A journey starts with a single step…
It’s a cold early December. We’ve just struggled through Storm Arwen and now Storm Barra has struck with a ferocity that forces one inside and around the comfort of the log burner. With Christmas just a few weeks away, it seems the perfect time to pack for our first long-haul since Covid struck a little under two years ago.
We’ve been invited to Muscat, Oman, for Christmas. We’re staying with our son and his family. It’s been a trip in waiting and it’s exciting to plan to travel again. In truth, we were supposed to have gone in March 2020, but then ‘Lockdown One’ happened and the world suddenly changed.
And hasn’t it just? The flights we had on hold are now £1000 more expensive. We’ve had to arrange pre-flight PCR tests for 72 hours before we fly, complete registrations for when we land, arrange pre-PCR tests before we fly back and, this week’s latest news, Day 2 PCR tests after we land back home; the result of a rise in Variant Omicron. Nearly a third of the cost of our flight tickets will be incurred swabbing throats and prodding nasal cavities – even if we are ‘triple-jabbed’.
Add to that the cost of entry visas, airport hotel and parking and fuel at an all-time high and travel doesn’t look as easy as it used to. Or as convenient. Welcome to the New World Order.
This was to be a family event. Our daughter, her husband and their two young boys were flying out with us. However, with the situation changing by the hour and the Red List growing ominously longer by the day and with work responsibilities, not to mention the thought of a possible ten-day quarantine in a hotel room with two Under 5’s not being anything other than a nightmare; sadly, they’ve decided to cancel until ‘things get a little better’. The sad truth is that this may take some time.
We’re flying out alone.
It’s five days until we’re due to climb the passenger boarding stairs, take our seats and negotiate a flight to Abu Dhabi and then on to Muscat. We’ve an industrial supply of face masks and hand sanitiser and a good deal of faith in the moral responsibilities of our fellow travellers.
Five days to check a mountain of paperwork. Five days to watch the nightly news and place our trust in a government that seems to be reaching decisions by knee-jerk, rather than the term we’ve come to see being ignored more and more often, of ‘following the science’.
Seventy-two hours before we fly, we sample the New World Order of Fit-to -Fly medicals. One swab up a single nostril followed by a quick squint by the pharmacist to make sure there’s a decent bit of mucus attached and that’s it. For a 24hr turnaround, probably the cheapest option, we say goodbye to £189 for two tests. The certificate duly arrives by email…scant in detail but carrying that essential word – ‘negative’.
Expecting Heathrow to resemble the evacuation of Kabul, we decide to ensure we can get there relatively easily. We check into the Premier Inn on Bath Road, the night before. I wasn’t quite expecting something so large. It has echoes of a Las Vegas hotel….floor after floor of identical rooms, coffee bars, restaurants, shops…all designed to seduce the trapped passenger into parting with their money for rather mediocre fare at near-Michelin star prices.
The following morning, we arrive at Terminal 3. It’s the week before Christmas and I’m surprised just how many people are still prepared to travel, given the Omicron Plague and the increased stress of ‘being prepared’.
At the Etihad check-in desk, I’m not really prepared either for a near thirty minute wait while paperwork is examined. I produce, on request, passports, PCR test certificates, e-Musrif validation-to-fly certificates, vaccination records and visas. Everything is checked, double-checked and entered on the system.
I suppose it’s comforting to know that I’m probably as ‘sterile’ as I can be given the circumstances. But, this is New World Order Travel, not easy, pleasant or convenient as it used to be; nor will it ever be again, I suspect.
The Government Plan ‘B’ has just come into effect. Everywhere, people are wearing masks. Well, I say ‘wearing’…apparently, for some, having the elastic around your ears seems to be enough, the mask can be under your chin or simply over your mouth…that constitutes ‘abiding by the regulations’.
The man who usually clears the table at Caffe Nerd is now looking like an extra from Ghostbusters. He has an antibacterial backpack and swishes across the seats and surfaces as he passes with his wand. Not all shops are as rigorous or conscientious, however, and, considering the media coverage of the ‘new variant’, there are more anti-bac sprays in the supermarkets back home than here in Departures.
At last the Boeing Dreamliner taxis to the end of the runway and takes to the skies. The plane is full but everybody is aware of their own responsibilities and it’s actually quite civilised. The cabin crew are covered from head to foot in PPE: masks, gloves and gowns made from the same reinforced paper as those disposable decorating cover-alls that you can buy from most DIY shops.
Etihad have clearly cut back and also cut their cloth in light of a fall in trade. Gone are the endless complimentary alcoholic drinks. These days, it’s a dry run, with only tea, coffee, water and fruit juice, and that on request, as well. However, the food is still better than you’d expect considering the logistics of providing hot food for so many.
Middle Eastern airports are all fabulously new and very glitzy. None more so than Abu Dhabi, one of the seven kingdoms of the United Emirates. There’s plenty of time to make the connection for the short forty minute hop to Muscat, so we join our fellow travellers at Gate 60.
Probably 90% of the flight is made up of Indian workers, returning to their various contract jobs in Oman. Mostly single men, although there are also a few families. Although I know that everyone of them has to have produced a negative PCR test to be able to pass into Oman, but, nevertheless, they remain a motley crew. In a few cases, face masks are worn over the mouths. More often than not they’re worn under the chin, or on top of the head….you get the picture?. Strangely, most wear heavy winter anoraks, but with flip flops, sliders or open leather sandals. A curious bunch.
