and soon after that the Portuguese were ousted from Muscat.
Later afternoon on Friday the National Museum of Oman was open and we spent the next two-three hours visiting the nice exhibitions on Land and People, Maritime, Coins, Forts and Arms. This is very nice museum with proper English explanations on the exhibitions.
After our visit to the National Museum we drove south of Muscat through a small mountain pass towards Yiti where we camped at a small-secluded beach. Many locals visit the beaches at night, but after 23:00PM it is quiet for the night. After a late breakfast and some swimming we drove back to Muscat to collect our Iranian visas the following day.
Back in Muscat
As we needed to collect our visas at the Iranian Embassy on Monday we headed back to the beach in Muscat to camp. On one of the previous nights we were invited to have dinner by an Omani man we met on the beach. He was very interested in our truck and where he could buy a tent like ours (but ours is a pop up roof). So we gave him the contact details of a supplier in South Africa. And on Sunday night we went to have dinner with Salah and his family. We received a very warm welcome by him and his brothers and son. Dinner was served ‘Omani-style’ sitting on the floor with a really nice, pristine looking Persian carpet. All the food served was delicious and we enjoyed a very nice dinner. After dinner Judith met Saleh’s wife and daughters and Wilfred showed our truck to the men. It was a very nice and heart warming experience.
Monday morning we did some errands (sending Wilfred’s suits by post to the Netherlands, getting supplies for camping the next nights) and we collected our passports with Iranian visas at the Embassy.
As summer is coming is Oman it is getting hotter and humid by the day. Towards the south are some very nice beaches and Wadi’s with lower temperatures than in Muscat. In the bookshop we bought a 4x4 routes and hikes book of Oman with some excellent routes to drive towards the south.
Border crossing into U.A.E.
After another luxury hotel night, drive of early again and crossed the border into U.A.E. around 17:00PM. At first we though it would be our very first ‘drive through’ border experience… Unfortunately, this is only for those that are KSA or U.A.E. residents. After waiting in line, we were instructed to enter the building and after 45 minutes waiting at a desk, Wilfred received a small paper for the car and we could continue. Entering U.A.E. the same happened… we stood in line with the car and at the booth, we were requested to enter the building and complete the paperwork. Funny enough, the small KSA paper we received for the car, turned out to be very important. We needed it for our own entry and later needed it for the entry of the car as well as to exit the border area… Although we got to the border around 15:00PM (which turned out to be 16:00PM in U.A.E.), we headed for the nearest town, where we planned to camp at the public beach. In town, we first tried to get a sim card for the phone. After visiting 3 shopping areas, we finally succeeded and continued to the beach where we arrived almost in the dark.
We had decided that from the next morning onwards, we would start enjoying ourselves again. No more early starts and fast kilometres… Having said so, we had a nice breakfast and drove towards Abu Dhabi. At first at a pace of 80km/h as we were used to in Africa, but after about an hour, we were back at a pace of 100km/h… Without potholes and with large trucks passing you at a much higher speed, it did not make sense to drive slowly (and yes, it also helps that the diesel was still very affordable…).
On our way into Abu Dhabi, we passed the Grand Mosque and decided to visit it immediately. If it were not for the childish guard that did not let us through. At first Judith needed long sleeves, so we got long sleeves. When we tried to enter the second time with long sleeves, it turned out that a long skirt was not enough!? Not wanting satisfy his additional demand, we just took a picture of the outside that would do more than fine and we continued our drive into city centre towards the corniche with all the luxurious hotels for a nice ‘sushi lunch’ at the Sofitel. Unfortunately, it turns out to be closed till 18:00 and we settled in for some coffee and cake and started planning our next days. On Groupon, we found some great discounts for restaurants and hotels and we ended up again in a nice 5 start hotel for the next 2 nights. We had read that Abu Dhabi had signed contracts to build a Guggenheim and Louvre museum, but even the Emerates have been hit by the financial crisis and both of them are not (even close to being) finished.
On our second day in Abu Dhabi, we first (try) to visit the cultural island where both famous museums are being build and secondly Yas Island, the amusement island, with the Formula 1 circuit, Ferrari world with worlds fastest rollercoaster, Waterworld and a huge mall. As neither really interested us and certainly not at the prices requested, we visited one of the hotel for a cup of coffee and saw how the Formula 1 circuit crosses underneath the hotel.
At one of the stops in KSA some days ago, we noticed that the left front tire was showing some serious wear and at one spot, the canvas had become visible. Knowing it would be difficult to get the tires we want in the next countries to visit, we ordered them on line and had them shipped to a tire fitter in Abu Dhabi. We had ordered them driving into Abu Dhabi and after dropping Judith at the Sheraton for a hair cut (after 10 month), Wilfred went to the tire fitter...if it was not for the incredible stupid mistake that they had labelled one of the tires wrongly at the manufacturer/supplier (and had not checked it before shipment), it would have been an easy change. Fortunately, the supplier had another shipment coming in the next day and we had the second tire fitted a day later in Dubai.
