The Otherworldly, Overwhelming, Oftentimes Unbelievable Natural Wonders of Oman

Rock climbing. Wadi hiking. Sinkhole swimming. Author Sarah Thankam Mathews seeks out adventure in her childhood home.


Photo by Nathalie Mohadjer

Once, a boy at a college party in Wisconsin asked me where I was from. Born in India to Indian parents, I had done a year of high school in Palatine, Illinois, and spent eight months in Ontario. I usually said, “India,” when asked my origins, or if I wanted the conversation to end soon, offered up “the Chicago suburbs.” But this boy held a sensitivity in his face that made me wish to divulge something real. And so I said, pulse quickening, “Oman.”

He narrowed his eyes, cupping a hand around his ear. “Did you just say you’re from the moon?

Memory bit me then, drawing blood. Low-slung mountains, cobalt sea. Tawny-gold sand dunes, arched like the back of an animal. Endless date palms lining smooth new roads. Houses smelling of frankincense. The capital Muscat: serene, white-painted city by the harbor, where I’d grown up. And the heat: the throbbing, mauling heat. My parents’ injunctions to wear modest clothing, and to always, always be careful around men. My small, airless, fearful life, lived between school and home.

I was 16 when I departed Oman for the States; that was 16 years ago. In the years that followed immigration, I slowly became someone else. I learned to ride a bike, to pitch a tent, to run a meeting, to hold my own. But fear—born of inexperience, overprotection, growing up South Indian in 1990s Oman—has left its mark on me. Being taught to assiduously avoid risk, especially risk to your precious body, changes you. Being encouraged to let adult men do the work of driving or planning or paying or chaperoning your safety—that shapes you, too.

That long-ago moment at the party is what I think of now, as the plane descends. How I’d said yep, that’s where I grew up, the moon, and stepped away, at once humored and sad, into the cold night air. Now I’m moving through space, voyaging to the moon. On my tray table is a list scrawled on paper: sinkhole swimming, wadi hiking, mountain climbing, snorkeling. It is an itinerary I find intimidating. I’m afraid of heights, I possess the upper-body strength of a 10 year old, and I have only about 40 hours of driving experience. But finally, I’m returning to Oman. To chase adventure, to test myself, to see what I can do. To measure how far I’ve come from the girl who’d never so much as crossed a street alone.

Our plane breaks through the cloud cover. Hanna, a dear friend and my travel companion on this journey, squeezes my hand but I cannot look at her; my eyes burn. Through the window, I see the lights of my old city, glittering darkly below me.

Left: The intricate mosaic work of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Right: A woman dressed long flowered dress standing on steps.

From left: One of Muscat’s most iconic destinations, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is covered with intricate tilework on the interior and can accommodate 20,000 worshippers; in Old Muscat, which sits on the Gulf of Oman, many houses have distinctive ironwork.

Photos by Nathalie Mohadjer

Oman was home to trade routes and warring tribes as early as 1500 B.C.E. In ancient times it was a maritime empire whose sailors were renowned the world over. The frankincense in the Biblical telling of Jesus’ birth was almost certainly from Oman, then called Magan. In the modern age, Oman was one of the world’s least-known countries to all but its neighbors, a place reeling from control by the Portuguese in the 1500s and 1600s and the British from the late 1800s until 1951.

The discovery of oil reserves in 1964, and the 1970 coup that enthroned Qaboos bin Said as sultan, changed things. Helmed by Qaboos and enriched by fossil fuels, Oman modernized at warp speed. Today it is a prosperous nation, home to 4.5 million people, known as the Switzerland of the Gulf for its diplomatic work with Washington, D.C., and Beijing, Tehran, and Jerusalem.

Muscat is a city of whitewashed houses, the sea rolled out before it like a banquet, the Hajar Mountains guarding its back. At the airport, Hanna and I book an Otaxi, Oman’s answer to Uber. Bleary from travel, I stare at the familiar and unfamiliar whipping by, the sense of a place at once ancient and modern.

