If you want to see a geological paradise you need to go to Oman. This Arabian country will give you a fantastic opportunity to see lots of different rocks and you will definitely get fantastic field experience.
Arabia looked very different in the past. It was a different land, different climate, different animals and vegetation cover. It is really difficult to imagine, but this dry, hot and uninhabitable part of the Earth was once covered by ice...
But it is not only nature that makes this place special - this is a land of medieval forts, fantastic food and fascinating culture. It is a safe place to go to try to understand modern Arabic lifestyle. In contrast to its neighbours, Oman chose a more modest way of development and it kept their cultural heritage almost intact.
Sultanate of Oman is located in the north-east part of Arabian Peninsula. So what is so special and particularly spectacular over there?
One of the most fantastic features is the possibility to see the oceanic crust which otherwise can only be studied in the ocean. Normally, oceanic crust is consumed by Earth in so called subduction zones, where dense and cold oceanic crust is sinking below the lighter continental crust (imagine continents as big ship floating on the denser oceanic rocks). The ocean is created in the rifts zones (look at the drawings below – details it will be explained later).
There is a big difference between “continental” and “oceanic” plate in regard to composition and physical properties. In Oman you have a rare opportunity to these an oceanic crust (Semail Ophiolite) overthrusted (obduction) onto an old continental margin. One of the most interesting places is the so-called MOHO boundary - a boundary between Earth’s crust and mantle. . You can see it in an amazing dry river valley (wadi) in Wadi Far near Al Abyad.
You can also look at rocks which can tell you how Arabia looked like 200 million years ago (Jebel Shams, Al Hatta window). Also, you will have the opportunity to see world’s biggest sand desert (Wahiba Sands) and modern river erosion processes (Wadi Shab).
On the map below we highlighted a few places you can visit if you have a few days of holiday spare and you want to geologize a bit (poor husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/kids/friends). These trips will be described in separate posts later in this blog.
Even if you are not a geologist, it is worth to go to Oman anyway and visit those places, simply because they are so beautiful!
Oman - When to go?
The best time to go to Oman is probably late autumn (October-November) as the temperatures are not as high as in the summer time. Summer is really hot. Winter may be very rainy and many of the off-road routes may be impassable. Note that the weather in the mountains may change quickly, so even in the dry season a sudden rainfall may occur, triggering flash-floods. If you are driving, you will see a special road sign which informs you about periodical rivers. You must not cross the road if the river is violent or high (it is not only about safety- you can get really high fine if caught by police).
Oman how to get there?
The easiest and fastest way to get to Oman is of course by plane. There aremany direct flights from Europe and India (a lot of workers in Oman are from India and Pakistan). You can also try to get a flight from Dubai or Abu-Dhabi. Round trip from London to Muscat is about 250-350GBP. Sometimes it can be even cheaper (check fly4free.com or skyscanner.com for deals).
What you can also do (which is quite cheap and not a bad option!) is to fly to Dubai or Abu Dhabi (why not spend a day or two there?) and then go to Muscat. From Dubai you can take a bus to Muscat, which takes approximately 6-7 hrs, depending on the traffic. Buses are quite OK and with AC. You will have two border controls (one in UAE and another on Omani side, you will have to pay exit fee of 35AED - about $10 – have cash with you for this!). Buses from Dubai to Muscat set off in Deira (Riggat al Buteen) on Al-Rigga road. There are a few companies. Oman National Transport Company is cheap but the tickets can be sold out a couple of days in advance. Another service, which doesn’t require booking in advance, is Al-Khanjry Transport (which is on the same road, just closer to Al Siddique Rd). The one-way ticket to Muscat costs 7 Omani Rials (approx. $18). The route avoids Hatta border crossing therefore you will avoid any potential problems with this border crossing that have happened in the past (see below).
The other option is to hire a car in Dubai and then drive to Muscat, but you need to be careful choosing your rental company. Make sure it offers an insurance valid in both countries, otherwise you will not be allowed to cross the border. It may be a bit more expensive, so if you want to travel cheap it would make more sense to hire car directly in Muscat.
Also, note that there were some reports about problems with crossing the Hatta border. According to British Foreign Office (information still valid as of 29.12.2016): some travellers are being redirected to other border crossing points when trying to use the Hatta crossing to cross the UAE/Oman border. Please check any other alternative routes. Unfortunately, border-crosses may be closed without any notice.
There is one land border cross with Saudi Arabia (but only for Gulf Citizens), also due to political instability in Yemen the situation in the southern border may change dynamically as well.
Visa and entry regulations
All tourists going to Oman must obtain a visa prior to travel unless they come from one of the visa exempt countries (most Gulf countries) or one of the countries whose citizens are eligible for visa on arrival (e.g. from UE, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil etc - see here). Citizens of Israel are refused admission to Oman. 10 days visa on arrival costs 5 O.R. Your passport must be for at least 6 months. There are more visa possibilities, and if you are interested in staying longer check here.
