Getting up is the easy part, it is going down that gets a bit tricky,’ warned Sayeed, the hotel concierge, as he handed me the keys to the tank-sized monster I was about to pilot into some of Arabia’s most dramatic scenery.
I am what could politely be classed as a ‘remedial driver’, with a single battered Volkswagen Polo, and a string of insurance pay-outs to show for a decade behind the wheel. Therefore the prospect of steering the foreboding Toyota 4×4 through the Muscat traffic, and up and down the near perpendicular slate-covered tracks that wind their way through the Western Hajar mountain range, wasn’t doing my nerves a lot of good.
Surprisingly it didn’t take all that long for my faith in my own manhood to be reaffirmed – it’s amazing what a raised cockpit and a means of transport with vehicular gigantism can do for a person’s confidence – and soon I was weaving blithely through the capital’s traffic and along the spectacular westbound highway towards Nizwa.
After parking up outside the town’s souk at around 11 am we attempted a quick recce. It seems early morning is the best time to visit the bustling market, however, and so all that was left was some fruit and veg, lots of old men playing dominoes and bucketloads of stinking fish-heads. It was sweltering too – a climb up to the 40m-high round tower at the seventeenth-century fort next to the souk resulted in an unscheduled soaking.
Back in the beast, things were much more amenable. We took in the nearby forts at Bahla and Jabrin behind plexiglass before making for the seemingly impenetrable wall of brown mountain beyond Al Hamra.
Oman is a country blessed with myriad mind-blowing routes, but the 70km drive between Al Hamra and Wadi Bani Awf is an absolute must for those with the means and the time.
Around 10km east of Al Hamra, on the way to Al Hoota Cave, a side road zig-zags its way up the hills signalling the start of a roller-coaster ride that is both utterly spectacular and tremendous fun to drive.
The surfaced road ends at the Sharfat Al-Alamayn viewpoint which, as the highest point on the road, offers some pretty epic views towards Jebel Shams, Oman’s loftiest peak. After that, the only way was down. Time to see if Sayeed’s warning was overly cautious or not…
It turned out that it was (although necessary precautions such as a spare tire, jack, water, warm clothing and basic provisions are advisable), and I managed to plot my way back to tarmac and civilization with only a few unbidden engine roars and panicky cack-handed grabs at the gear stick.
Along the way we drove through wadis, passed picture-perfect villages and hurtled headlong over precipices and down sadistic gradients. The irony of it all was that the closest encounter of the accident kind we had all day came on the long, flat, slog back to Muscat on Highway 13, when the wind blew a lit cigarette out of my hand, which promptly landed down the back of my trousers, causing pain, an involuntary swerve and a near-death experience. A king in the mountains, a liability on the open road.