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|Driving Through the Arabian Peninsula|
|Written by Abigail King|
|Wednesday, 13 May 2009 11:25|
Armed with enthusiasm, a hired 4X4, and a map, Abigail King hits the roads of Oman, bashing dunes along the way.
It is, as the ads say, like floating on air. Our hired 4X4 trembles slightly before falling, falling, softly over the edge into the cushioned sunset sands. No roads, no traffic, no parking problems. Only the ghostly currents that skim over the desert, the silent, terracotta sands. At the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, our journey into Oman found a rhythm of its own.
Belonging to the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is often overshadowed by its notorious big sister, Saudi Arabia. After years of being closed to the world, the capital--Muscat--almost falls over itself to welcome you. Its streets are pristine, its signs translated into English, its people courteous and respectful. This Muslim country views alcohol as a Western indulgence, tolerating sales in international hotels. Ironically this makes it easier to meet and chat with local Omanis, who flock to the hotels to drink wine with their dinner and let their hair down.
An Indian expat, who arrived in the 70s and never left, hands my husband a battered guidebook from the same era. "Er, isn't this likely to be out of date by now," I murmur, while trying to sound gracious. Everyone laughs but only later do I understand why; time has forgotten this part of the world and the faded, yellowed map serves us well. "And of course," he adds, "you'll need a car."
We glide seamlessly along the new 'black-tops' with no other traffic in sight, only glowing crimson sand dunes on either side. With the light making splintering, shimmering patterns on the horizon, it's easy to understand how ancient nomads could intoxicate themselves with delusions of a mirage. Unless...No....there really is a camel in the middle of the road. I scour the area, suspicious of a tourist trap, but we are alone--camels and 4X4. Nonchalant, majestic even, our camels pose for a few photos before we head on.
The drive from Muscat to Sur can be done in four to five hours but we have chosen the longer, scenic route. The road winds and weaves in harmony with the coastline and provides spectacular views of the creamy, rocky cliffs dipping into an almost surreal blue sea. Even here the air is thick and warm and I am grateful that we have avoided the height of summer. Although liberal for an Islamic country, both sexes must still cover up from wrists to ankles. Mental note: next time I do a trip like this, pay the extra for air-conditioning.
Fortunately we soon arrive at our first real-life oasis--Wadi Shab. It is beautiful, tranquil and surrounded by palms and I am almost overcome by the urge to dive straight in. Our weathered guidebook tells us that bathing in western swimsuits is incredibly offensive and that Omani women swim fully clothed. Obedient, I swelter up the rocky, uneven path into the canyon that monsoon rivers carved centuries ago, dressed from head to toe. We pass more and more young Omani men and postpone the swim for longer and longer. Eventually we hear shrieks of laughter, turn a bend in the path and see a French family swimming in the water. The women wear bikinis and the crowd of local onlookers look anything other than offended. Some things have changed since the 1970s after all.
The atmosphere feels more reserved at Wadi Bani Khalid, further along the coast. This oasis is greener, deeper and wider and families dot themselves at the water's edge and lay out their picnics. They smile at us but otherwise let us be. No one tries to sell us anything. For the first time I notice that many of the women have covered their heads with colourful, embroidered scarves.
By now I have realised that my black-veil flashbacks were undeserved: in Oman women can travel unveiled and even hold posts within government. That doesn't mean they are free to dine alone, however. The Omani people have been overwhelmingly friendly, yet we drive them to scurrying alarm when we inadvertently walk into the 'men's' section of a roadside restaurant. We are escorted to a screened-off 'family area' and when I need to go to the toilet it takes a procession of waiters holding screens either side of me to spare the other diners the reminder that women exist.
We reach the edge of Sur, the legendary starting point for the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, at twilight. We pass its magnificent dhow building shipyard and head for Ras al Hadd, the starting point for our voyage into the turtle reserves. Registering for a permit seems easy enough: hand over some money at the hotel. The sting comes in getting up at 3am for the bumpy drive to one of the world's few nesting grounds for the endangered Green Turtle. We join a tour group and head off across the damp sands, armed with torches. Our guide, a lively wiry Omani with lilting speech, fills us in: it can take up to 50 years for a female to return to her original beach to lay eggs. Both adults and new hatchlings must return to the sea by daybreak in order to escape death at the beaks of the seagulls overhead. Crucially, he cautions, flash photography is forbidden as it disrupts the turtles' sense of direction.
We spend a long, cold period of time plodding methodically across the sands and just as I feel my enthusiasm wane a cry goes out. He has found a mother nesting and we all cluster around. She is enormous and is rhythmically flicking out sand as she burrows down. Unfortunately many tourists start patting and stroking her and taking photos. Confused, she stops digging and tries to move on.
After this, our journey moves inland and we rise and fall through the rocky, rust-coloured Hajar Mountains. Eventually rocks give way to small villages and green terraces growing apricots, walnuts and almonds. We plunge off the road into the heart of Wahiba Sands for a spot of 'dune bashing.' This involves driving as fast as you can up the crest of a dune and down the other side, an experience so exhilarating and out of control I can't believe someone doesn't stop us. The copper sands stretch on forever into the distance and the air is silent. Although the camels seem unimpressed, we attract the attention of a passing Bedouin who invites us inside his tent for some strong coffee, infused with cardamom and saffron. He invites us to join his tour into the desert, but the sun is beginning to set and we have to turn him down.
He is the only person we have met for hours, and I imagine a camera shot zooming out to reveal the three of us as small dots on a rippled, burnt-orange canvas. A satellite would see him climb back on his camel, plodding reliably towards the setting sun. As for us, we're back in our 4X4 and easing back into the world we left.