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  • Shelley Dark

#17 from coast to desert

For more formal occasions Omanis put the turban on over the cap because it gives a regular shape. Our model was on the desk of the Al Bustan Palace this morning - it's standard dress for staff at the hotel.

But it's not easy to do. He said he waits each day until he is at work, and then someone helps him put it on. A scarf with a border like this gives a plain crown and contrasting band.

After breakfast, Ali was waiting for us, wearing a brown dishdasha. As we walked out of the hotel together I was struck again by the contrast between the gardens and the surrounding country side.

The long hotel driveway is lined by two rows of vertical Indian mast trees - what a perfect tropical version of the shape of America's poplar or Italy's cypress.

Ali told us that the government owns the Al Bustan land and the hotel building. I'm not sure if it runs the hotel itself or leases it to a company which runs it as part of the Ritz Carlton group. Probably the latter. Although the Sultan keeps the ninth floor for his guests. Last night we heard and then watched a helicopter come in to the helipad. I don't know if they were the flyins, but this morning there were officers in army uniform at breakfast.

The sultan is the eighth generation of the Bin Said Al Said dynasty to take the throne. While the government funds most of the infrastructure work in Oman (at the Sultan's direction), the Sultan funds much of it himself and is always announcing some new initiative. He's a generous man and much admired by his people. They feel that for Oman he was the right man at the right time.

This was our route today. Down the coast to Sur and then west to the desert.

Once we reach Bidiyah, then we'll go south again into the sand dunes running north south at the bottom of the map.

Ali offered us a choice of 2 roads to begin with, one through the city on a sealed road and then south, or another on a dirt road shortcut joining the beach further south.

We chose the dirt which ran between the foothills and the mountains to the west. Here is a good example of those lovely weeping willow looking trees - prosopis cineraria. Or perhaps it's the Christ Thorn which grows along dry river beds and looks quite similar. Both obviously as tough as old boots, although probably there is probably underground water here to have it looking so green and healthy. But someone must have kept it alive as it was growing, watering it until it could get its roots down to fend for itself.

We were travelling between foothills and dramatic mountains. I always marvel at shapes in the rocks like this which suggest the most violent geological movement in something so permanent and hard.

Ali stopped at a service station for drinks - at home I drink soda water, but here I elected to continue with the non-alcoholic beer. I've become quite fond of it. John has diet coke which is not always available apparently.

Our first stop was at a sinkhole called Bimmah Sinkhole. It's also called Hawiyat Najm meaning Shooting Star, because it was once thought that this hole was caused by a meteor. Archaeological work though has established that the upper limestone rock collapsed into a hole caused by weathering. It looked just perfect for swimming on such a hot day.

There was a hot wind today - it's called the Gharbi which helps ripen the dates which need temperatures of at least 35 degrees. And apparently it has been a very hot summer - Muscat scored a temperature of 47 degrees celsius. Global warming must be a real concern for countries in the Middle East.

We saw our first camel. I thought it was wild but no said Ali, not likely and pointed out it was hobbled. Camels are too valuable to be to be loose.

The most expensive camels are bred for racing, the most popular sport in Oman . Racing camels are treated like royalty and fed dried sardines, dates, mountain honey, lucerne and milk. Prize money is extravagant - any win at all means at least a pickup truck as a prize.

The Sultan is very keen on the sport, and the royal stables are known for often being the highest bidder at an auction. Competition is fierce between all the gulf states. Ali mentioned that a racing camel will keep running until it dies. There are power races of 20, 30 and 40 km. A camel lives for about 20 years. Young camels are ridden by females, young males and robot jockeys. Short races are the most popular distance, two kilometres being the most popular. Camel beauty competitions are held and $1 million is not unknown for top camels. Any 2-3 year old camel at all is worth AU$800 at least.

At the beginning of a race, the camels are behind a rope barrier with the handlers in front of the barrier, holding the neck rope. When the start call is heard, they let go of the ropes and run for their lives. It looks hair-raising and quite dangerous doesn't it?

We asked if camels are eaten ever. Ali said that old camel meat is very tough while young camel meat is said to be delicious but usually available only in private homes. I'm happy to pass.

Ali wanted to show us Fin Beach, one of the few stretches of white sand in Oman. It's on a dirt road and is popular for camping.

Ali checking his texts. I've been wondering about which country's dress is a type of dishdasha with the scarf on their head and rope around it. He said if the gown has a collar, the person is from the United Arab Emirates. If there's no collar, they are from another of the Gulf States.

I wondered what is worn under the dishdasha. Ali showed me. A cotton lungi made from white fabric with pretty stripes at the bottom.

Time to get back into the car and set off again.

Ali took his kuma off and put it on the console between our seats. It has hundreds of tiny perforations for ventilation. Hand made kumas all have different patterns - this one is based on a leaf, hand-stitched and would have taken a very long time to make. Every little perforation in the white fabric is embroidered very finely in blanket stitch with coloured threads, lifting the pattern so it's three-dimensional. Machine made ones are available in the shops, but they wouldn't be anything like this quality.

The water is a glorious turquoise, but the sand a little pebbly!

We drove on to Wadi Sham, where Ali gave us a geography lesson. One of the most frequently used words we will hear this week is WADI. A wadi is any water course, and in this climate they are often dry. The wadis and close to them are where crops are grown and people live. They are the lifeblood of the country, and underground water is often close to the surface. And of course homes flood after rain.

The Sultan wants every town, even those west of the mountains, to have a piped supply of clean water supplied by desalination plants along the coast line and is on the way to achieving it. Water is delivered by coloured-coded trucks: green means recycled, blue is drinkable and yellow is sewage water.

The Chinese were building a toll road on the major highway we are travelling, but the Sultan had a change of heart about it, bought it back from the Chinese, and now it's free passage. This is one of the magnificent bridges, right on the ocean.

The wadi has a cliff on one side, so we went across by boat to go for a walk. Ali paid this man to take us, while locals waded across up to their bellies.

This donkey was sheltering from the hot sun in a tiny sliver of shade from the cliff overhang. Sensible animal.