Oman Revisited, 2012
Still savouring the memories of once powerful forts basking in the Oriental sun and the heavy, bewitching scent of incense smouldering on clay burners or cardamom and cloves mixed with pleasantly aromatic Omani coffee, we have embarked on another voyage of discovery on the Arabian peninsula. Twelve months after our tour of the Emirates, which included a foray into the fjord landscape of Musandan, and around three and a half years after our first organized visit to the country, we have dared to organize the trip ourselves and rely on our own sources of information this time. So the real protagonists in this tale are Willi, whose driving skills proved more than equal to the task he had set himself, and our trusty, rattling Toyota Prado. My own task was that of putting together the background information we would need to get the most out of our adventure.
Bewilderment and the shortest of moments of panic caused me to catch my breath as we emerged into the arrivals hall at Muscat airport, just as it had done three years ago. A vast wall of turbaned, capped or veiled heads peered over the barrier in the tall, humid building as taxi drivers and tour operator representatives and business colleagues as well as complete expatriate families fought for space and attention.
The parking space in front of the airport building was chaotically full, but there was not a shuttle bus in sight. I asked my way through the crowds and eventually found a hotel driver. He did not have us on his list of guests to be picked up, but drove us the few kilometres to the Golden Tulip at Seeb anyway. Within minutes we had completed the formalities in the huge, shiny lobby and were ushered into a comfortable room. The night was well in progress as we slipped under the duvet in the somewhat icy room, but the flick of a switch was enough to tame the air conditioner and we woke refreshed and eager to begin our adventure.
This began with a return to the airport to take over our rental car. Not expecting any hitches, we wandered into the airport bookshop to purchase the Oman Off-Road guide that we intended to use as a map, then bought an Omantel SIM card for our mobile phones and stopped to install them. Only then did we look around – in vain – for a representative stand of the car rental company we had booked with. There was no such stand! A kind employer of a rival company advised us to phone, which we did. There was no reply, but then it was considerably earlier than we had planned and it seemed sensible just to wait.
Sure enough, in time we were approached by a very young man, who hardly looked older than sixteen or so, from the rental company we had booked with. He, however, was looking for clients with a totally different name. The young man disappeared to make several phone calls on his mobile, then returned to say we should drive with him to the office in town. After an interminable procedure involving excuses and paperwork, we were given a very brief instruction course on the Toyota Prado, the empty water bottles still littering the back seat were whisked away and we were advised to fill up with petrol as soon as possible as the tank was nearly empty.
Muscat and the Capital Area
It took Willi just a couple of minutes to acclimatize to the new dimensions of our huge 4×4, a veritable monster of a vehicle, but we found a filling station immediately not far from Sultan Qaboos’ beautiful mosque, which we encircled for a couple of photos, and were soon sailing down the urban motorway to the other side of the city. Our route to the new Shangri-La resort on Al-Jissah beach, some 30 km south of the capital, took us past the fantastically huge Royal Opera House, alongside the pretty Qurum Park and the cliffs of Qurum Heights, through the rugged mountains on Ras al Hamra, where ugly oil tanks lurch in the distance, and down into the port at Mutrah. Here, we remembered having visited the fish market and the old souq on our first visit. There were a few cruise ships in the harbour and tourists, most of them far too lightly clad, were milling along the promenade.
Via an impressive, pink-coloured gateway, we turned into Old Muscat catching a glimpse of the Sultan’s palace before the road wound through the sleepy Sidab district, where the simple, dingy-looking houses contrast so heavily with the glamour of the neighbouring area. The barber, tailor and coffee shops, the laundries and carpenters’ businesses at each side of the road were closed. At Al Bustani roundabout, we were not too sure which road to take, so this was a wonderful opportunity to ask for directions in the sumptuous reception of the extremely luxurious Al Bustan Hotel and use their posh toilets to the sound of classical music. The extremely polite but friendly reception staff were eager to oblige and directed us back to a picturesque roundabout displaying a dhow.
The road leading to our resort is known as the scenic route. A brand new wide road, it winds round light-coloured mountains and precarious-looking boulders, affording stunning views onto a bright blue sea at unexpected intervals. Bandar Al Jissah would only have been accessible by boat only a few years ago. On this secluded beach, nestling into the mountainside, lay the elegant resort Willi had booked us into.
Shangri-La Resort is luxury pure. We changed into clothes more suitable for the hot, humid climate and decided to spend the rest of the day acclimatizing to it. This entailed scouting the premises to find the perfect restaurant solution, not an easy task considering that there were about eight to choose from. There was also time to relax on a sunbed, equipped with a cool box full of mineral water, before the sun disappeared behind the mountains. By five o’clock, it had turned quite chilly. We spent the evening in Al Tanoor restaurant enjoying the seafood buffet, which offered everything from lobster to oysters and mussels, with sushi and smoked fish, fish curries and salads, freshly grilled hamour fish and king fish, washed down with a pleasant Australian white.
After the excesses of the evening, we agreed the following morning that a visit to the sports centre might be appropriate. The perfectly equipped gym provided treadmills for both of us and we felt less guilty about tucking into an excellent breakfast by the poolside afterwards.
On our way to the Al Rowdah beach to watch the Muscat Regatta, we made a spontaneous decision to drive in the opposite direction to Yiti beach, which had been recommended in our guide book. The road to the beach passed several labourers’ camps, rows of tents or prefabs for the expatriate workers from India and its neighbouring countries. Today was a national holiday, so the roadside was full of Asian men traipsing the three kilometres or so to the town of Yiti, their long shirts and trousers billowing in the breeze. Their destination was clearly the mosque. The beach, however, was populated by resident Indian families playing ball on the sand, taking a dip in the sea or quietly picknicking in the shade of their vehicles, which were parked directly on the sand. There were several barasti huts on the sands, all unoccupied. A German chap was also resting in the shade of his rented vehicle, whilst his wife and child were enjoying the water. We stopped to pass the time of day with him, then returned to Yiti, where the voice of the local imam was being projected through the entire village. A handful of donkeys wandered from somewhere in the mountains onto the roadside. Goats moved between the stoney hills and alongside the large puddles of water that trickled down from the mountains. A totally enshrouded woman hushed from one house into another, urging her children forward. A group of white-clad Omani men walked through the town towards the mosque, which we passed a few minutes later. The forecourt was absolutely packed with seated Muslim men, their flipflops waiting for them outside the building. A typical Arabian village.
How different was the atmosphere at Al Rowdah, about 15 kilometres away, where the sailing boats had just set sail for Khasab, in the far north of Oman. Sponsored by the Bank of Beirut, the event was handled professionally and the atmosphere almost European. Banners and leaflets announced the Muscat to Khasab Race, the highlight of the event. Doctors were offering visitors a complimentary blood pressure check. Families dressed in European attire were enjoying club sandwiches and burgers in the cafes on the harbourside, despite the heat. It reminded us of the expatriate community in Kenya.
Our main destination for today was the weekend market at Al Wadi al Khabir, the wide valley. This turned out to be slightly disappointing, though we had obviously chosen the wrong time of day. It was mid-afternoon, when most local people would presumably be enjoying a nap. Under a huge tented roof, stalls of fruit and vegetables and clothes and shoes, but also household articles including second-hand television sets and CDs, electrical parts, blankets and mattresses were manned by male vendors. Most of the customers were also males, many of them Indians. The few women who were interested in the overgowns, dresses or prudish nightgowns that dangled from hangers in segregated compartments were covered from head to foot in black abayas or colourful dresses with long scarves wound across their heads and over the shoulders. Occasionally you would notice a woman with her face covered, but that was the exception here. We stopped to feel the quality of dress material or to admire the funny little embroidered shoes with their turned-up toes, but there was little here to really interest us.
On the other hand, the Lulu Hypermarket next door could provide us with the bottled water that we needed, so we dived into the cool interior of the market. Willi had to leave his rucksack at the lockers in front of the shop, where a young lady with henna’d hands gave us a locker key. I shyly asked if I could photograph her patterned hand and she agreed, explaining that the dye was already four days old. She told us that she had been to a wedding. The young ladies at the cash desks were heavily made up and dressed in fashionable, but long-sleeved and ankle-length uniforms. With twenty-four bottles of water safely stocked in our vehicle, we returned to our resort for a rest by the beach until the sun set.
Washed and changed and ready to experience Mutrah by night, we later headed for the souq area, following roads in the town area that were illuminated like German towns in the Christmas period. We were lucky to find a parking lot right on the cornice, which was full of mainly male pedestrians, many of them sitting under the pretty, ornate hexagonal Arabic-style canopies. Totally unlike European men, the Omanis and the Indian expatriates like reclining on their sides to enjoy the coolness of the evening breeze, their heads resting in one hand. Others tuck one leg under their seated bodies, leaving the remaining leg dangling over a discarded flipflop on the floor. Some sit in a haunching position with both knees up, carefully arranging their clothing to hide their undergarments. We noticed that many of the local men were hurrying along to the mosques dressed in black, so I plucked up the courage to ask a bespectacled gentleman why. He explained that this was the anniversary of the death of a local historical figure and the black dishdashes were a sign of respect.
The souq itself was pleasant, not too full and the salesmen not too pushy. We took our time to wander through the alleys, stopping to touch a pashmina or admire an Omani chest or smell an oil or a perfume. There were also khanjars and coffee pots and cushion covers and saffron and tunics and even belly-dancing attire. Some of the tourists were embarrassingly undressed. Inside, the heavy scent of Omani perfume announced the prescence of the covered Omani ladies before you actually saw them hurry past. Outside, where the souq has long since spilled out into the streets beyond the main road, Omani men were seated in groups by the fountain or on groups of benches. The singsong voices of several muezzins pierced the hum of busy shoppers and gaily-lit minarettes led the faithful to their mosques. We were totally immersed in the culture of 1001 nights!