The cabin crew, with infinite patience, have their work cut out. Finding seats is proving a challenge for the customers. Sequencing numbers doesn’t seem to come easily and many who are to be seated in the front – in rows with low numbers are found lost and wandering at the back of the plane and have to be directed back against the flow of traffic to seats they passed some time before.
It doesn’t end there. As we’re coming in to land, with lights dimmed for a night arrival, some stand up, one in search of a pen, somebody else to fetch a bag from a locker.The stewardess does her best,
“Sir, you must sit down. Sir! Please take your seat. Sir, your tray table must be put away, don’t undo your safety lap stray. Sir! SERIOUSLY!!!!!”
By the time order has resumed, we’re about ten feet above the tarmac.
And then the paperwork starts again. At immigration, we’re asked to produce evidence of vaccination and also verification to fly, even though we’ve already flown. Passports are stamped and we move on, past army and police personnel, to tables where we have to produce evidence of vaccination and verification to fly, even though,,,,yes, you’re getting the idea, I can see.
QR codes are checked and papers stamped. At the end of the line, a soldier rechecks the QR code, photographs everything within sight and… we’re through.
The electronic display indicates that our baggage is on Carousel 5. We’re told to go to Carousel 1. Somebody points at the screen…it’s wrong, apparently. Voices are raised and fingers pointed…. We wait and wait and wait at Carousel 1 for two suitcases that are circling on a lonely trip around Carousel 5……that’s the Middle East for you.
Muscat. The night air is balmy and it’s as warm outside the airport as it is inside. The concourse and forecourt are laid in glistening marble and Arrivals looks more like a high-end car showroom than an airport.
A short ride takes us to Al Ghubrah, north of the airport and a good night’s rest.
The future has a way of arriving unannounced (George Will)
In Ghubrah, Muscat, morning arrives very much ‘announced’. At 5.17 a.m. to be precise. The call to prayer from the Ibrahim Al Khalil mosque, just a minute’s walk away, shatters the early morning silence. Whether the Muadhan is on a recruitment drive or just enthusiastic in the mornings, I know not. But he’s clearly good at his job with oodles of religious zeal and no one is likely to sleep through his morning adhan.
We wake to a world of seemingly endless sunshine, broken only by the odd sand storm, occasional torrents of rain and a few cloudy days. Even in December it’s a lovely 26⁰C by day at 19⁰C by night.
Ghubrah is definitely ‘up market’. It’s marvellous what you can do with cinder block and plaster when there’s enough land to enable you to build upwards and outwards. Villas are enormous with grand entrances, security gates, balconies and are fortress-like for privacy. If you’re rich and Omani, chances are you’ll have separate male / female entrances with plenty of room for a large extended family.
Our humble abode is on three floors. At the top is the maid’s bedroom with en-suite shower and an exit onto the roof for washing and drying of clothes, towels and bedding. The second floor houses three bedrooms with bathroom and en-suite facilities. The grand staircase leads downstairs to the hall, lounge, dining room and kitchen..and a downstairs bathroom, of course. The front door, reminiscent of the closing credits of ‘The Beverley Hillbillies’, leads out into the yard area, walled all around for privacy and leading to more potential quarters for staff.
Middle and upper class families, Omani or ex-pat, invariably have at least a cleaner. After that, they may acquire a maid (who may or may not live in), then a nanny and, finally, you know when you’ve ‘arrived’ because you now have a driver!
It’s comfortably cool outside at this time of year, albeit that this is mosquito country and there is the almost mandatory burning of frankincense to help keep them at bay. There’s a certain charm in the thought that we’re burning frankincense at this time of year when, all those years ago, Balthazar would have hailed from this part of the world and, at the age of 40, made the long trip west with frankincense in a censor as a gift for a young child.
We take a stroll to get our bearings and a street west leads to the sea. This is the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman which leads across to the strategic Straits of Hormuz. Fisherman are bringing in their catch and the sky is alive with gulls. They cover the beach and fill the air with their calls – scavenging anything that is discarded from the boats. The sand quickly becomes patterned with footprints and droppings and the air is thick with the clamour of wings. Such a contrast to the eerily quiet park some two hundred yards further on, along the beach.
The sea is warm, and the water, although cloudy with the movement of sand, is pleasant enough for a paddle. This is Oman, so the few people walking the shoreline or taking a paddle are respectively dressed. There are notices at various points reminding you of the need to cover up and be on your best behaviour.
Labor Omnia Vincit
It was Virgil who first came up with the phrase Labor omnia vincit in recognition of Augustus Caesar’s Back to the Land policy of trying to encourage more Romans to become farmers.
Work conquers all is the motto of Cheltenham Muscat, a brand new school built in the Al Bandar region of Muscat as part of a huge development programme financed by the Oman Ministry of Defence Pension Fund. Eventually, the school and a nearby Hypermarket will be joined by a hospital, villa residences and other infrastructure.
It’s a phenomenal build and we’re lucky enough to be invited for a tour of the facilities. Children attending not only benefit from a first-class education but also first-class facilities including a Sports Hall the size of an aircraft hanger, indoor / outdoor pool, state of the art laboratories, workshops and classrooms and stunning facilities for staff and pupils alike. It certainly is impressive.
Later on, we drive down to the coast, east to Muttrah, an old area of Muscat. The fish market opens just after dawn and people arrive to buy fresh mullet, tuna, kingfish, grouper and crabs, along with a whole host of deep sea monsters and shellfish. This is fish at its very freshest, kept cool with ice and sold whole – all gone by lunchtime. There are some extremely ugly fish swimming around in the Indian Ocean. I mean, fish aren’t exactly the most photogenic creatures at the best of times, but some of the deep-water monstrosities on sale certainly wouldn’t be Beauty Contest winners.
