“Where are you going, my friend?” Mohammed called out to me. A few minutes earlier, I had left the main road and turned south, following signs for the village of Muri. Moving through the settlement, nestled in the foothills of the Al Hajar Mountain Range, I encountered dwellings I had gotten used to seeing by now. A mosque, easily recognized by its minaret and domed prayer hall. It is a mix of modest and posh family homes, with the most expensive-looking ones having a solid wall around them, and setting strict boundaries for privacy and property. In his early thirties, his hair and beard trimmed and well-groomed, wearing a brown-colored variation of the traditional dishdasha, Mohammed stood outside his home with his brother, next to his Toyota four-wheel-drive. After telling him about my plans of cutting through the adjacent hills on my way to Jebel Shams, he insisted I couldn’t go any further without a proper vehicle.
“Do you want to stay with me for the night, and I take you there in the morning?”
When planning a bikepacking trip abroad, the country of Oman, located on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, might not be at the top of your list. It wasn’t on mine either, initially. However, after seeing bikepacking and cycling events being held in the Sultanate mentioned online, I got curious. People were very much raving about the desert scenery and incredible generosity and friendliness of the locals. So I decided to hop on a few planes for the roughly eight-hour journey from Vienna to Muscat, the capital, via Zurich and Dubai.
I spent the first couple of days getting acclimatized, sorting out logistics, obtaining last-minute items, and making some final route adjustments before starting my journey. I first headed from my accommodation towards the major traffic artery of the region. Despite it being early December, the already warm morning air had me work up a light sweat within the first few minutes of riding. Unfortunately, the only real option of making it out of Muscat was the main six-lane highway, which moves traffic on an east-west axis in this northern part of the country. With a massively wide shoulder, I wasn’t concerned for my safety, yet riding next to an ongoing stream of cars speeding by at 100 to 120 kilometers per hour wasn’t necessarily pleasant. The serene desert riding experience I had been hoping to find, it was definitely not.
The number of construction projects being attended to was mind-boggling. For miles, I could spot construction cranes, symbolizing progress, and local investment, sticking up from the ground. Money derived from oil exports, amounting to roughly three-fourths of the government’s income, seemed to flow right back into the economy. But it wasn’t just building new malls, factories, and residential areas. When I eventually turned off the highway near the city of Barka around midday, the work on the double carriageway I exited onto was virtually one 40 kilometer-long road construction project. But the building of infrastructure was not keeping pace with housing demands. The most beautiful looking mansions, seemingly randomly erected on fields of dry, brown earth, were only reachable by dirt roads.
Signs of civilization slowly petered out after the town of Nakhl, where I took a brief detour to visit the local fort, built pre-seventh century, and surrounded by palm tree orchards. On my way back to the main road, I stopped by a small roadside coffee shop to try a small cup of Karak, hot sweet milk tea, for the first time. Back on my route, it didn’t take long for me to find myself in a landscape reminiscent of the dry and desert-like Eastern Sierra in the United States: steep and craggy slopes in characteristic brown and red hues, arid and barren. Not long after that, I found a camp spot in a “wadi” (dry river bed) to pitch my tent for the night.
“Shukraan!” (Thank you!) I yelled back across the street. Drivers would commonly stop to check on my well-being when seeing me stopped by the side of the road.
“How are you? Need any help?”
When I assured them that I was simply resting and not in need of assistance, they would give me the thumbs up before continuing on their way. It felt good to know that even if I were to run into any major issues, I could count on locals’ help to help me out, despite any possible language barriers.
The imposing peaks of the Al Hajar Mountains came into view shortly after breaking camp the next morning. I skirted along the base of the slopes on my way to Rustaq, once the capital of Oman. At the first busy intersection, I turned west and into a steady headwind. I followed the local road snaking its way through the rolling foothills of the mountain range. My route eventually asked for a left turn towards Muri village, where I took my new friend Mohammed up on his offer to stay the night at his house. Before dinner, he took me out to his family farm, introducing me to his goats and sheep. Back at his home, he let me stay at the downstairs common room, with carpeted floor and a few pillows in the corner to sit on. Mohammed provided me with a pot of Omani bread to be dipped in local honey for dinner while chatting with his brother over a cup of tea. My desire to converse and learn about my new acquaintance was soon overpowered by exhaustion, and I went to bed around 9pm.
Breakfast was waiting for me in the morning in the form of three pan-friend eggs and some more Karak tea. Shortly after, it was time for me to depart. “If you have any problems on your journey, just call or text me on WhatsApp. We have friends all over who would be able to help you,” Mohammed assured me before leaving. Beyond Muri, the road first turned to dirt before eventually ending in an almost dry riverbed. I had to revert to pushing my bike over the rocks that covered the ground, sometimes trying to find the best route by hopping back and forth from one side of the narrow stream to the other. After about an hour of this, I was back on a more or less rideable gravel road, the rocky walls of the narrow canyon, colored in various shades of brown, rising up left and right. Eventually, the canyon opened up, and a short, gradual downhill brought me back on tarmac.
