In (one or two of) Thesiger’s footsteps – part I

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Middle East » Oman
December 4th 2019
Published: March 25th 2020
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The Economist’s front cover this week shows the Earth with a shop sign hanging over it: “CLOSED”. In this bizarre new world of daily, or more-than-daily, new restrictions on our movements, wherever we live, it seems odd that, a month ago, we could travel with near-abandon. And so I’m trying to go back to those days, to recreate that sense of freedom, even if the mind-leap from today’s discombobulation and shrunken horizons seems huge.

When I booked to go to Mongolia in 2007, my mother was incredulous. What was the appeal of a country that gives its name to remoteness? “Because it’s full of emptiness.” “Why don’t you go to Canada?” she countered. Don’t get me wrong – I’d love to go to Canada; it’s very much “on the list”, but that’s not the point. Deserts and wilderness and vast vistas without sign of human habitation had somehow become a fascination of mine without my noticing – in fact, I was almost disappointed that many such huge landscapes in Mongolia were invariably interrupted by a white ger (yurt) or two, although, as the owners often invited us in for a bowl of fermented mare’s milk or their own local vodka-hooch, I was soon consoled.

I digress.

Oman is home to about 25% of the Rub’ al Khali, known in English as the Empty Quarter. To my chagrin, I’m not even sure I’d heard of it a year ago, but, with 650,000 square kilometres of unbroken sand desert, it instantly appealed. The disadvantage of deserts, however, is that they aren’t easy for the solo traveller, and so I hunted around for a suitable overland trip. Oddly, only one offered the full gamut, travelling overland (a must-do of mine: there’s so much more at ground level, so much more of real life and real people) from Muscat, through the Hajar Mountains and their wonderful collection of old towns and history, across the Sharqiya or Wahiba Sands (because why content yourself with only one desert?), along the coast (more sand), and into the mystical Empty Quarter for two nights, before heading back out to Salalah, the country’s second city, near the Yemeni border. Not quite Wilfred Thesiger’s barefoot exploration of this incredible area with the Bedouin in the 1940s, and assuredly to be done in infinitely more comfort, but nevertheless the chance to look for an infinitesimal flavour of his sentiments, “I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand. I felt in harmony with the past, travelling as men had travelled for untold generations across the deserts, dependent for their survival on the endurance of their camels and their own inherited skills.”

By the time I joined the trip, I felt like an old hand in this part of the world. As well as my trip into the Musandam (, I’d spent some time in the capital, pottering around the historic cities of Muttrah and Old Muscat, though I had not, thanks to a couple of unscheduled lurgies, managed to explore any further out-of-town at this end of the Gulf of Oman. Not for me, this time, to stand in the footsteps of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta at the fourteenth century Bibi Maryam Mausoleum in Qalhat, a formerly bustling trading hub. (Never mind the tumbled down state of the Mausoleum: it was just the idea of being where they had stood…)

My companions were a varied lot – an Indonesian, a couple of Canadians, another Scot, a Welshwoman, an British Israeli, an Irishman, and a couple of retired Londoners, representatives from the fields of healthcare, hospitality, travel, education, the arts, insurance, architecture and the law – but yet oddly homogenous. We muddled along through eleven days of driving and sightseeing, breakfasts, lunches and dinners, with barely a break in conversation. I remember one evening coming over to the camp table, listening to three or four conversations going on at once, and idly wondering which one would pull me in. Between us – well, largely thanks to our Welsh artist – we had travelled every continent, and the majority of countries in each. A who’s-been-where around the table on our last night in the desert revealed that no-one had been to Albania; it was a struggle to find too many more. And yet there was no one-up-man-ship, as there often can be in such situations. Everyone was genuinely interested in others’ experiences, and absorbing ideas for future adventures.

A torrential downpour the night before – which I had watched engulf the Muttrah Souq in only minutes – had washed out our intended road into the Hajar Mountains, but our fabulous guide, Nawaf, worked out a Plan B, and, leaving behind the somewhat dubious fragrances of Seeb’s fish market, we found ourselves gazing at the improbable green of Wadi Fanja, the wadi itself still in full flood from the night before, and Birkat Al Mouz. The starkness of the mountains’ bare scree slopes dramatically exaggerates these oases of verdant green, the translation of the latter, “banana pool”, emphasising this even further. Below the village, we found an active irrigation channel, the 2.5 km long Falaj Al Khatmeen, originally constructed over 2,000 years ago and now granted World Heritage status, and we happily camped beside it for our first picnic lunch, an extraordinarily well-provisioned pizza box-sized container per person giving us the first hint that starvation was going to be unlikely on this trip. Not for us Thesiger’s goatskin-and-rancid-fat-flavoured water or hunger-induced hallucinations.

