A sense of tranquility wraps around us as we gaze at white latticed buildings and mosques wedged between charcoal mountains and the royal blue Gulf waters. The heat of the sun is tempered by gentle breezes. Our walk along the seaside promenade is filled with alluring detours; a stop at the fish market to watch the buyer-frenzy over the day’s catch, a climb up stone steps to forts clinging to the cliffs – remnants of Portuguese rule. My husband Rick and I are in the historic Muttrah district of Muscat, the country’s capital.
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Small restaurants facing the sea serve up local delights. A refreshing jolt of lemon and crushed mint tea is just what we need. Bargaining voices rise out of the nearby souq (market) like bubbles in a hookah (waterpipe), enticing us to enter the narrow streets lined with pots of Frankincense, filmy scarves, curved daggers and silver jewellery. We pause to watch old-timers compete in the ancient game of huwalis, where to mysterious rules the players whip stones in and out of dried pockets moulded from mud. Our rumbling tummies remind us it is time for yet another “shwarma”; yogurt slathered pita bread filled with roasted chicken slivered from a spit.
We are swayed away from this date-palmed paradise with the promise of nature’s bounty in the Sharqiya region. With our guide Maroof we breeze along
Oman’s southeast coast to Wadi (valley) Bani Khalid. After squeezing our Land Cruiser into the minuscule parking area, we are in for a long walk atop a narrow concrete wall (which is really one side of a channel to divert the swirling floodwaters after an hour’s rain). We emerge into a lush oasis with a gigantic pool of shimmering turquoise water. Young boys approach us offering donkey rides for a few rial. Families spread out picnic lunches. Athletic types dive off of sun-baked rocks. We join the less daring locals wading in the tepid water. This natural Shangri-la could never be replicated, even with the expenditure of millions of dollars.
Our next pursuit is the Wahiba Sands. Bedouin men riding camels appear as mirages in the sun’s quivering rays. Their goat-hair tents dot the landscape. We hold our breath as Maroof aims our 4×4 towards a gigantic sand hill, and expertly zigzags to the top. Rick and I gleefully struggle on foot to the crest of another mega-dune and are rewarded for our efforts with a spectacular view of golden waves undulating below in all directions. With everything from our hair to our shoes full of sand, we climb back into the vehicle for a roller-coaster ride down.
Another 175 kilometres brings us to the shores of the Ras al-Jinz Turtle Reserve for the 9-pm guided tour to (hopefully) see a few of the endangered giant green turtles (Chelonia mydas) that come here to lay their eggs. During the peak season of June to September, hundreds of turtles come ashore each night; the annual count is 30,000. It being into October, the reserve’s guide Mohammad says, “Inshallah” (God willing) you will still see a few stragglers come ashore, and you may also witness babies just hatched after their two-month incubation period.”
Following Mohammad into the night under a waning moon and spray of stars, we anxiously await a report from the “turtle scout”, who has gone ahead. Yes! A female has already deposited her batch of approximately 100 eggs. We watch her use her flippers to level the sand over the one metre deep pit. Another female is sluggishly moving towards the sea; her laborious mission completed. Mohammad relates, “The breeding age of females is between 37 and 59 years. These moms are medium in size, measuring under a metre and weighing about 105 kilos. Some measure over two metres in length and weigh up to 200 kilos.”
We could wish for no more… newly-hatched babies race past us on their mini-flippers towards their water-world home. They are at risk of becoming a snack for crabs, foxes, and birds; and if they make it to the sea, there are hungry fish. Only 1 in 1000 hatchlings live to see adulthood. We are elated at having been privy to this wondrous circle of life.
After a night’s stay in a traditional palm-leaf hut, it was back to soaking up the flavour of Muscat for a few more days. Our warm memories of Omani hospitality and the dazzling beauty of this small country in the Arab Peninsula are forever.
– Muttrah district in the capital of Muscat is steeped in history and bursts with tradition.
– There are a variety of tours from Muttrah/Muscat into the Sharqiya region to a wadi, the Wahiba (a.k.a. Sharqiya) Sands and Ras al-Jinz Turtle Reserve. All three can be easily seen on the same one day, but the late night turtle viewing will require an overnight stay near turtle reserve; tour package can include accommodations ranging from luxury hotels to budget resorts with barasti (palm-leaf) huts.
– Turtle-watching etiquette includes no photography at nesting sites.
– From Muscat the most scenic route to these sites is along the Qurayat-Sur coastal road to Sur, a port city of 73,500 famed for its boat-building industry, and two forts, and beaches.