The Solitude of Oman
We drive into Al Ashkharah just before noon, when the sun hits the ground with the force of an anvil. It is a fishing town, and the guide book says it is well worth visiting to see how alive the streets are, especially down by the sea where men bring ashore the day’s catch to sell in the markets. But instead of activity there is stillness. On the empty roads, ribbons of sand unspool in the screaming wind and deposit themselves against whitewashed walls. Domestic castles lay dormant, their doors padlocked, their tinted windows shut tight. It is not yet time for the stores to hibernate for the afternoon, but even so the garages, barber shops, and bakeries are closed and shuttered. We see only one cafe that is open; behind the glass, an Indian waiter is busy preparing karak, tea mixed with evaporated milk and cardamom. An Omani man dressed in a pristine dishdasha leaves the cafe with a cup of it and climbs into an SUV that leaves mini sand cyclones in its wake. We follow a lick of tarmac all the way to the beach, which is white and brilliant and unending. The terrain here is flat; we can see for miles. Unimpeded, the wind snarls and tries to tear the clothes off our skin the moment we leave the car. My friend and I are the only people in sight. It feels like a scene in a post-apocalyptic movie.
This isn’t the first time we’ve shaken hands with solitude in Oman. A few days previously, we tackled the Jebel Akhdar mountain range, accessible only by a serpentine road so steep that there’s a police checkpoint at the bottom to stop two-wheel-drive vehicles from attempting the ascent. Once in a while a Landcruiser would fly past us, overtaking on a blind bend, the driver trusting their reflexes to save them should they suddenly find themselves bumper to bumper with a petrol truck coming the other way. But for the most part we had the road to ourselves. We took in the views of the graduated terrace farmlands and the ancient falaj irrigation systems that feed them, marveled at the smoothness of the tarmac (which seemed as though it had been laid yesterday), fell silent on the steepest inclines, eyed the cliff faces that seemed as though they might spill a handful of bus-sized stones into our path at any moment. When we reached the top, we were met with a small town that was already slumbering, an endless dead sea of scrub and rocks, brutal but beautiful, and a sunset that turned the sky crimson. Unable to find a good spot for our tent, we followed a track to an abandoned village tucked into the shoulder of the mountain and set up there. Perhaps ‘abandoned’ isn’t quite right; a few of the buildings housed Indian construction workers who were building a hotel resort on the plateau. After exchanging a few words with us, they disappeared again. We prepared some food on the stove and watched the sun slip behind the opposite peak. We spoke little to one another; the land swallowed any sound we made. In the tent, we lay in the dark in our sleeping bags, the silence absolute, feeling as though we were a million miles away from anybody.
I think solitude can be a difficult thing to deal with if you’re not used to it. I live in Berlin, the second largest city in Europe, a place where something is always happening, where the streets are vital day and night, where distraction is what people live for and silence is rare. Oman, by contrast, is characterised by inhospitable mountains, vast alkali plains, gravel deserts, sweeping valleys and sparkling oases. It is larger than Italy, but its population is just 7.5% the size—and half of it lives in the sprawling capital, Muscat. In terms of tourism, it is still something of a well-kept secret, despite the fact that the figures are growing each year. Out of the 55.6 million tourists who visited the Middle East in 2016, just 2.3 million of those went to the Sultanate, putting the country in ninth place out of ten for the region. In the world rankings, it is 86th, behind the likes of Malta, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. There are simply not enough people in the country to fill it up. What it means is that when you do visit, you are mostly left alone, free to drive and hike and swim and camp without having to share the space with anybody else.
It is a luxury, but it is one that takes getting used to. Wherever my friend and I go in Oman, whatever our destination, we somehow expect to find tourists there, but rarely do. Perhaps we’re conditioned to think like this; the previous year we travelled around Southeast Asia, a region where breathing space is at a premium. Or maybe our expectation stems from a simple desire to talk to other people, to share our impressions of a country whose environments are so diverse, vast and unoccupied. As Balzac said, “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.” We do meet a Canadian out in the boiling orange humpback dales of the Sharqiyah Sands, but he is reticent and quick to get back on the road, heading north to the mountains we’ve just left behind. It feels like a message: this is a place to explore your own headspace, not to distract yourself through the company of others. Here you can dig deep into your fears and insecurities, surround yourself with untamed, empty landscapes, and become, in a way, the last living person on Earth. This wilderness is the key that unlocks the chest in which we hide our primal emotions. Thoughts slow; ancient organic memories reveal themselves to us. We plunge into Ballard’s archaeopsychic past. And, once we become accustomed to it, we do not want to leave.
