November 23, 2016 by Rob Gardiner
When you’re cycle touring for months at a time, real life doesn’t get in the way. That’s because cycling becomes real life. However, the same cannot be said when planning micro tours.
And so I set off for week’s cycling in Oman unfit, exhausted and more than slightly unwell. Hardly an auspicious start.
It is at times like this when I have to chuckle. After all, I get paid to design holidays, and yet my idea of a holiday is so thoroughly unrestful.
In fact, the whole purpose of this trip was to experiment with a new type of cycle touring – “bikepacking”. This ultralight, offroad approach sees panniers ditched for frame bags and hybrid designs give way to rugged mountain bike builds. I even deemed a tent and petrol cooker too luxurious; instead taking a bivvy bag and woodburning stove.
But age and experience have lessened my lust for unnecessary masochism. Rather than start off by throwing myself in at the deep end, I opted for a scenic day ride through the wadis in the foothills of the Jebel Akhdar, just south of Muscat.
My day ride first took me up Wadi Bani Kharus, a wide valley flanked by rocky hills. This dead-end road eventually comes to a halt in the heart of the Jebel Akhdar, unable to go any further because of the impassable nature of this dramatic terrain.
However, I turned off before this point, having spotted a small track that would take me across to the neighbouring wadi. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a challenging ride, with the sandy road climbing steeply over a line of craggy hills.
But on the other side, I hurtled down and into the renowned Wadi Bani Awf. This remote, dusty wadi wound its through a huge chunk of the Jebel Akhdar, overlooked by reddish black peaks.
But soon I was hankering to explore another scenic cut-through, going via Little Snake Canyon. Although the map didn’t mark a path or track for the first kilometre of the canyon, I thought “How tough can it be?”
I soon found out. After 45 minutes of scrambling down giant boulders, cycling over rocks and wading through waist-deep pools of water, I arrived at the other side. Exhilarated by the adventure and impressed by the narrows, winding canyon, I was glad to have made the detour. But, now aware that Oman’s landscapes weren’t for the faint-hearted, it was with relief that I easily descended Wadi Bani Awf, back to my guesthouse.
Sadly, the next day, my luck ran it again. A day in bed was required, as sinusitis struck. However, now my appetite had been whetted, I was not going to be cooped up. I was soon back on my bike and off exploring more wadis.
What followed was an intensely tough day’s riding, as I wound my way ever higher, towards the tallest peaks of the Jebel Akhdar. When I finally collapsed into a small rocky gully that would serve as my campsite, I looked at my cycle computer to see that the average climb for the day was 10%. I have never seen it show double figures before, in more than 30,000 kilometres of cycling.
However, after a mosquito-interrupted night’s sleep on a punctured Thermarest mat, I discovered the toughest bit was still to come. The sandy road that I was on wound its way up a near-vertical mountainside, ascending 800 metres in just seven kilometres. This included 300 metres of ascent in just 1.5 kilometres. For the first time ever, I had to resort to pushing my bike.
However, as tough as this may sound, it was more than justified by the spectacular views that greeted me as I ground my way up the mountain. I had expected great things of the Omani landscape and it had certainly delivered.
As asphalt returned and I finally summitted, that familiar feeling of elation engulfed me, as I looked back over the almost Martian terrain that I had left behind. Legs light with euphoria, I flew down towards the ancient capital of Nizwa, eager for some more conventional tourism.
Sprawling and seemingly not very historic, Nizwa appeared unremarkable. However, I made the effort to drag myself from bed at dawn and visit the Friday cattle market – a traditional gathering that has been happening for centuries.
Here, I was soon transfixed by the haggling and chatter, surrounded by the stench of animals, faeces and human sweat. It was beautifully raw and timeless, as Omani men paraded their animals through a circle of onlookers.
However, yet again real life soon caught up with me. And before I knew it, I was back on a clean, stench-free plane, hurtling westwards, with bleats of carried goats fading from my ears.