One of the main attractions of the Sultanate of Oman is the various wadis - or valleys - that have formed in its geography over the years. Wadis are dried-up riverbeds in mountain valleys created when heavy rains erode the rocky landscape over time. Many of them are flooded with rainwater and become green with vegetation, welcome sights in an arid landscape.
Some of the wadis are accessible by SUVs and other off-roading vehicles, while some are just off the side of highways, with tiny streams of rainwater running through them. Wadi Bani Khaled is probably the most popular valley in the north of the country, and lies about 200km from the capital, Muscat. Rain on the week I visited had flooded some of the roads leading to the valley, but detours had been made available for people to enjoy the wadi on the weekend.
Driving up to the head of the valley, we parked under a group of palm trees and walked over to the rocky foot of the mountains and the boulders surrounding the wadi. Irrigation streams ran through the valley, using the fresh water from the pools to supply water to mango trees, bougainvilleas and palms heavy with bunches of green dates. As we climbed the white and grey boulders the wadi's main pool becme visible. Its light blue-green colour invited onlookers to jump deep into its depths. Boys cannonballed into the pool from a footbridge, while others splashed around near the rocks, throwing beach balls around with their fully-covered mothers and fathers. In the pools, the water's temperature went from cool to warm, the result of uneven exposure to the sun. Frogs relaxed in the cool shade of the boulders, and dragonflies dove into the faces of swimmers in the middle of the pools.
In Wadi Bani Khaled, a large number of pools are connected to each other through a series of small waterfalls and rock formations. As if in a video game, people swam from one pool to another, going from level to level by climbing over rocks. The brave will be treated to a series of caves, dark and humid. The heat of the wadi eventually got the better of us, so we decided to drive back. We paid a visit to Nizwa, the original capital of Oman and one of the country's oldest cities. It served as the capital during the 6th and 7th centuries, and was an important link for trade and communications because of its proximity with Muscat and the rest of the country. Today, Nizwa depends on agriculture and tourism, and boasts a renovated souk and fort.
After a night's rest, we started the day very early in Nizwa at the animal auction. Farmers from all over brought their cows, goats, kids, calves and bulls and put them on sale. Owners and buyers sat around a pebbled circle, examining the animals, which struggled against the ropes tied around their necks. The veins on the side of the men's heads popped as they shouted out the prices of the animals they hoped to sell. A local cow would go for much more money than a foreign one. An old cow might be cheaper than a young, but would have tougher meat and fewer years left to give milk. Baby goats bleated softly as they cavorted in the dirt.
What struck me the most while driving between Sur, the Wadi, Nizwa and Muscat was the diverse and expansively rich landscape passing by on either side of our car. The majestic mountains towering over the sparkling seawater to the left, and desert expanses meeting arid hills to the right. The mountains changed colour - purple, red, light brown, sepia, dark brown, yellow - and some of the rocks seemed powdery in consistency, reminding me of the times when I found face powder or eyeshadow crushed in my baggage after a bumpy flight. The bursts of green date palms in oases and wadis brought relief to the harshness of the desert, and the camels and goats grazing on either side of the road never failed to make me giggle. What a treasure Oman is. Hadeel al Shalchi is a reporter for the Associated Press and is based in Cairo.