Next door is the fruit market. Oranges, pomegranates, dates, all the fruits of the Orient are stacked high in tables. There’s no need for a heavy sell here, nor for bartering. People come for what they need and few, if any, go away disappointed.
We walk the Corniche along to Muttrah Fort, dating from the early 17th century. The Portuguese reinforced an already-existing fortification to guard the city’s entrance from the sea. It commands a sweeping view of the whole bay, and, nowadays, takes in the cruise ships as well as an old dhow moored in the bay.
Moored out in the bay are the Emir’s two ocean-going liners. The size of a respectable cruise ship, they must be able to accommodate several hundred guests, family and staff. But two? His and hers?
A little further along the Corniche is the Muttrah Souk, a labyrinth of alleyways housing vendors of jewellery, gifts, silks, pashminas, cashmere, incense, pots, pans, household goods, carpets and antiques. It’s a treasure trove and it’s easy to become lost in the side alleys. However, eventually, all roads seem to lead, eventually, on to the Corniche or back out into the sunshine.
It’s time to buy meat for tea. Beef, lamb and chicken are plentiful. The beef and lamb come mainly from New Zealand although there is also trade with Somalia and Sudan. Pork is off the menu, for obvious reasons, but you can buy turkey bacon – which tastes neither of turkey nor bacon, but, well there you go. This is a modern country and one that values its diversity, both in terms of religion and cultures. However, great care is taken by all not to upset the customs and habits of the Omanis.
It’s the same with alcohol. It’s freely available in the hotels and private member social clubs, at a price, and non-Omanis with resident cards can purchase a quota of alcohol through licensed outlets based on a percentage of their salaries. The duty-free shop at the airport offers UK prices free of the ‘sin tax’ imposed by the Omani government which forces up the price of a case of beer by 100%. The same increase applies to tobacco, pork products and energy drinks. Carbonated soft drinks are currently subject to a 50% increase.
Yes, goods are expensive here. And yet, fuel and domestic utility charges are cheap. Very cheap. Ridiculously cheap. Most car owners drive big, thirsty 4x4s in order to take advantage of the geography – the beaches and the mountains. There is evidence of Tesla charging stations, but the V6 and V8, four and five litre monsters certainly outnumber anything ‘green’, at least for now.
Driving is quite an experience. The roads are excellent and, whilst Omanis tend to drive more aggressively than their counterparts in the west, vehicles are in good condition and must be regularly cleaned, by law. The same law applies to traffic lights. They are there to be obeyed. Running a red light is punishable by a fine and a mandatory night in jail. Cars stop when the green light flashes or on amber. There’s no two ways about it. Interestingly, it’s the car owner who will be guilty, not the driver. Traffic cameras are everywhere, at all intersections, junctions and by car parks. ANPR systems constantly collect and process data. This is a country with a very, very large police force.
In these times of COVID, there are also strict regulations with regard to public safety. The wearing of masks is mandatory in all retail outlets and public buildings. Evidence of vaccination has to be shown on entrance and there are no exceptions. People are law-abiding, courteous and friendly. English is very much a second language and, partly due to tourism and a large non-resident workforce throughout the country, the locals are more than used to everyday dealings with foreigners. After all, goods in the shops, signage on roads and streets are all bilingual. This is a country with a long tradition of involvement with the west, both in terms of military engagements and well as trade and exploration.
The UK Joint Logistics Support Base, based on Oman, facilitates the deployment of British Armed Forces in the Persian Gulf as well as regular engagement in military training alongside the Omani Navy, Army and Air Force.
Petroleum Development Oman
Out on the northern peninsula of Muscat is the Headquarters of PDO, Petroleum Development Oman. It’s not just a huge commercial enterprise, it’s also a way of life. The refineries are hidden away behind rocky headlands and to the south lies the rest of the PDO infrastructure: healthcare, housing, school, recreation and social facilities, sports and beach club. It’s prestigious and provides a luxury lifestyle for workers and management alike.
The large villa properties are reserved for senior management. Middle managers congregate in a village of medium-sized villas and service personnel, including teachers, live in elegant apartment blocks with large balconies.
Everyone has easy access to the sea. PDO contracts provide either free or generously-subsidised everything: accommodation, social facilities, bars, restaurants, sports, schooling…all designed to keep the customer and the employee happy.
We drive through the security barriers, presenting passports, COVID health checks, vaccination records and we also have our temperatures taken.
The beach has fewer restrictions than other Omani beaches. Bikinis are allowed as is the consumption of alcohol. Pina Coladas abound and the bar sells subsidised draught lager, albeit still at £5 a pint. But, hey, that’s half price and cheaper than London! And they throw in free popcorn!
There’s a keen sailing fraternity and the beach is littered with numerous small and rather swish boats. In fact, the whole atmosphere reminds one of Greece or Turkey, rather than the Arabian peninsula.
Listen carefully and you’ll hear all manner of languages and accents. American, British, Arabic as well as a significant number of European languages. The clientele are either service workers for PDO or employees from the production side of the oil industry. It would have been so easy to create a sprawling, ugly oil refinery here. But, there has been the utmost care to ensure that the industrial side of oil production is hidden away and that the beauty and quality of the coast and sea is protected above all else. It really is paradise around the corner from 21st century industry.
The Wave, out at Al Mouj, is a purpose-built, gated community, close to the international airport and even closer to the beach and marina. It offers everything from expansive villas to luxury apartments on a site that also offers full retail and recreational facilities.
