After having lived in the desert town of Rustaq for just over a week, I realized that walking around in 40 degree heat was no fun and that the best way to deal with this was to get myself a car. Unfortunately, there was nowhere close by for me to rent a car. So, my only option was to head to the Omani capital, Muscat, to rent a car from one of the major dealers at the airport. In itself, this would be a pretty hum-drum transaction. However, I must admit that when I set off in a taxi, I was very excited at the prospect of driving through the desert.
The route between Muscat and Rustaq was very simple. After leaving the airport, I would take the coastal highway, which runs parallel to the Gulf of Oman. I would follow this for around 120km and then turn left onto the desert highway to Rustaq. I was excited about both legs of the journey. On the coastal highway, I was very much looking forward to cruising along a deserted road with the sea lapping against the shores just a few meters away. For the second section of the trip, I had visions of a tiny little one lane highway weaving its way through vast sand dunes. I was not envisaging seeing too many people. In fact, the only things I expected to sight along the way was the occasional Bedouin accompanied by his camel.
In reality, the journey was far less spectacular than the rather caricatured image that I had in my head. The highway out of Muscat was perhaps the most surprising aspect of the journey. In terms of population, Oman is a small country – there are just over 2million people in the whole place. So, I was not expecting to be hitting too much traffic. However, the three lanes that weaved out of Muscat were rammed solid with SUVs and family saloons. It reminded me more of rush-hour in the UK or US than the mythic coastal highway I had in mind. It was only as we pulled away from the city that the traffic thinned out. Despite this, at no point was it deserted and the sea was never in view – it is actually around 15km away from the road.
The desert highway was a little closer to the image in my head. During the 40km journey from the coastal highway to the small desert town I was virtually alone. The landscape was astonishing. The best adjective I could use to describe would be 'lunar'. It seemed desolate, bereft of life. Off in the distance were large mountains that gradually moved into silhouette as the sun began to set. The only real life or vegetation on show were small bushes that dotted the landscape and seemed to be in a constant battle against the harsh elements.
The desert landscape was certainly what I had in mind prior to my journey. However, the road itself had removed any essence of desert romance. Rather than being thin, dusty and windy, it was modern two-lane highway complete with freshly painted lines and a string of lights. There were even gas stations complete with convenience stores and coffee shops every ten kilometres or so. I must admit that whilst this stifled my sense of romance and adventure somewhat, I was rather glad that were I to encounter any problems, there would be light and I would not be far from help.
As great as the landscape was, my favourite aspect of the highway was one small road-sign. Whereas in the centre of a city you may see a sign warning of children or elderly people crossing the road, in the Omani desert there was a sign warning of camels crossing. Sadly, I did not see any, but it was certainly evocative of the desert images I had been entertaining.