by Irene Butler – Oman Pics/ –
Visibly absent in Oman is the sky-scraper obsession of the UAE. The architecture in Muscat, the capital city, is tied closely to tradition with most buildings ranging from between three and seven storeys in white or sandy shades, many with the arched windows common in Arabic design. The harmonious effect of looking over the uniform structures of this city, wedged between rugged mountains with ever changing earthy hues and the royal blue sea reflects a sense of peace and tranquility.
Our first hotel was in the central area of Muscat, and this location came in handy to obtain our Syrian visas (for our December visit). We hailed a taxi for this visa run, already aware that there are no city buses and the only way to get around is by taxi with high fares (our average being 5 Rial or $13 dollars) – not good for budget conscious travellers. Our driver Saoud said he would wait without charge until our visas were processed, and we took him for a coffee at the nearby Qurm beach café for his generosity.
Besides taxies, the only other means of getting around Muscat is by vans called micro-buses, with hard to decipher routes and non-English speaking drivers, which is not conducive to seeing the sights of Oman. Therefore, after a few days we ventured to the historic Muttrah area and settled into the Corniche Hotel, right across the street from the Gulf of Oman and “the Corniche” which in Arabic translates to “seaside road” with a wide promenade along the water’s edge.
At our first lunch in Muttrah, in one of the many delightful sidewalk restaurants facing the sea, a young Arab couple sitting a few tables away smiled at us; she looking lovely in her black robe (abeyya) and green leaf trimmed black head covering (hajab), and he the epitome of regale in his white dishdasha (robe) with an embroidered Omani cap called a kutta. He walked over to the small window beside us to pay his bill, gesturing with a hand swept towards us… he paid for our cappuccinos – just like that! With his limited English he asked “what country?”, and welcomed us, with us responding in our limited Arabic with shukran (thank you) and parting smiles. Just one of the exceptionally friendly encounters we experienced in Oman, which did not resonate to the anonymity of most large cities. There is more variety in the style of dress of the locals in Oman than in the UAE. The Arab women’s head covering was often bright coloured or patterned, the men often wear a turban, and for formal occasions may have a khanjar (ceremonial dagger) tucked in a waist cloth. Indian and other nationalities of expatriates dress in their traditional garb, and cruise ships unload visitors with every style of clothing imaginable, although most adhere to dressing conservatively.
One morning we felt energetic and decided to walk the Corniche
starting at the bustling fish market across the street from our hotel, and ending at the area known as old Muscat – about 8 km one way. The saying that “there is hardly a hilltop without a fort or look-out tower” in Oman is not far from the truth. Along our route we climbed up stairs to the top of one, walked around the exterior of others, or just gazed up at some from the bottom. The route is also dotted with sculptures, parks and fountains.
After a few hours, we arrived at the Sultan\s Palace, comprised of a large courtyard sided by government buildings with shaded archways jutting out. The grounds of bright flowering shrubs and lawn are manicured to perfection. At the end of the complex, behind closed gates manned by armed guard is an ornate structure with blue and gold mushroom pillars – the meeting place where His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said meets with visiting dignitaries. Alas we missed tea with Queen Elizabeth when in London and now we would miss her here – as she was due to arrive in Oman the day after we were to leave.
However, we did get in on some very important Omani celebrations. It was an unexpected bonus when our visit coincided with National Day (November 18) the grand celebration of Sultan Qaboos’ birthday and the 40th anniversary of his reign. Numerous flags fluttered in the ocean breezes and the city was ablaze with lights strung on buildings and along the streets. Government workers were granted a 5-day holiday and at least a day or two for most of the Omani workforce, which thickened the crowds of locals everywhere. This beloved ruler is attributed with bringing modernity to Oman – in the infrastructure, education system, health care, and diversification of the economy aimed at long-lasting stability (agriculture and tourism, as well as their oil revenue). Following National Day the citizens were celebrating Eid, which annually falls after Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). The Eid al-Ahda (Festival of Sacrifice) is a three day celebration to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael for Allah.
While watching a bunch of old timers compete in a heated game of huwalis, which is played by quickly moving stones in and out of dried pockets moulded out of mud (the rules of which we could not even begin to figure out), we met Jerry from the Czech Republic. He invited us out to see some sights in the interior of Oman the next day in his rented car. Having worked in the UAE for the past 15 years, and this being his fourth time in Oman, we were confident of his driving ability with the furious pace of traffic and confusing signage..
Unlike the forts along the coast which are the remnants of the Portuguese occupation of the coastal areas commencing in 1507 and lasting 150 years, the inner forts were constructed by ruling Sultans to ward off other tribes. Nakhal, a refurbished fort built in 1834 by Said bin Sultan, was a fascinating journey into the past with spiked doors to repel battering, and round towers to deflect cannon balls, and gaps where boiling pots of honey were hinged for release over enemy heads. The villagers could take cover in the fort in times of siege. The fort was laid out with a sizable kitchen, sitting and sleeping rooms masterfully constructed to catch the desert breezes. We drove another 30 km to Rustaq Fort only to find a notice on the door – closed from April 2010 for 18 months for renovations. It will probably end up restored as Nakhal, but it was a wonderful opportunity to take outside photos of this fort while still in its state of crumbling magnificence.
Our one and only formal tour was a two day excursion along the coast south east of Muscat and past the city of Sur – the main points of interest being the Wadi (valley) of Bani Khalid, the Sharqiya sand dunes and the Al Jinz Conservation Turtle Reserve.
