I went cold turkey on my old, sheltered, safe, boring life.
I’m a city girl – the textbook definition of it. I grew up in the always hustling, always bustling city of Bombay and lived in New York for a few years after college. Even when I go on holiday, I go to the big cities; I never travel to the countryside. I don’t understand why people spend their vacation and hard earned money on adventure trips or living in the wilderness.
So, when a close friend decided to celebrate his wedding with a week of adventure activities in rural Oman, I didn’t know what to expect. To begin with, I didn’t know much about Oman, other than it was the land of scrumptious shawarmas, elegant mosques and colourful souqs. Moreover, I had to take part in outdoor sports in Oman’s rugged environment, which I was completely clueless about.
Blown away by Oman. Photo Credit: Audrey Celine
Since I didn’t know much about Oman, and this was my first trip to the Middle East (yes, I’ve never been to Dubai), I did some research before I got on the plane. I learnt that Oman has a rich natural and cultural heritage and some surreal landscapes. Lonely Planet states that Oman has an “otherworldly terrain” with its central vast expanse of desert, jagged mountain ranges in the north and southeast coasts, dramatic wadis (valleys), secret beaches and idyllic islands. Oman also has unique species of animals, mammals and birds.
On this trip, I was only looking forward to dolphin watching which was scheduled for the last day. Before that, I had to participate in a hike in Wadi Shab (valley), which involved a difficult swim to a submerged cave and go camping in Oman’s desert known as Wahiba Sands.
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Muscat’s Mutrah Souq.
We began our trip in the dynamic modern capital – Muscat, which was to going to be our home base. Muscat retains its traditional charm with all-white, low-rise buildings, mosques, traditional cafés and souqs. On our first day, we explored the Mutrah Souq (think chocolate covered dates, carpets from Persia, semi-precious stones and pashminas) and the magnificent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque at Muscat.
The following day was our hike to Wadi Shab, which literally translates to a valley or a “gorge between cliffs.” I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. The hike was through rugged terrain and slippery rocks (the valley floods when it rains), ending with a swim to an underwater cave, dive pool and waterfall. I couldn’t sleep at night with anxiety. I’m not the strongest swimmer and I am greatly claustrophobic. Before I knew it, it was daylight, and we were on a bus 2 hours away from Muscat.
The trek in the valley was hard. It had rained recently, so the rocks were extra slippery and the water levels were higher than usual. We started with a short boat ride across a turquoise pool of water and a walk through terraced plantations and palm groves. The beginning of the hike was relaxed, but it kept getting harder, till we reached the part where we couldn’t walk any more and had to swim to go ahead.
Beginning of the hike in Wadi Shab.
Till now I had struggled, but managed to keep up with group. I knew that the final leg of the trek was the dreadful swim into a submerged cave. My friends could sense my hesitation and gave me the option to stay put with everyone’s things, while they went ahead. I considered not going for a second, but decided otherwise as I hadn’t come all the way to stop midway.
I stepped into the water and could walk for a few minutes before it was too deep. I swam very slowly till the cave. Luckily it wasn’t a long swim and the water was still. There was a small island right before the submerged cave where we could rest, after which we had to form a single line to swim through a tunnel (a hole between the cliffs) and into the cave.
I got in line to enter the tunnel, which is when I begin to panic. By the time I reached the entrance, I was claustrophobic. Since there were people before and after me, and we had to swim through a tiny tunnel, I felt trapped and began gasping for air. My friends caught me before my panic attack became worse and took me back to the island outside the cave. By this time, I just wanted to get to safety and had resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to enter the tunnel.
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Frolicking in the Wadi Shab Valley. Photo Credit: Audrey Celine
Most of our group had already entered the cave, leaving behind the non-swimmers. A few experienced people had come out of the cave to help us. We sat on the island for a few minutes to catch our breath and relax. One of them suggested I use a float while entering the tunnel as there was nothing to hold on to.
I decided to try once again. This time the tunnel was empty and I could take my time entering it. I slowly made my way through and in no time, I was inside the submerged cave. Am I glad that I got over my fears and entered the cave! I felt victorious and proud of my achievement.
What lay inside was a treat to the eyes – a sublime waterfall and dive pool with the bluest of waters and pink flowers by the water’s edge. Inside, some of my friends were already climbing up the rocks and diving into the water. It was a great sight and an incredible bonding experience. The cave was at maximum capacity with 40 of us crammed into it. We took turns diving into the water for about 20 minutes or so.
The way back was much easier as I knew what to expect. It took us about two hours to hike back to the bus. I was soaked, bruised and in a lot of physical pain, but nothing could take the feeling of euphoria away from me. So this is what it felt like to be an adrenaline junkie! I loved the feeling and could now see why people would want to do things like this again and again. That night, I devoured our dinner – delicious Omani shawarma and slept like a baby. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was smiling in my sleep.
Glamping or camping in the Wahiba Sands. Photo Credit: Dhruv Kashyap
The next morning, we divided ourselves into two smaller groups for desert camping in the Omani desert known as Wahiba Sands. One group was going glamping (luxurious or glamorous camping), while the other was going camping in the desert. Much to everyone’s surprise, I joined the camping group, which meant that I was going camping in the desert with no accommodation or facilities.
Since we were all so tired from the day before, we left Muscat much later than planned and reached the desert just before sunset. At Wahiba Sands, a landscape of copper-colored sand dunes greeted us. The desert was completely barren with no permanent settlements, except for a few camps. We were told that we should set up our campsite before sunset, as it gets very windy and it’s nearly impossible to start a fire in the dark.
My first real camping experience and everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The sun was going to set soon and we still hadn’t found our campsite. Our car got stuck in the sand and we made the rookie mistake of setting up camp after sunset. It was so windy, that our tent would not stay open and our fire refused to spark to life. Our hard work paid off, when we finally managed and to celebrate the feat we drank much deserved wine under a sky full of stars. Who knew the best experience of my trip would be the simplest and cheapest – sitting atop a sand dune and watching the stars was spellbinding.
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The following day, after taking some pictures and clearing up our campsite, we made our way back to Muscat. I was mentally and physically exhausted, but couldn’t be happier. I had managed to stay a night in the middle of nowhere in a desert, with people I barely knew, and actually have an incredible time.
On the boat to our private beach
On the last day in Oman, we got on a speedboat at Marina Bandar, about 30 minutes from Muscat. What happened next is what dreams are made of – an early morning boat ride alongside dolphins in the Persian Gulf, followed by a day party at our very own private beach.
Dolphin Spotting. Photo credit: Faryal Khalid
We saw dozens of playful dolphins, skim, dive and leap high, sometimes spinning several meters in the air before landing around our boat. I couldn’t believe my eyes as these mischievous creatures frolicked in the sea against the breathtaking backdrop of Oman’s mountainous and scenic coastline. What followed was an entire day of party, snorkeling and water sports. As the week in Oman progressed, my experience kept getting better and Oman’s natural beauty blew me away.
Our wedding group.
The wedding trip to Oman was rewarding, not simply for its rugged terrain, picturesque beauty, wind-blown deserts and pristine coastline, but it gave me a new found love for adventure. And a reason to get married!
Goodbye comfort zone, hello world!
1. Air India, Indigo, Jet Airways and Oman Air fly to Muscat.
2. Oman is about 3 hours and round trip costs approximately Rs. 15,000.
3. Tourist Visa for Oman is required for Indian Passport holders.
4. Best time to visit Oman is October to March.
5. Currency: Omani Rial (OMR); 1 OMR = 166.13884 INR.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Pallavi Mehra
Photographs by Divanshu Jain