Only a few hundred metres from the souq, opposite the old fish souq, the blue lights on the roof of the Hotel Marina announce the prescence of a tiny rooftop restaurant specializing in fish. It was here that I ordered seafood mezze and grilled king fish, whereas Willi settled for a steak. The food was not as good as the view over the harbour, where we could see that the old fish market had been displaced while a new one is under construction. We remembered the piles of colourful fish stacked on the floor three years ago and the characterful faces of wrinkled fishermen swallowing cola from cans or speaking in guttural tones into mobile phones produced from invisible pockets and wondered whether the new souq would ever be so fascinating. Before we returned to our vehicle, we made a detour to find the bait al beranda, a historic building famous for its huge verandah, which formerly housed the British Council. Beautifully restored, it has become an extremely modern museum. In the dark alley between this house and the main road, we literally bumped into the German we had met briefly on the Yiti beach the same morning.
Still feeling fit and appreciative of the coolness of the evening, we stopped to revisit Sultan Qaboos’ palace in Old Muscat. All lit up between the two forts perched on the cliffs either side of the building, the whole area had a mystical touch at night. We seemed to be alone in the streets, but as we approached the ornate gates of the palace grounds, we met three beautiful young ladies, a student and two working ladies dressed in black abbayas with the fashionable sequined borders. They were most communicative and eager to practice their English, so we had quite a long conversation in which we learned that one of them, Zenab, had worked at the turtle research centre that we were to visit the following day.
The white marble of the steps and arches that line the straight road leading to the palace shines particularly bright in the profuse electric light and the contours of the arches take on a third dimension. There was no-one around but we felt perfectly safe and decided to look for the bait franzes, another historical building, that for generations served as the residence of the French consulate. Our walk took us past a part of the palace that we would not otherwise have found, past a wide moat and into a quiet road from which the dimensions of the palace could really be appreciated.
Back in the car, we drove through Sidab once again. What a difference to the sleepy area we had passed the previous day! At half past nine in the evening, the iron shutters in front of some of the shops were open, lights revealed plastic chairs around tiny bare tables in the coffee shops and irons on counters in the laundries. Men were sitting in groups in front of the houses and children playing in the rubbly spaces between the single storey dwellings. In short, the little town was totally alive. We, on the other hand, were beginning to feel the strain of a busy day and were glad to down a Heineken by the pool before retiring.
Sur and the coast
Following an early breakfast, we set off back towards Muscat to join the motorway at Ruwi. The industrial side of Ruwi, not the prettiest of places, was severly jammed, so it took us almost an hour to leave the city. In contrast, the motorway was quiet. We were surprised to spot European tourists cycling with presumably heavy backpacks up the motorway hill in the late morning heat!
As soon as we could, we left the motorway for a coastal road and almost fell upon the Bahmah sinkhole by accident. A solitary goat greeted us in the empty parking space. On the other side of the gate that leads into a sculptured garden with ample picnic spots and the deep hole filled with shimmering turquoise water we had a little chat with an Omani tour guide and driver from Zansibar. It took us only a couple of minutes to reach and encircle the sinkhole, so we decided to go down the steep steps that take you 20 metres down to experience the hole from below. The salty water that permeates into the hole from underground was full of those tiny fish that do a pedicure for you if you let your feet dangle into the pools for long enough. Like a couple of kids, we amused ourselves by listening to the echo of our voices bouncing off the massive natural limestone walls.
Having spent more time here than planned, we decided to pass swiftly past Fins Beach, where dazzling white sand and rocks contrast with the deepest blue sea, and hurried on to Sur. The town was extremely quiet and looked deserted. A new bridge now connects the town to Ayja, which we had not visited on our last trip. Here, having circled past houses with wonderful old facades, we climbed up to the top of a lighthouse to have a look at the Sur peninsula from afar. A few fishermen sat crowded together in the shade of the lighthouse and a single boy in a white dishdasha threw a couple of pebbles into the water, looking terribly bored.
The promenade on the other side of the town was slightly more lively. A small crowd of young men alighted from a minibus and watched us amusedly as we strode across the road to photograph the many goats that were the only strollers. Picking our way through the tiny mounds of goat dirt, we watched them nibbling at the incredibly green grass surrounding the blue-tiled pavilion that is the emblem of Sur and admired the view across the water looking onto the lighthouse and the watchtowers that we had just left. On the shaded terrace of a modern coffee-shop that looked closed, a Muslim spread out his prayer mat and began to pray.
We were unsure how passable the road leading to Ras Al Jinz, our final destination for the day, would be, so we did not linger in Sur. We had been to the Ras Al Jinz Scientific and Visitors’ Centre there before, but this time we had booked a room for two nights at the Centre itself. We were given a warm welcome and informed about the rules for turtle- watching and given the key for our windowless room. (There WAS actually a tiny window in the room, but this could not be opened.) The room itself was basic but more than adequate and dinner was actually rather good. But before dining there was time to visit the extraordinarily interesting museum, which not only describes the life of turtles in general and the endemic greenback turtle in particular, but also shows and explains archaeological findings from the Umm Al-Narr culture, which I found fascinating. The museum is equipped with the latest technology and excellent audio-guides and laser effects and is pedagogically one of the best I have ever seen.
After a simple but delicious meal including chicken curry, we got ready to follow our guide Saoud the 4 kilometres to Site 1. That evening there was a moderately full moon, so it was easy to pick our way across the beach at 9 pm. Photography is not allowed here at night. November is not a good breeding season, but we were very fortunate in being shown two turtles in the process of dropping their eggs into the nests they had just dug out and covering them with an incessant, fascinating flipping of first the back flippers, then both front and back ones, pausing only from time to time to regain strength. During this time, Saoud’s assistant Hamid had discovered two nests full of hatchlings. He carefully uncovered the top sand with his hands and we watched, enthralled, as a hundred or so tiny black turtles came stumbling out, falling over each other and totally confused by the moonlight. Concerned that these hatchlings would not find their way to the shore, Hamis gathered them up into his dishdasha and dropped them gently into the sea. The second nest contained approximately the same number of hatchlings. Later, we returned to watch one of the adult turtles finish the burying of her eggs, leaving a false trail for predators, and return, exhausted, to the sea.
Although we intended getting up for the morning tour at 4 am, we could not resist sitting outside the centre enjoying the mild evening air with a glass of gin and Seven-Up until midnight. So our night was extremely short! And the early rising disappointing, because the guides who had left to check the beach called off the tour owing to a lack of turtles. At 5 am, visitors are allowed to check the beach for themselves, so that’s just what we did, eager to photograph the sunrise over the sea in the event of no turtles being there. But we DID see lots of tiny black hatchlings scampering across the sand to the shore. And later, someone spotted an adult who had just laid her eggs and was busy covering them. Keeping our distance, we were able to get several good shots of the turtles and the sunrise to boot! Despite the strong smell of dead, dried fish, we thoroughly enjoyed our early morning beach experience and were hungry by the time we reached the centre for a modest breakfast.
The head waiter in the restaurant was from Cochin, so it was natural that we should chat to him about our India experiences. He asked whether we liked Indian food and I told him that I try to cook Indian style at home, mentioning curries and mushroom mattar. Minutes later, he returned to our table to say that the cook would be preparing two special dishes for us that evening: mushroom mattar and prawn curry.
Having left Sur the day before without really discovering its centre, Willi suggested we go back and continue today’s drive from there. We passed the dhow docks that we had visited on our last trip. The town centre was full of predominantly men but also women, locals and also tourists from the cruise ships. It was loud and bustling and full of exotic smells, mostly of a culinary nature. We found a parking spot right in the shopping centre, where I was amused to find a male beautician’s shop, and we spent half an hour or so looking round, resisting the wish to take photographs.
The drive from there to Al Kamil was a little monotonous, along new tarmac winding through dark mountainsides with the occasional green oasis. Not entirely convinced that we were on the right road, we pulled up alongside a lone coffee shop to ask the way. The shop was empty but half a dozen or so young men, obviously out of work, were seated on plastic chairs outside. They were friendly and started laughing and joking when we arrived, though not one of them spoke English. The owner arrived, a man of our own age, and kindly pointed to the direction we had been driving in, while the others called him a “donkey”, the only English word they knew, or so it seemed. In sign-language, he asked if we wanted to have a drink before we left, but we declined, intending to call in at a coffee shop we knew nearer to Wadi Bani Khalid.
Alas, this shop was closed! Past the town, which seemed much larger than three years ago, we carried on to the beautiful Makhal Pools. These are natural pools that have formed around caves at the end of a falaj in a delightful date oasis and have changed almost beyond recognition. Stepping stones have been laid to provide a variety of paths across the flat streams and at the point where tourists and male locals can have a dip, a café with toilets now presides over the bathing areas. I treated myself to a lemon and mint drink the colour of poisonous green here, while, tempted by the good odours emanating from the cooking pans, Willi had a chicken biryani. The café was patronized by the occasional Omani driver and many Swiss and German tourists. Walking below us along the falaj, there were a couple of young local people with young children, the women covered from head to foot.
Refreshed, we intended to investigate two small towns that we had missed last time on our way back to the turtle centre. In the first, Jaalan Bani bu Hassan, we had read that there are several charming mud buildings. A first drive through the town proved disappointing, so we pulled up outside an opulent house off the main road to have a better look at the photographs in the guide book. At the same time, another Toyota Prado also stopped and the driver asked us in very good English if he could help us. He knew where the old buildings were but it was obviously not easy to explain the way. He introduced himself as Khalid and told us he lived in the large house and suggested that we come in for coffee, then he would take us to the buildings. I would have loved to have visited his house, but we were due for the second evening turtle tour that evening and wanted to get back to the centre before night fell, so we declined his offer. Kahlid, dressed in a red turban-style scarf, plump in a brilliant white dishdasha, wispy hairs sprouting from the new beard on his chin, turned out to be an English teacher. He and his wife, hidden behind a pair of sunglasses, accompanied us to the old mud fort. Khalid then got out of his car to say goodbye and presented us with a gift of pears and bananas, which he had obviously just bought. Thankfully we were able to return his kindness by offering him some toffees that we had brought for such “emergencies”.
Unfortunately, the mud castle was closed, a phenomenon that was to follow us throughout our stay in Oman. The magnificent building stood photogenically glowing in the slowly setting sun. A group of friendly but slightly cool young men sitting in the shade of the forecourt pointed out the best position to photograph from. After a few snapshots, we continued to the next town, Jaalan Bani bu Ali, where there was supposed to be a most unusual mosque. There was a large mosque not far from the main road and we asked a young man if this was the one we were looking for. The young man turned out to be deaf and dumb. nevertheless we showed him the map and he indicated the direction. We thanked him and he grinned, giving us a little bow.
