As the heat sank in, and the sun rose higher in the day, our 4WD wound through the mountains and out to the coast south of Muscat. My guide Badar and I spoke about politics, religion and, most importantly, football. Prior to this trip, that was probably the most I knew about this nation of only four million people – Australia played Oman a few times to qualify for the Asian and World Cups. The scenery along this road was fascinating to me. Flat plains of desert, fenced in by towering bare mountains. It was so strange to me to see these mountains, nothing but rock faces, not a tree and barely even grass in sight. The air in Oman is often hazy with the dust that drifts up into the air from these deserts.
Part of the reason I chose to visit Oman over staying longer in the Emirates, was that when looking at countries nearby, it was far more traditional than the big glitzy cities of Abu Dhabi or Dubai. The Sultanate has a long history, and was once a vast trading empire that stretched all the way down to Zanzibar in East Africa. It was a great delight when I saw that Muscat was full of more traditionally styled architecture, a result of the province’s building laws that requires houses to fit with the overall asethetic of the city. Buildings must be white or cream, the colour of the traditional men’s dress. Muscat feels Arabian.
The highlight of my short stay there was Wadi Tiwi. Oman has several wadis, which are river beds or gullies in which villages have irrigated spring water from the mountains to create gardens. Seemingly out of nowhere, these wadis are green with date palms, mango trees, banana palms and grasses. Just a few metres higher up from these gardens is more of the same rocky mountains, and beyond that it’s back to harsh sun and dust.
Wadi Shab is generally the more popular in this area, however, it is best to go there in cooler months, where the trek through a cave system to a waterhole is far easier to bare. I wandered through the village, mostly along the falaj system. This is the traditional way that water was irrigated, tapping into the mountain spring water and channeling it down into these gardens. These carefully crafted channels have walls along which it easy to stroll from garden to garden. The houses were simple, people were swimming in the creek, and it was beautifully peaceful.
The heat still snuck in under the shade, and I was bright red by the end of our short walk. Slightly paranoid about getting dehydrated and sunburnt, I rationed my now hot water and doubled my scarf over my head to prevent more UV getting to my face. This was the moment when I realised that hijab was by far the best dress code! My scarf did more to shade my face than a hot and sunscreen could have, and I didn’t take it off for the rest of the day.
From the wadi, we drove further south. Sur is a coastal port, famed for its shipyards and traditional dhow building. Perhaps it should also be famous for the number of mosques the small city boasts, with minarets and domes being spied barely 100 meters away from the next three. I imagine evening prayer time is a blend of competing prayers blasted from the speakers of each of these mosques.
An old lighthouse took care of the port, under the supervision of several small watchtowers dotting the rocky hills along the river mouth, nice little reminders of the roots and history of the country. In the afternoon heat, few people were on the streets when we arrived, but we got to visit one of the still active shipyards, still making wooden dhows. I picked up a few interesting facts about the shapes of the Omani ships, and how dates were imports part of preventing vitamin deficiency in the sailors. Who knew? Apparently Qatar have actually commissioned the boat builders of Sur to construct several dhows in order to get passengers from cruise ships around the Gulf into Doha’s port, in preparation for the Qatar WorldCup.
We stopped at a beach on the way back to stretch our legs at my request. I can’t see the ocean and not dip my feet in! Badar informed me that camping is very popular all over Oman, and we could see evidence of a few bins for campsites and fisherman. Surprisingly, the water was quite warm, a result of the currents throughout the Gulf. A swim would have been the perfect way to end the day, but I’d not brought swimmers with me that day. Now I know for next time, if I get back.
I travelled with Panorama Travel Oman, who managed to organise a trip less than 12 hours before we left, and even had an adapted itinerary for me. I was extremely impressed with their efficiency and service. Many thanks to Badar and Fatima! http://www.panorama.co.om/