Oman driving


David Whitley encounters economical road signs and jaw-dropping landscapes – but not the restaurant he was seeking.


A telling insight into how a car rental adventure is going to progress can usually be gauged from the first uttering of the time-honoured phrase: “This is bloody ridiculous.”


In our case, it was within about seven minutes of leaving the airport. After a series of bewildering junctions, we were on a near-deserted dual carriageway, not entirely sure which direction we were headed in and steadily coming to the conclusion that the next exit was a long, long way away.


“This is bloody ridiculous,” came the cry from the exasperated driver. It was not destined to be a one-off, although the adjectives did get somewhat stronger. Driving in Oman is simultaneously necessary, awe-inspiring and thoroughly frustrating. It’s one of the least pedestrian-friendly countries in the world, and tours tend to be tailor made for individuals and couples rather than operated at a set price per person. In other words, they’re prohibitively expensive.


Car rental, meanwhile, is surprisingly cheap and petrol is virtually free by British standards. Hiring a car is the only sane way to get around, and it is often hugely rewarding. Our first day’s adventure was a day trip to Nizwa to have a look at a big fort and maybe cram in a side trip to a mountain village or two. The road up there is just incredible. The mountains almost back on to the coast, and as you head inland, you start to climb round the back of them. These are no namby-pamby, prettified mountains either – they’re big, ugly, forbidding beasts that make you want to shrink into a ball and apologise for disturbing them. They jag, they crag and any vegetation attempting to grow on the side of them generally isn’t going to be around too long. It’s a harsh, dazzling, alien landscape that’s worth travelling through even if you don’t get out of the car and see anything.


Unfortunately, sign-posting is somewhat, erm, economical. It’s as though every place is allowed just one signpost and they have to make a choice where to put it. And that somewhere is either right on top of the hitherto unannounced turn-off or at least three junctions beforehand, from whereon the trail ends. The road maps aren’t exactly brimming with detail and illumination either, while the anglicised spelling of place names is about as consistent as the end product of severe dysentery.


But driving 20km in the wrong direction in the mistaken belief you’re heading towards a pretty village is a doddle compared to driving in the Omani capital, Muscat. Muscat itself is little more than the royal palace and a few official buildings surrounding it. But Greater Muscat stretches for 50km along the coast, essentially a collection of small towns bound together with the same loose knot. Connecting them is, theoretically, one giant thoroughfare – Sultan Qaboos Street. This is a modernistic engineering marvel – the multiple lanes contort around the mountains, fly over roundabouts, and peel off like soft branches onto other trunk roads and octopus-like roundabouts. In a bid to keep traffic moving, there are hardly any lights, and dual carriageways leaf off effortlessly onto other dual carriageways.


It sounds like a dream. But woe betide anyone who doesn’t know exactly where they’re going. A new dual carriageway is built seemingly every fifteen minutes in Muscat, and they all look more or less identical. Find yourself in the wrong lane, and before you know it, you’re off the road you wanted to be on, onto another you can’t get off for three kilometres and completely bewildered. It’s an amazing system for traffic flow, but the problem comes when you don’t want to be a part of said flow any more. You’re on a system of automated conveyor belts that you just can’t get off.


After around six hours plus on the road to Nizwa and surrounds, we felt like having something nice for tea. Mumtaz Mahal had been recommended by numerous sources as the best Indian restaurant in Muscat and, looking at the map, it should be fairly easy to find. It’s on a prominent hill, in a park, flanked by Sultan Qaboos Street, about 15 minutes away from our hotel.


And indeed it was easy to find. We drove past it four or five times in the hour-and-a-half we spent trying to reach it. It turns out that the areas of Greater Muscat aren’t really connected by anything other than these major roads, and you have to know the exact exit you want to be able to get to anywhere specific. Then you have to find your way to the one side road that leads out of the dual carriageway matrix, detour around random police blockades and navigate through a series of dead end streets that have no names.


The whole experience is, I imagine, akin to being strapped to a sledge and fired around the Large Hadron Collider. You just want to stop, pull over and try and get your bearings, but you can’t because everything’s moving too fast and if you slow down you’ll probably die in a horrible accident.


Eventually, as hunger pangs became mighty booms, we gave up on Mumtaz Mahal (as we did on the second night after going through much the same rigmarole). We dived into a shopping mall, given that we could actually find the exit for it, and ate at a nice but soulless Lebanese restaurant.

On the way back to the hotel, we made a key discovery. Said Lebanese restaurant is part of a chain. Another branch is just two blocks away from our hotel. This, naturally, is bloody ridiculous.

On the way back to the hotel, we made a key discovery. Said Lebanese restaurant is part of a chain. Another branch is just two blocks away from our hotel. This, naturally, is bloody ridiculous.





By David Whitley