It was slowly turning dark and we had a long stretch of coastal road to cover, so we decided to try to find the mosque on our way through the town the following morning. The road towards the coast was full promise and authentic, backward rural life, but there were no women to be seen anywhere. Deserted Bedouin camps in the form of dilapidated makeshift housing that reminded us of the many slums we have seen suddenly appeared on the sandy plains. The sun disappeared behind the mountains to our left as we drove northwards to Ras Al Jinz, but in the dusk we could make out herds of camels and many vehicles at Ad Diffar, a few kilometers before our centre.
Sure enough, the kind Cochin chef had cooked those special dishes just for us at dinnertime! So it was with a very full stomach indeed that we once again followed our guide, Nasser tonight, to watch the greenback turtles. Nasser was even better than the guide we had had the night before and was able to show us the nesting and the hatching once again. After a gin and Miranda outside, we slept like babies!
On day six of our Oman adventure, we were to head back down the coast on the road we had taken the evening before and following the road to Al Kamil, turn westwards into the desert. Willi had surmised that the herdsmen we had seen the night before could have been camel traders, so we kept our eyes I open around Ad Diffar. Indeed the place was full of Omani men and their animals and a signpost to a very nearby airstrip led to the supposition that there might have been a camel race.
Grabbing our cameras, we stopped at the side of the road and sided up to a couple of men who were leading their camels away from the scene. We asked if we could take photos and to our surprise, they were only too keen to be photographed. Encouraged by this, we crossed the road to where scores of men, mainly older ones, were resting in the shade of their pickups and other vehicles. There were cardboard boxes containing food and rubbish, plastic bowls into which water was tipped for the camels to drink from and green leaves were tied in bunches in the back of the vehicles for the animals to eat. Some of the herdsmen were already riding off on their camels, leading others on ropes.
It became apparent that everyone was delighted to have their photograph taken. In each small group, the oldest man would be introduced to us and posed in front of our cameras. Suleiman Al-Moohjid, for example, a white-bearded man with light, watery eyes and a gentle face, who wore a beige coloured dishdasha and a red-checked scarf in the Emirate style. He carried a plain wooden staff. Suleiman Al-Matushi blinked uncertainly into the sun, his khanjar simply tucked into his plain leather belt. Jumeh, on the other hand, was a proud, wiry man with a silver khanjar that looked very expensive indeed. Despite his years, he stood as erect as a young tree in sunglasses, a coloured scarf wrapped round his head and another round his waist, partly concealing an ornate belt. The two Salems, a middle-aged one and a young one, were sitting on a hillock after watering the camels. The younger Salem held a colourful crotcheted nuzzle-bag in his hand and now and again he made a clucking noise with his tongue to calm the animals, many of which were agitated. Everyone was so kind and friendly and none of the men seemed to have a problem with my female presence. Someone pushed baby bananas into our hands. Behind them and in between them, camels stepped up and down, they, too, seemingly posing for our cameras. Willi and three further tourists who had pulled up in front of our car moved easily amongst the camels.
Considering that nobody spoke our language and that my smattering of Arabic is limited to about a dozen phrases, it is surprising that we found out that they had staged a camel race and were due to take part in a further race in Sur in three days’ time. After much time, I also managed to obtain the address of one of the elders, so I can send him some pictures.
As we progressed along the coastal road, we seemed to be moving slowly back towards the middle-ages. Women, if they appeared at all, flitted past like dark shadows huddled against the walls of their very basic houses, their abayas billowing in the wind to reveal the brightly coloured embroidered hems of their pantaloons or their long skirts. Without exception, their faces were covered. These were fishing communities and on the shore, an incredible number of small boats rested on the sand. A huge herd of goats crowded together in the long shadow of one of the taller houses. We reached the town of Al Ashkara on the tip of the desert, which is reputed to be a surfing paradise for the young people of Dubai, who stay in the newly built youth hostel, but it was very quiet and even the taxi drivers appeared to be driving themselves along the shore for their own pleasure. A little girl in a green dress lay reclining on a mattress outside one of the tumbledown houses, dreaming.
Desert days and Desert Nights
It was really hot when we reached the town of Jaalan Bani bu Ali once more, in search of the unusual mosque. We asked an Indian in the town and he was able to give us clear directions straight away. But first we passed a marvellous but crumbling castle, that must have been magnificent once upon a time. The mosque was round the corner, a unique construction surrounded by palms with 52 instead of the usual one single minarette, each concealing a ventilation duct apparently. Non-Muslims are, of-course, not permitted to enter a working mosque, but the gateway happened to be open and one could see the falaj that conveniently runs through the courtyard for absolutions.
Before entering the Al Wahiba desert, we needed to find a garage to have some air taken out of our tyres. We stopped at a filling station devoid of petrol and were told to look for a certain workshop near a mosque in Al Wasil. The town was deserted and next to a shining white new mosque off the main road were only badly deteriorated loam buildings, but there was no sign of a garage. We found one on the main road in a parade of shops including a tailor’s workshop, which I went into, to have a look round. Meanwhile a mechanic from Sri Lanka deflated our tyres and advised us to follow the electric wires in the desert to find the camp. After only 11 kilometres on the slippery track, where a few camels strode peacefully at our side, we arrived at the luxury Desert Night Camp and were welcomed with wet towels and the traditional coffee and dates.
The luxury tents at Desert Nights have very little in common with real Bedouin tents. They consist of a large, air-conditioned bedroom and a generous air-conditioned seating area with a fully equipped bathroom and two terraces with sandbag seats. Ours was situated next to a water tank on the outer area of the complex, where loud quads passing by annoyed us rather. A central dining area with a separate bar and an airy reception complete the complex. Our first action was to switch off the aircon, for only a polar bear would have felt comfortable in our tent! Late in the afternoon, a complimentary sundowner was offered by the resort. We piled into a jeep and were taken for a fast drive up the hill overlooking the resort, quite hair-raising when you do it the first time! At the top, we were given halwa, the sweet, sticky Oman desert and soft drinks and left to wander along the dunes and photograph the setting sun. I found it quite unnerving to walk along the sharply defined edge of the dunes, but enjoyed the peace and quiet immensely.After a “proper” sundowner in the bar, we changed for a windy barbecue dinner featuring delicious fish dishes and surprisingly good sweets.
We had decided to do nothing the following day, to recover from the unusual experiences of the past week and gain strength for whatever was to come. “Nothing” meant writing my travel notes and reading in my case and jogging 10 kilometres along the desert track followed by a camel ride in Willi’s. The day started with an early morning glass of hot water, which was definitely salty and even saltier waffles on the breakfast buffet. A couple of very young Omani boys in holiday attire rode proudly past the camp on camels. We treated ourselves to a plate of samosas for lunch and were truly rested when it came to the sundowner ride in the afternoon. This time we were a little more adventurous and wandered off to a more secluded spot, returning to the camp down the very steep hill on sliding sand on foot. When we reached the bottom, a gigantic, silvery full moon had risen on the opposite horizon, shining across the desert sand. Very romantic!
The camp was full of Omanis that evening, out to celebrate the National holiday. There was a table of VIPs, ladies with the confidence of the rich and high-born, one of whom had her head completely bare. There were also several families with very polite children who spoke English amongst themselves and ran around in a very civilized way. Their fathers sat at one low Omani-style table outside, whereas the women were inside round a European-style table. We had also seated ourselves at an uncomfortable, traditionally low table and regretted it rather.
Three Traditional Markets
The sand was cold as it sloshed into my sandals when we crossed the resort to breakfast next morning. We had to make an early start in order to reach the women’s market it Ibra before it closed. But by the time we were ready to leave, the sun was already up and burning. One of the staff, a man from Kerala called Bwala, asked for a lift. His English was rather poor but when we stopped at the garage for air, he pointed to a vanload of Bedouins and told us they were very bad people and that the other Omanis were afraid of them. We dropped Bwala off in Ibra half an hour later and looked around for the traditional womens’ market. We asked at a hotel and at a filling station and we asked a porter at the wali’s office, but nobody seemed to have heard of it! By following a sign to the hospital, we eventually found the souq, which now sprawls way past the original site outside the hospital to where male vendors are selling carpets and bedding and pots and pans and perfumes.
Menfolk are allowed into the souq these days, though they are not supposed to purchase anything. A large sign at the end of the market advises tourists that photographing the local stallholders is not permitted. It is easy to understand why men are not particularly welcome here. For a start, a large majority of the stalls sell fabrics and haberdashery and particularly the thickly and expertly embroidered bands that are sewn onto the bottom of the local pantaloons. This is a woman’s world. Other stalls sell quite sexy underwear and nightgowns, another area in which Arabian women prefer to be amongst themselves.
Apart from the tourists, including a few thick-skinned men who dare to walk through the market in short trousers, causing the women to tut-tut them, the locals were indeed mainly women. Bedouin women dressed in very brightly coloured dresses and veils or in narrow trousers with beaded anklets below long tunics and always wrapped in several shawls. Beads and sequined glistened on rainbow-coloured prints. Some of the women wore burquas, the traditional black Omani masque that covers the nose and forehead, revealing vivacious, frank, but sometimes skeptical eyes, often edged with kohl. Some of the ladies had yellow paste on their faces. Truly traditional women wore patterned sock-like shoes with hardly any sole. Other Omani women wore the traditional black abaya, occasionally with black veils that revealed only the eyes. Babies were carried in shawls or on flat mattresses in arms. All the women were responsive to my smiles and the younger ones were even eager to practice their English.
When I crouched down to admire some brocade spread out on the floor, the saleswoman motioned me to photograph the lovely braids. I smiled at two young ladies in black bearing a plastic bag full of red, sequined material and asked them what they had bought. They explained that they had bought fabric for a wedding dress since one of them would soon be getting married and pulled the fabric out to show me. I asked if she would then have to wear a burqua but apparently not. Later we met these two ladies again, this time carrying a six-week old baby. We were introduced to all the family!
