Day Out : Right around Rustaq Driving to Wadi Abyad
From a piece of history in the morning to a curious natural phenomenon by evening, this Day Out takes in a range of Oman’s delights
This trip is a bit of a magical mystery tour. Start with some history at the fascinating Al Hazm Castle and end with the mysterious blue pools at Wadi Abyad. In between, follow Falaj al Wasta for a short way – peering down the access holes to the water flowing underground. Visit the aerial village of Wajmah – one of the more beautiful-looking settlements draped down the clefts of impossible mountains. Many offroaders have had their fill of forts and castles, but Al Hazm Castle is a surprise even to the most jaded. It is huge, slightly eerie and full of surprises. The main door is magnificent, over six metres high and half a metre thick. It is covered with detailed carving and beautiful studs. The inner door – as large – is also of note, though not as intricate.
The castle has been completely redone inside and there are dozens of interconnecting rooms, corridors and staircases to explore. The cannon towers house some of the biggest cannons seen around Oman. Look out for the projecting galleries above the main entrance – from where boiling oil or date syrup was poured onto attackers. The biggest surprise is the freshwater stream running through the castle. Steps and access doors at various points allow people down to water level. The builder of the castle – Imam Sultan bin Seif the Second – intended it to withstand long sieges, which explains the in-built freshwater supply. The two graves you might stumble upon in a tiny room inside the castle are those of the Imam and his son. The castle was built in 1714AD.
To get here, zero the odometer at the Seeb International Airport roundabout and drive straight out, heading towards Sohar. The Rustaq roundabout is at 74km, take the left to Rustaq. From about 95km, look towards the right for the big brown building standing out from the houses – this is Al Hazm Castle. At just over 97km, there is a roundabout, take a right. Ignore the first left, the second one leads to the parking lot outside the castle.
The castle is open throughout the year. Timings are 9am to 4pm – Fridays included – though a cheery greeting gained the Oman Today team entry quite a bit before 9am. Once done at the castle, drive out of the parking lot and turn left. Drive to just over 102km and turn left down the blacktop road, towards Al Hoqein. At just over 111km is a tall tomb in the middle of this undulating plain with the mountains as backdrop.
At just under 115km is a large signpost; take a left here. At 121km, the road drops abruptly into Al Hoqein. Enter the village and take the left fork. At about 123km is a Wali’s office on the right and a tiny roundabout at which the blacktop ends. Saloon cars can be parked at the Wali’s office – the wadi is a two-minute walk down the right fork after the roundabout. Off-road drivers have a choice here. Take the left fork to drive along the wadi and reach Al Hoqein direct, or take the right to enter the wadi, drive along the floor and exit onto the track just before Al Hoqein. The Oman Today team chose the more adventurous route and bumped the car down into the wadi.
The route here is green – rushes and grass on the bed, falaj and terraced farms along the sides. There’s water as well, and a ruined fortress overlooking all of this.
The drive along the wadi bed is relaxed, though the exit onto the path at 124.3km is not easy to spot. Once on the path, turn right, into the village – at 126.8km. The road dips down into the wadi, turn off to the right and park. A short walk leads to small rock pools and conglomerate formations. Date palms along the sides and a ruined watchtower on the hill behind add a nice touch.
After a short recce, get back on the road and continue to the right, through the village. The road winds among date palm plantations – one of the most picturesque parts of travelling in rural Oman. The road sometimes has sheer rock on one side and ruined watchtowers along the way. It passes close to the ruined fortress mentioned earlier. At 130km, a falaj crosses a small wadi, aqueduct style.
The road leads back towards Al Hazm. At 150km on the way back, look out for the sign pointing to Falaj al Wasta. Take the right and drive through the village. The falaj is visible after it – access points lead three steps or so down to water level. Turn left into the wadi and look to the right for a rounded concrete structure. This is one of the access shafts, originally used by the falaj diggers, now used for repair and cleaning. The water is far below, and the shaft is barely big enough for a person.
Drive a little further – there’s a large prosopis grove. It is possible to follow the falaj for a little way, looking out for the earthy mounds with concretised access holes. Some of the shafts have rungs along the wall all the way down to the water. It will take a brave person to go down there. There are intriguing mounds throughout the grove – looking like ancient eroded structures. Neatly fitted stones reveal the remains of walls. Unfortunately, we couldn’t discover what they were. The route after this is via Rustaq, before which the odometer will be zeroed. So choose to turn around and drive back to the blacktop, or drive on, keeping to the main track. Head left towards the mountains to reach Rustaq. Unfortunately, extensive and fruitless exploration of this area made the distance reading impossible, but it’s a nice enough drive to make the uncertainty worthwhile.
Nearly at Rustaq, there’s a huge green domed mosque just before a roundabout and opposite a Shell petrol station. Zero the odometer at the petrol station (which is on the right) and turn right at the roundabout. At just over 8km is the turn to Wadi Sahtin – take it. The blacktop ends here. Stay on the track, don’t climb the hill. The road then dips into the wadi – turn right and drive up it. Take a right at 13.1km. Just after is a fork – take the left.
The wadi gets narrow with huge sheer rockfaces around. Ignore the signs to various villages on the left and right, just stay in the wadi. At 21km, it suddenly gets very wide with farms along the side. At 29km is the village of Ain Omq. Just after is a road up to the right, heading out of the wadi. Take it.
We stopped at 31km to get a photograph and found that the car doors wouldn’t open. It took a second to realise there was a tremendous wind blowing – sweeping down the wadi from the mountains. The view here is spectacular, the wind exhilarating. A little way on, keep right to take the road to Wajmah; there is a signpost here. The road after is along the top of a ridge with drops on both sides. The next 5km is a steep climb, but not as extreme as the one to Bilaad Sayt. It is exciting enough to keep driver and passengers on edge, even though low-range gearing isn’t needed on the way up. Remember to use it on the descent, to keep off the brakes.
The terraced farms of Wajmah are cut from dark rock and spill steeply down the cleft in the mountains. While cars can be parked above the village, the best photographs are from the approach, though it’s a struggle to get the electricity lines out of the picture. Back to the Wajmah signpost, the right turn goes down into the valley and then up again for the climb to Selmah. We were in a rush to get to the blue pools while the sun was relatively high, and so saved this drive for another day. On the way back down, look out for the arched sedimentary layers down in the wadi on the right. While it’s possible to continue through Wadi Bani Khalid to Nakhl, we chose to return the way we came. With the big green mosque at Rustaq on the left, go straight at the roundabout and then left at the next one. This is the route to Nakhl. The turn off to the blue pools is at Al Mahaleel, 33km down the road and 22km from Nakhl.
The sign and turn off to Al Mahaleel come up rather abruptly. Follow the sign off the road – the path splits immediately. Zero the odometer and take the right, running parallel to the main road. This is a rough drive on ungraded pebbled paths. Traction is often difficult to find, as it is a visible route. Remember to keep approach speeds high when crossing streams – the pebble bed is slippery.
At 1.3km, paths lead away from the road into a narrower section. Keep driving, the blue pools are 9km down this arduous track. It ends where water flows over rocks – don’t attempt to drive further. The blue pools are right here – though at first glance they appear white. The rocks around are covered in calcite sedimentation – some of it looking like fine coral formations. Glimpses are all we got of the blue colouration, adding to the mystery of the pools.