Wilfred Thesiger was motivated to cross the Empty Quarter not only by his desire to gain further recognition as a traveller but by the hope that he would find peace and solitude in the remote desert landscapes. He also yearned to gain the friendship of the Bedu who journeyed with him and whom he encountered during his traverse. The opportunities for travelling to little-visited locations, relaxing in inspiring surroundings and encountering new peoples is no less possible in Oman in 2019 than it was in 1946.
The country provides a diverse range of extraordinary natural beauty: deserts, mountains, wadis, beaches. Visitors also experience the kindness and friendliness of the Omanis. With relatively low – although gradually increasing – numbers of visitors a year, Oman is still not over-developed, unlike some of its neighbouring Gulf states.
Evidence of settlement dates back to the fourth millennium bc with early indications of dependence on trade. First copper and then frankincense (southern Oman is one of the few places in the world where the ‘sacred frankincense’ still grows) played a key role in the country’s history. Desire to control the supply of frankincense led to incorporation in the Achaemenid and Sassanian empires until the Persians were forced out in the seventh century.
Omanis readily embraced Islam and submitted to the Umayyad and the Abbasid Caliphate. Trade and naval power continued to expand. Occupied by the Portuguese from 1507 to 1650, Oman flourished again after their departure with an empire reaching into East Africa, particularly Zanzibar, and the Indian Ocean. Treaties agreed with the British to protect communications with India marked the beginning of a special relationship, which continued beyond the formal termination of the protectorate in 1971.
Meanwhile, the division of the Omani empire between the sultan of Zanzibar and the sultan of Muscat in 1856 resulted in economic decline for both and internal conflicts in the latter. Successive sultans failed to tackle the problems and Oman stagnated.
The coming to power of Sultan Qaboos bin Said in 1970 heralded a new era. Though its oil revenues are relatively small, they have been used wisely to the benefit of the Omani people, for infrastructure, employment and education. Development has been rapid but controlled, guided by a determination to preserve Omani traditions.
Our comprehensive itinerary includes the highlights of this vast country: from the inland forts of Nizwa and Jabrin to the little-visited archaeological sites of Al-Balid and Khor Rori, from the mountain scenery in the Western Hajar to the remoteness of the Wahiba Sands, from the bustling capital Muscat to the contrasting landscapes of the southern region of Dhofar.
Other features of this tour are the opportunity to camp overnight in the Wahiba Sands, bathe in the Indian Ocean, stay high in the mountains of the Jabal Akhdar and shop in souqs suffused with the scent of frankincense.
Fly at c. 8.00pm from London Heathrow (Oman Air) for the seven-hour overnight flight to Muscat.
Muscat. Land at c. 7.15am. Hotel rooms are at your disposal for the morning. Greater Muscat is spread out along the coast with a dramatic mountain backdrop. Afternoon visit to the recently opened Omani National Museum, the Sultanate’s flagship cultural institution. First of two nights in Muscat.
Barka, Nakhl. By 4-wheel-drive to the traditionally furnished 17th-century fortified house Bait Na’aman. Continue onto the impressive Rustaq and Nakhl Forts, the latter perched grandly on the foothills of the Western Hajar Mountains. Overnight Muscat.
Muscat, Jabrin. With seven minarets, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is impressively ornate. Leave Muscat by 4-wheel- drive. The most impressive fort in Oman is at Jabrin; sensitively restored, the plasterwork, wood carvings and painted ceilings are magnificent. Ascend the Al Hajar mountains for the first of two nights in the Jabal Akhdar.
Nizwa area. Visit to the 17th-century Nizwa Fort, palace, seat of government and prison. Some time to explore the fascinating souqs and markets. The rarely-visited archaeological site of Al Ayn is a collection of Bronze Age beehive tombs sitting atop a rugged ridge with the Jebel Misht as a backdrop. Overnight Jabal Akhdar.
Nizwa, Wahiba. Set off early for Ibra, the once opulent market town that stood on the trade route linking the interior to the coast. Arrive at Wahiba Sands, a sea of high rolling dunes. Watch the sunset and camp overnight in the desert.
Wahiba, Sur. Travel by 4-wheel-drive through the spectacular desert scenery. Until the 20th century Sur was famous throughout Arabia as a major trading port with East Africa. See the charming fishing village of Al Aijah, the shipyards still in operation, and the displays of traditional dhows at Fath al Khair Park. Overnight Sur.
Sur, Salalah. 4-wheel-drive to Muscat, via the ancient port of Qalhat, to catch an afternoon flight to Salalah, which despite its size is considered Oman’s second city and capital of the Dhofar region. First of three nights in Salalah.
Al Balid. Ancient Zafar flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries and was visited by Marco Polo. The museum exhibits finds from the ruins of Al Balid and other artefacts from the area. Some free time before dinner to relax by the Indian Ocean. Overnight Salalah.
Khor Rori. Spend the morning at Mirbat, scene of the well-documented battle in 1972, which saw Pakistani and Omani British soldiers defend the town during the Dhofar Rebellion. The impressive archaeological site at Khor Rori, formerly known as Sumhuraman, preserves the remains of an important frankincense trading port from where, 2000 years ago, this precious commodity commenced its transportation to Damascus and Rome. Overnight Salalah.
A mid-morning flight to Muscat connects with the early afternoon flight to London, arriving Heathrow c. 6.30pm. For those not taking the group flights, the tour ends in Salalah.
Professor Dawn Chatty
Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at the University of Oxford. She has long been involved with the Middle East as a university teacher, development practitioner, and advocate for indigenous rights. Her doctoral research in Syria and Lebanon among Bedouin sheep herders as well as her later work among camel nomads in the Sultanate of Oman has given her a breadth of field-based experience from the Levant to the Gulf. Dawn was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015. Twitter: @nouraddouha
Dr Peter Webb
Lecturer in Arabic at Leiden University and a specialist in the cultural history of the Muslim world. Peter has travelled extensively across the Middle East and Central Asia and has studied at the Universities of Damascus and Isfahan. He held a fellowship at the Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin, where he researched Muslim architecture and Arabic calligraphy, studying monuments of medieval Egypt and Uzbekistan. In Oman, he studied pre-Islamic sites and local shrines dedicated to ancient Arabian prophets in as part of his current research focus on the legends and history of Arabia. His publications include Imagining the Arabs (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), a comprehensive exploration of the Arab people in early Islam, and The Arab Thieves (Brill, 2019), a critical study of Arabian outlaw tales.
Price – per person
January 2020 (MG973): Two sharing: £5,710 or £5,160 without flights on days 1 and 11. Single occupancy: £6,590 or £6,040 without flights on days 1 and 11.
October 2020 (MG535): Two sharing: £5,710 or £5,280 without flights on days 1 and 11. Single occupancy: £6,590 or £6,160 without flights on days 1 and 11.
Flights (economy class) with Oman Air (aircraft: A330-300 & Boeing 737); travel by private air-conditioned coach or 4-wheel-drive vehicles; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 9 lunches (3 picnics) and 9 dinners with a glass of wine or two, water and coffee (not all restaurants serve alcohol and none is served at picnics); all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and local guides.
The flight from Muscat to Salalah on day 8 is included in the price if you take our ‘no flights’ option. However, please note that the tour ends in Salalah and therefore the internal flight from Salalah to Muscat on day 11 is not included.
British citizens and most foreign nationals require a tourist visa. You apply individually for an E-visa through the Royal Oman Police portal, which costs 20,000 OMR (c. £40). This is not included in the price of the tour because you have to procure it yourself. Visa applications can only begin three months before the tour departs. Passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the tour ends.
Grand Hyatt, Muscat: ornate 5-star hotel in the diplomatic district. Anantara, Jabal Akhdar: located in the Al Hajar mountains with spectacular views. Desert Nights Camp, Wahiba Sands: luxury camp; individual tents with private facilities. Hotel Plaza, Sur: modern 4-star hotel. Hotel Crowne Plaza, Salalah: 5-star hotel, high standards of comfort and service. Single rooms are doubles for sole occupancy throughout.
This is a busy and active tour and participants need stamina and fitness. There are some long journeys by 4x4 vehicles or coach (average distance per day: 102 miles), two internal flights and 4 changes of accommodation. Walking is often on uneven terrain at archaeological sites, hill forts and in the desert.
January 2020: Anna Cahill
Between 10 and 18 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.
"A range of fascinating and contrasting experiences. I really valued the academic input. We were able to visit places where very few tourists went. The highlight of the trip was the time spent in the desert camp."
"The lecturer Prof. Dawn Chatty was a delightful fellow traveller. She is personable, approachable and considerate. The lecturers were delivered to a very high standard."
"All the Omani guides were friendly, good-humoured, courteous and interesting to talk to."
"The itinerary was well developed giving a good overview to the country, its background, history and people. I have learnt a lot about Oman on this trip, and feel that I will be much more informed in the future as the country continues to develop."