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#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.

Such majestic mountains come right to the ocean here.

We've seen this plant several times already - Ali knows it, but can't remember the name. He'll find out for me. Like most other plants we're seeing out in the dry countryside, it's very tough.

Our water taxi.

We passed a power plant, a liquified natural gas plant and a urea factory. Power lines shadow the coast, crossing from ridge to ridge where huge pads have been cut into the sides of mountains for the pylons. The gas comes in a pipeline from the desert.

Don't you love the palette of this landscape? Such soft blues, grey, pinks, sand. I thought this was an upmarket beach development. No, said Ali, that's social housing. What's social housing? It's housing built for poor people. I've since read that there is a policy in Oman of providing housing for the disadvantaged. The free blocks of land have to be applied for and may take years to eventuate. It's quicker if you apply to live in your home town. Apply for Muscat and you may wait for thirty years. But if you are poor you can apply for social housing instead. It's means-tested: it can be granted free to citizens, or alternatively made available through a low interest loan. Whatever the situation, the standard of accommodation looks very impressive and impossible to tell from affluent developments. As a matter of fact if you see an upmarket development, it's almost bound to be social housing.

Prosperity in Oman over the last 30 years has come through oil. Because the price of oil is now so low, and Omanis fear that other gulf states will keep it low through oversupply, they're worried that there are hard times ahead. They have a certain cost of production, and to keep building infrastructure etc they need the price of oil to increase again or their standard of living is going to go down. It's simple kitchen economics which everyone understands.

It was quite hazy today which brought Ali to discuss the difference between a dust storm and a sandstorm. A dust storm builds slowly over weeks and months and lingers afterwards. A sand storm is sudden and more destructive like a tsunami.

We were excited to see goats sitting in the shade by the road. Ali explained that these are all domestic goats which go home at night. They're very athletic in their attempts to reach the high branches.

I do so admire the low windswept acacia trees, so tough, so resilient. The landscape so forbidding.

Goats are natural clowns.

Where one goes, the others follow.

They are part of this eternal landscape.

Waiting in the shade for my lift... Recognise me without a hijab? I hardly know myself.

Further south we saw Wadi Tiwi which is bigger and wider, and people live back up the wadi away from the coast along a sealed road. The difference here is that this particular wadi never stops flowing. As a matter of interest, unemployment benefits are available in Oman, but if you turn down 3 jobs, it is finished.

We arrived in Sur for lunch at a restaurant called Zaki. It was recommended to Ali by another guide, by text. With modern technology a restaurant can't just rest on its laurels can it. It's only as good as the last meal it served someone with a smartphone.

We sat upstairs in the family section while takeaways were doing a roaring trade downstairs. John ordered a spectacular barbecued fish and I had a ginger fish tagine with mandi rice (yemeni style), and a fresh apple juice. The carrot amidships is to cover a hole I made doing a taste test before I remembered the photo. It was all simply delicious! The staff were very keen to please, almost as if we were an oddity here, and kept bringing more dishes, drinks, straws, bread to the table. Each time it made me laugh, which I think kept them thinking of more things to bring.

Ali told us that in 1993 the birth rate was 9.3 children per couple. After the government suggested a break of 3 years between children, it's now it's 3.7.

This post-prandial palate cleanser was a bowl of tiny lollies mixed with aniseed-tasting fennel seeds to be spooned into the hand and licked up. Very novel!

Omanis have always been very good sailors and were trading with India by boat 5500 years ago. There was once an Omani kingdom spreading as far south as the Horn of Africa, Mombasa and Zanzibar. By the 8th century, an Omani sailor thought to be the fabled Sinbad had reached China where he set up a merchant community in Canton. And the famous Ahmed bin Majid, Omani master of the sea in the 15th century was credited with guiding Vasco Da Gama around the Cape of Good Hope and beyond. Probably to their regret because the Portuguese then settled here.

At the peak of Oman's sea-faring fame, they were making magnificent dhows. In the 1830's and '40's their ships went as far afield as New York and London. It's sad then that now there is only one shipyard left making them. The sultan encourages them to allow tourists to simply wander in and watch the skills of the men working there. Perhaps Ali paid them while we were taking photos. No worries about workplace health and safety here!

