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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Safe passage to Salalah: our driving dos and don’ts when undertaking a road trip

If you can handle long and straight drives, it’s a painless enough jaunt. Here’s how to do it

Considering it’s a straight, flat journey through a sparse desert with views of nothing much, it’s little wonder that the road from Dubai to Salalah isn’t exactly well travelled. That, and the fact that it’s about 1,200 kilometres – one way.

While these may not be the most appealing selling points to make you consider this epic road trip, it might be your only choice during long weekends and national holidays, especially if last-minute flight prices make your eyes water.

Forget the horror stories and old wives’ tales about this drive (we didn’t spot a single djinn or jaywalker). If you can handle long and straight, it’s a painless enough jaunt. Here’s how to do it.

What you’ll need to bring

  • Plenty of water: don’t underestimate the power of a constantly switched-on air conditioning to deplete your hydration levels.
  • USB charger: podcasts are a must on this journey.
  • Omani riyals: many petrol stations will not accept credit cards.
  • Car snacks: more about where to stock up on these below.
  • And finally, an unwavering sense of dogged determination and a healthy dose of foolhardiness.

Before you set off

Ensure you have all of the above, and that your car has been serviced recently and is in good working order. The road to Salalah is littered with burnt-out husks of cars and the odd bus whose owner probably didn’t heed this warning.

Preload the route onto Google Maps, so you know exactly where you are going; signs can be haphazard. And it’s best to get on the road early in the morning, say 5am or so.

The Hafeet border

If you’re travelling during holiday season – summer or winter – be prepared for large crowds and a long wait at the border; Musandam is but 200 kilometres from Dubai and about 400 from Abu Dhabi. Oman is currently rolling out its eVisa system, but even though we applied online, we still had to queue up and apply again at the border, losing 90 minutes of crucial driving time.

Where to refuel

Considering there are no less than 43 petrol stations on the main highway, not including those located on the backstreets of Al Ain, Haima and Salalah itself, it’s fair to say the old nugget of wisdom to “fill up at every station” is somewhat outdated. This was imparted to us by almost everyone we spoke to about our impending drive. However, after the third refuel in Oman, we realised we were averaging about 50 kilometres between stops, so we quickly decided it’s more for those who really want to err on the side of caution.

As it turns out, the longest stretch of tarmac between fuel stations is about 120 kilometres, near the turn-off to Fahud and Qarn Al Alam, and a stretch halfway between Haima and Thumrait. During the rest of the drive, you’ll see at least one fuel station every 50 to 100 kilometres. So as long as you stick to about a 100km range in the tank, don’t worry about running out of petrol on the side of a long, dusty desert road.

The state of the road

Once you’ve passed Ibri, not only will you be bidding farewell to a decent bakery for several hundred kilometres, but you can also wave goodbye to multilane highways. From here on out, it’s a single carriageway. Considering the number of lorries, trucks and holiday traffic that can build up on this road, this might prove an issue for the cars attempting to actually travel at the speed limit. However, the roads are wide and it’s common that those travelling in front will pull over to let those behind pass.

One thing that did become apparent fairly quickly, though, is a lawless system of overtaking on this highway. Some cars attempting to overtake will pull out whether or not it’s safe to do so, and if there’s a car travelling straight for you from the other direction, they’re expected to drive down the side of the road, as far right as they can, so all three cars can pass by one another without causing a head-on collision.

Where to stop for food

Food stops along this highway are fairly limited unless you have a penchant for crisps, chocolate bars and other uninspiring packaged goods found on the shelves of a dusty fuel station. If you’re heading to Salalah, Ibri is your last decent choice before the odd cafeteria in Haima, and even then you’re unlikely to find a cappuccino (we tried three coffee shops before giving up).

On the outskirts of Ibri, heading south, you’ll find a Lulu Hypermarket if you want to stock up, and throughout the town there are various other supermarkets, bakeries and restaurants. Basically, your only option during the 450km stretch between Ibri and Haima are petrol stations, and their selection of goods is not tempting to say the least.

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Driving hazards

Watch out for strong crosswinds from Al Ain until well after Ibri; they can get extremely blustery. Aside from the haphazard overtaking methods of some other motorists, you shouldn’t have many other major driving issues to contend with, other than perhaps the most wayward of them all: camels.

The sedate creatures can be found grazing nonchalantly along the entire highway but will, without question, meander onto the road on occasion, regardless of the fact that you’re driving straight at them at a high speed. So look out in the distance for camels strutting brazenly for the highway, and if you spot one, slow down and pass with caution.

Four-wheel-drive vs sedan

We took a trusty old Mitsubishi Pajero on this road trip and certainly found ourselves in the majority with a four-wheel-drive. However, we passed our fair share of Nissan Sentras along the way. The same can be said for when you get to Salalah; while it’s certainly more comfortable to be bouncing around a dry wadi in a Pajero, you’ll see no shortage of plucky sedans trying their luck.

The final slog

And just like that, about an hour or so before you hit Salalah, the landscape will start changing – smatterings of greenery will begin to appear on the sand and, suddenly, you’ll find yourself enshrouded by a misty, lush green landscape. All that driving in the desert will be a distant memory – until a few days later when you have to turn around and do it all over again. Besides, you’ll inevitably pass a car with a licence plate from far-flung Kuwait or Bahrain, and all that lamenting over your lengthy road trip will quietly dissipate.

The fuel stations to stop at: