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Published: February 10th 2008
Making a big splash!The Sultanate of Oman
The Nissan Pathfinder chomps it's way with ease through the water.
,is in my opinion,the jewel of Arabia and a perfect tonic to escape the cold wet European winter for a while. I found this beautiful country to be a five-star experience in a region sadly dominated for so long by violence and intolerance. It has been ruled by the same family for over 250 years and is a glimpse into an old kingdom as it once was before the wider region discovered oil riches and was developed out of all recognition. Thankfully Oman is a total contrast to it's brash big brother next door, Dubai, the current infashion Gulf hotspot, but with less of the over developed tourist complexes and more of the empty pristine beaches, fantastic food, excellent hotels and a vibrant middle eastern culture.This is a a land of myth and imagination, with minarets, domes, forts, camels, rugged mountains, sand oceans and fierce blue skies and is still a country tucked away beyond the reach of mass tourism and religious strife, yet close to where thousands of air travellers stop every week to and from Europe on long haul flights. I found it to be safe and accessible, the people were warm and friendly and very
The spectacular highly polished italian marble tiles reflect the fascade of this amazing building.
welcoming and seemed genuinely pleased to see me rather than it was their job to be pleased to see me, this is the great secret of the Middle East.
The Sultanate occupies the eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. It's about the same size as the United Kingdom, or the state of Kansas. It's 1,700km of ragged coastline is flanked to the north by the warm waters of the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf and to the east by the Indian Ocean. To the west you have Saudi Arabia, though you have to march across the 'Empty Quarter' to get there. To the south you have Yemen.
The country feels vast and empty. One of the reasons for this is that Oman was in effect a 'closed' country for much of the last century and this gives it a timeless, unchanging quality starkly at odds with the jumped-up artificiality of much of the Gulf region.A quick history lesson might be useful here. When Sultan Faisal bin Turki died in 1913, various warring tribes refused to recognise his son as the ruler. This caused a lot of nasty rows and the country in effect split between the
coastal areas and the interior. In 1932 a new sultan, Said bin Taimur, came to power. He reunited the country by sealing its borders, but it took him 20 years to get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet - by which time Oman was a backward, medieval anachronism, a sort of Arabian Albania. In 1970 Said was overthrown by his only son, Qaboos, in a bloodless coup. Qaboos had been trained at Sandhurst Military College in England and maybe he missed the battlecraft module. His deposed father spent the remaining two years of his life in exile in the Dorchester Hotel in London.When Sultan Qaboos took over the country, there were only three schools and one 12-bed hospital. There was no running water or electricity and the only Tarmac road ran the 12km from the royal palace in Muscat to the military camp. Using the country's oil revenue - of which it is rumoured 40 % goes straight to him - Qaboos has been busy building 6,000 schools, a hospital in every town and miles of new roads. This charismatic absolute monarch is adored by his subjects.
I stayed at the iconic Al Bustan Palace, just outside of
the capital city Muscat totally enclosed by an impressive ring of jagged mountains set on a private sandy beach overlooking the Gulf. The entrance to this building has a lofty atrium with fountains and pools and the intoxicating heady smell of frankincense wafting all around. Although it's a 'dry' country, the hotel did serve me alcohol. While menus in the UK print a 'V' next to dishes suitable for vegetarians, in Oman I found 'A' next to dishes containing alcohol which was quite stange to my western eyes. I also noticed signs on the wall advising guests to be 'respectful' of the muslim faith and to cover their legs and shoulders when heading into town or coming back from the beach areas. But one hotel manager described the people as 'Muslim-lite', which sums up Oman's traditional yet open-minded approach to foreigeners. I made this my base to explore in the limited time I had available and started my exploration of the area at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This must have to be the Sultan's greatest act of extravagance, it is an astonishingly beautiful five-towered building built in 1995 'with his own money', it must be one of the world's most
On the edge!
Car and myself slowly slide down with the moving sand.
serenely beautiful buildings and without question must be the most impressive built in recent years. In gold, copper, polished Italian marble and silky-smooth Omani sandstone, its domed prayer area has room for 5,000 devotees beneath the world's largest chandelier (made in Italy) all kneeling in parayer on the world's largest hand-knotted carpet - it took 600 Iranian weavers four years to make and is the size of a football pitch.
Muscat is a charming city of half a million people, dominated by a couple of forts which look like they belonged on a Beau Geste film set, I almost imagined the French Foreign Legion marching out of the gates and into the desert. The city unwinds itself between stony outcrops and narrow strips of beachfront. The first thing that strikes you about the place is how traditional it still is. The men all wear floor-length dishdashas and the women peer with curiosity from behind black veils from narrow alleyways and doors at this stranger walking around amongst them in the maze-like souks.
