Chasing Trails in Oman

If you’re looking for an adventure paradise where the people are friendly and the riding is incredible, Oman is the country for you. Mats Engeler rides a circuit of the Middle Eastern sultanate.

People often ask why we chose to ride Oman and not somewhere closer and more easily accessible. The answer is relatively simple and easy to explain. I worked in Kuwait in 1997, and while I was there I learned so much about the country, in particular that there was a vast landscape of open and free terrain that was just waiting to be ridden. Years later I went to the region again, this time with a 4×4, and I explored the area, and then later I read a German report from the expedition service ‘Einfach Losfahren’, telling the story of motorcycle travels in Oman. As soon as I saw it the decision was made. 

There was, of course, a lot of preparation before the trip. We had to make sure we were fit enough to accomplish our mission, and a couple of months before we left Austria we took our bikes to Einfach Losfahren, who took care of shipping our bikes to Muscat for us. 

On arrival in Oman we were curious as to how the KTM 950 Adventure S, BMW 1200GS, KTM 690 Enduro and the KTM 640 Adventure would perform in comparison to each other. It didn’t matter too much though as we decided that each of these machines are great fun, no matter what terrain you choose to ride. They each have their own quirks and characteristics and each one is special in its own right. 

Oman is a fantastic country. The sultanate, which is bordered by Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is slightly larger than the United Kingdom, and it offers the freedom and variety of terrains that adventure riders so crave. Our plan was to ride along the coast of the country to Salalah and then through the desert Rub al Kali and back to the capital, Muscat. We wanted to avoid asphalt as much as possible and so we had a simple, but efficient plan in place; travel light, ride off -road, take a lot of pictures, eat and camp. 

Sticking to such an ascetic plan is not very difficult in Oman. Once you leave the northeastern coast behind, and get further and further from Muscat, the distances between the small villages with little infrastructure get bigger and bigger! 

Highly motivated despite the blistering heat we left Muscat. Just 20-miles outside of the city an off-road paradise was waiting for us. First on a curvy gravel track through Wadi al Mayh, and then through the water-bearing Wadi Mijlas to Quriyat. I quickly became aware of how hyped up everyone was when, after 30 miles I stopped at a water crossing to take some photos of the other guys. Here we had our first crash, fortunately without injury or damage to the bike, but also right in front of the camera! 

From Quriyat the road took us along the beach to Daghmar, where we had sand under the wheels for the first time. While overtaking the BMW I noticed that one brake calliper was hanging down on its tube. The problem was quickly fixed and we went on to reach Wadi Dayqah. This wadi is full of head-sized stones, and after a few miles of slog and a few little falls we decided to give up. We quickly put up our tent and found some firewood. Disappointed by our own performance we realised that if the trail was like this for much further it would be very difficult to manage the next 600 miles to Salalah. That’s why, on that same evening, we decided to take the next day a bit easier. In the morning we retraced our tyre tracks and were deposited out on the coast of the Arabian Sea again. 

From previous trips to Oman (by car) I knew that we’d no doubt experience such difficult riding conditions again, and so our little foray up Wadi Dayqah was good training for us all. We were still close to civilisation, but as we got further from Muscat we would be more and more isolated and it would be difficult to solve any serious problems with the bikes. 

Arriving in Wadi Arbayeen there was a lot of water and some spectacular passes. At some point the KTM 640 Adventure stopped unexpectedly with broken wheel bearings. To repair it we had to take a ride to Sur in an effort to source some spare parts. As the others on the broken KTM arrived in Sur we were already waiting with the relevant bits and bobs, and we fixed the machine on that same evening. 

The goal for the next day was clearly defined from the outset. One day without technical problems and a test drive through sand before we would enter the real desert stage on the next day. In the evening we camped and took a swim in the clear waters of Wadi Bani Khalid and despite our plans for the day we were confronted with more problems after a short while. When passing through a particularly dusty patch of road we created such a thick cloud of dirt that George lost visibility and crashed his BMW, his cylinder head whacking a stone. Fortunately it didn’t cause us too much trouble and we were able to patch it up and get going again. 

Several times we swapped the bikes around in order to improve our riding skills and be more flexible when choosing who would drive which machine. On a nice evening around the campfire the topic was raised about who should ride which bike in the sand. The next day we got up very early to refuel at Al Minitrib and get some extra litres of gas and water before heading into the wilds of the desert. Shortly after, we entered the Wahiba Sands from the north. ‘Finally,’ I thought to myself, ‘sand! I love it!’. Once you have the right speed it feels like snowboarding on powder after a fresh dump of snow. 

There are three main routes from north to south through the Wahiba Sands and we decided to choose the most easterly track. If you try to cross the desert from east to west, or vice versa, it’s more difficult as you have to cross over the high dunes. The challenge for us was to find the right speed that would suit all of the bikes. We wanted to stay in sight of each other, but learning from our previous mistake, while not creating too much dust. It’s very easy to get lost in the desert. 

Fortunately on that day we were blessed with no technical problems, and in the evening we reached the ferry to Masirah Island. Masirah is the last stop to eat well and wash your laundry, before you take in the next 500 miles. The route passes just a few small fishing villages, where workers from India and a few locals try to make their money. For the distance from Masirah to Salalah we planned five days. 

