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Friday, December 2, 2016

11/6: A Highlight Reel in Oman

 Steven and I both thought that it was too bad we had only enough time to stay one night at Oriental Nights Guest House in the town of Al Wasil located on the edge of Sharqiya Sands, a desert area in central Oman. The owner was delightful and our room was luxurious.

The owner gave both us and the only other couple staying there a bag of dates to take with us on our journey as he said that's all there is in Oman (to give as a gift). I was especially delighted with the gooey treat as you know by now.
From Al Wasil, we drove a few miles southwest to the town of Al Mintarib, a town in the northern edge of the Sands or desert and well known as a jumping off point to explore the rolling sand dunes.
There were coffee shops and barber shops everywhere in the small town, to such an extent I wondered do Omani men not shave at home?
There were also a good number of Ladies' Tailoring Shops.

We had certainly seen many different animals trying to access garbage cans while doing so much camping in US state parks over the years. But this was the first time we had seen camels doing so!

Even though we had ridden the sand dunes while in Qatar, we were still hoping to do it again if we could do it in an open vehicle this time. We drove to the edge of town and the end of the road but didn't see any companies offering their guiding services.
We knew from experience that our car wasn't equipped to drive safely on the deep sand as we would have needed to deflate the tires at the very least. In addition, driving on those dunes required the expertise of a local. As a result, we only drove a few feet along the 'road' as we didn't want to get stuck in the sand.
A couple of locals in 4x4 vehicles drove up to us asking, in very broken English, if we wanted to take a ride with them. Steven tried drawing a picture of a 'dune buggy' as we didn't want to drive in a closed vehicle again.
After trying to explain we only wanted to go in a dune buggy or open vehicle, we realized they weren't available and so said no thanks. I know they thought we were 'odd ducks' as there were NO other foreigners out wandering by themselves by the desert.
The rippling sand was a much darker and richer color than the dunes in Qatar.
I was surprised how much vegetation there was as I had always envisioned deserts to be basically barren wastelands of nothing but sand. 
According to wikipedia, the Sharqiya desert 'has been of scientific interest since a 1986 expedition by the (British) Royal Geographical Society documented the diversity of the terrain, the flora and fauna, noting 16,000 invertebrates as well as 200 species of other wildlife, including avifauna. They also documented 150 species of native flora.'
One of the homes backing up to the desert:
We decided that since we weren't going to be able to enjoy the dunes from a dune buggy, we would do the next best thing: just park the car and get out and walk in the dunes for a bit! Behind Steven was an animal pen containing goats and sheep.

We saw a number of these very pretty, flowering bushes and were amazed at how hearty they were to withstand the desert heat and lack of moisture.
I was glad I didn't get any closer as I could hear plenty of bees buzzing.

The sand was obviously pretty darn hot in our sandals as you would expect. I could only imagine how impossibly hot it would have been for us to try and walk in the blistering 45 degree heat of summer. The sand was so deep it was hard to get traction as we attempted to climb some of the dunes.
I tried sidestepping up the dunes as if I had been on skis and trying to climb a hill. But I still had difficulty and I ended up crawling on all fours the rest of the way. Thank goodness I had the camera so Steven wasn't able to take photos of my fumbling ascent!
Coming down was much easier!

It was hugely fun walking amid the dunes especially when we came across crater-shaped ones like this one.

Another man drove up to us asking if we would like a one or two hour drive in the dunes in his truck but again we declined.

We had seen signs in English and Arabic imploring people not to litter but the amount of trash everywhere was just appalling.
This had to be among the strangest things we encountered!
Another animal pen:
Even though we didn't get to go for a dune buggy ride in the desert, we had had a hoot and probably more fun walking by ourselves in the dunes. We had to retrace our steps back to Al Wasil before driving northeast toward Wadi Bani Khalid, about 20 miles away and about 300 km from Muscat.
The road was so steep that a bottle of water we had in the car made a popping noise because of the air pressure change!
This was the second Berger Paints sign we’d seen – so odd seeing that in the middle of a small town in Oman of all places!

