Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman: This real-life oasis is no mirage

Whenever the word "oasis" pops up in a non-rock, non-Gallagher brothers context what comes to mind is the classic man-dying-in-desert cartoons. You know the thing; bearded chummy is on all fours in the sand, obviously distraught and hideously thirsty, when he comes upon a freshwater pool replete with shady palm trees.

Of course, it's either a mirage or there's a sign saying something like "oasis closed for private event".

So when the chance comes to visit a real live oasis in Oman you can imagine that the old imagination is working overtime. What to wear? Does one shave, or not?

Wadi Bani Khalid is about 200 kilometres from Muscat, the country's shining seaside capital, and is an oasis that never dries up, fed as it is throughout the year via an underground stream in the foothills of the Hajar Mountains.

We drive there mostly on Oman's system of amazingly smooth, modern highways but then turn off onto smaller roads to reach the wadi. It's a journey through a parched landscape – it's the Middle East, after all - especially the final few kilometres when wide panoramas turn to more rugged, crumpled terrain. It seems counter-intuitive that there could be anything out here other than a desperate-looking puddle.

And yet when we turn up at the wadi there's water all over the road, where we park alongside a dozen or so other frighteningly clean white Toyota Land Cruisers (which seem to be the vehicle of choice in Oman).

The wadi itself is a five-minute walk away along the narrow edging of a flowing irrigation channel and appears, and I can't believe I'm writing this, like a mirage in the desert. Suddenly there is a large natural pool in front of us, surrounded by palm trees and looking as if it's just dropped out of the sky.

There's a bridge across the water further up which leads to a small café (coffee, soft drinks, some perfunctory food so you're better off bringing a picnic) and signs pointing out that this is a conservative country where skimpy bikinis are most definitely frowned upon. It's a polite warning that everyone here has taken heed of, most women (and some men) taking to the pool in shorts and T-shirts.

The water is that calm, cool blue-green colour that's also diamond-clear - the shallow edges teeming with those little fish that like to nibble your feet. This is the deepest and widest part of the watercourse, reaching nine metres at some points – possibly those sections where young locals are doing death-defying somersaults into the water.

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Follow the zigzagging watercourse further up, past the café and on into the canyon that looms as a forbidding but alarmingly picturesque backdrop, and it eventually dissipates into a series of small waterfalls which tumble over bulbous boulders worn smooth by millennia.

Here, with the vertiginous canyon looming above, we scramble over steep and jagged brown and sandstone-coloured rocks which lead to several ever-shrinking secluded waterholes, where more local boys splash and rough and tumble.

A couple of them take the time to show us a cave entrance further up, past a few narrow and fading streams. It's just a slender slit in the rock face, dark, deep and not at all enticing. In the wetter months, say the boys, rushing streams flood past here.

We make our way back to the main oasis under cerulean skies and a punishing sun - the heat emanating from the canyon walls an almost palpable wave. Luckily, there's an oasis to hand. Unless it's a mirage …

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Emirates has daily flights to Muscat via Dubai from all major Australian airports. See emirates.com

TOUR

Peregrine Adventures' seven-day Taste of Oman tour starts and ends in Muscat and takes in fishing villages, souks, the oasis of Wadi Bani Khaled, a night in a desert camp in the Wahiba Sands and the Jebel Akhdar Mountains. Prices start from A$3,340 per person twin share. Visit peregrineadventures.com for more details.

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Keith Austin was a guest of Peregrine Adventures.

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