On day one, we eat shawarma from Al Istanboly, my nostalgic favorite: curls of lamb smothered in garlicky toum spread, pillowed by flatbread and french fries. We go to city beaches where the water is as warm as a drawn bath. We wander my old neighborhood of Al Khuwair. Day two, we visit my former school, where I was once punished because a boy gave me a Valentine’s Day card and a teacher saw. The school where I was chastised for laughing too loudly, speaking my mother tongue, fainting in the heat. I recount these moments to Hanna as we stand on the school’s soccer pitch, where boys played on the field and we girls walked arm in arm on its edge, at an appropriate distance from action, physicality, and the specter of men.

On day three, I wake up to the nearby mosque’s call to prayer ringing through the dawn air, my body tight with anxiety. Can I pull off the adventure ahead? My mind turns to the limited experience I’ve had behind the wheel, to the unfamiliar terrain. Hanna is a Renaissance woman—a data scientist who weaves rugs, sings in a folk choir, and speaks four languages, including Arabic—but she doesn’t drive. The weight of that responsibility, the responsibility of taking us through the trip and keeping us safe, is on me.

It’s fine, I tell myself. Back at the airport, I sign the rental car agreement, feeling shaky but resolute.

Left: A few people swimming in Wadi Bani Khalid. Right: A date palm full of dates.

From left: Some 150 miles from Muscat, Wadi Bani Khalid is a popular swimming hole with locals. Dates are so significant in Oman that two museums have exhibits dedicated to them.

Photos by Nathalie Mohadjer

Muscat is pretty enough, but Oman’s true offering is its nature outside of the city. The two-hour route from the capital to the Bimmah Sinkhole brings us up curvy roads, then through valleys with the Hajar Mountains, marbled and craggy, on either side. I think back to the quiet and restrained child I was, of how much I wanted to see and be in the world, to know its beauty firsthand.

Legend has it that the sinkhole was created by a meteorite, giving it and the surrounding park the name Hawiyat Najm—“falling star.” Geologists contradict this, arguing that an ongoing dissolution of limestone and collapse of the surface rock above the limestone led to the cavity filled with turquoise water. The sinkhole is more than 200 feet wide and some 65 feet deep.

Wet suit and water shoes on, I walk down a flight of stairs to the water’s edge. Families and young men hang out and swim, whooping to each other across the sinkhole. Men are shirtless, women’s limbs mostly covered. I enter the pool slowly, my feet slipping on the rocks, surprised by the water’s chill. The sinkhole water lapping at my thighs alternates milky and gem blue. Do it, I tell myself, feeling a shyness born of the unfamiliar and an awareness of flouting the gender conventions I’d been raised with—a woman swimming with men. I plunge in.

The water is cold, salty, and refreshing against the heat. I lie on my back and float. Hanna and I swim into the middle of the pool and talk, treading water near a young Indian woman who works in Muscat as an aesthetician. She is cheeky and pretty, swimming in a tunic and pants and a wristful of bangles. Her husband is here, she says, tossing her head in mild ennui, but he has left her to swim on her own. He is on the far side of the sinkhole, with a knot of men throwing a ball around in the water, yelling about the Pakistani cricket game. I watch Hanna clamber onto a rock ledge and dive in: a white ripple against the deepest blue.

The next day, we wake early in the city of Sur to set forth for Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi, two narrow canyons with natural pools, limestone formations, and waterfalls. Wadi Shab is closer, about 40 minutes from Sur, and has a shorter trek at 3.5 miles.

In Wadi Shab, Hanna and I hand over one Omani rial, about $2.60, to a boatman who takes us across a slim river full of lily pads to the sandy beginnings of the canyon. For two hours we hike deeper and deeper, wading occasionally through shallow pools. Periodically we pause and, evading the 15 or so others also exploring Shab, take pictures in front of the archaic limestone formations and caves that dot the scenery. The water here is jade green, hedged by guarri bushes and date palms. The heat is punishing, but I feel proud for managing to check things off our itinerary with aplomb. We complete the hike in and out, feeling triumphant, wait for the boatman to return us to our car, and begin the drive to Wadi Tiwi.

