The Sultanate of Oman on the Saudi Peninsular
Muscat was a quick flight from Dubai and we landed before the crew could serve us breakfast. Here on the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula we were looking forward to life for real in a desert wilderness. No more building for the sake of building like they do in Dubai. In Oman there are beautiful roads, modern cities and the people are well looked after; full medical treatment for 99% of the population as well as a good education. We passed a number of smart new medical centres as well as a fitness centre. The highways and boulevards that head off into the desert are also lined with floodlights all the way out into the dark.
Muscat – the desert city with a modern opera house
Muscat is the capital of Oman. The airport is a few kilometres outside of the city. An eager beaver taxi driver greeted us with an open smile; grabbed our luggage and promised to speed us off to our hotel without even knowing where it was. Always make sure about the taxi fare before you leave. Prices can be up to four times higher than normal if you fail to check up on the going rate. We found this out the hard way and it was not the first time we had paid an exorbitant taxi fare. Travel weary tourists are easy targets when they tumble off an aircraft. It is best to ask hotels, local travel agents or airport staff for advice on local transport. The best option is to take an airport bus if it is available.
Under the leadership of Sultan Qaboose the country has become one of the most stable and well-developed countries of the Arab world during the past three decades. Pictures of him wearing a traditional ceremonial outfit grace every home, hotel and shop. He wears the traditional turban made of a "muske" or colourful cloth on his head and is clad in a white long-sleeved tunic called a "dishdasha". Tucked into the sash around his waist is the curved dagger - a "khanjar". It is a symbol of power and strength and appears on the national flag with two crossed swords. Some of the dagger handles were traditionally made from rhino horn. As South Africans we support the plight of the shrinking rhino population, let alone cruelty to animals. Fortunately most of the daggers we saw had handles made of metal or carved ivory (from elephants?) or what we hoped was a synthetic alternative to elephant tusks.
Muscat is a booming metropolis and it even has a large opera house. International performances include ballet, opera and symphony concerts. They have their own symphony orchestra. The opera house is mostly used for local performances and special ceremonies. The city women are well-groomed and wear colourful scarves that frame their smiling faces. Unlike the Bedouins, they are not all tucked away inside meters of black fabric. But as a visitor it is important to respect the Omani dress code, so cover your wrists, ankles and shoulders. This also helps to protect one from the noonday sun!
Most of the Omani men wear a colourful turban and a spotless long white gown throughout the day. One wonders how practical they are for manual labour but maybe that is why so many Indians and other expatriates work in the Arab states. Over half of the population are foreigners and they come from impoverished areas of Pakistan, India and the Philippines. On the streets, in hotels, shops and restaurants these people serve tourists without really making themselves, let alone you, understood.
We take a walk to the Souk and the Corniche at the coast of Muscat
On arrival we first like to see as much of a new place as we can on foot. In this case we had no choice because public transport in this part of the world is restricted to long bus rides between towns or expensive taxi trips. The receptionist at the hotel gave us directions to the harbour area so we took off along a hot and busy road. We had studied the area on our Google map beforehand but the view from the top had made it look too easy. After trudging around for a few hours and side stepping construction sites and roaring traffic we had to admit that we were seriously lost. We asked a few people for directions, but they did not understand us.
Eventually a small round fort appeared on the hill above the narrow streets. These forts were built to protect the entrances to towns and harbours. At last, the coastline! We found the entrance to the souk or market area. It looked like Aladdin's cave inside, lit with colourful lamps and bedecked with gold, silver and brocaded textiles. Smelling the burning frankincense reminded me of the coffee ceremonies we had in Ethiopia - an overwhelming excoriating cloud of burning resin. But here they mix frankincense with perfume and call it Sheri Luban. frankincense and myrrh are lumps of resin that are collected from the bark of acacia trees that grow in the desert. 2000 years ago frankincense was more costly than gold.
The best rose oil and rose-water come from the mountainous regions of Oman. Fragrant pink roses grow in the cooler climate where there is a modest supply of rain and water from creeks in the desert known as wadis. Rose petals are placed in a steamer and the distilled vapour is collected. It is placed in a ceramic pot to mature for a month. This liquid then undergoes a number of processes to produce a few drops of pure rose oil, explaining why it costs such a fortune. Rose water is a by-product and it is used for cosmetics and for flavouring beverages, cakes and desserts. There is enough rain in the Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar area to produce a fair harvest of fruit, nuts and vegetables.
