Apr/May 2005   Travel

Exploring in Oman

by Joanna Spice

For our winter break, Mike and I decided to visit Oman. We live about 15 minutes away from the border but somehow had never made it across. We got our camping gear together and first waited for the weather to settle as it had rained quite frequently and we didn't really want to soak—after all we live in a desert! But on Friday morning, the first day of the celebrations of Eid al Adha, the sky was blue with just a few fluffy clouds here and there so we set off to finally discover if Oman is anything like the UAE.

First, we drove on a great highway along the coast of the Strait of Hormuz through the very green, agricultural region of Batinah. By comparison to the more arid UAE, it was incredible to see green farms for miles and miles on both sides of the road; Fujairah isn't so far from there, but the land can't be as fertile as across the border in Oman because it was a sight for us. Another thing we noticed almost right away was the fact that all the mosques, even some really small ones, had colorful domes and minarets, and often some delicate tilework on the white walls. We stopped first in the town of Sohar, which used to be the most important port of Oman and supposedly home of the legendary Sinbad the Sailor. We didn't stay long, as everything was closed due to the holidays and the siesta, but we walked around the fort and checked out the esplanade along the beach teaming with crabs. The town looked very pretty—clean and sort of "Spanish" with its white buildings and tons of flowers on the avenues and roundabouts.

We decided not to go in to Muscat that day but stay on a beach somewhere. We found a great place called Al Sawadi beach that had a huge sandy beach and the view of limestone seastacks off the coast. There was a big resort there too, but we simply parked a little away from it and set up camp. Some local kids came, cute girls in beautifully embroidered dresses, said hello and offered their recently henna'd hands to us, so we shook hands. We gave them some chocolate wafers, which they were happy to take. Then the sun set and we sat by the fire until it got too cold. It was funny that the idea of sleeping to the sound of the waves seems so romantic ­ but we didn't sleep well worrying that the high tide might come and the water could reach the tent. Mike even got up a few times at night and checked. But the tides cooperated and we slept through until dawn.

We had breakfast in a nearby park, completely empty in the morning, and were approached by a local fisherman with a motor boat who offered to take us around the islands. Not for free of course, but it was reasonable. Somehow the notion of being on a small boat thrown around by waves didn't appeal to me though, so Mike went ahead and I had time to pack our stuff in the car. After that we headed toward Muscat, where we stopped only briefly at a mall to find out what to do to make our cell phones work (we ended up buying yet another prepaid SIM card with some credits—now we have probably about 10 in our collection!). Then it was off to the eastern coast where we wanted to camp somewhere near the water.

Another storm lingered over the Eastern Hajar Mountains, hiding some peaks in the clouds. We drove along a two-lane road surrounded by some pretty amazing mountain scenery until we started our descent toward the town of Qurayat. From there we had to find a graded road that took us through some wadis and hills to the next town on the coast. While there is a new road being built along the coast there, it is not finished and the old inland road was the only way to get to the coast. Our immediate destination was an interesting sight called Bimmah Sinkhole. What happened there was that underground water has basically dissolved the limestone, which then collapsed opening the cave. We wanted to go swimming there and even changed but there were quite a few grungy-looking workmen around because the labour encampment for the new highway had been setup almost adjacent to the sinkhole, and we think the workmen came to the sinkhole to either bathe or just gawk at foreigners. Since I was the only woman around, we decided against the swim. We got back into the car, which after the ride on the graded road lost its air-conditioning, and continued on a dirt road along the coast looking for a good camping spot. There were actually quite a few of them there, but all crowded with the locals obviously camping too during their holidays. We ended up driving all the way to Sur that afternoon and eventually stayed in a hotel, as it was getting dark and we weren't sure where we could pitch the tent for the night. Also, the temptation of a hot shower had gotten too great by then.