Under a covered area that was the original place where Bedouin women sold their braids and household produce to pay for the treatment at the nearby hospital, brassieres and knickers and scarves made in China hung from the ceiling. There was a strong scent of incense that wafted across the market from the saleswoman’s burner. Some ladies were selling honey and date syrup in plastic bottles or herbs and infusions. Huge balls of material were heaped on the floor. The souq was crowded and beads of sweat could be seen on most people’s brows, but it was not loud and not at all smelly.
Once outside the market, where two pretty camels were waiting in a pickup on the road, we left the busy street in slow traffic that allowed me to discreetly take a few pictures and went in search of Ibra castle. We never found the castle but ended up in a derelict area on the edge of an oasis, where two old men sat in the shade of the palms with a Thermos flask. We got out to explore the village and a loud and vivacious old lady in traditional Bedouin dress tried to speak to us, smiling and gesticulating like mad. Round a corner through a picturesque archway we met two photographers from Muscat. One of them had been born here, in Al Minasifeh, and was preparing a presentation for the ministry of tourism, convinced that if the village could be renovated, this could bring a little prosperity to the village. The photographer was very pleasant and told us that the walled village had once had 8 gates that were always manned and an impressive water supply in all the houses.
Behind closed wooden doors and shuttered windows it was clear from the clinking of pots and crockery coming from inside that many of these houses were still inhabited. At the end of the narrow footpath an Omani-Indian family living in one of these broken-down buildings stepped out of a taxi and they stopped to pass the time of day with us. The Indian mother taught me the difference between the masculine and feminine word for “fine”, her husband introduced us to their children. Such an interested and friendly folk!
Another attempt to find Ibra castle brought us to a similar village further down the main road, where many fortress-like houses caught our eye. Again we asked a young man about the oldest building and he claimed it would be perfectly fine to go and have a look at it as it was no longer inhabited. So it was rather embarrassing when the owner of this building turned up, though he spoke to us very kindly and was very pleasant.
Our guide book had advised that one should visit the oasis village of Al Mudayrib, in the centre of which there was an ancient souq. The sprawling red building crumbling to pieces on a small hill certainly was not recognizable as such, but we were keen to have a stroll along the falaj in the afternoon heat. It was 32°, but the walk under the palms accompanied by the peaceful sound of trickling water and singing Eurasian rollers that flew past in a flash of blue was delightful. A small boy turned up and washed his teeth in the warm water full of tiny fish with his finger, dangerously near to the women’s natural showers and toilets, that empty directly into the falaj, it seemed. The gardens here were not only full of date palms but also flowering shrubs. A few cut-down date trunks lay smouldering near the roadway leaving a pungent smoke. We were in another world, a world which in its own way was quite idyllic. Before we left the oasis, we had a brief look at the watchtowers and an ancient mud-walled house that now serves as a heritage centre and was, of-course, closed.
The road to Nizwa, where our hotel was situated, took us past the dramatic contours of the Jebel Akdar, beautiful in the late afternoon sun. Close to our destination, we made a detour though the date plantations in Birkat Al-Mauz, which turned out to be a much larger town than we had thought and was beginning to liven up for the evening. We were ready for a shower and a good dinner and remembered that the Golden Tulip offered a good selection of mezze, so we agreed to leave further exploration of the town for another day.
Not for the following day, however, since we had to breakfast at 6.30 so that we could visit the camel market in Sinaw, some 110 kilometres away. We were lucky to find a parking spot very close to the market despite the heavy traffic and literally hundreds of pickups that were transporting camels and goats to and from the market. The sharp smell of goat and camel dung as well as dried fish hit us when we left the vehicle. Immediately a short wrinkled man of our own age with a graying beard and carrying a rifle stopped us, insisting that he recognized us from another visit. It is true that we had been here once before, but we believe he mistook us for someone else. Willi posed for a picture with him all the same. A middle-aged man came to translate for us, recommended a wadi that we should visit, then offered to give us his phone number in case we should need any help. This was a typical reaction of the friendly people who helped us on our trip.
At one end of the huge open hall that is the souq there was a small tiled fish market. It was around 9 am but most of the trade had already taken place. In the centre of the hall, men shook hands and women, many of them wearing the traditional Omani mask here, stopped to chat or pull a modern mobile phone out of their overdresses to read a text message or drag a newly acquired goat along on a leather tether. Around the hall, camels tied to the porches were nibbling at bunches of fresh green leaves. As I stopped to take a photograph, one nuzzled at my shoulder, scaring me to death. Another rubbed its face against Willis shoulder. There were also a couple of cows in the market place, one of which had strange inwardly curved horns, some calves and several goats.
After diving into a gents’ tailors to buy a cap to replace the one Willi had left at the hotel, we stopped to admire an elderly man’s silver sword hooked onto a silvery belt. Willi was invited to try it. With its beautifully worked silver and a handle of horn it would have cost some thousand dollars, we were told. We were surprised to find another women’s souq here further up the road. The fabrics interested me since I wanted to buy the fine cotton lawn that you can’t easily find in Europe and which is so comfortable to wear in climates like this. I often had to ask other customers for help. The first lady I spoke to was a Bedouin with a red veil and dress, dark eyebrows and a nose-pin, who spoke no English. In sign language and by touching the fabric of each other’s clothes, we made it clear to each other that they were made of the same material. I then looked for well-dressed customers in abayas, who seemed to have broader education, to help me ask about fabric widths and prices and so on. A packet of printed lawn containing 1,5 metres cost around 1,20 EUR. Everyone was so helpful.
The walk back to our car took us back to the camel market, which had thinned out considerably. Buyers were trying to cope with leading away several camels tied together, stubborn animals who were clearly strong and potentially viscious. At the fish stalls, a vendor proudly held up a fine hamour for the camera. Much of the fish, including chunks of fresh tuna that looked delicious, was literally piled up on plastic sheeting on the floor, alongside stacks of dried shark meat.
Behind the market, we had seen the remains of the ancient town to take a few snaps. On the way back down, a young man engaged us in conversation and it was evident that he was keen on practicing his English. He invited us to his house for coffee, but we both needed a loo and had to refuse.
We had seen directions for a public toilet on the main road from Nizwa. They turned out to be in a “nature park” at Wadi Adam. The attendant there insisted I should use his personal toilet, as there was no water there for flushing. He obviously lived here, his belongings stacked neatly on the floor with some clothes folded in a cardboard box. By this time I was thoroughly enjoying mixing with the local people and wasted no opportunity to go up to Omani ladies and smile and try out my few miserable phrases in Arabic. My efforts were always rewarded by at least a smile. At this wadi, there were many families enjoying a picnic and so we deliberately left our camera equipment in the car as we went for a stroll.
One of the family groups of about 30 people, 5 families, the women and children on one side and the man on the other called us over shouting “kale, kale!” I joined the ladies, remembering to take off my shoes before I settled onto their woven carpet, while Willi went up to the men. The young ladies were very excited, introduced me to their grandmother and one of the mothers and those who didn’t trust themselves to speak to me stood in the background giggling. The children were rather reserved, but some of them were brave enough to sit beside me for a photograph and a hare-lipped baby sat on my lap before she decided to cry. Of-course, they asked first if I minded having my photo taken. Then the young girls bombarded me with questions, wanting to know where I live and how old I am and how many children we have and so on. But I was equally inquisitive and found out that they were from the desert town of Manah, which I believe is also where the Sultan lives. When I complimented the young girls on their clothes – they were all wearing long tunics over long dresses with matching scarves in bright colours – they explained to me that this was the modern way to dress in Oman. It was lovely here, with large pans bubbling over log fires and children running round with small wooden skewers of meat. I was offered coffee with cardamom served in a tiny cup and fat, syrupy dates. Brushwood was stacked up for the fires and at the side of the mat, an elderly aunt was washing her feet from a huge plastic container.
We had been given a basket of fruit at our hotel and now looked for a quiet spot to eat it in. Not far from this picnic spot, there was a sign for a camel racecourse, which we decided to investigate. Despite this being a public holiday, there was no one in sight here, but the roofed spectator stand looked just the job for our lunch. It was cool and airy and in the middle of nowhere. We looked onto a the straight track that the camels would race along and imagined what fun the Omanis would have here.
The fruit was enough to refresh us and we continued on to another old rural town full of mud-walled buildings that was perfectly lit in the bright sun. All along the roadside the male population waved or shouted friendly greetings in English and a smartly dressed man in his dishdasha and Omani hat invited us to have a bite to eat at his house. There was still time to climb up the steep but short hill at Birkat Al-Mauz to take a view of the oasis and the magical rock formations beyond. On a flat roof in the distance, two ladies were hanging up washing to the sound of cocks a-crowing and the high-pitched voices of excited children at play. All was calm and it occurred to me that you don’t often hear sounds like that in Europe.
Before driving into Nizwa town later that evening, I had a rest by the poolside while Willi jogged on the treadmill in the icy gym. It had clouded over and was cool and peaceful. The town, of-course. was full of life particularly round the souq. The meat stands had closed but the fish vendors were selling off their wares in pre-packed plastic bags, watched by hungry cats and immigrant workers looking out for a bargain. The fruit and vegetable vendors and the small cafes were still doing business. We had a walk behind the souq in an area full of banks, where gold and silver jewelry and fabrics were on display in brilliantly lit shop windows. The families shopping here were of the wealthy sort, the ladies in discreet black overdresses.
On the way back to our hotel for dinner, we looked into the Falaj Daris Hotel, one star less than ours but very attractive, with tables set round a pleasant poolside. We made a mental note of the huge Lulu hypermarket on the edge of town and hurried on to diner. This evening we decided to order à la carte, with the usual variety of mixed starters followed by mashwi mushakal, a lamb and chicken grill and deserts from the buffet. The evening air was pleasant, so we had another drink at the shisha bar, listening to Arabian music from a bazooka-type instrument.
Our third market destination was the cattle market in Nizwa. We were amazed to find raindrops on the car and huge puddles on the wasteland at the side of the road on our way into town, which was extraordinarily busy. It took us a while to find a parking space. The market itself, at the side of the main souq, was larger and much busier than we had remembered. The goats were being dragged round the circular enclosure when we arrived. There were no flies at all, just the smell of goat dung. Older men with walking sticks were casting an expert eye over the animals from a raised circular platform with steps in the centre, but it was mainly the Bedouin women on the outside of the ring who would jerk open a goat’s mouth to check for disease or raise its tail to examine its behind for parasites.