It’s attractive but always busy. It offers secure and comfortable living, at a price. Rents here are 30% more expensive than other parts of Muscat. It’s prime real estate.
Spinney’s supermarket offers a wide range of beautiful foodstuffs. Six types of mango, imported from the Far East and Africa. Shelf after shelf of flour, rice, pasta and all manner of luxury goods. Away to the left is a small section marked ‘non-Muslim’s only’. On the other side of the screen are the ‘pork products’. Subject now to astronomical tax rates, a can of Spam will set you back £21. For a tin of Chinese luncheon meat, you’d have to part with £18. A jar of hot dog sausages? £12. Two slices of thinly-cut boiled ham? £9.
Suddenly turkey bacon and beef sausages take on a whole new appeal. Actually, beef sausages are rather good. Back home, we should eat them more often.
The Wave offers so many places to lunch, it’s difficult to choose. Groups of ladies, all respectfully adorned in their classic black abayas meet for coffee and a chat…and like anywhere else in the world, stay for hours. We eat at Cafe Bateel and enjoy chicken wraps, filled with fresh olives, rocket salad and spiced mayonnaise and drink iced tea, freshly squeezed orange juice and lovely fresh coffees. It’s not cheap. Probably 20% more expensive than current London prices. But it doesn’t deter the public nor does it affect trade. This is a wealthy country.
In the afternoon, we’re at Al Bustan Palace Hotel, part of the Ritz-Carlton group. With its numerous pools, spa and 200 acre beachfront facilities, it’s luxury holiday making. Out of season – during the height of summer, a room here is about $290 a night. You can double that when the temperature drops into the pleasant and manageable late 20⁰C’s.
There’s a Christmas pageant on offer, in aid of charity. Again, vaccination certificates are checked and temperatures taken. Santa is posing for photographs while a three piece string group plays Christmas carols. At the far end of the hotel grounds, a group sings Feliz Navidad to guests around tables enjoying takeaway food and soft drinks. It’s all very festive..and, at the same time, rather strange.
Twilight is very brief here. The great ethereal light switch takes us from daytime to nighttime in the space of twenty minutes. Fairy lights come on all over the hotel grounds and the whole scene suddenly becomes magical. We might think that Christmas is all about snow and being wrapped up against the cold, but there’s a certain charm in celebrating the season in shorts and a tee-shirt.
Another day over. It’s time to make our way home and there’s a large gin and tonic calling for me. After all, at 5.22 a.m. tomorrow morning, peace will be shattered as the faithful are called to the first prayer of the day. There’s little chance of dozing off after that, not for this infidel, anyhow.
Wadi Dayqah Dam
Out at Qurayyat, 90 Kms east of the Wadi Adel roundabout on the edge of Muscat lies the beautiful Dayqah Dam. Over 120 other wadis lead into this area which provides the water for all the fruit farms of Al Mazarea. The wadi harvests all the water from the area, trapping it here at Wadi Dayqah as part of a vast irrigation project.
It’s a beautiful place that welcomes visitors interested in how the project works as well as offering families a shaded park for picnics with stunning views out over the wadi and up into the staggeringly beautiful mountain ranges that surround it.
The El Hajaf mountains here are phenomenal. They rise stretching over 9000 feet above sea level. Devoid of any forestry or woodland, the scorched earth supports a few bushes, goats, camels and donkeys. Hardy creatures with good, strong teeth and an even tougher constitution.
This can be off-road country, if you wish. The police will deter anyone who attempts to go off-road in anything other than a proper 4×4. But, never fear, the roads and expressway that has been carved through the mountains are a credit to any engineer. It’s smooth, pothole-free and, although there are some steep sections, the quality of the road makes for easy driving.
The Bimmah Sinkhole
Otherwise known as Hawiyyar Naomi, the Bimmah Sinkhole lies close to the Al Sharqiyah region, about two hours drive from Muscat.
The hole is 50 x 70 metres in size and some 300 feet at its deepest part. Although it’s now accepted as a natural sinkhole, for centuries it was believed that it was formed by a meteorite, hence its name in Arabic means ‘the deep well of the falling star’.
There’s a staircase down to the water level and the waters change from emerald green to turquoise depending on the depth. Swimmers leap off the high rocks surrounding it….mainly tourists from the Far East. It’s terrifying watching the complete disregard for personal safety. Better them than me!
We carry on by car to Wadi Al Arbeieen to go off-road up treacherous rocky paths. Cyclone Shaheen left a trail of destruction and the route is barely passable, even in 4 wheel drive. After twenty miles or so, common sense gets the better of us and we three-point turn with cries of anguish from the back seat as the edge gets ever closer…and head for home.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Open daily from 8.30 a.m. until 11 a.m., except on a Friday, of course, the Grand Mosque is 400 square metres of sheer beauty. Gardens have been laid out and filled with petunias, marigolds and other flowering plants and tended with loving care and devotion.
Inside, it will accommodate 6500 male and over 750 female worshippers in separate halls. The floor is covered with the most fantastic carpets. The ladies kneel to pray on a carpet from Scotland, the men on the second biggest continual carpet in the World, woven by 600 Iranian weavers and containing 1,700,000 individual knots. The iconic artwork is stunningly beautiful. It’s easy to see why such devotion and art brings thousands of visitors, pilgrims and locals here every year. The opulence is spectacular. The wealthiest pray alongside the poorest, all seeking their place in the hereafter. There are so many good principles in the Muslim traditions, as there are in Christianity. It’s such a shame that we’re still fighting the same prejudices that seem to have existed since the Crusades, and probably long before.