In the morning, since the Land Rover dealer was closed, we continued east with no A/C (luckily it wasn't very hot). We saw the fishing port in Sur and the shipyard where people still build dhows in traditional ways—by carving wood. A couple of hours later, we were on the easternmost tips of Arabia, Ras Al Hadd and Ras al Jinz (or Junayz, or Ginez, or a number of other ways of spelling the name in English), which are also famous for being nesting beaches for thousands of sea turtles. Of course, during the day the turtles are smart and keep away from the people, so we had to wait till late evening to try to see any come out of the water and lay eggs. Spotting them proved to be quite a trick, actually, as the best time to see them is in the summer when everyone tries to escape the heat and humidity of the Middle East. At least that's what an old man, who was a guide for the group of people staying at a nearby campground, told us. After a few minutes with the group we decided to climb up a cliff in the dark to have a sort of aerial view of the beach. It was very windy and we did see at least one turtle, but it was too far away to figure out what it was doing. We got back to our tent around midnight a bit disappointed.

Rain woke us up the next morning. It was a light shower, but the wind was still quite strong and we didn't even have breakfast there. We packed quickly (not easy with the tent operating like a sail in the wind) and went even further down the coast until it joined the main road to Muscat. We drove relatively close to the Wahiba Sands, but what we saw was similar to the deserts in the UAE. Later, near the mountains, the rain caught up with us and we were quite pleased knowing that we would have a roof over our heads that night. We had arranged to see Bill and Tammy (Bill used to be the director of the English Language Program at the University of Washington in Seattle) who had moved to Muscat and its prestigious Sultan Qaboos University just before Christmas. We spent two and a half days with them in the end; it was great to see them again, especially in such an unusual place on the globe. During the day, Tammy "worked" as our guide—we went to check out a big souq in Mutrah and walked along the Corniche there, then we drove through Muscat proper and stopped at a stunning hotel called Al Bustan Palace, and the next morning we went to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and to the Amouage perfume factory ("the most valuable perfume in the world"). The mosque was truly grand—the intricate tile and stonework left us speechless. The grounds were immaculate too, and in the alleys, hallways, above arches and on walls there were displays of Arabic artistic trends from the past to present. Doors made of teak, gold-plated chandeliers, Iranian carpets... Check out the pictures to see for yourselves!

Our next stop was Nizwa, a beautiful little town famous for its huge fort and its handicrafts. Again, we often had a feeling that it could be somewhere in the Moorish south of Spain, not in the heart of Oman. The mountains around it provided an even more intense background than what we had seen before. Plate tectonics has surely done quite a job there—massive rock walls showed different-colored strata sometimes at some truly ridiculous angles! Our plan was to see the highest mountain of Oman, Mt. Shams, but the drive took us too long and we didn't have enough time to climb it. We did, however, stop at a plateau nearly 2000m above sea level; we bought a hand-woven, hand-dyed wool rug and then hiked to the edge of a canyon. The view from there was breathtaking—1000m straight below us there was a deep, deep gorge, somewhat reminiscent of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, though not as wide. And yet, at this elevation, we found lots of fossils stuck in the black shiny rock—it was a little hard to believe that that same rock was once the bottom of an ocean…

It was really quite cold on the plateau, so we went down the mountain and down the wadi and camped near a town called Bahla. We had fun staring into the sky before the moon rose and "dimmed" the hundreds of stars. The next day we visited a magnificent fort in Jabrin, once the seat of a powerful imam, now the best restored castle/fort in Oman. Actually, since it was Friday, we expected the place to be closed, but it wasn't. Because we arrived early, we had the fort to ourselves for about an hour and a half, and we climbed towers and enjoyed getting lost in the labyrinthine passages in the fort. From Jabrin we headed west, and in a few hours crossed back into the UAE in Al Ain. We visited a mall there and got back home to Fujairah later that afternoon.

It was a rather short trip overall and we didn't really go very far, but we enjoyed ourselves immensely. It was a great break from our routines and we didn't really think much about work or studies, so we both feel we have managed to recharge our batteries before the long spring semester. We found Omanis very warm and friendly, always ready to shake hands, wave and smile. We also know now that we will need to go back again—to spend more time in Muscat and to climb Mt. Shams!

Pictures Available at: http://community.webshots.com/user/spicefuj


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