After breakfast, my guide arrived early to the Al Bustan Palace and collected me and two other guests to take us out for the day to
the magnificent interior of the country and the desert wilderness. The drive out of the city was quite spectacular past some of the oil refineries where a lot of our fuel comes from and into a barren lunar like landscape of rock and sand and the occasional long ago abandoned ghost town, though even this can be beautiful in a bleak sort of way. The driver turned off the tarmaced highway and onto a dusty side road which eventually gave way to sand. It was at this point the driver stopped and opened his door,when he did that it was just like standing in front of an open oven, as the desert heat rushed in to replace the chilled air that was inplace before it.He explained that he had to reduce the tyre pressure in all the wheels so that the 4x4 vehicle wouldn't sink and get bogged down in the soft sand.
Ahead of us lay a vast desolate sand and sky filled environment which gradually changed to ever larger sand dunes. One of the largest groups were nearly 100 metres high and these were the ones that the driver selected to show us just what his Nissan
Pathfinder could actually do. The skilled driver threw us around on a crazy course up and down and over the top of various dunes. Some of the angles were quite hair raising it was the ultimate white knuckle ride. I was glad I had not yet had lunch as there was a real possibilty of seeing it again. After one of the largest drops I asked the driver if It would be possible to take a photo of the descent down from the top of the sand dune, the driver said it would be no problem and gave me a bottle of water and left me in the middle of the desert and drove off round the back of the dune. As the minutes ticked by and the vehicle's engine noise faded away to be replaced by the sound of the wind and the shifting sands, I suddenly had feelings of apprehension wash over me in waves and a feeling of utter desolation. Crazy thoughts flitted through my mind like,"what if he doesn't return,what if he forgets where he left me,what if he has an accident?"..... Vrrrooom!...I can tell you my fears eased on hearing the pathfinder's engines revving as
it appeared once again over the crest of the dune above. It was with relief that I left this big furnace like landscape and got back inside the cool comfort of the air conditioned car.
Wadi Shab Water Caves
The final stop of the day was to the spectacular Wadi Shab, where sunshine streams through an opening between two large mountains, the same two mountains through which the waters of the wadi passes on its way out to the open sea. Tucked into the very limited space at the base of the cliff wall along the water's edge are the date palms which provided much needed shade from the searing heat on my walk up the wadi. We passed several rock pools with crystal clear cool water in them, this made a refreshing swimming hole to revive my exhausted aching body.It was in one of these swimming spots that we were told about a cave that was worth seeing but was only accessible by swimming into it underwater. After a brief deliberation with my travel companion and my imagination well and truly fired up, we decided to try and find it. Luckily the water levels were low so the entrance
was only just below the surface and we easily managed to swim into the submerged cavern.
When I broke the surfaced on the inside, my breath was quite literally taken away and that was not just from holding it. This was one of those times in your life that I wish I could have documented as a "Kodak moment", but packing a waterproof camera to take into the desert just didn't even register on my to-do list.The sight that greeted me was surreal, above me at the roof of the cavern was a small hole in the rock which allowed natural sunlight to stream down in an intense narrow golden beam, tiny flecks of dust briefly sparkled in the light as they hung suspended in the air. The sunlight entered the water just ahead of me and illuminated the sandly bottom of the pool causing a greenish light to glow from under our feet. This reflected diffused soft light, lit the back of the cavern, it was only then did I notice a huge house sized slab of stone with a waterfall gushing over the top cascading into the pool. My friend and I just lay floating on our backs listening to the sounds of tumbling water,staring at the dancing reflected light patterns on the ceiling, drifting slowly in circles carried along with the slight vortex in the water, marveling in awe at this wonderous waterworld. I remarked to him, "Isn't this amazing to think we are so far under the desert in this water cave, I feel we could be the only people in the world to see this!" I was a bit startled, before he could even agree and answer me,I heard a chuckling voice saying, "No you're not....we're in here too!" and then half a dozen guys appeared from behind a rock, after we got over our initial surprise, we introduced ourselves and then I was amazed to find out that they were all Royal Air Force personnel in Oman on a training course and they all came from the RAF base at Lossiemouth, just down the road from where I live in Scotland. It just goes to show that you can't go anywhere in the world these days, even under it, without bumping into someone you know from home. One of the group team leaders knew the cave system well having been here many times before over the years and he invited us to join them exploring another of the two smaller caverns, all accessible by brief swims underwater. It was an oportunity not to be missed, so we risked the wrath of our by now slightly concerned tour guide who hadn't seen us now for some time and pressed on, filled with elation at the joy of discovery and a sense of adventure.
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