For lunch we went the Emirates Palace Hotel. This hotel is a tourist attraction in itself as it turned out…not fitting in the garage, we were allowed to park at the VIP parking in front of the entrance next to the Bentleys and Ferraris and it was really funny to notice that our car attracted a lot more attention from the valet parking crew and tourists. When Wilfred returned to the car minutes after we parked, he had an animated chat with several of them that had been looking at the car after we left. In general the people in Saudi and the Emirates (and especially the natives), like the fact that you come and cross through their country with an overland vehicle. The number of thumps up and hooting while taking over us, has seriously increased the last couple of days.
After a short glance around the hotel and having marvelled at the 1000+ Swarovski chandeliers, we looked at the menu’s of the restaurants. At one of them, Judith noticed that this month special was all about camel; a specialty of the Jeddah region in KSA, that we had skipped and had not come across since. It was delicious, not only the tender slow cooked meat, but also the two scoops of camel milk ice cream with saffron and dates.
After our (late) lunch, we wanted to visit the cultural village on the island behind the Emirates Palace Hotel, but we unfortunately already found it closed. Alternatively, we drove by the presidential palace buildings and went for a Belgium beer at the Intercontinental hotel’s Belgian (Beer) bar.
After a stopover in Dubai about 13 years ago, we said that it would be nice to see what the city would look like 10 years later…at that time, there were already some skyscrapers, but the majority was being build. One thing we remembered vividly, was the Persian golf that was visible from the road all the way from the old city towards the at that time most luxurious hotel, the Burj Al Arab about 20kms to the south. When we arrived this time and drove the same road towards the Iranian embassy, all we could see were hotels, houses and shops and of course a kilometres long skyline of sky scrapers on the other side.
On the whole stretch, there are only 2 public beaches left and the most southern one (Al Sufouh), would be our sleeping quarters for the coming days. When we arrived there at midnight (!) on Thursday, after having spent the afternoon in the air-conditioning of the outlet mall and the evening in the Emirates mall with its indoor ski slope, we found the place packed. Everywhere on the beach, there were small groups of people still enjoying a drink or even a late bbq. After a short night (people come to the beach around 5:30AM) and a lazy morning, we again moved into the air-conditioning. This time we chose the largest mall of the world; Dubai Mall, which is located next to the XXX Tower and the Dubai Opera, where we would enjoy the Blue Man group performance in the afternoon. After the performance, we walked by the largest fountains of the world and enjoyed atmosphere and its water performance on the music of mission impossible.
The following day, we spent the entire morning at the beach reading and met our new Kenyan friends for drinks and dinner in the afternoon. A pleasant and relaxing day and evening, that did not come a day too soon as it turned out. We had become very tired of the heat, driving days, noisy nights and especially the ‘required/forgotten/neglected’ administration and the continuous little set backs that had accumulated.
Our ‘delay’ in Africa had resulted in the fact that:
Rejuvenated after the pleasant evening, we went to the Intercontinal Hotel in the morning to print, complete and sent the required forms and emails to the different companies before we drove towards Oman. It had been our plan to also visit Al Ain and its world heritage sites, but as we needed to get a new insurance before the end of the day, we drove directly to the border, postponing the visit till our return to U.A.E.
KM’s driven : 1497km
Total liters of fuel : 382lt
Fuel consumption : 6,6km per litre
Average diesel price : 4,6S£
Nights Camping : 0 nights
Nights B&B/Hotel : 2 nights
Fines : 0
Bribes : 0
Theft : 0
Highlight : Enjoying a hot shower at the Intercontinental Hotel, And for Judith taking off the mandatory abaya.
25 hours on the road through the Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia
After waking up, we watched several episodes of series before we finally arrived in the port around 13:45PM (almost 5 hours late). How it was triggered, we do not know, but from the moment we entered the ship, we had the feeling we were treated with priority. Very pleasant, but also very unexpected. We were the first to receive our passports back, the first to receive ‘the mandatory antibiotic pill’ from the doctor (which we tossed in the trash) !?, the only ones allowed to wait in the hallway towards the car deck and the first from the ship into the bus to the immigration office…and as a logical result, the first in line at immigration. We entered Saudi-Arabia at exactly 14.30PM and would have 72 hours to get our car freed from customs, drive 1500kms and exit the country towards U.A.E.
To our surprise, the VIP treatment continued…once we arrived at customs, we were directed to a waiting area with air-conditioning. After paying the customs charges, we were instructed to wait till further notice and we started reading... About 45 minutes later, the guy came back and asked our papers. Some 30 minutes later, he asks for some help to get the papers completed and about 45 minutes later, the car was brought to us. Normally this would be it. However, we thought we needed the carnet de passage signed and stamped as well, which took another 30 minutes… It however turned out that this was not required (KSA was not mentioned on the carnet). Although 2,5 hours still is still one of the most time-consuming border crossings for us, it was much faster than we expected based on the stories we had read online. At 17:10PM, we started the car to drive at least some of the 1500kms with the intent to camp somewhere next to the highway. Once we got to Mekkah and we were directed to the detour for non-Muslims, the highway also had some nice areas where we could indeed have camped close to the road. We however thought it was too early and still daylight to stop driving and drove past Mekkah and ended up on the main highway towards Riyadh, but without any (suitable) camp spots. As a result, we drove towards Ta’if and booked ourselves a nice room in the Intercontinental hotel where we enjoyed a tasty diner-buffet and a comfortable bed.
