Lonely Planet Writer

Wonderings: travel fails can make rather than break a trip

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel... this month, James Kay sees the upside of a major detour off the map © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Looking back on the first 12 hours of my trip to Oman, I can see that the portents weren't good. But it’s funny how poor decisions can sometimes end up enhancing a traveller’s experience.

I had arrived at Heathrow with time to spare; time spent stuffing my face in a restaurant. After solemnly refusing a second Peroni and sauntering out with the smugness of a man ahead of schedule, I learned the gate number had come, gone, and the final few stragglers were already boarding the plane. Cue an undignified dash to Gate 29 down travelators that lengthened in front of me like something out of Hitchcock.

Stay inconspicuous in the slow lane

The red-eye to Muscat starred a sleepless child in an adjacent seat and, despite an official duration of seven hours, lasted so long I was probably reincarnated a couple of times during the flight. I'd knowingly signed up for a big drive straight off the plane to make the most of my time, but as I edged a 4WD hire car the size of a London flat on to the expressway, the scale of the challenge became clear: Oman has good roads, but the busy ones aren’t for the faint-hearted; tailgating traffic jinked between lorries like extras from The Fast and the Furious.

A road leading through Oman's Hajar Mountains © Alexey Stiop / Shutterstock Oman's formidable Al Hajar Mountains – not the sort of place to have a flat tyre © Alexey Stiop / Shutterstock

So focused was I on staying inconspicuously in the slow lane, that it came as no surprise to find I'd missed a crucial junction for the Western Al Hajar Mountains. The satnav didn’t help by urging me repeatedly to turn left where no such exit existed. I switched it off. A man at an Oman Oil petrol pump helped me replot the route on a different road… a road that eventually ran out of Tarmac. No surprise there either: the rough-and-tumble route across the mountains from Rushtaq to Al Hamra has a reputation. What I hadn't anticipated was the apparent absurdity of my map, which drew amused condemnation from the many Omanis who scrutinised it during that long, thrilling, and occasionally terrifying 70km journey.

Mars, Mordor... or Oman?

But once you've survived one 30%+ grade ascent, you've survived them all; that mountain in the mind looms largest. After a few hairy gradients I became used to the sound of the car’s tyres spinning in the dust and started to focus on the scenery instead: part Mars, part Mordor, the Western Al Hajar range is a geologist's daydream of gorges, canyons and jagged ridgelines that cycle through shades of ochre, orange, red and blue as the day draws on. And draw on it did as I got nowhere fast (apart from a few isolated wadis, that is; these vivid splashes of green were the reward for wrong turns).

A tip: ask for directions even if you do know where you're going in Oman, otherwise you might miss out on one of the country’s chief pleasures: the friendliness of the people. They won me over so fast I ended up ferrying a few to their villages en route (an informal, thumb-free form of hitchhiking seemed common). Knowing the language proved overrated too – my English and their Arabic worked fine when combined with pointing, nodding, and the simultaneous scratching of chins.

Missteps and misreadings

By the time I rejoined the sealed road at the highest point of the pass at Sharfat Al-Alamayn, where I dropped off my final companion (no wonder he had wanted a lift), I'd learned to say hello (ah-lan was ah-lan), goodbye (ma' sa-laa-ma) and, most importantly, thank you (shuk-ran). Wave upon wave of mountains lay behind me in the gloaming like the peaks of a petrified sea.

The rest of the route would qualify as spectacular in some countries; here it felt mundane. I reached my destination after nightfall and chose sleep instead of sustenance, despite a diet of biscuits and bottled water on the nine-hour drive. Before dropping into a deathly slumber, I thought of how much richer my missteps and misreadings had made the journey. Yes, travel fails can break a trip, but sometimes they can make one too.