I was just about to settle into my campsite next to a riverbed in the town of Al Minthar, at the foot of Jebel Shams. In his late thirties, the man, wearing a white dishdasha and matching kuma, approached me from his family’s picnic site about 50 feet away, where he had been preparing a barbecue. I could smell the delicious flavors of grilled meat in the air. “Do you want some?” the man yelled in my direction. He had wrapped two skewers with goat meat in aluminum foil and handed them over to me. I was so thankful and blown away. I was already counting on some freeze-dried dinner I had in my bag, but this was way better. The freshly cooked meat was delicious, and the man even brought me seconds, a bottle of water, and some Omani bread, called “khubz”. Words can’t describe how thankful I was and how happy my stomach was about this unexpected feast for dinner.
The next day it was time for the big climb of the trip: the road up to Jebel Shams, the highest mountain in Oman. What makes this climb especially challenging is the first 8km, with grades of up to 23%. I started close to first light, so I didn’t have to tackle the worst bits in the heat of the day. With a few breaks in between, I eventually made it past the demanding initial section. About a third of the way, once again, a caring Omani offered to give me a ride, which I politely declined again. The higher I got, the more of the other peaks in the Hajar range became visible. I reached a bit of a plateau where the tarmac would end, and I continued on a dirt/sand road. A handful of 4WD vehicles were coming down from the mountain, while I was laboring uphill in ever-increasing temperatures. Instead of one single climb, there were a couple of steep descents thrown in, which I was already not looking forward to having to tackle on the way back.
For the last 7km to the summit, I was mostly back on tarmac, passing the Jebel Shams Resort towards the top and then enjoyed the views into the “Grand Canyon of Oman” for a while. The vastness of this tear in the landscape was an incredible sight, yet a bit tainted by all the trash that previous visitors had left behind while camping up here. After about an hour of rest, I made my way back down, walking the line between the thrill of going downhill and safety concerns. It had taken me 4.5 (mostly) grueling hours to get up and a fun 1.5 hours to get back down to Al Minthar. Once I had made it back down from the mountain, I aimed for a reasonably priced guesthouse in the historic town of Al Hamra.
Nizwa was the next larger city I was about to travel through. One of the oldest cities in Oman, it was once the capital of Oman proper, a historic area within the present-day Sultanate. Its location at the base of the Western Hajar Mountains made it an ideal meeting point and a link between the interior of the country and Muscat. Today it acts as the center for date growing and an important market place. Nizwa Fort, its underlying structure dating back to the 12th century, is one of the main sites. Well preserved and maintained, with the ability to walk through multiple re-created rooms of times past as well as the central tower, it offered a fascinating view of the history of Oman and this area. The local souq (bazaar or marketplace) is located right next to the fort.
In a country whose landscape is dominated by a noticeable lack of water, seeing evidence of the ancient irrigation system “falaj” was quite interesting. Water channels dating back to 500 AD channel water, with the use of gravity, from underground sources or springs to support agriculture and domestic use. A short section of the Falaj Daris, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was turned into a little park with manicured lawn and trimmed hedges. It seems quite popular with Omani people to have a picnic on Fridays (which corresponds to Saturday in the Western world).
I had pitched my tent in another wadi for the night, watched the sunrise in the morning, and then headed east on one of the few local roads with not too much traffic. The riding, mostly into a headwind, was mentally challenging. The flat terrain commonly stretched on for a few kilometers on both sides of the road before it transitioned into rolling hills, colored in hues of dark brown. A welcome change was sightings of camels, casually strolling in between the few bushes next to the roadway. After an overnight stop in the city of Ibra, I was back on a multi-lane highway, brand new from the looks of it and not all sections completed yet. If it hadn’t been for the headwind and my general fatigue, the riding on smooth tarmac would have actually been quite enjoyable. The lack of visual variety further tested my psychological fortitude.
The city of Sur, in the northeastern corner of the country, was my next milestone. I longed for a change of scenery, views of the Gulf of Oman’s waters on my right side all the way back to Muscat. The way there, however, was characterized by hours and hours of riding on the shoulder of a highway through the barren landscape. I welcomed every bit of visual distraction, for example, on and off ramps that seemed to lead straight to a sand path into the desert. After a decent lunch in Al Kamil Wal Wafi, I turned northeast and straight into yet another headwind. At the small hamlet of Al Filag, I stopped at what looked like a very recently constructed mosque to fill up on water. Besides being able to take care of hydration needs, mosques are usually a remarkable sight from an architectural point of view. Immaculately maintained and clean, the sometimes artfully decorated dome of the main prayer hall, as well as one or two minarets, can be easily spotted from a distance. Sur, a city of 120,000, spoiled me with a tailwind for the rest of the day. With most businesses closed between noon and 4 pm, I cruised through town on mostly quiet local roads before I had to turn back onto the highway. I ended the day at a guesthouse in the ancient city of Qalhat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2018.