Suddenly the goat sale was finished and the bulls were being brought in. Strong, mad bulls that the womenfolk tried to avoid. Two masked ladies gently pushed me aside as a bull was being jerked into the centre on a rope. We spent a few minutes smiling at each other and having a good look at each other and exchanged a greeting, then we noticed that a weak baby goat tethered to a railing behind us kept falling down. It did not belong to either of the ladies apparently, but one lady gently eased its head out of the noose to allow it to sleep more comfortably. Later, when it felt strong enough to get back onto its feet, she slipped the noose round its tiny hoof and tightened it.
Getting trampled on by a crazy bull was not my idea of spending a day at the market, so I decided to move out of the way to a place outside the arena. Here I got talking to 14-year old Mohammed, a very polite, lean juvenile with a few whiskers on his upper lip. He was rather self-assured but not cocky as he explained that he had Wifi at home and was on Facebook and Twitter. His father was blind, he said, and nobody in the family went out to work. His mother, “Ma”, a determined, tall, well-built woman, handsome rather than pretty, wearing a black abaya and a blue and white scarf around her head and shoulders, had just bought a goat. As a pet, insisted Mohammed. One of about 14.
We moved round a bit till we could get a snapshot of the bearded men on the central steps. A lady sat nearby on a mat with a goat at her side. Another fished a mobile phone out of an invisible pocket and began to cry excited guttural tones into it. The masked ladies I had been talking to crossed over to the main souq to do their shopping. We followed and came to the bird stands, where canaries and budgerigars and pigeons were on sale in cages and peacocks in bags! We also admired the Omani chests, worked with metal and khanjars in picture frames, carpets and silver belts and jewelry. It always fascinates me in this land that the men draw out of the inside of their dishdashas enormous fat packets of loose banknotes, fastened with a rubber band at the most, and count out the money they are spending in full view. Outside a shop selling eathernware jugs and pots, two young Omanis were posing for a photograph, so I clicked my camera, too.
Back at the car park, an Omani reversed into my open door, causing a severe scratch to his vehicle but thankfully no damage to ours. Obviously not amused, he tried to push some of the fault onto me, but there was no way I could feel guilty about having left my car door open!
Tanuf is well-known in Oman for its mineral water – its name stands prominently on millions of plastic bottles. There is, however, the old town of Tanuf which, when you walk around its ruins, transport you into another world. You imagine the ruins to be middle-aged, yet it was destroyed as late as the late 1950s by the British Air Force who were aiding Sultan Qaboos during the civil war. Beyond the ruins you can enter a pretty wadi for a few miles, passing a collection of shacks as poor as any slums I have seen on a small hill, until the road suddenly stops. Before the end of the road, we saw an old man stretched out in a ditch, still carrying his stick. A couple of old cars were parked here, one of them with its engine running, and a local family was hanging around. They were waiting for the rest of the family to descend the rubbly hill, to set off for town, I suppose. Two ladies and a child stumbled down the stoney path, the elderly woman clutching a torch in one hand and a stick in the other. We spoke a few words of greeting and they urged us to go up the hill to visit the village. The path was dreadful, rather steep and consisting only of large stones and pebbles. An ugly wired fence prevented you from falling into the wadi below. We walked about 1 km until we could see the “village”, not more than 2 awful loam buildings with no electricity and obviously no water. We could hear the sound of young people’s voices and there were banana trees and date palms to be seen, but the place was terribly depressing and we left as quickly as I could navigate those terrible stones!
The canyon at Jebel Shams, the tallest mountain in the area topping 3000m, was on the agenda for the afternoon. The mountain road itself was much longer and had more bends than I remembered. It was very windy up there and the clouds looked rather ominous. On the way, an old man with a strong earthy smell stopped us to ask for a lift, and while he was getting into the car, a younger one also hopped in. The two spoke no English, but they spoke Arabic none stop all the way. Before we reached the Jebel Shams heights, where we intended to have a bite to eat, the older man signaled to us to stop and left the car, inviting us to have a coffee at his home first. We felt that this was perfunctory and declined politely and had instead a rather nice but simple buffet lunch for an inclusive price of 5 EUR! At the canyon it was windy and cold, though the thermometer in the car registered 14°C. Groups of Emirates were camping in tents here and the last of the tourist vehicles left while we were photographing the huge abyss, careful not to step to near to the edge of this breathtaking canyon. The first few drops of fine rain fell as we were walking back to the car and within minutes, it was pouring. We stopped to give a lift to the younger man we had picked up earlier, feeling sorry for him in the rain and he advised us to engage a low gear on the steep, muddy road.
At the bottom of the mountain we made a detour to revisit Al Hamra, whose three storey loam houses are as old as 300 years. There are no pavements as such here and we found the old town pretty run-down and dirty. The only sign of civilization was a team of footballers who had given up their game and were walking home, drenched.
Only a few kilometres from our hotel, the rain had formed a rushing stream across the road and police in the car parked at the roadside were warning people to make a detour along the motorway. So it was dark when we arrived back. We met two Swiss ladies that had stayed at the same hotels as us and agreed to dine with them. Willi had chicken and rotis while I enjoyed a fish tikka made from hamour.
The next morning, we slept later than usual, glad not to have to hurry off to another market. On the way to the pottery town of Bahla, we made a short trip to the hypermarket where we stocked up on drinking water and I bought a couple of tunic tops. There is a wonderful, gigantic fortress at Bahla, built in several generations, which apparently has 132 watchtowers. It is currently being restored, by Tunisian workers apparently, who bake the clay bricks and pull them up to the huge walls by hand. We parked the car and walked round the town centre looking for old potteries, in vain. While we were peering into the window of a closed pottery shop, however, a dark-skinned man with a slightly pocked face appeared, and phoned the number on the door to summon the shopkeeper. He wanted to buy the typical water jug that is hung outside your front door to refresh your visitors. Of-course he wanted to help us and we told him what we were looking for. He immediately ushered us into his Lexus and drove us a couple of kilometers outside the town to a pottery that he knew of in the middle of a picturesque oasis. There was nobody around, but we had a look round the workshop with him, admired the two kilns and the stacks of jugs and crockery that was waiting to be burnt and said we could easily walk back to the town. He insisted on driving us and then offered us a drink in one of the local cafes. We were beginning to feel guilty about always refusing these kind people, but it is not easy for a European to accept such open generosity.
Our next stop was at Jabreen castle, now a charming museum, that we had actually seen before whilst renovation work was being carried out. Now the museum is fitted with modern air-conditioning and new toilets. Apart from giving a very good insight into the old Arabic way of life, the castle is wonderfully photogenic.
So was the white Jebel Kawr range that lined the motorway that we took to Wadi Damm, the place that had been recommended to us in Sinaw. It clouded over rather and we were sure we would be driving into heavy rain, but the road encircled the mountains, that became sandy in colour, and although the summits were in dark, threatening cloud, it stayed dry. We left the motorway and carried on along small rural roads looking for the beehive tombs at Al Ayn. They soon appeared on our left, 18 tall burial mounds made of unbroken stone without any mortar, dated at around 3,000 BC, dazzling in the sun against a slatey sky and the backdrop of the lacey-topped Jebel Mischt. Wonderful!
The tarmac road came to an abrupt end a few kilometres before the wadi began. It was getting late, but we reckoned we could safely make it to the first of several pools. To access the second and most impressive pool, you had to use a rope to help you climb anyway. The walk was very pebbly, with large striped slabs in black and cream and brown shades. Water gushed out of the rocks at unexpected places and formed tiny streams and large puddles. Vegetation was sparse, but tufts of grass and even the odd leafy tree had forced their way into existence in this strange but lovely stone desert. Unfortunately, the Arabs have not yet understood how much more beautiful nature can be if everybody takes home their rubbish. About ten minutes’ walk away from the pool, the it became necessary to clamber over tall rocks, so I gave up and waited for Willi, who returned with a lively friendly group of Egyptians who were working in Dubai and camping in tents at the wadi. We balanced with them along the low falaj wall on the way back.
To return to Nizwa, Willi chose a different route and one which will stay in my memory for years to come! The road was smashing to start with, brand new tarmac through a wild and wonderful mountainous landscape. It stopped at a large red warning sign which announced that the road was under construction and not fit for public use, so motorists were driving at their own risk. Anyone else would have turned back at this point, but Willi pushed on boldly. The uphill road became very steep and the surface increasingly worse, but when we began to descend, down an even steeper and very narrow track, there was nothing but rubble under our wheels and we both turned very quiet. In fact I was so scared that I forgot to record the drive on my camera. But even bad things come to an end and at the bottom of the mountain, verdant green pastures replaced the hostile rock.
After a lamb biryani, we sat outside at the shisha bar for a while and took our photographs on our phones like a couple of kids. One of the Omanis who were enjoying a surprising amount of beer on the next table came over to take a better one. The Nepalese waiter talked to us for a very long time about the sad fate of his own poverty-stricken land and the state of Oman. That put things in perspective for us!
The last mountain range we had planned to visit was the Jebel Akdar, for which a 4×4 is a must. We were not due at our next resort until the afternoon, so this was a good opportunity to explore Birkat Al-Mauz more deeply. We parked outside the plantations and walked along the wadi gardens. It was hot and peaceful. Cocks were crowing to each other across the compounds and there were birds everywhere. The acrid smell of a charcoaled palm trunk, still fuming, irritated our nostrils. The houses here were mainly relatively modern but there were dilapidated mud-walled buildings, too. At one of these, carpets hung over the low walls on flat roof whilst an old and rusty ventilator clung to a crumbling outside wall. A male voice could be heard on a radio from within. In the street where we had parked the car, some of the men folk were walking around in their underwear, a total contrast to the very correct attire of most Omani men.
