Oman: From wildlife to souqs, the desert sultanate is an oasis for travellers
A munificent, peace-loving Sultanate of sandy souqs, soaring mountains and aquamarine wadis, Oman offers everything you need for an Arabian odyssey
The Arab world is hot. Climate change is on the warpath. With Kuwait sizzling at 54 degrees Celsius, untimely snow in the deserts and cyclones in Yemen, Saudi summer temperatures are prepping for the kill. Under such scorching circumstances, a five-hour drive from Muscat towards the east point of the Arabian Peninsula feels drearier than it actually is. (It’s only the beginning of summer and day temperatures in Oman are averaging between 37 to 40 degrees Celsius) A stop at a highway teashop brings succour in the form of khubz rakhal (crispy dosa-like pancake with goats cheese and honey) paired with chai karak.
I’m heading towards Ras Al Jinz, a nesting site for the endangered green turtle — one of the five of a total of seven species of sea turtles in the world that make their home in Oman. Every year, over 20,000 turtles migrate from the Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea and Somalia to lay their eggs in the Sultanate. I check into the suitably low-key but comfortable government accommodation to prepare for the escorted night walk to the beach. Post-dinner, around 9.45 pm, our guides lead us in torchlight onto the beach and proceed to gather us (in small groups) around a large female turtle vigorously digging a hole in the sand with her flippers. We gawk at her in the torchlight, occasionally breaking the silence in with questions for the knowledgeable guide. It feels like we’re intruding upon a private moment — of an endangered animal that easily weighs above 130 kg — but we also keep a respectable distance, and some hippie souls wander off to gaze at the starlit sky instead of the industries turtle mom. Our guide then takes us to another location in the sand where he scoops up three-day old turtles that are prepping — by way of determinedly scuttling up and falling down their temporary sandy home for the most dangerous journey of their lives. These tiny turtles will soon make a dash for the sea while avoiding predators like foxes, crabs and birds. It’s a spectacle best viewed in season (July through October) but this off night is still mesmerising.
The Devil’s in the sinkhole
Oman’s wildlife is one of the many surprises that’s thrown up to the unsuspecting visitor. From spinners dolphins that prance off the coast of Muscat to Arabian leopards prowling the Dhofar mountain range in the South, there’s much magnificence beyond the clichés of sandy dunes and dreamy sultans.
The next morning, on my way to Muscat, there are a couple of refreshing breaks from the scorching sun. The Wadi Shab gorge in Al Sharqiyah is the perfect spot for an hour-long adventurous hike and a dip in the natural pool, followed by a barbecue. I ditch the idea of jumping from a mountain cliff into cool aquamarine waters and walk around with frisky goats and boatmen lazing on a weekday. Another 20 minutes ahead is the Bimmah Sink Hole, a 40 meter depression in the rocks bearing crystal-clear turquoise waters that host with tiny fish ready to offer you an instant foot spa. The sinkhole’s Omani name, Bait Al Alfreet — translating to ‘House of the Devil — is a misnomer. Both the wadi and the sinkhole bring much-needed respite from the heat and the chance to play mermaid in the midst of nowhere.
Pods on rocks, arms in souq
Another night on the road is spent at a scenic eco resort — The View — overlooking the town of Al Hamra. The property has 30 pods (rooms) that cling valiantly to the jagged edge of Oman’s tallest mountain, Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun). The excitement kicks in when a 4x4 picks me up at Al Hamra for a bumpy, winding ride up to the property. My Premium Room has a balcony which serves as a permanent parking space to gawk at the rugged landscape, while not sighing at the edge of the infinity pool outside.
After R&R with a view at The View, it’s time to hit Nizwa, the ancient capital of Oman. At just a two-hour drive from Muscat, it makes for another nifty day trip to poke around the old fort and shop up a storm at the atmospheric souq. The latter — one of the oldest in the country — is dotted with stalls selling everything from watermelons, frankincense, goats (at a segregated goat market), saffron and dates to pottery, artefacts, jewellery and guns for hunting.
After three nights exploring Muscat’s weekend attractions, there’s the city itself to plunge into. From the serenity of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and the bustle of the souks to art galleries and mall-hopping, there’s much to do. The experiences are absorbed with an evening stroll along the Muttrah Corniche, gazing out at the gorgeous Al Said. (Sultan Qaboos’s personal yacht, part of his fleet of three yachts and eight palaces, often finds itself topping super-yacht lists across the globe.) I top my sensory overload with an Omani feast under candlelight at Kargeen (try the restaurant’s shuwa, lamb pit-roasted overnight in banana leaf, served over rice).
“Oh, but you’ve hardly seen all of Oman,” my guide grins, proceeding to paint lush pictures of Salalah, the waterfall-laden paradise city of Dhofar and Musandam’s magnificent khors (fjords). Clearly, the Omani odyssey has just begun.
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