Afternoon rush hour in Muscat and there’s not a single camel in sight. The ship of the desert would have been the cause of traffic chaos in the Omani capital 50 years ago. Now, roads in the main port area of Mutrah are only clogged with outsize four-wheel drives. Driving in Muscat isn’t for the faint-hearted but the rest of the country’s modern road network makes the Sultanate a dream destination for one particular tourist – the motorcyclist. Dramatic scenery, constant sunshine and a lack of potholes have put the Arabian Peninsula on the map for two-wheeled adventurers. I’ve arrived at the Mutrah souk on my rented Harley-Davidson, fully prepared for Arab market chaos. It’s hot but I cunningly chilled all my armoured clothing in the hotel mini bar earlier! And yet, dripping with sweat, I’m still melting under the sun.
Apart from building iconic bikes ridden by the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, Harley now offer more than 430 authorised travel tours around the world. Oman is a recent addition and in Muscat, riders can plan their own route riding the latest machines. Some are equipped with satellite navigation, Bluetooth hi-fi systems and armchair-style seats. The souk is one of Oman’s top destinations but, compared with other Middle Eastern markets I’ve visited, it’s refreshingly relaxed. Bartering is expected but the vendors approach with an apologetic air. It’s so chilled that any form of jostling might constitute a riot. I set my helmet down on a coffee house table by the souk entrance to watch the world go by. There’s a healthy mix of locals and tourists but navigating the narrow lanes of the market for the first time can be tricky.
Oman is ruled by Sultan Qaboos, who first came to power in 1970 after deposing his own father in a coup. He set about a new era of modernisation that transformed every aspect of life, from healthcare to the slick road network. Qaboos remains the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East. One of his greatest achievements is the remarkable Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, a 20-minute ride from the souk. Built to mark the 30th year of his reign, the main prayer hall can accommodate 20,000 worshippers at once. It’s difficult to imagine a more cared for mosque, but the same can be said for most of Muscat’s historic visitor attractions. The nearby fort of Al Jalali was built by the Portuguese in the 1580s and twice captured by Ottoman forces. It was used as a jail until the 1970s but now looks as polished as a film set.
To discover the real Oman means leaving the tourist hotspots of Muscat, heading out into the mountainous interior and surrounding deserts. I set off early morning the next day, hoping to avoid some of the afternoon heat. My sat nav is set for the Jebel Shams mountain – the highest peak in the Al Hajar range.
The first 30 minutes escaping Muscat are hot and uncomfortable. Around town, a 1690cc Harley engine sounds like a sewing machine with asthma. It’s only when the road opens up ahead that the bike emits an acoustic purr. The Harley is a heavy bike but also remarkably easy to handle. It chugs around bends at 50mph and doesn’t require me to change gear that often. A screen deflects flies off my face but I can still inhale the intoxicating smell of medwakh tobacco, smoked in copious amounts by vendors selling rugs and Omani silver in the village centres en route. It may be a working day in Oman but traffic is scarce. Soon I’m counting more goats than cars. Jebel Shams is an impressive peak but the spectacularly deep Wadi Ghul next to it is known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia. Fortunately, road improvements mean there is now a barrier between my bike and a 1,000ft drop. The route twists and turns to the top, where I sip mint tea under a gazebo tent and stare deep into the canyon. I can’t sit around too long though because I want to make the watering hole of Nizwa before sunset. The 16th century fort lies on a plain surrounded by a palm oasis. Nizwa is two hours from Muscat and the second biggest tourist attraction in Oman. It’s a good base for day trips to the historic sites of Jabrin and Bahla too. Stepping off my motorbike, the air in Nizwa smells of heat and dust. The road is cut through a vast expanse of nothingness and now I’m surrounded by colourful rugs and pungent coffee.
Returning to Muscat, the city feels even more sanitised than the towns and villages in the surrounding hills. The road-building programme continues and it won’t be long before a new route is cut through the mountains, bringing neighbour UAE ever closer. For now though, Oman remains a little corner of the Middle East that is still relatively untouched.