We would have liked to have visited the Imam’s Summer Palace in the town, but this was closed for renovation. So we pushed on in low gear up the steep tarmac road. The mountains, on a clear day spectacular, they say, were hiding behind thick, black cloud and before we reached the top, an hour later, the first thick drops of rain came splashing down onto the windscreen. Sahab Hotel must be a dream resort on a hot summer’s day, but in the rain it was cold and uninviting. Fanny from South China gave us a fairly warm reception, but we had trouble with the credit cards and had to help ourselves to the coffee and dates. We had booked a balcony view room, which gave a splendid view over the hotel garden and the terraces and valleys below, but our room was cold and the weather very disappointing.
The bowl of soup I ordered in the restaurant, a mesdamese or bean soup, helped to warm me up. Willi had a chicken satay snack. Then we pulled ourselves together and drove further up the mountain to where the posh tractors and other modern machinery on the Sultan’s farm could partly be seen beyond wire meshing. Here, the temperature sank to a mere 9°C.
One of the most pleasant ways to spend your time up on the Sayq plateau is to do the “four villages walk”. However the stoney ground would have been slippery from all the rain, so we decided to visit the four villages, famous for their rose plantations and pomegranate orchards, by car.
We started at Diana’s Viewpoint, a chasm that can be viewed from a military post not far from our hotel, which Lady Diana found particularly captivating. Even in cloud, the green terraces of Al Ain were stunning on the dark rock and the villages looked neat and tidy from our viewpoint further uphill. By the time we reached the village that was furthest away from the hotel, Bani Al-Habib, even the men walking about had woollen shawls and even blankets pulled around their heads and shoulders. The village itself seemed unspectacular, but we carried on through the drizzle to find a mud-walled settlement nestling against the side of the mountain. We had learned the local word for rain – mattar – and repeated this to a local gent in a yellow polo-shirt with white scabs on his face and head. He managed to tell us in very broken English, that this area has the advantage of seven months of bliss when the rest of Oman is sweating. At As-Sirayjah we left the car and walked down a steep street to view what our guide book describes as “particularly lovely rose terraces”, but it was almost dark and we were rather disappointed.
That evening, rain water had seeped through the balcony wall into our bathroom. The waitresses were wearing thick, black woollen winter coats and an effort was made to warm the restaurants with inefficient electric heaters. The service was pretty awful, but my chicken kabuli and Willi’s chicken biryani were very good and helped to revive our spirits. Before sneaking under wonderfully warm but light duvets on our very comfortable bed, we had a gin and Miranda and consequently a good night’s sleep.
Two nights had been planned at this hotel, but we had decided to cancel the second night and carry on to the coast north of Muscat. At 12°C, next morning was still cold but the cloud had lifted revealing a staggering green belt of green on the mountain terraces. We snaked back down the mountain highway and were happy to discover that Birkat was warm and sunny. In order not to waste too much time, we took the motorway to Muscat, leaving it only at the town of Iski to drive through the pretty oasis. It occurred to me that the wealthier Omanis had beautiful villas, but that the high walls surrounding them for privacy would deprive them of any ventilation in the yards and courtyards. Next to the motorway, we often noticed extensive pools of cars, presumably at pickup points for people travelling to the capital together. The journey passed quickly, with tall, majestic slopes in pastel shades to the west and short, sharp, dark, jagged mountains to the east.
Fortunately for me, our road took us directly past the Amouage factory. Although I do realize that Amouage produces the most exquisite and expensive perfume in the world and I know that their perfumes are really too heavy for the Western world, I had read that visitors are welcome to visit the factory and did not want to let this fine chance pass by! It took us a while to actually find the entrance and when we did, we were told by rather snooty, self-assured young ladies in black, both wearing a great deal of make-up, that the factory was closed for an inventory that day and we would not be able to be shown around, but were welcome to browse round the showroom. The elegant showroom was more than enough for me. At a low table, stacks of tiny china cups and pots of coffee with plates of dates were waiting for real customers. Starting from around 90 EUR per 100 ml., this perfume is too expensive to risk buying for someone else, but both Willi and I tried a couple of the lighter fragrances and came away with two tiny free samples each.
For a larger part of the route north of Muscat to Barka and further north, the motorway is currently being widened and flyovers being built, so the rest of the journey that day was trying for Willi. Our resort lies outside the city and is quiet, especially in low-season, very pretty and relaxing. So once we had settled into our very large and pleasant suite, we spent the rest of the afternoon lying at the poolside, where we shared a lemon and mint drink. There were so few guests that the restaurant was no longer serving buffet meals. We ordered chicken skewers and a fish and vegetable tempura for starters, followed by a rack of lamb for Willi and a mediocre poached hamour with orange salad for me.
For the next morning we had planned a circuit that would take us to three different fortresses. Close to the first one, our driver and guide, Ali, had taken us to a quite place with hot springs, where we had seen children leading donkeys and old men with machine guns wearing strings of bullets across their chests. Authentic Oman. What a change there was there now! The narrow, winding oasis path was as pretty as before and we were alone when we pulled up near the wadi. A woman dressed in the modern style of matching dress and shawl was walking graciously beneath the trees on a dry path balancing a huge bundle of fresh green fodder on her head. A sprightly man with a fine white beard and stick clambered over the stones in the wadi with the alacrity of a mountain goat and continued on at a brisk gait. We easily found the springs and a shaded picnic table where Ali had treated us to an impromptu picnic snack. Just as we were dipping our hands into the hot water, a coach load of American tourists from one of the cruise ships stopped and poured out of the vehicle. Their guide, a Nigerian strangely enough, ordered them to sit on the flat stones by the water, take off their shoes and let the tiny fish give them a pedicure. The sprightly old Omani gent, who approached the springs to wash his feet, clearly objected to the flood of tourists in this otherwise quiet and idyllic spot. There were public toilets that I hadn’t noticed before, squat pans with walls covered in tiny flies that seemed to hop rather than fly. As we were leaving the oasis, yet another tourist bus pulled up. What a pity that tourist guides sometimes lack sensitivity about where they take their customers to!
Nackl castle was not on our programme this time as we visited the castle thoroughly on our last visit, but it looked so grand against the bright blue sky, that we could not resist making a photo stop here. A strange wailing sound, clearly a traditional song, came from within the walls. The male voices reminded us of Massai songs.
Looking for a little adventure, Willi looked for a turn-off to Wadi Abyad, thinking we could bash our way through a little water. However the wadi was well full and a water tank in front of us had already got stuck, so we turned back, content with the view of luscious green palms on the banks of the wadi. A toilet stop was also needed again and we knew of reasonable loos opposite a mosque near Rustaq. The mosque is situated next to another hot spring, where a falaj provides showers, now modernized. There was a lot going on here, men turning up in cars with towels slung across their shoulders, passing in and out of the showers and popping into the mosque. This activity made me uncertain whether I should enter the spring area, which has now been accommodated in a chic little garden complex. A man in overalls beckoned me to go into the premises, showing me that only the mosque itself was out of bounds for us tourists. While we used the loo, a herd of goats passed by, bleating most piercingly.
The new town of Rustaq now has a number of impressive modern buildings, but it was the old town with the newly renovated fortress that interested us. Alas! the roads were very badly flooded and literally tons of stone and dirt had been washed down the mountainsides and into the river from the heavy rains of the day before causing havoc. Plastic debris had wrapped itself round lampposts and trees and huge piles of stone and branches and sand had been provisionally scraped to the sides of the road to let the traffic pass. A sign apologizing for any inconvenience also informed us that once again, the castle was closed for maintenance. This was almost becoming a joke! It was early afternoon and as we stood photographing the castle, bus loads of school children, the girls in black with white veils and the boys in white dishdashas and Omani caps, waved out of open windows crying “How are you?” with a very rolled “r”s!
Infected by the joy emanating from the laughing faces of these bubbly, friendly children, we consoled ourselves with the fact that there was still one fortress left to visit. They say that Al Hazm was the prototype for all the castles in the region built around1780. It was closed, but unlike the other castles, still attended. A hospitable Hamoud Al-Majani invited us in for coffee and dates and gave us a lesson on coffee etiquette in Oman. He explained that the Omani host will continue pouring coffee into his guest’s cup until the guest shakes the cup from side to side to show that he has had enough. It would be very impolite of the guest to have more than three cups. And it is considered bad manners not to hand the cup directly back to the host. He explained that around 40 sorts of dates are grown in Oman. Then he went on to correct Willi on his pronunciation of the word “mattar” and taught us the word “bucher”, meaning “fine”. Meanwhile the armed watchman Salim Al Salmaneh posed with Willi in front of “the nicest door in Oman”. I could have spent the whole afternoon here, watching the cat leap around the flowering shrubs and listening to the trickling of water from the falaj, that crossed the courtyard. But we didn’t want to importune these men and left after about 20 minutes for the coast.
The fishermen here spend most of their time in shacks directly on the beach. We were allowed to photograph a father with his son, who told us that they worked fished from 5 to 10 pm, going out as far as 10 km from the coast, mainly catching king-fish and hamour. There were also lobster cages further up the beach. The fishing families lived in lowly one storey buildings on the other side of the road with rusty metal bars at the windows, broken windows, many of them, with faded wooden shutters. The beaches were sadly full of rubbish, the things that people have no use for like old mattresses with broken springs. Garages are also often found built directly on the beach in a row that spoils the view of the sea. The men and children could be seen playing football on the sand or going jogging. Family groups, especially of older people and woman and children, sat on the ground in front of the simple houses, sometimes on mats.
Further up the coast, we dived into Al Sawani Resort, which is known for its diving facilities and was full of German tourists but not our kind of hotel. On the public beach, which looks onto a thread of tiny islands, there were many groups of local people picnicking, apparently not disturbed by the noisy quads racing up and down the mud flats. We were approached by an insistent, wrinkled fisherman who wanted to take us on a boat ride. A row of jetskis stood waiting for someone to ride them. And a man with two ladies motioned us to join them for coffee on their picnic mat.
As it was getting dusky, we thought it would be a better idea to stroll through the town in Barka. I must admit that we got stared at rather. Nearly dark by now, the town was coming to life. We were impressed by the number of shops. Tailors shops predominated, but there were sweet shops and shoe shops and shops selling household supplies and electric items. The meat and fish souqs had closed and so had the castle, white against the dark sky – permanently by the look of things. The old town was rather dirty and smelt of fish. But as we entered the new town on our way back to the resort, it became cleaner and large malls and supermarkets and huge clothes stores advertising winter sales replaced the small traditional shops.
