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Sand, Sea and Souqs

For what seemed like hours we watched the shadows crawling up the beach. Their dark silhouettes barely visible, we were forced to rely on sound rather than sight, straining to hear the scraping of sand and exhausted sighs. Frustrated at not being able to see anything, I had a childish urge to get closer and was finding it difficult to contain my disappointment at not being able to do so when the Park guide said, “Ok we go.”

Go? Go where? I felt cheated, angry that we had come all this way just to see some shadows! But what I did not realise was that when turtles are laying their eggs it is possible to approach from behind without disturbing them. Thus in the black of the night I floundered across the beach in search of an unsuspecting female, trying to avoid the holes dug by turtles who had come ashore on previous nights. These holes, from which tank-like tracks led back to the sea, were more akin to craters on a battlefield and despite the guide’s whispered warning “Beware of the holes” I stumbled into one.

Incredibly the large female nearby was unperturbed by the commotion of me falling over and we were able to walk right up behind her. We got so close that I could see one egg after another drop into a large egg chamber that she had dug out of the sand. Each egg was perfectly round and somewhat smaller than a chicken egg. It was fascinating to witness and I found the whole experience to be profoundly moving, especially as the turtles were so clearly exhausted from their efforts. I felt privileged to be able to witness such scenes. That was until my guide began an inane chime of “Bing bong” as each egg emerged. Given that each turtle lays over one hundred eggs in a clutch, his chiming soon became unbearable and sadly I was forced to leave.

Notwithstanding the guide’s running commentary, it was a memorable night that I spent on the Ras al Hadd peninsular. Ras Al Hadd is a spectacular area of coastline that is one of the world's largest green turtle nesting grounds and has an area of protected beach set aside for their conservation. Conservation of the beaches as nesting grounds is crucial to the survival of the turtle as a female always returns to the beach where she herself hatched.

Oman’s conservation programmes include far more than turtles and in fact Oman is one of the most rigorously green governments (a bizarre concept in a desert state) with a fascinating array of animals thriving in its protected areas. Sanctuaries have been set aside for the rare Arabian oryx, the aforementioned giant sea turtles, Arabian leopards and sooty falcons to mention but a few. Further south along the coast, Barr al Hickman is an ornithologist’s haven with an abundance of birdlife on its salt flats. Oman’s offshore waters are home to some twenty kinds of whales and dolphins.

If you, like me, thought that Oman was a Gulf state - desert interspersed with oil wells - then think again. As recently as the Sixties Oman was an inward-looking backwater. The gates of the capital Muscat were locked at dusk each night, there were only three schools in the whole country, no newspapers, no radio, no TV and only one hospital. But in 1970 Sultan Qaboos came to power in a bloodless coup and deployed Oman’s new found oil wealth to help to transform Oman into a country with an impressive road system, public electricity and water even in the more remote areas, schools and hospitals throughout the country. Thus today Oman is a smart, clean and safe destination with all the usual infrastructure of a modern state and an impressive environmental record to boot.

However Oman’s modernisation has not brought universal benefits. Nizwa has long been known as Oman’s cultural and historic city but due to some over-zealous renovation, the epithet is now out-dated. In a heavy-handed attempt to preserve the old fort, all its character and atmosphere has been plastered over. Where once stood a charming fort made of centuries old mud bricks now stands a poor modern day imitation. And to make matters worse a display of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs lauds the achievement of the renovation.

Sadly it is not just the fort that has been the unfortunate victim of the twentieth century builder’s plasterboard. The souq has suffered a similar fate though thankfully it has one redeeming feature – it’s people. Whereas the fort was populated by tourists, the souq was vibrant and still very much a part of Omani every day life. Omani men browsed the souq looking smart in their light blue or white dishdashah (a long garment that covers the body from the base of the neck to the ankles, with long sleeves) and their ornately embroidered caps called kuma. Normally the men also wore khanja, the highly decorated curved dagger worn on silver belts, and sometimes they even carried muskets, but neither were in evidence in the market - these had to be handed in case the bargaining became too heated.

There was a definite art to the bargaining of Nizwa souq and judging by the number of young boys I saw walking dutifully behind their fathers it was a skill that had to be learnt young. The young boys, brought to the market to be instructed in the art of bargaining, patiently watched Dad’s every movement, trying to take it all in, trying to concentrate on the job in hand. However it was clear from the sideways glances towards the hubbub of the animal market that they were more enthralled by the cacophony of noise, crowds and strong smells emanating from the cattle, goat and camel market.