If there’s one sight to see on a visit to Oman, it has to be the Grand Mosque. It leaves you spellbound and in awe. As Dave Allen would have said ‘May your God go with you!’…or not, as the case may be.
The Fort at Muttrah
We stop in a small cafe for lunch.
‘We have a special….avocado and cheese on Arabian bread’
‘Can I have a lamb wrap?’
‘Why? You don’t like cheese? It’s very good’
‘No, I don’t like avocados.’
‘ Just cheese, then?’
‘No, just a lamb wrap and leave out the cheese and avocado.’
Clearly the avocados are getting to be past their best and the ‘Use by’ date on the cheese must be close…..
After lunch, we climb the steps to the top of the Old Fort. It was constructed by the Portuguese and locally, is referred to as the Al Jalali Fort. It was built in 1580 and has been lovingly restored using historical references and original plans.
The Ottomans did their worst, as did the Persians…but today, it’s clean, well structured and offers a fabulous view of the Sultan’s cruise liners moored in the bay. At the moment, the Sultan and his wife are with the Queen in London. I hope they’re not ‘top trumping’ size of Royal Yachts…Her Maj will be beaten in Round One.
On the way home, we pass Muscat Bay and Muscat Hills Resorts. Built on a moonscape, they offer the very best in luxury holidaying. It must feel like Moon Base Alpha…nothing for miles except yellow sand, volcanic rocks and mountains. And then, turn around and you’ve the beautiful azure blue Indian Ocean. This place has everything. It’s no wonder people call it their ‘special place’.
Nizwa…..and the three forts
When I’m in Greece, sometimes I remark on ‘National costume’ as though it’s something of a novelty, or rarity. Here, in Oman, practically everybody wears traditional dress. Women are very rarely seen without their abayas and men sport the pristine white dishdasha and complementary kufi, the embroidered hat that the Omanis mould into various shapes and styles. Indeed, there are regulations about the way national dress should be worn and the cleanliness. The very large police force makes sure that everyone looks suitably smart.
We drive to Nizwa, two hours east of Muscat. The roads take you through stunning mountain scenery, roads carved out of the very very volcanic rock itself. It’s a sprawling, ancient city. We’re headed for the Antique Inn, right in the very heart of the old town. It’s the only hotel in the centre and it’s been restored from the ruins of ancient buildings into a traditional Omani hotel. Rooms are rough-plastered with beds made up on carpeted floors with cushions everywhere. Little arched windows high up by the ceiling let in light but keep out the heat of the day. It’s lovely.
The huge Nizwa fort dates back to the 17th century, although there has been a fortification on site since the 1200s. It’s been lovingly restored and commands a strategic viewpoint across the adjoining plains.
Back in 1957, during the Jebel Akhdar War, the RAF bombed the Nizwa fort without prior warning in Britain’s bid to protect Said bin Taimur and the potential oil reserves that were of interest to the British government.
It’s not a wealthy city, certainly it’s different to Muscat. It’s famous for its Friday morning goat market and the cost of living is clearly lower than the main city, except that, of course, as a tourist, you pay a different price to enter the castle. Local tax, tourist tax, national tax….. For two of us it shoots up to an entrance fee of £10.
We eat lunch at a cafe in the goat market and next to the souk and dinner at the Al Aqr restaurant. It’s clearly ‘out of season’ and food arrives slowly and rather haphazardly. Fellow travellers are amused that we can’t be trusted with metal cutlery and the table cloths are made of the same reinforced paper as hospital PPE.
The following morning, we travel to Bahla to the absolutely beautiful fort that dominates the town. Here, entrance fees are a mere £1 and this is a UNESCO World heritage site.
Welcome, where are you from?
Ah, Wales, good. Please enjoy your visit
Can you tell me why the fort was built?
I’m sorry…I don’t speak English….
The guides are well prepared in their opening stock phrases…you can’t draw them much further, sadly. We even mime ‘audio guide’…but run the risk of having an ear irrigation, so give up and move on,
Again, the views from the parapets take in date palms, farms and long winding roads that head up and back into the mountains. It’s hard to imagine anyone could get close to the fort without being spotted. If they did, the descriptions of the ‘murder holes’ down which the Omanis would pour boiling date oil to deter attackers are explicit and frightening enough.
From Bahla, it’s only a short drive to Jibreen Fort. The guide book states that if there’s only one fort you can visit, then it should be Jibreen. Strange that it’s also the most expensive one to enter, this time it’s £52 for the two of us! The logic passes me by.
Again, the castle dates back to the 17th century. It’s a beautiful fort with a madrasah and rooms for the Imam and guests, a library and meeting rooms. The high spot is the sun and moon room. The open windows at the top, by the ceiling, are designed to let in the moonlight and to create patterns on the walls, the windows at the bottom can be opened to let in the sunlight during the day. Between the two, they draw in cooler air from the top and emit hotter air from the bottom. Ancient engineering principles we are still using today.
On the way home, we visit Tanuf. It’s a small development of modern Omani houses on the edge of a deserted and ruined village in the shadow of the Al Hagar mountains. The village was abandoned in 1955 after an RAF bombing, without prior notification, of course. The town had become a centre for resistance and it was Britain’s view that destroying it would bring a quicker end to the rebellion. Although the British had been active in Oman since 1950, it wasn’t until 1957 that the media started reporting the fact. Declassified documents eventually showed that, once again, it wasn’t exactly ‘our finest hour’….as usual.
This year, Christmas Eve falls on a Friday, so all the shops are shut and the roads, which in Oman seem always to be called ‘streets’, around the mosques are packed with cars. Everybody is attending Friday prayers, symbolically the most significant prayer session of the Islamic week.