Lamb rojanosh was on the menu that evening – one of our favourite dishes!
One of the difficulties caused by the roadworks going on in this part of Oman is that there is no possibility for pedestrians to cross the main highway. Vehicles have to make enormous detours to change direction. And so it happens that taxis queue up to ferry pedestrians across the road, taking at least ten minutes to find a place where they can change lane. The next morning we left early to look for the Imam’s summer residence, Bait al Na’am. After stopping for petrol, we saw that a man had been run over, probably in an effort to try and cross the main highway on foot. The victim was being properly looked after and had already been laid in the recovery position.
It took us ages to find the summer residence. After clambering over a high doorstep at a tiny wooden gate that made even me feel like Alice in Wonderland, we crossed a courtyard and were met by a tall, bespectacled, good-looking, slightly arrogant man named Ibrahim. It was his job to guide us through the museum, which he did very well. He explained the coffee etiquette again and the status of the Immam and guided us through the living quarters, locking us in the women’s prison for a minute or two to show how dark it was in there. He showed us the exhibits of the immensely heavy silver women’s jewelry, including earrings that would split my lobes and necklaces weighing over a kilogramme. In the Imma’s bedroom, he opened a latch in the floor to reveal a sheer drop of about 20 metres, where buckets of water would have been hoisted up for the toilette. On the roof, we saw the Immam’s resting room, a breezy quarter. But the most fascinating exhibit was a photograph documenting the singing wells, a pastime of the local men that involves creating “music” by causing specially built wooden drums to vibrate over old wells. I made a mental note of the fact that the singing wells are usually”” on Wednesdays (that evening, then!) and Thursdays. The procedure is extremely complicated and I am not sure I understand it completely, but there were a couple of such wells in the vicinity.
The watchman’s name was Salim, who posed for us while Ibrahim described future touristic plans for the residence. We signed the visitors’ book and gave him a tip and left for Al Sawadi beach again. On the way, we remarked on the fate of villages like the ones we were passing through, where unemployment is still a problem. Generally, the villages could have been much cleaner. Huge rubbish containers were provided on the outskirts of the villages, but they were usually overflowing and surrounded by goats eating anything they could find. And when they were not feasting on plastic bags and their contents, the goats would be seeking shade in the shade of vehicles or under them, like the groups of men that spent hours and hours under trees or in cafes.
The same old fisherman came to offer us a boat ride and the same quads were being raced by different young men on the shore, but we felt a walk would do us good and ignored the noise.
Eager to see the Batinah plain, which is the vegetable garden of Oman, before leaving the area, we headed along the long flat road that takes you inland towards the village of Al Abayad. The plantations were hidden behind tall concrete walls, against which sandbags were heaped to prevent flooding. Villages were few and far between. The occasional camel would stride past. Mothers were picking up their children at a local primary school like everywhere else in the world and school buses were ferrying those children who lived further afield. At the end of the road, hidden behind a bend, a magically beautiful oasis suddenly appeared before us! Had the ladies not been wearing Oman-style clothes, we could have been in India. For the first time, we could see rural women working outside their homes. Veiled women were washing plates at the falaj, others were carrying water containers on their heads. And the vegetation was breathtaking. We passed a couple of similar villages on our way back to the resort.
Towards evening, after 45 minutes’ jog and walk round the resort, we left the hotel to see if we could find any action at the wells that we had noticed that morning. Sometimes you just have to be lucky – and we were! There were about 20 men in simple clothes in various stages of action, pulling ropes and pulleys, shouting instructions to those standing on top of the wooden contructions that held the ropes, moistening these constructions from buckets with water, holding or pushing against heavy wooden supports made from palm trunks, lowering buckets of water into the well, hoisting up the wooden drum – everyone had a job to do. Eventually the drum began to make a wailing sound. This was adjusted to everyone’s satisfaction, then another drum was tried. We didn’t actually get the sense of all this, but there are competitions to see which drums can be heard best in at neighbouring wells. A man who works at the Royal Court, whose English was better than the others’, showed us round and tried to explain things to us. As always, the eldest of the men was introduced to us and had to be photographed and as always, he offered us coffee, which we now knew how to accept properly, with dates.
To celebrate our success that day, we treated ourselves to a cocktail before dinner.
The Crowne Plaza in Sohar was our next destination. We were loathe to face the awkward motorway for the entire 160 odd km , so we left the motorway at Al Musanna and travelled to Al Suwayq on the coastal road, passing villages where the inhabitants all looked like Africans. Perhaps there was some Zanzibar blood there.
Al Suwayq turned out to be quite conservative and I got the impression that not many tourists end up here. The tradesmen were very kind, but we got stared at and I felt too exposed. We walked around the souq , where I took the time to photograph the women’s tailor shops, since the abayas and dresses alike were among the most exotic I had seen. When we passed the halwa shop, it was clear that I should photograph the men who were crouching on the floor stirring a thick syrupy mixture, but I did not expect to be given a great lump of it to try. It was delicious!
Al-Suwayq also boasts a castle. As we entered, a man with a towel slung over his shoulders was leaving. When we discovered the clean and ample public toilets there later, it was clear that many of the local people would also choose to use these. There was no furniture in the building but it was very well-kept, with an angular ladder on the wall like the ones we had seen in the Emirates for accessing the flat roof of the sitting room and a beautiful entrance to the reception rooms.
The further north we drove, the greener it became until the full significance of the Batinah plain became apparent. The huge banana plantations were squashed full of trees, unlike the airy ones we had seen in India or Kenya. There were also fields of cattle fodder and dates. A ball popped up above the tall concrete wall around a lovely villa. In the poor areas, families sat exposed to the sun in front of their dwellings. Kilometres of artistically cut trees lined in the centre of the dual carriageway led us into the town. Although there were huge puddles on the road, the result of bad flooding in the area, Sohar loomed up in front of us as a modern city, clean and tidy and very white. Here, as everywhere else in the towns, we were flabbergasted by the number of shops.
The Crowne Plaza lies some 20 km outside the city, a plain building perched on top of a hill in the barren landscape towards the Hajar range. One of the best I have ever stayed in. We were welcomed with a glass of orange juice, checked in and sorted our things out, then we drove back to Sohar to have a look round the city.
We parked outside a brand new fish market on a brand new, broad flagged promenade that boasts gardens with an attractive children’s playing area and public toilets. The harbour with its dhow restaurant completed the complex. On the beach, a picturesque dhow was reclining on its side.
The Sultan Qaboos mosque and castle were situated around 3 km further into the city, in beautifully landscaped gardens. This time, it was no surprise to us that the castle was closed for renovation, especially as the once dazzling white building was extremely smutty. Outside this building, a young boy wanted to have his photograph taken. A little further along the road, we met Sabri, who works for Oman TV, with his two children and a lad who seemed to be his servant. Sabri spoke a little German and explained to us the significance of an emblem outside the castle, erected 2 years ago to celebrate 40 years of Sultan Qaboos’ regime. The souq was empty, with stalls covered in blankets to our left and cattle fodder and straw on our right. So we went in search of the bull-fighting arena, unique to Oman.
We found the arena, unspectacular in itself, by accident and a weird exchange with a local guy in sign language convinced us that there would be bull-fighting the next afternoon at 3pm, bloodless as always. To avoid the intense traffic we had passed, Willi took a short cut, following the car in front through an oasis on a muddy, winding track. After a quick dive into the Sohar Beach Hotel to use their toilets, we returned to our hotel, passing food stalls that were setting up in the dusk in the vicinity of the mosques.
For the Italian buffet, I wore the “maharaja” outfit that I had sewn, which was perhaps not quite in keeping with the theme, but I loved wearing it! A little girl toddled out onto the terrace, which overlooked the swimming-pool, fascinated by the water and calling out “maj”, the Arabic word for it. Her father turned out to be an Omani pilot who was due to fly to Hamburg for an Airbus course.
It was so nice to be able to have breakfast outside at this hotel and rather a shock to meet the heat of the car park in front of the building, where a little colibri hovered round a flowering tree next to our car, afterwards. It was just after nine when we set off for Buraimi along the Wadi Jizzi road. We reflected on the construction of this and all the other mountain roads, especially those in this Hajar region, where the mountains consist of countless pinnacles and the steepest of gradients. With all respect for the architects of impressive buildings, I must admire the planners and executors of roads such as these, Herculean tasks that have changed the life of so many.
Buriami is geographically a part of Al-Ain. When we visited Al-Ain last year, it was impossible to slip over into Buraimi without queuing up for ages and buying visas and so on, but it seems the authorities have made things more efficient and tourist-friendly. The town is famous for its ancient souq, but what you see on entering the town are an enormous hypermarket and modern shops and offices with several university buildings.
The souq is in the old part of town, bordering on a quiet oasis. Built like a fortress, the original souq was closed. The new one is a huge circular area, partly covered with some inside building and reminiscent of the old Omani style of architecture. We had hardly got out of the car when a local middle-aged couple approached us and begged us to take their photograph. This was the first time I had officially been allowed to photograph an Omani woman.
At the first stalls, selling spices, the two female vendors were wearing the traditional black masks. They were very friendly and wanted to hear my Arabic again and again. After the spices came the teas, followed by tobacco, the dried flat leaves of which were stapled in batches. There was also honey and date syrup, fruit and vegetables including taro from China. The butcher’s row was organized by Indians from Kerala, though Nur, who posed for me, was a Pakistani. At the fish stalls, the produce was neatly and hygienically laid out on tiled stands. Dates, all sorts of varieties, were sold out of woven baskets and followed by date frond mats.
As we were making our way into the antiques souq, a red car with three ladies all in black pulled up. An elderly lady with a golden mask was sitting at the front next to the driver. You could see that her eyes were milky and her hands were painted red, with blue and black markings. To the irritation of the driver, who was trying to conduct a conversation into her telephone, the old woman spoke to me non-stop in loud excited tones and even leant out of the window to touch my face. Then she began to gesticulate wildly with her burqa and my face and I believe she wanted me to try in on! This was embarrassing for the younger lady in the back, who shook her head and raised her eyes in despair. I scarpered as politely as I could and we went to have a look at the traditional necklaces, which I could have bought for 35 OR and the pottery and woven palm frond mats and baskets.