The first stage to Masirah took us from the Barr al Hickman peninsular to Al Khaluf, an area that gets partially flooded at high tide. If it gets hot after the flooding it then dries up and creates a salty, deep mud that’s known as ‘shabka’. This quicksand-like substance can create big problems, no matter what you’re riding, so it’s best to avoid it. Shortly before we reached the tarmac again in Al Khaluf, we noticed a disturbing noise coming from the BMW. It was obvious that a bearing was damaged. 

With little hope of finding a mechanic nearby we decided that it would be best to take the BM back to Muscat. Despite supplies being more available in the capital it was still impossible to source parts for the big German bike and so we had to send George home. Of course, such things can happen on expeditions like this, and so the next day we soldiered on and made our way to Ras Madrakah, following the demanding sandy routes to Al Kahil. The first 100 miles or so went smoothly with no problem and great riding, and then my luggage rack fell off. With a makeshift repair holding my kit onto the bike we decided to head to the town of Shalim, some 100 miles away. The road got more difficult and we wanted tomake sure we were riding in daylight so our speed got faster and faster, until we finally settled into our riding flow. 

It wouldn’t be an adventure if there wasn’t another problem waiting for us around the next corner. Before long the tube of the 950 Adventure got so hot that it melted inside the tyre. We had anticipated problems and so carried a spare and this was swiftly installed, but our mini-pump broke before we could inflate it fully. That day we learnt a new lesson; never drive into the desert without a compressor! 

We rode as far as we could with the rear wheel of the KTM fully deflated and once we’d stopped, two locals pulled up in their car to see what the fuss was about. Kindly they offered us a ride to the next petrol station and back again so that we could get what we needed. That’s Omanis for you, always very helpful and willing to assist. Such acts of kindness would happen again and again during our ride through the country. And so with Arabic music blaring we set off at 100mph to the next petrol station, and before long we had the KTM back on the road. 

The area between Hayma, Oryx Sanctuary and Mahout is particularly beautiful. Over and over you pass from cliff edge to beautiful lowlands and back up again, the riding being both enjoyable and rewarding. The area is particularly popular for geologists and you’ll see some fantastic and interesting rock formations as you blast your way through. 

From Mahout we continued to Sinaw, where we had more problems, this time with the KTM 640 Adventure. The motor was stalling because the engine was getting too hot, cleaning the carburettor didn’t help, but driving with the choke on worked and so we suspected that the fuel nozzle was dirty, preventing enough fuel from entering into the engine. 

Mechanical issues were becoming a theme of the ride and shortly before Sinaw I once again got a flat tyre, this time at night. Once again a friendly Omani was there in no time and gave us a lift into the city. On top of this he bought us some food and apologised that he couldn’t take us back as he needed to get to a wedding. But he organised a taxi which would bring us back to our bikes, and he paid for that in advance. He somehow felt as though he was responsible for us, and we couldn’t help asking ourselves, ‘would something like this happen in Central Europe?’ 

The following day we headed back to Muscat, taking in some seriously awesome mountain roads. Nowhere in the Alps will you find steeper roads and tighter hairpin bends and the last wadi, just outside of Muscat, is particularly fun to ride as there’s always a lot of water there to refresh yourself in after a long tour! 

I guess you could say that Oman is built for off-road riding, especially if you like it extreme. The people are beautiful and very welcoming everywhere you go, but keep away from the oil fields and the Saudi border as it’s easy to get into trouble with the police here. If you respect the local customs, the desert and you know your bike, you shouldn’t have too many problems, but you’ll have the ride of your life. Often such trips come to an end before they have even begun, and as I boarded the flight back to Austria, I decided that we’ll come back again, and next time we’ll be luckier. 

Want to do wha Mats did? Here’s how you can…

Getting there? Flights to Oman are relatively cheap if you don’t mind breaking the journey into two legs. You can fly from London Gatwick to Muscat, via Istanbul, for around £250 return, while if you want a direct flight you’ll be looking at around £440 return. To ride your own motorcycle in Oman it is recommended that you obtain a Carnet de Passage from the RAC. James Cargo Services Ltd. can transport a BMW R1200GS sized bike for arrival in Muscat for £1,295 by airfreight, or £699 by ocean into Sohar. Visit www.jamescargo.com for more info. 

Is it safe to ride in Oman? We didn’t have any fears about our safety while we were in the country but I would recommend staying away from oil drilling areas as it can get you in trouble. 

Accommodation? We camped most nights but hotels are becoming more and more available in the country. Hotels will cost you around £50 per night in Muscat, though the further you get from the capital the cheaper they become. 

Fuel? It’s worth planning your route based on fuel availability and carrying a few jerry cans for extra gas. Sometimes the distance between petrol stations can be further than your bike’s range. 

When to go? The best time to go is in winter. While it’s still warm it won’t be as blisteringly hot as it is in summer, when it’s almost unrideable. 

Currency The currency used in Oman is the Omani Rial, going by the exchange rates at the time of writing you can get 1OMR for 1.66GBP. 

Who’s it for? If you like off-road riding and want to ride in vast expanses of sand then Oman is the destination for you. There are some fantastic road sections though, and you’re sure to find an adventure no matter where you head in the country. 

Any advice? Learn to travel light, you don’t need every single piece of kit from your local dealer. Make a note of the things you bring and don’t use, then leave them at home the next time you ride. Service your bike at least once with the manufacturer’s toolkit and see what you need to add to ensure you have all the parts necessary to get yourself out of trouble.