We drive over to the Al Alam Palace, one of six ceremonial homes belonging to the Sultan, although he is not in residence at the moment. It was built in 1972 and the blue and gold facade is fronted by what looks like three huge golf tees. This being Oman, tourists are welcome as far as the gates and photographs are allowed. It’s very peaceful, acres after acre of glossy, glistening paving and white marble walls. It’s hardly busy. There must be only five or six of us standing by the gate, looking in. It’s the same everywhere we go…no crowds, barely another tourist. It’s wonderfully liberating
A little further around the bay we come to the Royal Yacht Squadron headquarters at the edge of the old harbour. The wall on the other side of the bay is full of graffiti; the names of ships that have visited Oman since the 18th century. Referred to locally as ‘the Sultan’s Visiting Book’, rumour has it that Nelson stopped here on the way back from India. However, most of the more easy-to-read graffiti dates from fairly recently. HMS Falmouth visited here before it was decommissioned in 1984. OSV Relume is a mine layer. Other naval vessels include: HMS Yarmouth, Ormonde, Britannia, Perseus,….the list goes on, as does the graffiti, around the headland and into the bay.
Just before we put everything away for a day to celebrate Christmas Day, I spend half an hour, late on Christmas Eve having a haircut and a shave. There’s a little Bangladeshi barbers at the end of the road. It’s empty, so I think it safe to sit there, unmasked for a few minutes.
Machine number 1 and a shave, min fadlik.
The rest is pure ecstasy. The haircut doesn’t take long, to be fair…there’s not a lot to cut. Then the warm suds are applied to the face, not once but three times and the cut-throat razor does the rest. Talcum powder and then an electric razor, something astringent and then it all starts again….nose hair, ear hair, eyebrows, neck…all clean and trimmed. And finally, the head massage. Thump, twist, slap….thump, twist, slap…..The cost? £4.
I drive back, a little dazed… to finish wrapping presents, pour a large glass of wine and… relax.
Hang on, I hear you say? Wine? Well yes. Although he country is Muslim and ‘dry’, ex-pats are entitled to an alcohol licence and can buy spirits, wine and beer from the no-Muslim alcohol shop in Muscat. 20% of a salary can be spent on alcohol…and that’s more than enough. A bottle of gin will set you back somewhere between £50 – £80, a case of 24 beers, £50. In desperate times…..
There are two solutions….one is to buy via the airport duty free, but for that you need someone entering with a boarding card. Alcohol prices there are roughly in line with UK over-the-counter prices. The alternative is to join a social club, such as PDO just outside Muscat. The annual subscription might well be £500 per annum for each person, but the drinks are heavily subsidised. With enthusiasm, you can claw your subscription costs back over the bar in….a week / month / year (delete as applicable)
Rub al Khali Desert…..the Empty Quarter.
Southwest of Muscat, some three hours drive, lies the Empty Quarter. The Arabs know it as Rub al Khali..and it’s huge. It covers the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. 250,000 square miles of more or less…nothing….except sands and dunes, camels and a few Bedouin goat farmers eeking out an existence. The Empty Quarter stretches for 620 miles and is 310 miles wide with golden dunes stretching upwards for up to 810 feet.
We drive from Al Gubrah in Muscat to Bidbid, then on to Ibra on the road to Sur. It’s 120kmh motorway all the way to the edge at Bidiyya and then the road stops. We’re in a convoy with friends…four 4×4 with full tanks and lots and lots of water. It’s needed. This is not a route for the foolhardy.
We enter the Empty Quarter after Bidiyya, stopping on rutted sand roads to lower the tyre pressures and then head on for an hour or so. The entrance to the area is busy with desert camps…aimed at the tourists…and brings with them an appalling quantity of plastic litter. There’s very little interest from the locals in keeping the area clean. They live in one room or a Bedouin tent and keep a few goats and one or two camels in a stock-fenced area. What’s a few plastic bottles thrown around on the sand?
However, go far enough into the wilderness and the beauty returns. Pristine sands and dunes stretching skywards. It’s here we make camp. There’s something in the genes that leads us to create a circle of the vehicles….and pitch within them…
Circle the wagons, Hank….just in case them there injuns come a whooping’ and a hollerin’….the womenfolk ain’t safe in their beds….
We’re not entirely without company. There’s the sound of a four-wheel drive in the distance and a large flatbed utility 4 x 4 arrives. The driver is …. maybe nine or ten years old. Tiny hands…I wonder how he manages to reach the pedals. Perhaps his little brother is in the well, working the accelerator and brake?
He waves and wants to talk. Marhaba…’hello’…He has a little English and wants photographs of us. We have quite a few blonde-haired children with us and they’re considered lucky. He also shows an unhealthy interest in the dog….so we’re very much on our guard. Eventually, he gets bored and waves goodbye before shooting off, over the dunes and back to the ranch!
It’s late into the night by the time we lock everything down and prepare to turn in. My cultural references are getting the better of me. As I walk off up the dune, spade in hand, for my nightly visit, I’m reminded of Antony Quayle as Captain Van der Poel in Ice Cold in Alex who wanders off nightly, rucksack and spade in hand and is eventually caught as a German spy using his ‘visits’ to send signals to the enemy. Harry Andrews had the best of him, that’s a fact.