After the mountains and the desert we head for the Wadi Shab, a steep, lush valley with a river at the bottom that passes through a series of rock pools and caves. It is here, finally, that we find groups of people, tourists, in shorts and flip flops and bush hats, speaking French and German and Arabic. But instead of welcoming the company, we do our best to outstrip it. We don’t want to be reminded of Europe. The solitude surrounds us like a cocoon now; we want to preserve it. After taking a boat across the inlet separating the wadi from the coastal road, we set a quick pace, following the sinewy trail that runs deep into the valley. For the first half an hour, there are people everywhere, sunbathing on rocks, diving into pools of brilliant blue, scrambling along the same track as us. Then, without warning, we are alone. The track becomes narrower and less defined, and climbs to vertiginous heights that make me nauseous when I glance over the side. Eventually it peters out. Under the relentless sun we half climb, half slide down to the boulder-strewn valley floor. This part of the wadi is more swamp than oasis, with masses of black and dark green vegetation growing from it, and the only way to make progress is to jump between the smaller boulders, climb the larger ones and hope we don’t miss our footing. We don’t discuss it; we just keep going. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe it’s just because the valley is there and so are we. Around ninety minutes in, we reach a dead end. We try to go left, right and down the center, but the boulders are spaced too far apart. Ahead, the wadi continues to buck and twist, but we can no longer hang on. It has beaten us.
With some difficulty we find our way back to the trail and walk back toward the water pools, but have to make an unscheduled pit stop when a French hiker slips on a rock and dislocates his shoulder. Hearing a grown man scream in pain is quite awful. It’s the kind of sound that follows you into your dreams. Neither I nor my friend has any idea how to pop a shoulder back into place. We stand there, surrounded by rocks and water, wondering how he’s supposed to make it out of the wadi without collapsing. He can barely stand as it is. Time is pressing on, too; it’s already four o’clock and the last boat ferrying people over the inlet leaves in an hour. Just as we decide that one of us should go for help, a medical student (from Berlin of all places) appears from nowhere and takes control of the situation. He has his patient hold a heavy rucksack with the dislocated arm, which helps the muscles relax enough for the ball to pop back into the socket. The relief is evident in every line on the French hiker’s face. He ultimately manages to walk out of the wadi unaccompanied. Apart from realizing we should probably learn some first aid, the episode serves to remind us that this solitude, while intoxicating, is not without its risks.
After returning to Muscat, we jump on a plane heading north to Musandam, an Omani exclave surrounded by the United Arab Emirates and a rocky peninsula overlooking the Strait of Hormuz. We land at Khasab airport, a converted military base that has only two flights per day, and buy some provisions at the town’s only supermarket. Then we head to Khor Najd, a natural bay that—like so many other places in Oman—can be accessed only by goats and 4WDs. To reach it, we take an unnamed gravel track that snakes up the side of a mountain before unwinding down the other side. It looks like the cross-section of a Viennetta, all concertina layers of ice cream piled end over end. As we descend, my friend grits his teeth and grips the wheel. My eyes flit from one wing mirror to the other. Our vehicle feels much too large, the track impossibly small. At each hairpin turn, we take it slow to the point of stopping altogether, disturbing rocks and pebbles that snicker as they tumble down the cliff side. And then we are at the bottom. There are five half-collapsed gazebos built on concrete shelves, some scrub and a tennis court’s worth of sand. Mysteriously, a small convoy of Jeeps sits near the water, but there is nobody else around. We set up the tent and collect wood before the sun sets, and then strike a fire when the midges begin to bite. Soon the darkness around us is complete. When we look up, the sky is undisturbed by light pollution and notched with celestial blue in a thousand places. There are more stars than I ever remember seeing before. I feel both insignificant in the universe and hugely significant in myself, no longer overwhelmed but entirely content in this solitary gloom. Then, over the hiss of the flames, we hear another sound. The whine of engines somewhere out on the water. We see lights, white and circular. A small flotilla is heading for our bay. We’ve read about the abundance of smuggling in the area and the guys who race across the Strait in speedboats laden with cigarettes, air conditioners, phones, televisions, clothes and more, all bound for Iran. This might be some of them. The boats halt at a small jetty and men jump out. They carry the boats up onto land and place them on rusting trailers in readiness for the next day, before climbing into their Jeeps and, in the pitch darkness, gunning their way up the same track that scared us to death in broad daylight. And so here of all places, in this bay at the end of the world, our isolation has been broken. But it was beautiful while it lasted.