Wadi Bani Khalid is gaining popularity as a tourist spot, but still holds
the local appeal. After Maroof, our driver/guide, wedged the Toyota Land Cruiser into a slot in the way too small parking lot, we walked a top a narrow concrete wall (which was really one side of a channel to direct the water at times of flooding). At one point an old geezer who was giving some kids a ride on his donkey came past down the middle of channel. I gladly stepped off the wall onto uneven boulders, rather than chancing being knocked off. A half dozen young boys with donkeys called out to people passing – a ride for a few Rial. Other little fellows zoomed along with wheel barrows filled with campers or picnicker’s blankets and lunches, which they had loaded up in the parking lot and transported to the picnic area for a fee.
We soon came upon large pools of turquoise and aqua waters in the midst of shade trees and rocky cliffs. This was nature’s version of a Shangri-la that the best attempts to replicate by man could not come close, even after an expenditure of millions of dollars.
A group of teen boys who were camping treated us to a song and bongo drumming. Families had yummy treats spread out on blankets, swimmers and waders splashed in the tepid water. Around the opposite side of the pools there was a small hut to buy drinks and snacks. The festive atmosphere was contagious. Maroof told us that during the rainy season, a shower of two hours duration would flood this whole area making it inaccessible for a time.
It was then onto some adult size sand hills. Maroof stopped at a garage in the village closest to the Sharqiya dunes and had the attendant remove some of the air from the tires, so there would be more surface on the sand. Soon we were driving on hard packed sand with the occasional skid in the soft drifting pockets. We passed camels nibbling at prickly Acacia trees, somehow reaching the tender leaves. A Bedouin tent came into view. We were glad to see the lady of the tent home so we could have a peek inside and I could mill through her handmade treasures of purses and bracelets – and make a purchase, of course.
A short drive further and there they were, in the perfect light before sunset, gigantic mounds of gold rising upward. We watched 4×4’s go half way up, loose traction, then slip back down. It takes much skill (as well as a 4-wheel-drive) to negotiate these behemoths. OUR TURN! Maroof knew his stuff – and although harrowing from where we sat strapped in tight and clinging for dear life to the handles on the door, we zigzagged with insane intensity, motor revving, skidding, catching another firmer patch, all the way to the top. Whew!
Rick and I got out of the vehicle to run upward to yet higher dunes, until we were at the top of the mega-monster for a spectacular view of the waves of sand undulating below us in all directions.
With everything from our hair right to our shoes filled with sand we climbed back into the Land Cruiser and Maroof pointed its nose downward and we were off with a lot of hooting and hollering and me squealing with the extremely fast roller coaster descent and the sensation of the vehicle doing a frontward flip. We were on flat land again in seconds. Hooray!
Another 175 kilometres brought us past the city of Sur. After checking into the Turtle Beach Resort where we would spend the night in one of their thatched bungalows, we proceeded to the Al Jinz Turtle Reserve for the 9 pm guided tour to hopefully see a few of the endangered giant green turtles (Chelonia mydas) which come to lay their eggs here yearly. The peak season is from June to September when hundreds of turtles come ashore each night. (The annual number of turtles is 30,000.) In November there is a chance to see a few stragglers come ashore to lay their eggs and while at the same time witnessing some newly hatched babies that have been incubating for two months.
Mohammad, our guide, lined us up with 15 other spectators who “inshallah” (God willing) would see this wonder of nature. He conveyed the strictly adhered to rules of keeping voices low, no photos, no wandering away on our own, etc – all geared to the very least disruption to the turtle mom on her important mission.
After a ten-minute beach walk into the night with the full moon and stars to guide us, we stood waiting for our “turtle scout” who had gone ahead to find and report any turtle activity. YES! – an affirmative report! We were escorted over to where a female had already laid her batch of approximately 100 eggs and was toiling to level the sand over the one metre deep pit and then to move several meters away from the buried eggs to hollow out a fake body pit as a camouflage to fool predators. This female was less than medium in size for their species at about 105 kilos and our guide estimated her to be 50 years old. (The average adult turtle is 1.2 metres in length and weighs up to 200 kilos. Females breed between the ages of 37 and 59.)
Another mom, this one a bit larger, had just finished hollowing out her nest and it was a gift to see her in the intimate act of filling the sandy indent with her eggs. And what more could we ask for…..seven newly hatched babies racing on their mini-flippers to their water-world home, hopefully making it before becoming a snack for crabs, foxes, and birds. After making it to the sea, they must still swim for three hours to get past the breakwater, and then there are hungry fish to contend with. Only one of 1000 hatchlings live to see adulthood.
It was interesting to learn that the temperature of the sand determines the sex of the offspring. If 28 degrees Celsius (near the water) the eggs will produce all males. If 29 degrees (furthest away from the water) the eggs will produce all females. In between these points the eggs will produce both male and females, this being the best scenario for survival.
Our guide told us some of the turtles have a GPS imbedded in their shells to follow their migratory pattern, and have been found to have ventured to Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia before they instinctually come back every three years to mate.
We left in awe of the fascinating circle of turtle life we had witnessed – yet another mysterious wonder of nature. The next morning it was back to Muscat, with a few short stops of interest along the way.
All in all, Oman was an incredible experience, from the friendly locals, to the great sights, to the many relaxing and sumptuous lunches and dinners we had along the seaside cafes and restaurants, and at the end of each day finding our way back to our cozy room at the Cornich Hotel.