The next day, we make an early start and drive the 775kms towards the capital Riyadh close to non-stop. This time, we decided to stay overnight in the Holiday Inn relatively close the National Museum that we wanted to visit and would be open on Sunday evenings. The latter was unfortunately not true and we ended up in a Hypermarket to buy ourselves a picnic that we enjoyed in our room.
KM’s driven : 3495km
Total liters of fuel : 584lt
Fuel consumption : 6,6km per litre
Average diesel price : 4,6S£
Nights Camping : 12 nights
Nights B&B/Hotel : 0 nights
Fines : 0
Bribes : 0
Theft : 0
Highlight : Nagaa Temple complex
Towards Port Sudan and Suakin...leaving Africa behind
Towards Port Sudan
We started the next morning at the Toyota dealer for another service round. We had already called ahead some days ago to ensure we could be serviced and knew what the cost would be so we could change enough dollars. Interestingly, it turned out to be 500 pound (~€30) more the day we arrived...after discussing a lot of options (e.g. using our own spare genuine Toyota oil filter; which they did not allow!?), they finally found a solution in cooperation with the head office that had given us the wrong price) and managed to match the money we had with us. At least we could now drive the 650km to Port Sudan and get on the ferry at Suakin…
To get us there however, we had to change more euros/dollars to get diesel (and something to eat). As the guesthouse where we stayed was out of Sudanese pounds, we had to find a solution ourselves… and after an hour and a half, we were happily on our way to the North. We camped about 2 hours north of Khartoum at a nice location just off the highway behind a large rock formation.
The next day, we reached Port Sudan just before sunset after a very long drive through the dessert. A little unexpectedly, we also had to cross a (beautiful) mountainous area about 45km before we reached the coast.
As none of the hotels allowed us to camp on their parking (not even for a small compensation), we asked the tourist police we found next to the most luxurious hotel of the town if we could park next to them on the parking… they were honoured and gladly accepted the cigarettes and coffee we offered.
Unfortunately, Port Sudan is not too interesting and after breakfast we continued our way towards Suakin where we will board the ferry to Saudi-Arabia the next day. We parked our car on the (old?) fish market; a nice spot next to an open water with a view over the ruins of the old city. We meet the person that arranged our tickets and would help us in the port with the formalities. He tells us that we would meet him the next day at 12:00. The rest of the day, we relax and read in the shade of the car,
Leaving Africa behind
At around ten, ‘our guy’ let’s us know that his ‘employee’ will help us in the port and that he will arrive at 13:00 (not 12:00). At 13:07 (in stead of 13:00 sharp), the guy finally showed up and immediately asked if we mind if he would go to the mosque to pray…YES, we mind! We wanted to leave at 12:00 as mentioned the day before. When we arrived in the port, it turned out the customs office is not open… everyone is in the mosque L. As a result ‘our new guy’ told us that we needed wait. He walked off (leaving his car next to ours) making us think he was going to arrange something. After 30 minutes, we decided to call his boss… five minutes later ‘our guy’ was back and we asked him where he was (indeed, he went to the mosque for pray…). With him back, we went to immigration first. After getting the first two stamps out of four, we ended up in a long queue to wait…this time he told us: please stand here and after you get the step go to the next line and then I meet you at the customs office…already getting the picture, Wilfred asked him where he was going…you guessed it; the mosque. Close too furious, Wilfred told him friendly yet very clearly that he is not going anywhere till we are on the ferry with the car (as we paid a good $40 for his services) !
Once all formalities were completed (it took in total 6 hours! Especially the process at customs turned out to be very inefficient), we reached the quay of the ferry. It all went smoothly from there. A quick word with the captain ensured us that we could drive our car onto the ferry ourselves and we could even lock it for the night. Once in Saudi, we had to explain to the driver how the alarm worked as there was no way that we could drive it ourselves…
Before driving the car onto the ferry, we were asked to board the ferry and check into our cabin. To our surprise, the cabin is not bad at all (we had read several horror stories that we will not repeat…). The cabin, that we paid $11 p.p. for, was clean, had a toilet and a shower with hot water and the bunk beds were ‘OK’. As we came fully prepared with instant noodles soup and a flask of hot water, we had dinner and watched a movie in our cabin. Somewhere around ten thirty, we notice that we are moving…only two and half hours late. During the night the ship rocks heavily (we think) and Judith almost fell out of her bed twice. When we met the captain the next morning and asked him if it was heavy weather, he told us it was a relatively easy crossing…in other words; be glad you did not cross it last week…
Extending our trip
The life on the road has been agreeing with us rather well and we had been discussing that it would be a shame if we had to skip Georgia and rush through Eastern Europe as a result of enjoying Africa 8-9 weeks longer than planned. As a result, we came up with the idea to request an extension of our leave for 2 months in case our visa for Saudi Arabia would get approved. And so we did… After a couple of days, we get the fantastic news that the extension is approved and we can stick to our intended route.