A hint of what lay ahead!
Steven had to make sure he paid close attention to the road because of the huge drop off on both sides into the boulders.
Wadi Bani Khalid is one of the most famous wadis in Oman. A wadi is a valley, ravine, or channel that is dry except in the rainy season.
The sign in the parking lot requested tourists not to ask village children to carry our 'luggage' to the pools - that was no issue as there were no children around!
From the parking lot, it was a pleasant ten minute walk, past palm and mango groves, to the wadi. Part of the route was 'balancing' on the edge of the falaj or water channel which could be a little tricky. There were no lounging chairs here but this 'decadent' Arab alternative looked very appealing!
I found it amusing to read the 'No Swimming' sign even though that's why the majority of the people come to the wadi to do! There were caves beyond the pools but we were SO content to just luxuriate in the pools here instead.
The reward on arriving was a feast for the eyes with the scenic, clear water, butterflies and dragonflies flitting about, the lushness of the palm trees and a cool breeze. The natural beauty of the environment was stunning.

To arrive at the cafe and picnic area on the other side of the pool AND where a bit of shade was, we had to negotiate rocks on a steep part of the way before crossing a foot bridge on level ground. This was the glorious view from the bridge and where we swam to later. Without a doubt, it was one of the most amazing places to swim ever.
The shallower pool ranged from about six deep to over double that. I spent some time at the water's edge getting a free 'fish pedicure' from the many fish who liked to nibble ever so gently on my feet and legs. It was a fine line between pleasure and pain!

We had so much fun swimming here before venturing later under the bridge and swimming between the rocks for a good distance. It wasa little scary swimming in the narrow channel because of the steep rocks on either side. But we were able to get finger holds when we needed a rest before continuing on and before finally turning around to return to the pool. We were the only ones swimming in the channel although we had seen others earlier. I wished I had had a waterproof camera as the views and the experience of being in that ravine were phenomenal. To top it all off, there were even some small waterfalls!
There was a lifeguard from Sri Lanka making sure the swimmers in the pool were safe. He mentioned that there had been a number of drownings at Wadi Bani Khalid over the years. I didn't ask him if they had only occurred in this pool or beyond the bridge in the ravine.

A good view of the smaller pool:

We walked back to the parking lot after a couple of marvelous hours with mixed feelings: amazement with what we had just seen and done and wonder at what still lay ahead as the day was not over.

These young boys had just been dropped off across from the parking lot by the school bus. Since it was only 1:45, I wondered if their school day was very short or, because it was so hot in the afternoons, did the school day start especially early.
Once again, we had to retrace our steps back to the same intersection where we had stayed last night but this time, we were heading southeast toward the city of Sur on the coast.
We had heard of these dust devils before but never seen one before. A dust devil is a strong, well-formed, and relatively long-lived whirlwind, ranging from small (half a meter wide and a few meters tall) to large (more than 10 meters wide and more than 1,000 meters tall). The primary vertical motion is upward. Dust devils are also known as dustnados (a dust tornado) and generally occur on hot, calm sunny days, rarely coming close to the intensity of a tornado. It was a tad freaky but fascinating too seeing the dust devil so close by.
We’ve had horses and cattle cross the road before but never a camel before now!
The entrance gate welcoming all to the coastal city of Sur which was a major trading port with East Africa until the 20th century. I had read that Sur is the first city in all of Arab world that the sun hits each day as it’s so far east. That ‘honor’ actually belongs, however, to the tiny village of Ras Al Hadd further south and east.
Just as we entered the city, we couldn't help noticing this huge mosque.
Adam: For some reason, I noticed your name a couple of times in Oman which I thought was very unusual. In addition to this store in Sur just a block away from our hotel, was a city of the same name. We didn't get to it unfortunately as it was south of the Sharqiya desert sands area where we were this morning. 

Sur is well known for its dhow building yards – dhows are a traditional Middle Eastern sailing vessel – and a large maritime museum, both of which we had hoped to visit but again we had run out of time. That seemed to be the story of our visit to Oman where there was always something we had hoped to see but we just ran out of time. Perhaps one day we will be back so we can tour those areas of the country we didn’t have time to visit this time.
For most people spending time getting to and in the desert sands, then driving a fair piece to the fantastic oasis, relaxing there and then driving all the way to Sur would have been a full and tiring day. However, we still had one more place to go before the day was done: a visit to the Turtle Reserve and a nighttime tour to see the green turtles unique to this area of Oman. After catching our breath for a while in the hotel, we drove to the southern part of Sur along the coast and found a restaurant. The food was easily forgettable but the views of sunset over the Gulf of Oman made up for that.