I took a deep breath and squeezed myself through the narrow opening in the rock. Emerging on the other side, I found myself inside a cave, about the size of an average high school classroom, treading water in a sweet water pool. A scene I had a hard time imagining only hours early in a country dominated by desert. Wadi Shab is one of those locations highlighted in guidebooks and therefore frequented by tourists. It provides an antidote to the barren landscape through multiple sweet water pools suited for swimming, accessible by a short boat ride and a half-hour hike. It was undoubtedly a refreshing experience and a welcome change to the monotony on the road I had experienced over the previous couple of days.
Unexpected overnight rain showers had turned my campsite into a mud pit, caking my shoes and tires with silt and sand. After cleaning myself by the ocean, I had to battle through another day of headwinds and hot temperatures on the shoulder of a highway, weaving away from the coast and through the valleys of the eastern Al Hajar mountains. Breaks at gas stations along the road provided some respite, often finding solace in the cold and sugary taste of an ice cream cone or a bottle of Coke.
A relaxing night in Al Amarat brought some recovery for the final half-day ride back to Muscat. The approach got more harrowing the closer I got to the city, the highway lanes getting more and more packed with cars as the day went on. I found myself very vulnerable on my bike on the shoulder, but getting off and getting lost in the web of local roads seemed too much of a risk. Stopping briefly to take in views of the Royal Opera House, I knew it wasn’t that much longer. Soon after that, I spotted the Masjid Al Zawawi mosque, which I had remembered from walking around the neighborhood before my departure about two weeks prior. I exited the busy road, made my way across the overpass, and stood in front of the place of worship, with its golden dome, tiled exterior, and multi-level minaret. My cycling journey through Oman complete.
I had based my route off of the Oman event of the BikingMan series, however I wanted to find a way of including a bit more gravel riding into the mix. My final itinerary cut the overall distance by a bit, but included some adventurous riding on the approach to Jebel Shams.
The start and end of this loop is Muscat, which offers plenty of accommodation options. If you have reservations for both at the beginning and end of your trip, hotels usually are happy to hold on to any luggage items until your return. Muscat International Airport is reasonably well connected with Europe, Asia and Africa.
You will pass through settlements on a regular basis which will have varying amounts of options to obtain food. Gas stations along the highway portions will give you the option to get your hands on some snacks, albeit mostly junk food.
Water is a sought-after commodity in the desert regions. Luckily there will most likely be either a mosque (where filtered water can be obtained for free) close by or you come across a water dispenser (chilled and filtered) right by the roadside. After a couple of days you will be able to recognize these machines easily from the road.
If you like to stock up a bit before leaving Muscat, the Sultan Center Qurum offers both a wide range of both local and international food items as well as basic camping items (including gas canisters).
- Bike: Trek Checkpoint ALR5
- Tires: WTB Riddler 700×45, Bontrager GR1 Team Issue, 700×40, both tubeless
The vast majority of the route is on tarmac, with some riding on hard-packed dirt in the section after Muri (day 3) and the upper sections of Jebel Shams. For those segments, the wider and knobby gravel tires came in handy. Shortly after Muri, the parts through the riverbed require some hiking and might even be impassable after a lot of rain.
In general, a gravel bike with wider tires and a reasonably good performance on asphalt (e.g. Schwalbe G-One Allround, WTB Riddler 700x45c, Vittoria Terreno Dry 38c, Panaracer Gravelking SK) would be ideal.
- Bikepacking Paradise: A week of riding in the mountains of Oman. Post about more targeted rides in the mountaineous regions.
- XPDTN3: Oman. Three-day outing of the XPDTN3 crew to Oman.
- Oman: The Jebel Shams Circle. Detailed account of a loop around and up Jebel Shams on mostly gravel roads.
- Why Oman deserves a Spot on your Bicycle Touring Bucket List. Practical information for a bike trip to Oman.
- Bikepacking Oman: The Muscat Loop. Detailed post about a similar itinerary by Tobias.
- Cycling Stew – Oman. Charmingly written account of an Englishmen’s cycling adventure through Oman (and beyond).
- The Al Hajar Traverse: Bikepacking Oman. Film following three riders as they experience the landscape, culture and history of the Al Hajar Mountains
- GCN Explores – Oman Epic Ride. Emma and Chris explore the Al Hajar Mountain Range.
- Road Bike Vs Gravel Bike – Jebel Shams Epic Ride Oman. Ollie and Si testing themselves and their bikes on the Jebel Shams climb.