When my husband’s brother suggested a road trip to Salalah, Oman, my husband’s first reaction was, ‘over a thousand kilometers through the desert, not happening’. Though the flesh said no, the mind still yearned and urged him to do some research. Many bloggers had written about the grueling and dangerous journey as if they were confirming his worst fears. We went through a spell of selective abstraction even though there were others who told us about how they had done it and that it was not as gargantuan as we were imagining it. Anyway, the brother in law decided that he was going, come hell or high water, my mother in law was thrilled to join him and my husband decided to yield. That is how we set out on a journey across the Sultanate of Oman.
We left Muscat at 5.30am on a warm September morning. We had planned not to take the regular route as that route had only desert scenes to offer. The alternate route involved driving along the coast of the Arabian Sea and between limestones mountains with distinct folds that tell the story of their creation and existence. Our route was roughly as follows: Muscat-Nizwa-Adam (bypassed the town) – Haima- Shalim-Shuwaymiyyah-Sadah-Mirbat-Taqah-Salalah. Once you leave Adam, the road becomes single carriageway and the drivers have to be more alert. Having driven on single carriageways in Kerala (India), I assumed that my husband and brother in law would be able to breeze through those roads until I felt our car shake when a truck zoomed past us.
The road from Nizwa to Haima is uninteresting with just sand for company. Those who had taken the route before had warned us about camel crossings and we had read about the dangers of driving into sand dunes. Hence, the sight of camel or dune signboards would lead to excitement that would die at the same instant it appeared, since spotting a camel or a sand dune in that area seemed close to the probability of spotting a duck in the desert. When you are driving on a road in the middle of a desert that seems endless, any signage is a welcome change to the barrenness around you. We started seeing mirages in the sand too. I used to think that one could see mirages only on tarred roads and it left me thinking about how what one learns as a child stays with one for a long time until you experience something different.
We kept driving through the desert, at every turn hoping to catch a glimpse of the sea: the main reason why we took this route. Once we crossed Haima, we drove through roads that were tarred but not very smooth. The electric lines that seemed to be going on a journey of their own were the only respite from the emptiness of the desert until we saw some oil fields, which might have been part of the Rima PDO. It was exciting to see the oil wells at a distance, the pumpjacks busy at work with no human in sight. We had covered over 500 kilometers by the time we reached Haima and we had another 500 odd kilometers to cover.
Stuck inside a car with kilometers to cover and no exciting scenery, you begin another journey-a journey into the souls of your fellow travelers. You discover things you never knew about them, about how they perceive the world, about their likes and dislikes. It gives you an opportunity to discover similarities that might not have been apparent before. I never knew that my mother in law and I shared a great love for Kerala’ parotta’(a sort of flat bread made out of all-purpose flour and commonly eaten in Kerala) and how much we enjoyed a good joke and to laugh without restraint when you hear one. I realized how well read, my normally quiet bro-in-law is and how much he pondered over things; how each person’s reality is different because it is a subjective experience influenced by factors within and around them, about its importance in understanding people and their views.
My husband did not approve of being dragged for endless drives on holidays through unforgiving terrains and so when it was not his turn to drive he would recharge his batteries with a steady dose of sleep. With the passing of time and kilometers, I realized that my husband’s initial reluctance and his concern for our safety during this trip was not unfounded. There are stretches of roughly 200-300 kilometers without a single human soul in sight. Forget about seeing people, you will not even find a bird in the sky. There are no petrol bunks or workshops in those stretches. If anything happens to the vehicle, or if you run out of petrol you are done for. Even if you decide to call for help, you will not be able to because there was no cell phone signal in most of those stretches. If you manage to get signal on your phone how would you explain your location to someone when the last place you crossed, which had some semblance to human inhabitation was some 200 kilometers behind you, you don’t remember what that place was called and there is no landmark to provide. By God’s Grace, we did not face any such difficulties. For those of you planning on going on this road trip, make sure that your vehicle is in good condition, keep a spare tire, refuel at every station irrespective of whether you feel you have enough petrol or not because anything can happen on long drives and it is not worth the risk. There are two checkpoints on this route so keep your license and identity cards ready. Stock up on water and food (there are restaurants in some areas) and carry your favorite music collection, it is going to be one long drive, my friend.
After crossing Rima, the sandy desert gave way to majestic limestone mountains, excellent winding roads have been constructed through the mountains and there is hardly any traffic on that road. You can easily drive for about half an hour to forty- five minutes without seeing another vehicle on the road. As you keep driving through the mountains you will reach a point from where you can start getting a glimpse of the Indian ocean , the rest of the route up to Shuwaymiyyah is spectacular, the sparkling blue of the sea against the brown of the mountains. You can see stretches of empty beaches, the surf washing the sand and the exciting sight of camels standing on the beach as if waiting for the waves to wet their giant padded feet and to feel the ocean spray on their face. The sea stops being your constant companion after Shuwaymiyyah and plays hard to get by offering glimpses of it in some places like Mirbat, once you cross Mirbat and proceed towards Taqah you will get a feel of what Salalah is famous for, its green, gentle, rolling hills. Camel farms decorate the foothills of these beautiful hills and you can see hundreds of camels and colored tents that belong to the herders. It took us another half an hour or so to reach Salalah, we reached by 7.30 pm.
For a Malayali away from home, there could be no better welcome than the sight of coconut tree lined avenues and banana and papaya tree farms. The whole journey lasted about 14 hours but the mist-covered hills, the tropical beauty of Salalah and the spectacular coastal and mountain roads made it one of the best road trips. I am happy I took this trip and this line from the movie, 25th hour, echoes my sentiment, “Every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die. Nothin’ at all for miles around. Nothin’ but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky. Not a soul in sight. No sirens. No car alarms. Nobody honkin’ atcha. No madmen cursin’ or pissin’ in the streets. You find the silence out there, you find the peace.”