Everything is still done by hand. Men work under thatched roofing, and during construction the hull is stayed by sawn timber and bits of tree branches.

We went across a suspension bridge and walked up a hill to view the city of Sur.

Time to move on. Ali bought some loqaimad sweets at a stall. They're a sweet dumpling in date palm syrup and very delicious! Not at all fattening. -:) We ate them in the car as we set off for the Desert Nights Camp. We passed the southern tip of the Al Hajar mountain range, and the road changed from a divided highway to two-way. A new road is being built. It's all happening in Oman! Infrastructure generally is amazing and is either built by the government, or by grace of the Sultan's generosity.

We saw these boys coming out of school, hopping on buses to go home. There was a mosque nearby. Before the 1970's in Oman, mosques didn't have minarets. Now they do. Muslims must pray at dawn, midday, afternoon, and one and half hours after sunset.

There was a car driving along the centre line at one point on the highway, and Ali said, he must be a bedouin. Bedouins drive like crazy people and they live in Bideyeh. It made us laugh. For the rest of the day when we saw anyone driving a bit oddly, we said there goes a bedouin.

In Bideyeh, Ali let his tyres down for the trip of eleven kilometres of sand track to the Desert Nights Camp,

The dunes run north south and we drove south between two of them. The crazy man above overtook us at speed and went up on to the base of a dune, slewing his tail around without slowing down. I was glad Ali wasn't so hot headed!

It was nearing sunset when we arrived at the camp. We dropped our bags and hopped in a resort Landcruiser for a lift to the top of the nearby dune to watch the sunset. The cooling air over the warm sand causes quite a surprisingly stiff breeze to blow in the evening. Ali had advised us to put our cameras in ziplock bags to protect them from blowing sand which can wreck a camera, and not to drop anything as it will instantly disappear. Many mobile phones are hidden beneath those sands!

A couple of families were already up at the top and the driver drove straight up the sand dune at speed, and turned suddenly to face down the dune to drop us off. There was a self-serve esky with drinks and nibbles sitting out in the open. At this time of the afternoon, the sand looked very red.

Isn't it great how the wind cleans the sand dunes of any tracks overnight? Any marks we make in the sand will be gone by morning.

The sun sank slowly beneath the horizon.

This busy little red-spotted lizard must live up there perhaps off the scraps from the esky. He was scooting around, staying close to us, going first under the esky, then to the edge of the dune, making tiny little tracks. Busy busy. Every now and then we’d see him again scooting around.

The Desert Nights Camp was looking more and more inviting. After sunset, we were picked up and brought back down to our rustic tent (solid walls, double skin canvas roof) which has all the modern conveniences: living room, bathroom and bedroom in red blue and and green. Not super luxurious but air-conditioned and plenty of hot water.

The blind in the bathroom.

We took the torch provided to dinner in the restaurant building. I've since read about side-winding vipers so I'm glad I hadn't read about them then. There's lots of outdoor lounge seating. It's a (large) tent with a barbecue area and bbq chef, and an indoor air-conditioned dining area with buffet salads, bread, fruit, and desserts. John had barbeque prawns and fish, I just had salads as I was still full from lunch. And cold Tiger beer.

There are a few Australians in the camp, and a couple from Belgium. Lots of chatter at dinner.

Cheery musicians played gentle rhythm music while we ate - they came from Bideya.

It was a magnificent meal. Chef Buddhika is from Sri Lanka, and one of the waiters was from Nepal. John loved his, I loved the tomato and coriander salad, kidney bean salad, cucumber salad. Then bananas with butterscotch, bread and butter pudding, and creme caramel.

Ali wasn't sure if there would be room for him but he is staying here too, in guide accommodation. I'm glad he didn't have to drive back to Bideyeh.

This is an old Omani proverb which makes me smile:

Don't prepare the medicine before the blow on the head.

We're tuckered out, so it's off to bed. Tomorrow we drive to the mountains! Hope you enjoyed our first day in Oman!

Buddies I'm aware that some of you have had a problem with leaving comments, and I'm sad to be missing them. I am trying to have it fixed but in the meantime please email me if you can't post yours. Until tomorrow, I wait you...

shelley dark, writer 

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