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Published: March 24th 2017
By way of background on the next three blogs on Oman, this one will cover our travels from the capital Muscat around the coast to Sur and Ras Al Jinz; the next blog will cover our ventures into the rolling sand dunes of Wahiba Sands; while the final Oman blog will take us up into the mountains of Jebel Shams and beyond. When I say 'our' travels, while I was travelling alone, I was part of an organised tour comprising myself and seven others (Brits and Americans - no other Aussies) who travelled in two comfortable four-wheel drive vehicles with a guide and a driver. We were fortunate that, as distinct from my last group tour in the 'Stans, we were all of a similar age and got on really well together. To add icing on the cake, our local guide and driver were also superb and got the balance right between being informative but not trying to unload us with unnecessary excess commentary.
I actually arrived in Muscat a day before the tour, per my previous blog, which gave me the chance to get my feet on the ground, get rid of some jetlag, and have a quick look
around. My target for the day was the Corniche area and the Mutrah Souk, both of which were just a short distance from my hotel. Unfortunately, I picked a day when two large tourist ships were in port, so the Souk was packed like sardines with Westerners so I gave that a cursory look only. However I enjoyed a stroll along the length of the Corniche, with a view out to port of the two cruise vessels, along with another 'super luxury yacht', not much smaller than the tourist ships but considerably newer and very ostentatious, which I was advised later was for the exclusive use of the Sultan of Oman to entertain foreign dignitaries and rarely moved from its berth. Wikipedia describes it as the "world's second longest yacht" - maybe Greg Norman's is longer! I'm guessing you won't want me here to get into a diatribe about world hunger and the obscenity of this sort of self-obsession.
The tour began next day with a tour of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which we were advised is built from 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone. It has a main minaret 90 metres high and four flanking minarets a mere
45 metres each. Inside, under the world's second largest chandelier (14 metres tall) and on top of the world's second largest hand-woven carpet (has Greg got number one yet again?), it can accommodate 6,500 worshippers (all male), while another segregated hall can accommodate 750 women worshippers, while the paved area outside can handle yet another 8,000. You had to take off your shoes before entry and there were so many different areas for shoe lockers that it took a couple of us about 15 minutes to find our shoes again. So what I'm trying to say is that this mosque is pretty big and very impressive.
Our next visit was to Sur, a port city on Oman's eastern tip, probably best know for its shipyards. We had the opportunity to visit one of the facilities that builds Dhows and saw a number of these in various stages of completion. On the way there, we had our first stop at a wadi, which is a term used in Arabic countries for a ravine that is usually dry except in the rainy season. This one, called Wadi Shab, was in effect an oasis in the middle of nowhere containing a sinkhole
containing a most magnificent green-coloured water. A short distance further on from Sur was the famous Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve, where we spent our first night away from Muscat. This is actually located at the easternmost point of the Arabian Peninsula, and it is renown as being a turtle-nesting site for the green turtle, which is now considered endangered. Every year, up to 20,000 female turtles return to this location in order to lay eggs, often laying as many as 200 eggs at any one time. We were taken out that night in small groups to see if we could witness this experience, with absolutely no guarantee of any sightings, but were fortunate enough to get multiple sightings in a number of different phases of the nesting. First we saw a couple of turtles digging themselves a large hole in the sand, using their flippers to toss the sand out; then we were able to actually witness a turtle laying its eggs (over a 5 minute period we probably witnessed over a dozen eggs coming out); and finally we saw a couple of turtles, who had clearly completed their laying, make their way back down into the sea. The
only lights that could be used were ultra-violet torches so as not to scare the turtles, and we had to keep still and quiet. But what an exhilarating experience!
So what were some of the particularly interesting observations coming out of Oman in our first couple of days? The first was the absolute scarcity of women and children. The 'excuse' given by our guide was that all the women work in government buildings during the day, but I suspect that their culture precludes most of them from leaving the home environment very much at all. Of interest, we retraced our steps in the Mutrah Souk on the final day, a day when there were no tourist ships in port, and found the souk full of women, so they obviously know when to choose their times. The second was the complete opposite. Everywhere you went you would run across goats strolling around - in the towns as well as out in the countryside. It seemed like they had more goats than women! We were also somewhat bemused at the plethora of shops for barbers, laundry, coffee and tailors. We would often go through a small town with say 20 shopfronts,
and of these two or sometimes three of them could be one of these four types. I suggested to the guide that perhaps the first of these might have been a cover for a 'man's shed' but he refuted this, claiming that apart from haircuts there was a big demand for the 2-3 day tailored stubble amongst the men.
So from the coast we moved inlands towards the rolling sand dunes of Wahiba Sands, along with some wadis, some forts and old ruins. Much to look forward to!
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