Oman: Wadi you like?

I AM SITTING in an air-conditioned Toyota FWD, doing what feels like 70mph, when the ground ahead suddenly disappears from view.

The front end of the vehicle drops sickeningly, while girly screams echo from the people (not all of them female) in the back seat.

Then we hit the side of the massively steep dune, sliding alarmingly sideways, before roaring off across the soft sand for another go. This time backwards.

Welcome to Oman, where nature has provided a giant playground for off-roaders in the form of thousands of kilometres of desert. Expanses that once held the promise of death for those foolhardy enough to venture into them are now to be enjoyed while you play with the CD changer.

You might have some liberal worries about the loss of an ancient way of life but if it’s a choice between camel power and Japanese horse-power, our Bedouin driver had no doubts about the fun option.

Our adventure in the limitless sandbox over – including the obligatory, sea-sickening camel ride (Toyotas don’t fart at both ends, either) – we retire to a wadi for a swim in a rock pool.

Our small group of tourists soon attracts the attention of a crowd of teens who stare transfixed at the sight of so much female flesh on show.

It’s a reminder that, for all its easy charms, Oman is a Muslim country.

Long before so much of the Arab world made its wealth from oil, Oman was a source of priceless incense.

Frankincense – one of the gifts of the Wise Men to Jesus – is the resin of the boswellia tree and its export helped make Oman’s fortune (as did slavery).

The Omani Empire once stretched as far east as Pakistan (its last outpost there was only given up in 1947) and south to the coast of Africa, where Zanzibar was its capital. Even today, Swahili is spoken by 70 per cent of Omanis.

Modern Oman is perhaps fortunate in that it has not reaped great wealth from oil. Instead, a modest amount of the black gold has allowed development in important areas, such as schools, roads and hospitals, while leaving the excesses of other Gulf States to be enjoyed on shopping expeditions. Dubai is a three-hour drive away.

Once accessible only by sea, Muscat is spreading with low-key shopping malls, luxury hotels and a maze of modern roads.

The harbour front of Mutrah remains a tourist destination for its old-fashioned souk. It smells of spices and is filled with gold and silver, cloth and Arab headdresses, dates and mother-of-pearl.

Muscat’s impressive modern Al Qubrah Mosque is also a stop where you can tour sights such as the world’s largest hand-woven carpet, a simple Iranian design that was lifted in sections by helicopter and stitched together while the mosque’s roof was built over it.

The mosque impresses more by its scale than its beauty – or perhaps its scale overwhelms its beauty. Either way, it is certainly a must-see.

Muscat also offers endless beaches, some developed enough to have a Starbucks on them.

For a glimpse of the country from the sea, take a dolphin-watching trip. This is a business that is starting to need regulation, as a swarm of boats converges on pods of up to 100 dolphins after any first sighting.

Nevertheless, it remains a splendid sight to watch them playing, with the mountains, picturesque hill forts and desert of Oman providing an evocative backdrop.

Oman Ministry of Tourism: www.omantourism.gov.om

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