The souk, like all similar places around the world offers a budget conscious shopper a diversity of clothing, jewellery, spices, sweet meats and electronic gadgets. When no prices are displayed you need to bargain and haggle. I hate this. Merchandise is thrust at you by eager retailers as you walk past (pretending to be invisible.) They shout at and pressurize you into taking a look. "Take a look, take a look. Only looking." Don't make the mistake of asking for the price because some stall owners will not let you go unless you buy the item in question. If you are interested in a specific and costly product it is best to find out what the price is from other sources before going to take a look at the souk.
The Corniche and harbour area of old Muscat
Cool sea breezes drift into the steamy claustrophobic souk, announcing the end of the retail tunnel. We exit under a staircase and face the harbour area. The corniche is paved with natural stone and a red granite wall provides a neat edge to the walkway. It is decorated with panels of etched granite depicting scenes of fishermen, boats, forts and military dignitaries. Wooden sailing boats called dhows and are still being built according to the ancient style made famous by the legends of Sinbad the Sailor. These small sailing craft had once explored the world and traded with silk, spices and precious jewels. We see two dhows in the bay, especially provided for snap-happy tourists.
Above the harbour there is an imposing fortress guarding the harbour. It perches on the hilltop and was built by the Portuguese in the seventeenth century. There are many forts and castles to visit in Oman and they tell the history of this area – being a key part of the spice route from the Far East to Europe. The world’s largest incense burner graces the other side of the bay. It looks like a giant white golf ball and one quavers at the thought of clouds of incense wafting off into the blue yonder. We ate a splendid local meal at a waterfront café and for once, it was not Indian food in an Arab country. We slogged back on foot, all the way over the mountain pass. Out accommodation was a self-catering outfit but only had a stove, a sink and a fridge. When I asked for kitchen utensils I was given a huge cauldron and two spoons. We did not find any grocery shops on the way home but fortunately we could had a full hotel breakfast and they understood what an omelette is.
Sur is down south - the home of the turtles
The next morning we took a bus along the coast to Sur, the second largest city in Oman. We were eager to go diving in the sea of Oman. According to the travel literature it was the best place to swim with turtles and watch them come on land and lay their eggs. It was an exciting prospect to spend the night in a bungalow and watch turtles doing their thing from dusk till dawn. There were reefs where one could see more fish in 10 minutes than in any other place in the world, they said. That is what they said. First of all it was not the season for turtles and secondly the snorkelling amounted to a paddle around a few rocks in a lagoon. There were no dive centres or fins available to rent. There was no shade or anything that could ask us to stay a minute longer.
We drove down past the town of Ras al Had to visit the turtle conservation area. It is a large and very official building. They are serious about protecting turtles and only allow a few groups to visit their sensitive breeding grounds at a time. These turtles had been threatened almost to extinction by local inhabitants who used to butcher them to death and steal all the turtle eggs. The same people who think rhino horn is essential for their dagger handles. The complex was closed because it was not yet the breeding season. We decided to head off in the opposite direction in search of Wadi Shab. A wadi is another name for a river bed and at the coast they are filled with cool, green water. No fins or snorkels required. Open all year round. Entrance: free!
Wadi Shab is really a cool place
We drove along an impressive coastal highway in the blazing desert (with street lamps, of course) for a few hours and arrived at the village of Tiwi. We had to turn off and drive under a bridge and suddenly found ourselves in a ravine. There was a huge expanse of green water and a siding with palm trees and goats to welcome us. But the hiking path along the wadi was closed and swimming was forbidden because it was a source of drinking water. We went down to the beach. It was a huge expanse of pebbles and there were a few caves in the distance. We drove to them and climbed down the cliffs, encouraged by the prospect of lounging around in the shade. But a huge swarm of flies greeted us. They had been dining out on human faeces that were generously scattered around on the beautiful pebbles. Piles of litter made it even worse.
Enough is enough. We drove back to Sur where we had a comfortable room at Hotel Sur. That evening we walked down to the lagoon area and were delighted to see dozens of young men playing soccer – laughing, jogging and training in the cool of the evening. They told us we could see the turtles in the next bay – yes, now, tonight. We walked and walked but found no beach, let alone turtles. We then headed for our hotel, promising ourselves not to get lost again. We got lost after too many turns around small, scruffy buildings but were shown where to go by an English-speaking Omani. We found a restaurant opposite the hotel and tried to find some genuine Omani food. We settled for an Indian curry, skipped across a pile of rubbish and flopped into bed. Next time we will do our homework and at least take a 4x4 vehicle and really do the place properly - and see some fish, turtles and dolphins. God bless Oman.