It was this market that really brought the town to life and more than made up for the disappointment of the fort. It was awash with people (mainly men) and animals, space being at such a premium that children were shinning up palm trees to get better vantage points. Buyers haggled frantically, hands gesticulated wildly, heads nodded approvingly, and voices shouted their interest as the livestock was paraded around a ring. Perhaps ‘paraded’ is the wrong word as it implies some sort of order to the chaos and confusion that reigned. Obstinate camels roared their unhappiness and strained against the urging clicks of their owners, excited bullocks dragged their struggling handlers into the crowds and goats stood by bleating in disgust.

In stark contrast to the frenzied scenes of Nizwa market we next headed towards the emptiness of the Wahiba Sands. We, or to be exact Fareed, who was my guide/driver throughout my stay in Oman, drove south-west along route 33, which like all the roads in Oman was immaculate and wonderfully free of traffic. At the small oasis village of Al Mintrib we turned off the road and Fareed got out of the 4WD to deflate the tyres – reducing the tyre pressure makes it easier to drive in the soft sand - before we headed out into the Wahiba Sands.

The Wahiba Sands were described by a 1985-1987 Royal Geographical Society study as “a perfect specimen of a sand sea”. To me the shimmering sands and undulating dunes were thrilling yet intimidating. Intimidating because I had heard of Bedu poems and stories that spoke of the hardship suffered in the hostile environment of the Wahiba Sands and had read Wilfred Thesiger’s ‘Arabian Sands’, his dramatic account of his journey through the unparalleled Empty Quarter to the south. Perfect the dunes might have been but they were also the perfect place to get lost and I was grateful for Fareed and his unerring sense of direction.

Having put some pressure back into the tyres, we left Wahiba and carried on to the town of Sur, a pleasant fishing village with white washed walls. The shipyards of Sur were famous throughout the ancient world and traditional dhow building still takes place, albeit with rivets and bolts holding them together rather than rope as was traditional. Each morning crowds of Omani men gathered on the beach to barter over the night’s catch of shark or tuna. At night the beaches around and to the south of Sur host a very different crowd – those come to study and watch the turtles. Whether it be the fascinating spectacle of turtles coming shore to lay their eggs or baby turtles hatching and making their frantic dash to towards the sea, it is worth the trip to Sur.

Whatever you come to Oman for - the wildlife, the lure of the desert or the breathtaking views from Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) - it is the people that will catch your imagination. That was certainly the case for me, especially when I met Fareed’s family. Arriving at the house I took my shoes off at the front door and was ushered into a family room that was bare except for a threadbare carpet and some cushions around the wall. It was a functional room that lacked warmth, which could not be said for the welcome I received from Fareed’s family. The whole family greeted me with warm smiles and embarrassing generosity, even the shy cousins and nieces who were a little overwhelmed by the whole affair. I empathised with them.

Inevitably I was asked many questions about life in England, where I lived and whether or not I was married. When Fareed’s sister discovered that I was engaged to be married, I was inundated with questions about English weddings. Having answered as best I could - my fiancée would have been much better suited to this line of questioning - I asked about Omani weddings. I was surprised to learn that the groom not only has to pay for the reception but also has to give his bride 2,000 Riels, approximately £4,000, for dresses and clothes. But before any female readers get carried away by this invitation to retail therapy, it is forbidden for Omanis to marry foreigners.

Dinner itself was a sociable affair, as we all knelt on the floor dipping into an array of dishes that ranged from curried chicken to sweet cakes and the omnipresent date. We ate with our hands, or rather Fareed’s family did and I merely tried not to make too much of a mess. Despite the fact that everyone was starving because Fareed and I had arrived later than expected, nobody would start a dish until I had tried it – part of the traditional Omani politeness and hospitality towards guests that Wilfred Thesiger refers to in ‘Arabian Sands’.

After coffee, which was black and bitter – the English word coffee is said to be derived from the Arabic word kahwah - Fareed’s brother Mohammed joined us. With square beard and shaven upper lip, Mohammed had a humourless air about him and I was not surprised to learn that he was a mullah, a Moslem priest. However, I was surprised to hear that in his spare time he was a driving instructor – a daunting prospect for any learner driver. We started talking about his family and he told me that his father had twenty-two children.

“He must be strong?”

“He eat dates. Dates make strong. No need for viagra,” Mohammed replied, grinning wickedly. Once again my stereotypes had been confounded.

Just before I was about to leave, Fareed’s sister entered the room, carrying a tray laden with perfumes and a small incense burner. I knew that it was customary for both men and women to burn frankincense, passing their clothes through the smoke to perfume themselves, but I had not expected to be included in such a ceremony. At first I declined but Mohammed made such a song and dance about standing over the incense burner and letting the frankincense waft up his dishdashah that I could hardly refuse. So I was duly doused with perfume and left Fareed’s house smelling of roses, both metaphorically and literally.



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