But, as I prepare to do what a man must do, I look up and it’s the Collyhurst bard that springs to mind….the words of wisdom from our own Les Dawson…
I was sat at the bottom of the garden a week ago, smoking a reflective cheroot, thinking about this and that – mostly that, and I just happened to glance at the night sky and I marvelled at the millions of stars glistening like pieces of quicksilver thrown carelessly onto black velvet. In awe I watched the waxen moon ride across the zenith of the heavens like an amber chariot towards the void of infinite space wherein the tethered bolts of Jupiter and Mars hang forever in their orbital majesty; and as I looked at all this, I thought, ‘I must put a roof on this lavatory’
The sky is, indeed, full of jewels on black velvet. No lights between here and the horizon and little life between here and Saudi or Yemen. I’m a little wary of the definite presence of desert creatures….mainly spiders and scorpions….so it’s put down, pick up and shake…
During the night, we’re visited by desert foxes looking for a free meal and the sand is tracked by the little footprints of countless desert rats and mice. But the strangest thing is that here, in one of the most arid places on Earth…we wake to a misty morning and everything is wet. Clothes, bedding, tents, all surfaces are covered with dew and soaked through. At this time of year, it’s 6.30 to 7 a.m. before the sun starts to rise as by 9 a.m. it’s back to to 28⁰C and everything is bone dry. At night, the temperature dropped to about 6⁰C, so it’s good to shake and get warm again.
After an hour or so of ‘dune bashing’, we de-camp and head out of the desert and up into the mountains to Wadi Bani Khalid.
This really is a country of contrasts…from endless nothing, we drive through mountains that must be a geologist’s or geography teacher’s heaven and arrive at Wadi Bani Khalid, a series of natural pools, filled with water all year round and now a popular local and tourist attraction. Home to a peculiar red-skinned banana, the place is perpetually busy. Families come to swim or explore the Muqal cave and eat at the little cafe situated in one of the most picturesque spots in the whole country.
In truth, there are a number of wadis that are always rich in water. But, this is a big country and we’re still three hours of motorway driving from home.
I think it’s time for a rest…a couple of days to regroup and do as little as possible.
Shopping and ‘the Sales
A quick word about Muscat. It took me a little while to work out that, unlike many cities I’ve visited, there’s no actual ‘centre’. Muscat is made up of many areas from Seeb and the outlying districts on the western end to Muttrah and Al Bustan in the east. The commercial area, around the Sultam Qaboos Mosque is probably as central as you can be and the Muttrah area is probably what you might call ‘Old Muscat’, but it’s not as clearly defined as that, to be honest.
All areas have their own retail outlets, from small single shops to groups around the edges of the main highways. However, there are also bright and glitzy shopping malls: the Grand Mall, The Avenues, The Mall of Oman and The Panorama, to name but a few… You couldn’t possibly do them all in a day….but you can manage two…as we did.
The Mall of Oman is the newest. With a huge footprint , it comprises shops, places to eat and a cinema. The shops are upmarket selling gold, jewellery, posh watches as well as having a huge Carrefour and a Marks and Spencer. Over the next couple of years or so, the rest of the units will open and it will be a treat for those in need of retail therapy. I can’t imagine it ever gets busy..there’s so much room. Even the toilets are rather special. An attendant opens a cubicle door for you and closes it firmly behind you and then he waits. As you exit, he turns on the water in the sink and hands you a paper towel. As I leave, I cast a glance over the shoulder to see him beginning to clean down the cubicle ready for the next ‘customer’. It certainly makes you do ‘what you have to do’ very quietly….
From the Mall of Oman, we drive a few minutes to The Avenues. Probably the longest-established Mall, this is where you come to buy your white goods and essentials. There’s a Lulu Hypermarket here with an upstairs that sells household goods and fabric. Aimed at the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi markets, they sell acres of Indian fabrics at prices cheaper than we could buy them in India itself. The choice is amazing. Full six or eight metre lengths for about £20. My other half comes away piled high. I come away with a dishdasha and a kufi…..I’ll look just the part when I get home, answering the door to Amazon or putting the bins out on a dark Wednesday morning.
As people who know me would tell you, I can’t go far without the urge to bake bread. I feel the need to keep topping up my Facebook group at BreadClub20 and the website at http://www.breadclub20.com calls to me.
I’ve managed to buy flour imported from Wisconsin, so I’m baking cob loaves in a large gas oven and proofing at 26⁰C. It’s been a challenge but, at the time of writing, I’ve baked six and they’re starting to come out resembling proper loaves and with a degree of consistency. I’m the source of amusement as bread is ridiculously cheap here, but it’s about the challenge and the principle, isn’t it?
Sadawi Sands and Rustaq
Travelling the coastal road west from Muscat is a good deal slower than the fast expressway, but you begin to appreciate the damage that Cyclone Shaheen did in the autumn of 2021. What’s left of the date palms resemble stunted lavatory brushes and wrecked fishing boats lie half buried in the sands. Everywhere there are piles of concrete, asbestos and steel roofing and contorted steel posts. Lamp posts have gone from vertical to leaning drunkenly in all manner of directions. There’s a lot of repair work still to be done. And in amongst all this people are still making a living.
Just beyond Barka lies Sadawi and its sands. Miles of open, golden sands, in a bay protected by four islands and a watchtower. The beach is littered with stunning scallop shells, many rose-coloured as well as clams, cowrie shells and amazing sheets of seaweed that look more like Fablon than the actual material.
We experience our first rain while here in Oman. All twelve drops of it, although the skies over the mountains are an ominous dark grey and there’s clearly storms at a higher altitude.