That afternoon we wandered happily through and up and down the winding alleys of Misfat Al Abriyyin, known locally as simply “Misfa”, and neighbouring Al Hamra. Vehicular traffic cannot enter Misfa’s old town centre, so stepping through the gate feels like stepping back in time, stone jars hanging from the glassless windows of mud-walled houses – pre-electricity refrigeration – the cries of young boys jumping into the pool at the top of the firaj network, the disgruntled braying of an overworked donkey, the babble of water in irrigation channels, the cool of the breeze through the palms. Everywhere you turned, there was a new detail: Biblical-looking old wooden doors, painted beams, carved balconies, a deserted souq.

After a night of wow-luxury at The View eco-hotel, aptly named as it sits 1,400m and a suitably winding and crumbly track above Al Hamra, we tackled a few of the plethora of nearby forts and castles. Medieval Bahla Fort, nestled at the bottom of the mountains, and now surrounded by the sprawling modern town, is stunningly imposing from a distance, but does not apparently offer so much as an information leaflet inside. Seventeenth century Jabreen Castle, by contrast, is set apart from its modern urban neighbour and sits in the middle of the plains where it has been wonderfully restored, inside and out. Deliberately constructed to withstand attack or, for anyone broaching the defences, to be more than slightly confusing to navigate your way around, its rooms are high-ceilinged, light and airy, with gloriously painted beams, latticed glassless windows, dark wood balconies around the atrium, and stunning views across date plantations to the mountains.

For this part of
yours truly makes a friendyours truly makes a friendyours truly makes a friend

[copyright-Barb Ennis]
Oman is the home of the date; over 250 indigenous varieties, if the Gulf Times is to be believed, and the local souqs have an unexpectedly generous try-before-you-buy approach. At Nizwa souq that day, we could have lunched on the dozen or more varieties available to sample, plus a few from neighbouring Saudi Arabia should we have felt the need for further comparison, but we reined in our greed, fortifying ourselves only to the extent needed for one final fort before lunch, and virtuously bought gifts for folks back home.

Nizwa Fort is stunning, a perfect circle of perfect, if over-restored, crenellations, with four sets of steps taking you up its thirty-metre height for glorious views over the town. Wilfred Thesiger had been warned away from here. He camped only ten miles away, writing poetically about the mountain-scape before him, but Nizwa was then still the seat of the Ibadi Imamate, a highly conservative regime that ruled most of Oman’s interior until the 1950s, and Thesiger’s companions feared for the safety of a Christian darkening the town’s gates. Now, seventy years on, Nizwa is the second most popular tourist destination in the country after Muscat, and only the occasional polite sign – “PLEASE. It is very offensive for the people here if you wear short clothes” – reminds you of the area’s more traditional roots.

This was to be our last night in “civilisation”, generously defined in retrospect as a room and a bed we hadn’t had to assemble ourselves, the whisper of an internet connection, a pretty good chance of sand-free food, and the possibility of alcohol. I’d been happily sticking to some delicious fruit juices and herbal teas for the previous three weeks, but, somehow, having alcohol available at the hotel – the first time I’d encountered the option, Oman being essentially a dry country – and a general feeling that after this, we were Going Out Into The Unknown, I was tempted… though the list of options turned out to be a little theoretical. Failing to find any of the beers listed actually in stock, refusing to splash out £60 (US$70) for a bottle of wine whose name I remembered from university days (not a guarantee of anything above paint-stripper in quality), I settled for a Scotch, and ignored the price. Later that evening, Nawaf came round with a list. Apparently there was a chance that he’d be able to purchase alcohol en route to the Wahiba Sands, our first desert camp. Most people eagerly put in an order, more for the unexpected decadence than out of necessity (again, the cost was eye-watering). The next day, we were hugely entertained to see our “purchase” more resembling a Bedouin-style street corner drug deal than any kind of Western trip to the off-licence or bottle shop as Nawaf snuck into a scruffy tented campsite near Bidyah, at the northern edge of the Sands, and came out with some anonymous but rattling plastic bags.

Thus furnished, and with car tyres let down in preparation, we could finally escape the range of the day-trippers from Muscat (of whom we were, of course, disdainful), and head into the dunes.

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