Oman might not have a “wow” up its sleeve but what it does have is a gentle, unhurried persona and – for the time being anyway – a sense you’re treading a path yet to give way under the pressure of mainstream tourism
We were asked to assemble in the lobby at 9pm. It had been a long day – even with the Sultanate’s excellent road network – and the allure of turtle watching was tempered by fatigue and our guide’s insistent caution unseasonably high temperatures would probably render the expedition a disappointment.
This was a group tour – not something to which I’m usually drawn. All that confusion over pick-ups and the inevitable straggler unable to be anywhere on time is enough to have me breaking ranks. But this was a good bunch – well-travelled, excellent company and, their winning characteristic in my book, always wondering if a G&T or cold beer was waiting across the next mountainous terrain or desert horizon.
The fishermen’s town of Sur on Oman’s east coast has a history linked with Dhow building and was once noted as the country’s main trading link with East Africa. The former are still built around these parts but that once key international route of commerce no longer exists, giving Sur something of a subdued aura.
There’s not a great deal that need detain you here but Sur does provide a good point at which to overnight between the capital Muscat and the spectacular desert landscapes to the east and the snapshot they offer of Bedouin life.
Ras Al Junaiz beach is an hour’s drive from Sur and is the centre for strictly controlled small group nocturnal walks that set-off in search of giant turtle spotting and, just possibly, a prized sighting of these ancient marine species laying eggs.
On leaving the visitor centre we are plunged into darkness, the only orientating factors being small hand-held torches, sparkling gems from the night sky and the hushed narrative of our ranger.
The evening rewards us to a degree we hadn’t anticipated given our guide’s excellent job at expectation management. The first sighting is of a giant turtle (these can weigh-in at anything up to 300kg) resplendent in a deep, painstakingly constructed retreat in which eggs are being laid and which, with the aid of giant flippers, are then covered in sand. It’s slow work and it looks exhausting.
But it’s as we prepare to return to base we are treated to the night’s coup de theatre. Dozens of hatching baby turtles start burrowing out of the sand around our feet, scurrying to make their entrance into an uncertain world. We help our guide Mohammed gather the newborn into the flowing material of his thawb before he releases them on shores of the Gulf of Oman.
The following day we make the three-hour drive to the country’s eastern region before stopping at a Bedouin camp where we are offered tea, succulent dates – and a hospitality that appears genuinely touching even if we might be the sixth group through here this month.
The tyres on our convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles are deflated and we take to the copper coloured terrain of Wahiba Sands stretching 180km north to south and 80km east to west. It’s hypnotic watching high rolling dunes as far as the eye can see and thrilling when our drivers display their manoeuvring skills.
Eventually we see indications of our base for the night dotted on the far horizon. With its traditional black goat-hair tents, the 1000 Nights Campsite provides basic accommodation but it’s all the more appealing for its rough-around-the-edges feel and refusal to sacrifice authenticity for modern comforts.
Before a simple but tasty dinner, some of us climb to the top of the vast sand dune that looms large over 1000 Nights in anticipation of the sunset.
At the summit, the views, silence and sense of a world at a standstill make for one of those unique moments, interrupted only by thoughts that getting up here was one thing but getting down might be quite another challenge altogether.
Helen, a fellow traveller and one of those wonderfully no-nonsense, just-get-on-with-it Aussies, tells those of us experiencing a sense of anticipation the only way is to launch oneself off and run down what appears the sort of drop you’d face from the top of a roller-coaster. Helen seems so assured of her instructions and so graceful and efficient in her execution we follow suit.
The next morning we travel the 320km to Nizwa. Much of Arabia’s handicraft industries are based here, while the city fort has been restored to its original grandeur, and its bazaar is one packed with spices and crafts as well as boasting a charming, no-hassle atmosphere.
Our travels began and ended in Muscat – a sprawling city which, to the stranger at least, appears to lack a centre; a defining hub. It does, however, have the majestic Grand Mosque capable of accommodating up to 20,000 worshippers; a bustling souk, and the Al Alam Palace flanked by the twin forts of Mirani and Jalali.
There are undoubtedly signs this Sultanate of oil, untold natural resources and zero income tax means business.
While across the border Dubai pedals its brand of glitter, glitz and – some might say – over the top fabricated opulence, life in this land of forts, tourist-free souks and desert nomads continues in a more sedate, understated fashion. For Oman, tourism remains in its infancy and that, for many, will be reason enough to go explore.