Farther inland from Wadi Shab, Wadi Tiwi is a 22-mile-long gorge that snakes from the Hajar Mountains to the Gulf of Oman. We have not decided whether to drive it or walk it. Daoud, an Omani I speak with at a gas station, says that a “strong person” can traverse all of Wadi Tiwi in “14 hours on foot,” but “it will push most people to their limits.” Bader, Daoud’s friend, a kind-eyed, stocky captain in the Omani coast guard, cautions us against this approach. It has continued to rain, and the brown water in the wadi, so different from its typical blue and jade hues, is dangerous to swim in. “You could get swept away,” he says.

Still, Hanna and I reason, we could drive to Mibam village, within Wadi Tiwi, and hike our way to waterfalls. I set the car to four-wheel drive; a new beast within the engine comes to life. Plowing forward into shin-deep water, over gravel road, we begin the journey.

Aerial view of a person swimming in Wadi Shab.

Wadi Shab is roughly two hours from the capital.

Photo by Nathalie Mohadjer

The road narrows, climbs, narrows some more, climbs again. It is now barely wider than our SUV, with no barrier to protect us from a sheer drop. Another car appears, easing toward us, and with no room for either to advance, I reverse until I can find a spot with enough shoulder to pull over. Once the first car passes, I try again, only to be beaten back by another, one that is not afraid to honk its way through matters. Sweat begins to pop in beads all over my body.

“You can do this,” Hanna says. “What are we going to do if you can’t, anyway? Turn back?” I want to turn back, rearrange the trip, return with enough rials to hire a guide. But motivated by pride and desperation, I keep going. And then, up one particularly steep incline, we begin to roll backward. With a roar of pure terror, I accelerate, steering the SUV over to the side of the road, feeling nausea and rage. “I need a few minutes,” I say curtly to Hanna, who nods. I bury my head in my hands, breathing hard.

Minutes later, a car full of five Omani men in traditional dishdasha robes pulls up. I am unable to do anything but smile tightly and continue looking at my phone. Hanna, lowering her window, begins to talk to them in Arabic made poetic by its limitations. “She is afraid of the car,” she says, gesturing at me, “and also, the car is afraid of the mountain.”

The men are from the towns of Fins and Izki, and they are traveling together for the Muslim holiday Eid. One of them, Yasser, knows Wadi Tiwi well and offers to help. He climbs into our car and drives the remaining hour and 20 minutes to Mibam. The road curves up and down sharply, jolting us hard. Primitive houses and oases of greenery dot my sight lines. In Mibam, the group accompanies us over the concrete steps that lead to the waterfalls. The waters, typically teal and placid, are a foamy brown and white, rapids forming from days of rain. Yasser exhorts us not to let any of our limbs touch the rushing water, lest we get sucked in.

Left: Three men standing in the bed of a white pickup truck. Right: A person slicing into a mango.

From left: Nearly 65 percent of Oman’s population is under 29 years of age; in Omani cuisine, mangoes are often pickled or used to sweeten food.

Photos by Nathalie Mohadjer

Afterward, the friends insist we join them for a picnic under the palms. They give us their WhatsApp numbers, show us pictures of their families. Seated on their rug, they offer us dates, water, coffee, watermelon, and mangoes. I think of how this kind of scene would be wholly unimaginable in the patriarchy I’d grown up within.

An hour later, storm clouds gather, and we pack up. Yasser drives us all the way back to Route 18, his friends following in their car. Once returned to the coast, dizzy with gratitude, Hanna and I thank and bless these men. They ask us to call them the next time we come to Oman, say they will pick us up from the airport, show us their home villages, introduce us to their wives and children. Taking in their warmth, I feel something in me begin to dissolve. Perhaps it is my narrative of the world I once left behind.

To visit the sites of the far past is to grapple with loss. Of the place, of one’s former self.

The next day, I drive for four hours toward Jebel Akhdar, Oman’s famed “Green Mountain.” The road from the base of the mountain to our hotel is the steepest I’ve ever attempted. Still I find, to my pleasure, that I’ve leveled up.