Your luggage will be checked before entry to Oman. Carrying drugs (even some medicaments!) is forbidden and there is zero tolerance policy. Drug possession can be punished by death penalty in Oman. Also, do not bring alcohol to the country (fines!)
Hiring a car
Public transportation in Oman is rather poorly developed so it is probably best to hire a car. Having a car makes life there so much easier! It is probably better to have 4WD car, especially if you want to see some wonderful geology (or nature in general) off-road. Some roads in Oman are restricted to 4WD only although passable in a 2WD, but if you drive a 2WD and something happens to you, rental companies will not have any mercy and will have to cover all expenses related to recovery or damage. I would say it is safer to pay a bit more and have some extra fun. You can hire cars at Muscat International Airport (you will need a credit card, driving licence and passport. International driving licence, is not necessary for EU nationals).
Driving is on the right. Driving may be quite challenging in the cities, but motorways are wide, with usually little traffic Speeding is very common, drivers commonly ignore give way signs etc. There are many speed cameras and police or military checks. You must not jump red-lights! It is very serious offence in Oman and you can even go to jail for that.
Petrol in Oman is very cheap and there is no problem with petrol stations.
International Driving Licence/Permit is not required for EU/British driving licence holders (at least when you are hiring car) and is not checked during routine police controls. It is however worth to have one in case of any trouble.
Also, do not be surprised if local people ask you for a lift!
Except more touristic areas there is rather poor choice of hotels/hostels. You can find good deals in booking.com, with prices for the night starting from about $50 during the high season. You may consider camping but be aware of wild animals and wild land owners.
Oman is an Islamic country (dominated by Ibadi, very close to Sunni school). In Gulf countries religion is an integral part of the everyday life and you should respect the rules. Although the Omanis are relatively liberal and rules are not as strict as in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, some rules are applied regionally.
For instance, if you are not Muslim you should not enter a Mosque (there are a few exceptions for tourists, e.g. Grand Mosque in Muscat), both men and women should dress relatively modestly (cover knees and shoulders). Topless or nude sunbathing or swimming is forbidden. During Ramadan you should not drink or eat in public from sunrise to sunset, and local restaurants may be closed. This doesn’t apply to hotel restaurants.
Oman is a rather safe place and we did not experience any problems. There is, however, a general risk of terrorist attack.
Main hazards are from nature: hot weather, flash floods, unstable slopes, wild animals (e.g. snakes), and driving: dangerous roads in the mountain areas and wadis and chaotic traffic in the cities.
Make sure you have a valid medical insurance for the region. Always check weather conditions before going to wadi. During the hot season (practically whole year) make sure you have enough water with you. Also, isotonic drinks may be helpful (we really like Pokari drink).
People in Oman speak Arabic. The knowledge of English is rather good in tourist places, but do not expect to be able to communicate in English in remote villages
The food in Oman is really good (Lebanese origin)! There is a good variety to choose from, but most of them contain meat (e.g. lamb - ramen or chicken), served with fresh salad and rice with spices.It is generally not very spicy. For breakfast try local plain bread, humus and coffee (which is really sweet and served with cardamon). In the coastal area do not forget to try fish. Also, Indian/Pakistani food is really popular in Oman (a lot of workers are from that region).
Meals are not expensive (a few dollars per meal) and portions are quite big (except Muscat - especially in western-style restaurants in Mutrah).
Sweets: try halwa and dates (Omani people love sweets!)
For drinks: coffee with cardamon, Pokari, fresh fruit juices.
Alcohol is available only in hotels and some western-style restaurants.
We were using Lonely Planet "Oman, UAE & Arabian Penisula Guide" (4th edition).
Books about Oman
Wilfred Thesiger "Arabian Sands" - (it is FANTASTIC book); from publisher: "Arabian Sands is Wilfred Thesiger's record of his extraordinary journey through the parched "Empty Quarter" of Arabia. Educated at Eton and Oxford, Thesiger was repulsed by the softness and rigidity of Western life-"the machines, the calling cards, the meticulously aligned streets." In the spirit of T. E. Lawrence, he set out to explore the deserts of Arabia, travelling among peoples who had never seen a European and considered it their duty to kill Christian infidels. His now-classic account is invaluable to understanding the modern Middle East."
Books about geology of Oman:
There are a few books about geology of Oman. A good introduction of geology of Omani mountains is Mike Searle's "Colliding Continents".
Hanna, S. S., 1995, Field-Guide to the Geology of Oman, Published by the Historical Association of Oman.
Robertson, A.H.F, M.P. Searle and A.C. Ries, 1990, The Geology and Tectonics of the Oman Region. Geological Society Special Publication No. 49.
http://www.omantourism.gov.om/wps/portal/mot/tourism/oman/home/experiences/activities/i-tour/!ut/p/a0/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfGjzOLdTb28woIDTQwsnM2MDTxNXZy9wlzNzIw8TfQLsh0VAUrUSXE!/ - Muscat geotrekk
Some roadtrips : http://home.kpn.nl/lilian_jan_schreurs/oman/oman2001.htm