We turn inland to Rustaq. Once Oman’s principal city, it’s seen better days. There’s an impressive Court building, mosque and another huge Police department. It’s mid-afternoon and even the cafes are closed….everything closes down for hours before opening up again late on and staging open until well into the evening, The fort at Rustaq is also closed. For renovations, or repairs, it’s not clear, It’s covered in scaffolding and totally devoid of visitors, workmen or any other sign of human life.
We head back to Muscat, calling in at yet another Bangladeshi-run Coffee Shop at a service station for hot coffee, chicken burger and fries. Tasty food at ridiculously cheap prices.
The country’s largest aquarium, and it’s not very large at all, is situated at the back of yet another shiny new Mall. The Mall of Muscat.
At nearly £19 a head to get in, and half price for 4 yr olds and over, it’s not a cheap excursion especially when it only takes an hour to see everything. However, it’s beautifully done with huge decorative tanks and a corridor that goes ‘under the sea’ where you can come close to lemon sharks and stingrays float effortlessly over your head. It’s very much an animated fishmongers.
Thunderstorms have arrived and with them, the temperature drops a degree or two and the lack of a municipal drainage system means the roads instantly become ponds and the whole city seems to grind to a standstill. Mad driving doesn’t help much. People seemingly unaware of how to drive in wet weather skid and drive too closely to the car in front, helpless if brakes are applied suddenly.
But, no sooner as the inclement weather arrives, it departs and the sun shines once again. Time to head to Azaiba Beach. Like so many beaches in Oman, it’s blissfully undeveloped. Endless sands leading into a warm Indian Ocean. Not many facilities, but also a complete absence of high rise or commercial infrastructure.
Bander Al Khairan
An hour’s drive east of Muscat and you’re already in stunning mountain scenery. These are the foothills and the sea is a lot closer than you think. We climb to Bander Al Khairan, a very poor village (albeit with an ice-cream parlour) and head to the viewpoint. The mountains plunge down to the sea and goats can be seen on the beach, paddling.
This is also donkey country, although they appear wild and a few could do with a decent pedicure, if truth be told.
We’re not far from Al Sifah and another indication of the way that Muscat might have to move after 2040 when the oil starts to run out. There’s pressure to dig for precious minerals, but that would mean a massive upheaval to the beauty of this country. But there’s good money and employment in tourism and Al Sifah is testament to the start of this. All along the coast are private beach clubs and hotels. Consequently, there’s little for the locals or those just passing through, as we are today.
On the front, it’s all glossy and gleaming white. There’s money in them there hills. But at the back, on the access road, it’s rough, dusty and littered. It’s a beautiful country, and everything takes time. It reminds me of Greece, 40 years ago.
One of the most popular promenades Muscat locals…..who call themselves Omanis, and sadly not Muscateers…. It’s a long stroll down a boulevard with the Indian sea on one side and a nature reserve and wadi on the other. And you can call in Starbucks for a coffee half way along, if you so wish. Starbucks, where Sameera and her staff prepare fresh croissants and coffee for you. Sameera has worked out that the best way to deal with non-Arabic speakers is to treat them as the English tend to treat all foreigners….at about 80dB.
A REGULAR AMERICANO AND A PAIN CHOCOLAT?
YOU WANT IT COOKED?
Well, warm, if you don’t mind…..
The storm has taken its toll. The debris on the beach will slowly disperse and the sea is choppy with waves breaking over the rock gabions set into the side of the foundations to the boulevard. But, it’s very pretty and the road is lined with banana and date palms.
Almost time to leave
The last couple of days here in Paradise start with a drive-thru PCR test at the airport…48 hours before we’re due to fly. Another £98 for two tests. Under the tongue and up the nose..and that’s it. Just need to wait now for the results to come in and then a further £12 to have the paperwork stamped and delivered as a pdf file so we can start the process of checking-in with Etihad.
From there we drive to the Royal Opera House. It’s a magnificent building that seems to go on for ever. Built between 2007 and 2011, it’s a masterpiece of Burmese teak and Italian marble. The tour takes us into the auditorium where they’re rehearsing for Rigoletto. Tickets start at the equivalent of £18 and rise to a heady £800 for a top seat….not too far from the Royal Box, I dare say. It is a beautiful building with piazzas of marble tiles and walkways that are works of architectural art.
The adjoining Galleria houses expensive clothing and jewellery shops. Nothing for the commoner here. All high-end goods where the prices are never shown. After all, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it!
We lunch at D’Arceys, a restaurant on a nearby sea-side development and walk the corniche taking in the Indian Ocean and watching the waves break on the beach. It’s almost Mediterranean in feel but there is also something very Arabic about it, as well.
On the way to the souk, we pass a large piece of cardboard, behind which a mongrel mum has just given birth to eight very small, very new puppies. Somebody has kindly left a plate of dog food for her. There’s a kindness here, despite the fact that the dogs are unwanted, homeless and distinctly feral. It’s a tough number being a street dog in Muscat.
One last tour of the souk. It’s recovered well from the storms and the traders are all busy trying to drum up custom for cashmere scarves, frankincense, fabrics and general tat. We politely decline and realise that in just over 24 hours, we’ll be packed and ready for home.
It’s time to say goodbye. With the hospitality we’ve come to recognise as a distinct aspect of our visit to Muscat, we’re invited out for breakfast to a glorious beachside villa in ‘Little Santorini’, a glorious development in Al Bustan where walls are blindingly white and doors are painted Mediterranean blue, We breakfast on croissants, fresh figs, dates and sourdough before walking the beach and returning for Thai soup, rye bread and caviar.
Just enough time to finish packing and, with paperwork to hand, we head for the airport.
Nelson Madela said “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
I will return to Wales with one determination – to return to Muscat. And soon…..