I make hairpin turn after hairpin turn, some at ski-slope angles, with alacrity. The plan is to spend the next two nights at Alila Jabal Akhdar, a stone-walled hotel with lavish rooms and views alike. While we are in the mountains, we’ll be checking off another test of my endurance: climbing.

The Alila manages a via ferrata route that is the highest protected passage in the Middle East. The via ferrata, Italian for “iron way,” comprises steel rungs bolted into rock faces, linked by steel cable thick as a wrist. The cable snakes up and across an expanse of mountainside, into a cave, then turns into a tightrope walk across a chasm. At the end of the tightrope is a second, secret cave.

Our guide, Mahmood Alamri, who hails from a nearby village, shows me how to put on my harness and explains the safeguarding of this two-hour course: At all points my harness will be clipped with two carabiners to the steel cable, which can “support more than three tons of weight,” he says breezily, “so you will have no problem.” I begin to climb, Hanna to my right, a Saudi woman who is building an outdoor adventure company to my left.

My greatest difficulty is keeping my legs straight and leaning my whole body backward into the void. My legs and arms strain, but not as much as my mind, which does its best to convince me that risk is a terrible idea. Breathe through it, I counsel myself, you’re strapped in, now look at the view, this is insane, stop looking, next step next step, you can do this. Heart thudding and limbs burning, after 50 minutes, I stagger into the first cave.

This is when we see, blowing toward us, the iron-gray head of a tempest. It’s clear that we must modify our plans. The via ferrata is extremely safe in almost every context, turns out, except when you’re clipped to an enormous steel cable amid a lightning storm.

Alamri and his two supporting guides navigate us up an emergency route back to the Alila. The climb is far shorter but made more challenging by its swift vertical ascent and the fact that the rock faces are slick with rain. Ten minutes of the hardest physical exertion of my life follow. Gasping for breath, I make it to the end, unclip myself from the cable, and run toward the hotel for shelter.

Turning around to view the mountainside besieged by storm, I don’t feel the expected disappointment in having a plan rerouted. This, truthfully, is the meaning of adventure. Sometimes you are handed a setback; sometimes you witness the sublime.

The world flashes dark, then violet white. Another peal of thunder gongs out. The canyons and peaks turn bruise-purple against a tea-green sky. A thousand tiny crashes sound. In an instant, the vista before me is littered with marble-size pellets. Hail in the desert.

Left: An Omani beach. Right: A boy snorkeling in the sea.

Known for their sea turtles, the Daymaniyat Islands are a protected marine reserve.

Photos by Nathalie Mohadjer

The Daymaniyat Islands are an archipelago of nine uninhabited islands 26 miles off the Muscat coast. To snorkel around them, Hanna and I take a 45-minute boat ride to the coral reefs in the bay northeast of the main island. We see humpback whales in the middle distance and shriek.

The boat drops anchor. I’ve never snorkeled before. My pulse quickens slightly as I latch on my flippers and place my mask, but in a certain sense I’m calm. What’s one more boundary-pushing experience?

I lower myself down from the boat, swim out, and then lie flat, taking in this world with disbelief. On good days, the visibility underwater here is more than 70 feet. Water that is clearer than glass and somehow bluer than precious stones. Heart pounding with joy and adrenaline, I glide above unbleached coral in deep purple and pale marigold. I swim over a green sea turtle seven feet below me, keeping pace, feeling an unutterable tenderness toward it, toward everything living in this new and alien world.

On the boat back to Muscat, realization settles in. To visit the sites of the far past is to grapple with loss. Of the place, of one’s former self. I grieve the young person I was, so fearful and vulnerable and lonely—although it’s a grief veined with knife-sharp, potent joy. Because she became someone confident, someone capable, someone so much more brave, someone so much more free. This is what I understand in the juddering boat, watching the shoreline I once called home come into focus, before I begin to weep. I have returned to the moon and found it both familiar and profoundly changed.

Sarah Thankam Mathews grew up between Oman and India, immigrating to the United States at 17. She is the author of the novel All This Could Be Different, which was shortlisted for the 2022 National Book Award.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR