Oman Self Drive - The road to Balad Sayt
An Oman self drive road trip is an adventure just waiting for you in one of the friendliest and most spectacular countries of the middle east.
The landscapes are epic.
The roads are empty.
The trails are challenging.
The hotels are out of this world.
The experience is unforgettable.
There’s even a pristine bright green football field up in the mountains, seemingly miles from any civilisation, an hour’s drive along a really challenging rocky trail where you will occasionally notice the burned out wreck of a car that has tumbled off the edge.
Lots of people go to Oman for a holiday. They explore Muscat. They join a group tour and sit in the back of a hot and cramped minibus to go to a wadi for a swim.
They miss out on the thrill of driving across the desert and over the dunes, and the massive sense of satisfaction that comes from conquering the mountain roads in a 4×4.
They don’t get to experience the Oman that you find when you get away from Muscat, where almost all the population (and traffic , and development) is concentrated.
If you’re going to Oman, self drive is the ultimate way to experience the most interesting and varied country in the middle east.
If you’re not thinking of going, you should be.
It doesn’t mean staying in your car all day long either. Having your own car means that you don’t have to spend your entire holiday in one hotel, and it means not having to depend on group tours. You can go where you want, see what most tourists don’t see, and swim, hike, eat, and explore in places where most tourists don’t get to.
Arrive by air, take a taxi to a hotel, and hop on a bus for a group tour, and you see all the tourist areas full of other tourists.
Travel overland with your own wheels and you see parts of a country the way the locals do, and you meet the locals, and you interact with the locals.
Oman self drive. Since I returned, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
Oman is beautiful, and friendly, and driving there is easy. Most of the population lives in Muscat, where the traffic is dense but the roads are very good and driving standards are quite high. If you’ve driven in any city you’ll be fine.
Drive out of Muscat and 10 minutes later you’ll be on glorious roads of pristine tarmac winding through the hills and along the coast, with almost no traffic. It’s a different world.
Drive south down the coast towards Qalhat then turn off and take the mountain trails to the Jaylah Beehive Tombs.
Continue to Al Wasil and drive into the desert at Sharqiyah Sands and stay at the incredible Desert Nights Camp.
Head to Nizwah and drive up the stunning road to Jabal Al Akdhar – it’s tarmac all the way but so steep only four-wheel drive cars are allowed – and stay at the even more stunning Anantara Al Jabal Al Akdhar.
Then, for the absolute drive of a lifetime, head to Al Hamra, turn off at the Al Hoota Cave, and take the trail towards Balad Sayt and Snake Canyon.
Along the way you will pass the ridiculously out of place football pitch. It really is remote. Explore the satellite photo to see just how rugged this landscape is. Zoom in to see the football pitch, a little field of green surrounded by rock.
If you’re an off-road beginner and you want to go on an Oman self drive, you will have to learn a few of the basics about how to handle a car on steep off-road trails and sand, but I do mean basics.
Anyone with half an ounce of common sense and a few years driving experience can do it.
The most important thing to know for a trail like the road to Balad Sayt (AKA Bilad Sayt) is how to control your downhill speed.
If you’ve rented a half decent off-road vehicle, or ideally a superb LandCruiser, then it will be more than capable of getting up the steepest slopes that look impossible to you. Downhill is where there is massive potential for getting it wrong and sailing off the edge of a cliff.
Some parts of the trail are very steep. Cars are very heavy. Brakes get very hot when they’re asked to work too hard for too long. When brakes get very hot, they stop working so well.
Being gung ho, going too fast, and braking too much for too long, is why so many people have run out of brakes and ended up in a burned out wreck at the bottom of the valley. You will see several rusting wrecks.
The proper way is to enter the steep downhill sections at a sensible speed and to use your gears and engine braking to manage your speed so that you don’t burn out your brakes. Use the semi-auto or sport mode on an automatic gearbox to keep to a lower gear.
On the really steep bits, stop and engage low-range (a special very low gear for steep climbs and descents, and loose slippery surfaces like mud or wet rocks).
Anyone can do an Oman self drive, as long as they’re not a total idiot.
Having said that, even an enthusiast with lots of experience will still be captivated by the landscape and love every second of the drive.
On an Oman self drive, once you get away from Muscat, it’s as if you’re the only person there. You rarely encounter traffic. You have total freedom to drive at your pace, to stop and admire the view, to have a picnic. It’s magnificent.
As you follow the road towards Snake Canyon, you’ll pass a turning for Bilad Sayt and it’s easy to miss.
You don’t see the village from the main trail, and so when you come around a corner and suddenly there’s a vibrant green football pitch next to the road, you’ll do a double take.
It was put there for an Audi commercial. It looks so weird, and the drive you’ve just done makes you even more bemused. Surely it would take so long to get here, over such a difficult road, that nobody would ever bother? Why on earth would you put it there?
Well, that’s what I thought, but I’ve sort of spoiled it for you, haven’t I? Now you know it was made for an advert. I doubt that will diminish the surprise when you see it though.
A photo is one thing, but the reality of the journey you’ve taken to get there, and how incongruous it is in context, will leave you flummoxed.
Bilad Sayt is worth a quick visit to see some local colour, then continue past the football pitch and make your next stop Snake Canyon, for a truly wonderful hike.
You can keep going, to emerge via Al Khadra onto Route 10, but it’s even more fun to return the way you came and drive that incredible trail once more.
Head back to Al Hamra then take the road up to a stunning hotel, The View at Al Hamra, where you can have a room perching on the side of the mountain with dizzying views across the plain.
No Oman self drive is complete without visiting the desert. Sharqiya Sands is the highlight, and it’s easier to drive on than you might fear. The main trail out to the Desert Nights Camp is well-used, and so the sand is quite hard packed.
In the dunes, low range and full throttle, and only stop when you’re pointing downhill.
A truly magnificent spot for wild camping out of the back of your LandCruiser is on the edge of the Jebel Shams canyon. Take the mountain road up the plateau and explore. There are some stupendous hiking trails and jaw-dropping vistas.
You’ll have to load up with supplies back down in Al Hamra before you head up here, but once you get there you won’t want to leave.
I hadn’t planned to camp there, but it was too hard to resist spending the night in a place like this, and so this exact spot in the picture below is where I spent the night.
I could have gone to a hotel, but an Oman self drive really helps to bring out your adventurous spirit. By the way, the night sky at Jebel Shams will make you reluctant to go to sleep.
Oman self drive? Why not. It’s easy to get to, there are numerous hire car companies including Hertz who rented me my glorious LandCruiser, there are stunning hotels like the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, the food is great, and the people are friendly. Do it.
PS, if you stay at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, here’s how to get an instant status match to GHA Discovery Platinum. I did it, and got a upgrade and a bottle of Champagne out of it.
Here’s my original trip report I made at the time I was travelling on my Oman self drive, with loads more photos.