Oman’s culture and traditions are palpable, unlike its brash Middle Eastern counterparts.
Not so long ago, the Sultanate of Oman was just a tarmac road, one hospital, a handful of schools and a vast yawning expanse of absolute nothingness. With an ambitious modernisation programme under Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the country has now come into its own. Oman’s culture and traditions are palpable, unlike its brash Middle Eastern counterparts. A uniform colour code for buildings ensures that they adhere to shades of beige, brown or white. With sand and gravel deserts punctuated by rugged striated mountains, crumbling villages, hundreds of ancient forts and watchtowers and lush wadis, it offers a cocktail of sights to the intrepid traveller.
1.Bedouin for a day
Tarred roads give way to sand once I cross the Hajar Mountains. Omani hospitality is legendary and I visit a Bedouin home near Wahiba Sands with traditional vessels in glass cases, frayed carpets, saddle bags on walls and perky children playing hopscotch. I stay at the desert camp evocatively called ‘1000 nights’, with basic accommodation in tents and activities like the mournful music of local tribes, camel riding, quad bikes and dune bashing as well as an opportunity to see the dunes change colours at dawn and dusk.
2.Oman’s own Grand Canyon
The Hajar Mountains of Oman are a patchwork of mountains with their striations of green copper and deep red iron, forged by erosion and volcanic activity. This is a bleak region inhabited by goats and sheep and weavers creating sheep wool rugs in brilliant colours. I visit Shorfat al Nakhar framed by Jebel Shams, the highest mountain at over 3000 metres and look down the precipitous walls at the floor of the Wadi Nakhur, popularly called the Grand Canyon of Oman. I see tiny villages ringed by date palms as well as trekkers as minuscule as ants on the floor of the valley. There is a walking route along the rim of the canyon, obviously not for the faint hearted!
3.Soak in a Wadi
The Wadis are basically dried riverbeds that come into their own after the rains providing a delightful counterpoint to the harsh, parched Omani palette. Thanks to falaj or an indigenous irrigation system, the wadis support small villages fringed by mango and banana trees. I visit Wadi Ban Khalid, 200 km from Muscat, a green lush oasis with rocky pools and date plantations. I sip on lime mint juice and watch locals carry supplies, food and mats in small wheel barrows over shallow water and precarious boulders, spending a day soaking and swimming in the aquamarine waters. I hear about flash floods that can, in a minute, send large volumes of debris and rocks down the wadi channels and sweep even large vehicles away!
Following the coast southwards from Muscat, I arrive at picturesque Sur, once the boat building centre of Oman. Dhows were traditionally built without a nail or blueprint; teak planks bound together with coconut fibre and decks polished with shark oil mixed with lime. Malayali craftsmen from the Malabar Coast still build these sturdy vessels now largely used by the tourism industry. Intricately crafted miniature dhows are sold as souvenirs and large life-sized dhows weighing as much as 200 tonnes, still on their wooden frames being built, keel upwards.
About 55 km from Sur, at the most eastern point of the Arabian Peninsula is the Ras Al Jinz Scientific and Visitor’s Centre, which was set up by a royal decree, to bring back the gargantuan green turtles from the brink of extinction. A state-of-the-art museum showcases information about the turtles covering their entire life cycle as well as archaeological finds of the region. The centre offers nightly and early morning tours with strict rules about flashlights and photography. The walk leads us to the beach under a blanket of stars where we see a giant green turtle plodding its way back to the ocean, after laying eggs in a sand pit. Baby turtles take their first steps, following the path of the guide’s torchlight and make their way to the ocean: only two or three of them survive out of a thousand, says the guide. They are eaten by gulls, foxes and other predators.
Amouage is a local Omani success story. It’s a perfume company that derives its inspiration from Oman’s ancient art of perfumery and retails its unique perfumes (made from exotic local ingredients like rose petals, frankincense and spices and bottled in elegant gold flasks), in more than 52 countries worldwide. I take a tour of its sleek factory in Muscat, where more than 2500 bottles of perfume are painstakingly bottled by hand and its showroom where you can stock up on not only expensive fragrances, but also accessories like bags.