The magnificent Buriami fortress – was closed. So after taking a photograph of Mohammed from Pakistan, we attempted to find the entrance to the oasis. In vain. Our drive brought us to a vast settlement of loam buildings, falling to bits but obviously still inhabited.
With the promise of a bull-fight in the back of our minds, we deemed it opportune to return to Sohar, passing the sign to the village of Willi. The jagged peaks of the Hajar chain faded into ever paler shades of darkness against the midday sun, then sandy-coloured stone desert accompanied us back to the hotel. We stopped for a little fruit and tea and fig rolls, then made our way to Sohar. We thought the new port, further north, might be worth a visit but it was clearly out of bounds. Nearer the city, on a popular beach, there is an attractive park, where families were having a picnic. We by and hurried on to the arena, where there was no sign of life. So returning to the cornice, we ignored the afternoon heat and went on a fast 5 km walk along the seafront, watching the footballers on the beach and greeting the passers-by, nearly always men having their constitutional or jogging and occasionally accompanied by a burqa’d lady. When we returned to the arena yet again, just as the setting sun began to hide behind the cloud, there was still no sign of activity.
That day I had promised myself an Omani lobster, which is really a crayfish according to our Bangladesh waiter Kamrul. However the restaurant serving seafood was closed, so we settled for couscous and tahine.
We never miss a fish market if we can help it, so we left the Crowne Plaza with an empty stomach the next morning to be early enough to watch the proceedings at Sohar. The immense car park, which had been empty in the afternoons, was now so full that we had to park elsewhere. Apart from four Chinese tourists and the occasional female shopper, the market was full of men. There was an island in the centre where an auction was taking place. A elderly man with a brown-coloured dishdasha and fringed scarf presided, speaking from his plastic chair in a low voice always on the same tone. The others, ten or twelve of them, were sitting or standing in a semi-circle, faces earnest. In the middle, a small heap of small fish on the floor would be examined, one by one, and sold to the highest bidder, I suppose.
Expatriate workers with mops kept the floor clean. The buyers marched through the hall holding large fish by the tail and smaller ones, tied together. Some had plastic bags. At either end of the market, men were cleaning and scaling and chopping fish, hard work with the tuna. At the open ends of the market, fisherman were loading their catch from the boots of their vans into large plastic tubs or onto tiled slabs. A bulky old man wearing a large, torn plastic bag as an apron was dozing on one of the marble benches situated at the corners of the market, his eyes closed and his lips apart. A lady whose dark red pantaloons were visible below her abaya flipflopped determinedly across the floor, examining the fish from behind her mask. And within half an hour, business was virtually finished and the market slowly emptied.
Our last few days in Muscat
Uniformed men were busy collecting rubbish off the streets as we left Sohar. On the green verges of the public highway, water was being sprinkled lavishly. With the sun in our eyes, we rapidly descended the coast. There was little traffic, but the constant diversions were unnerving and I think Willi was quite happy to make a stop for the supermarket in Barka, where we stocked up on orange juice, yoghurt, water and date bars with tuna and chicken tikka sandwiches for our brunch. There was a primary school class at the supermarket. The school girls with black, frizzy hair in front of us at the till were obviously not sure how much they had put into their basket and paid for everything separately until their allocated money was spent. At the exit, they all lined up, the girls in white trousers with dark Burgundy-coloured dresses. A plastic clip held the white scarves around their heads and shoulders in place. They all spoke as we passed and one little girl explained that they were from a school.
We had our brunch at a most unromantic spot in a back street on the edge of a plantation, unable to find anywhere more appropriate and were rewarded by the sudden appearance of a bee-eater on the tree opposite our car.
At Seeb we left the motorway, hoping we might catch a glimpse of the Sultan’s residence, which we didn’t. However, we did pass the royal stables, impressive enough with rows of tent-like roofs peeping above the stern high walls. There was a lively market here and a pleasant esplanade, simple but wide. Rows of boats with folded nets lined the shore and modern beach huts or barastis stood decoratively on the seafront.
Finding our boutique hotel, just off the busy Al Shiita Plaza in the Qurum area, where a film was being shot, was no real problem, but finding the entrance was difficult. The receptionist was a plain, bespectacled woman, portly and dressed in black clothes devoid of any decoration whatsoever. When I saw the Irish pub and the Chinese restaurant, that smelt strongly of not overfresh chicken, on the same compound, I began to worry about our choice of hotel. I need not have done. Our room, one of a total of seven, was very pleasant with the advantage of a huge terrace looking onto the swimming-pool and garden and beyond that directly onto the beach and sea.
We had a little walk on the beach, then drove into Madinat Sultan Qaboos to book our table at Kargeen restaurant and find out exactly where it was. On the way, we admired from afar the Royal Opera Hall which is unbelievably large and truly magnificent. Kargeen was just as we had remembered it – leafy, charming, wonderful. A kind waiter showed us round, down little paths under trees, past waterfalls, across streams, pointing out the Bedouin tents where those who prefer to eat lying down can eat and smoke their shishas the traditional way. Once the table had been booked, we headed back to the Qurum area and found the enormous park there.
Actually there was not much of the afternoon left and the light was beginning to fade but the park was full of small groups of men, families and couples. The green lawns provide extensive playgrounds, trees and gardens, including the royal rose garden. There are several coffee shops and stalls selling toys and paths which lead to a huge lake, beyond which a rocky hill stretches up into the sky. Signs saying “Move your body, lose your fatty” encourages you to move slightly faster than you might otherwise have done.
I asked the way to a reputable Indian restaurant that is supposed to be in the park but which we never found. Salim, a thickset guy with a a caramel-coloured dishdasha and Omani cap, who works for the Ministry of Defence, and his wife Kemra, a rather plump, manly woman with a black abaya and large patterned scarf, were a little distant at first, but after a few minutes, he insisted that we should have a drink with them. There was no way we could make him change his mind, so we sat at a plastic table at one of the coffee shops and drank a small paper cup of hot, sweet Lipton tea and munched the popcorn that he had bought. He also insisted on buying Willi a small bottle of water after his walk through the park. For about half an hour, he quizzed us about life in our countries and the possibilities of learning the English language in England, whilst Kemra, who had been to London but whose English was probably barely existent, kept utterly quiet. When they left, to visit the mosque, Kemra refused to shake Willis hand, which was clearly not a sign of impoliteness.
The waiters at Kargeen, later that evening, were all dressed like Sindbad, the legendary sailor. The waitresses looked as if they had just stepped out of “1001 nights”. The garden was very kitchy, too, with fairy lights, some of them flashing, strung all over the garden. We sat at a small table outside, next to a group of three Omanis clearly entertaining an Emirate, who ate their food more or less lying on their benches, bare feet tucked up under their bottoms. We both had shuwa. the most traditional of all Omani meals, served at weddings and rarely found on tourist menus. It is lamb wrapped in banana leaves and cooked slowly under the ground, a traditional nomad dish, served with ghee and a sharp sauce and dates. The meat just melted in your mouth, but there was so much of it and we had eaten mezze with gigantic tandooris beforehand. The restaurant has no license to sell alcohol, so I had a refreshing lime soda. Back on our fantastic terrace, we sipped a gin and Miranda and enjoyed the African drums that someone was playing on the beach. It was lovely to be able to sleep with the door wide open, letting in the cool breeze and the rhythmic sound of the rolling waves.
Stanley from Bangalore served us breakfast à la carte on the patio downstairs, while slender, bright green birds chirped in the flowering shrubs in the garden. Most of the guests had their breakfast brought to them on the upstairs terraces, like the loud, talkative American woman who had had hers at 7.15 that morning, waking us up.
We had a leisurely drive to Mutrah, to buy a few presents and look out for cushion covers for ourselves. Qurum gardens were splendidly lit up in the sun and the light in Mutrah was incredible. There were no less than 5 cruisers in the harbour, plus the Sultan’s boat, the most elegant of them all. We examined some beautifully worked Omani chests and admired some fine facades on the old merchant houses on the harbour front, then delved into the dark interior of the souq in search of pashminas and so on. Exiting on the opposite side, we had a stroll round the busy, narrow streets where the locals were doing their shopping. We intended to have a drink at one of the harbour cafes, but none of them had a toilet, which made the whole thing pointless. While Willi nipped into a modest hotel for this purpose, I stood outside talking to a woman teacher lingering outside a school, where singing children could be heard from one of the floors above us. How I would have loved to have asked to be taken inside to have a look! Instead, we went to the Lulu supermarket to buy the choco-dates that we and the children love so much. We also bought an electric incense burner.
Back in Muscat, we discovered a new fast food chain – Slider Station – who do tiny burgers but also a pizzas (for Willi) and salads (for myself). We also had a pleasant stroll on the seafront, unfortunately disturbing a couple hiding in the secluded seating areas behind the shrubs! The rest of the afternoon was spent in the peaceful garden at Qurum Resort Hotel.
For dinner, we walked the ten minutes or so to the Interconti next door. The Muscat Singers were giving a carol concert in the lobby. At Trader Vic’s restaurant we found a table for two outside and tucked into yellow fin tuna steak seared with black peppercorn and sesame seeds and parillada of fish with a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile.
Perhaps it was knowing that our holiday was coming to a rapid end that made us so restless that night. We rose early in the morning for a fast morning walk along the beach, but the tide was in and the sea lapping the hotel steps, so we were forced to take the footpath instead. It was still very pleasant and the 2 ½ km there and another 2 ½ km back took us past some strong currents bashing against rocks, where swimming was forbidden, but also aside stretches of quiet shore abundant with coconut palms. There were plenty of people about exercising, all less exposed than myself, so I felt rather self-conscious.
Over breakfast, we reflected on the past three weeks, agreeing that our travels had never ever brought us so close to the local inhabitants of the land we were visiting. And in the case of Oman, the experiences were good ones, bringing us together with a race of people so kind and hospitable, that we can’t wait to come again.