About eight months ago, we had made reservations to visit the Turtle Reserve located in Ras Al Jinz, about 25 miles south of Sur. We didn’t know if traffic might be a factor getting there so we wanted to make sure we allowed ourselves plenty of time to arrive well before our 9 pm tour began. We got there early and therefore had time to tour the museum and learn all we ever wanted to discover about green turtles!

Here's a good map of Oman to give you a sense of where it is in the Middle East. Sur is just north of Ras Al Jinz, the easternmost tip of the country. To give you a sense of how big Oman is, we saw nothing of it south of Sur, nor the top third of the country.
Worldwide, seven different species of sea turtles are recognized and four of them nest in Oman. Ras Al Jinz is where Green Turtles abound. In fact, some researchers consider it to be the biggest nesting site in the Indian Ocean. Ras Al Jinz beach is the only place in the entire world where green turtles come ashore each night to dig a hole in the sand and lay their eggs, covering them carefully before returning exhausted to the sea. The eggs, which may number about 100 per turtle, take about 60 days to hatch, after which the tiny turtles must burrow their way to the surface and head as quickly as they can to the safety of the sea.

Turtle Locomotion: 'Underwater flight' is the way biologists like to describe the way sea turtles swim for good reason. The front flippers are the 'wings' which help to propel the animal through the water and the hind flippers help in steering! The turtle rises and falls in the water according to the rhythm of its flippers.

Sea Turtles and Myths and Legends: I found it interesting to read about how sea turtles have played such an important role in a number of nations' myths and legends. Below is how they described American Natives' interest in sea turtles. I wonder if it is accurate. 
Sea Turtles and Greek Mythology:
Sea Turtles and Chinese Mythology:
Sea Turtles and Money: Sea turtles appeared on some of the old currency in the world, beginning about 700 BC when coins in ancient Greece were minted with a picture of the animal. About 2,000 years later, a turtle picture appeared on the copper coin in a Dutch province. Since 1934, images of turtles began showing up more and more on banknotes and stamps, especially in the countries of the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Just think about crossing the ocean in a reed boat like this in the 3rd millenium BC. I can't even conceive of doing something like that.
While waiting for the tour to begin, we chatted with a lovely couple, Glynis from Belgium, and Stefano from Italy, who live in London. The four of us had a fun time talking about our shared love of travel.
Since we had booked the tour back in April, our group of 25 was the first of four groups to finally leave close to 9 after the guides had received word from the spotters on the beach that the turtles had landed! Only 100 people are allowed on the beach for either the evening or early morning tour.
Our guide told us no flashlights or camera flashes could be used on the beach because they would blind the turtles. After the 15 minute walk from the Reserve to the beach, we watched for several minutes while a turtle dug a hole prior to laying eggs.
The guide explained green turtles weigh between 80 and 200 kilos, reach maturity from 18-35 years and nest three times a year, laying from 80-100 eggs each time. The baby turtles hatch about two months later, a process that takes them five days. Being only a foot away from the turtle while she laid all these eggs was so far more incredible than what I had anticipated when I booked this experience for us. I couldn't believe how close we had been able to get and what clear pictures I was able to take thanks to the guide's flashlight. 
Out of 1,000 turtles born here, only about two or three survive because seagulls, foxes and other predators eat baby turtles. Baby turtles are only able to swim on the surface so they’re more affected by predators. The turtles eat jellyfish and algae. According to the guide, they ‘emigrate’ to India, the Maldives and Australia but later return to this same beach.
Our guide explained that there are anywhere from zero to ten turtles that leave the sea to come to the beach nightly depending on both the sea and water temperature. The temperature in Sur is like a microclimate as it’s much cooler here in the middle of the summer with temperatures averaging about 26-27 degrees compared to the mid-40s in the rest of the country. 
I was so happy the guide allowed us to watch the turtle laying eggs for a good 15 minutes or so as I found it so enthralling being there. I didn't want to tear myself away when we had to move on so the other groups could take their turn seeing the turtle lay more eggs.
The guide pointed out the tracks in the sand where the turtles had crawled up from the sea. That would have taken them about 15-20 minutes, the guide estimated. The tracks look like tire tracks, don't they?
Some people in the group chose to return to the Reserve after seeing the tracks but most preferred staying so we could watch another turtle begin the long process of covering the eggs with sand.

I can imagine some of you may be thinking it must have been as exciting as watching paint dry, peering at the turtle as she swept sand over the eggs! 
I guess it's a matter of you had to be there as I found it almost mesmerzing, gazing at the powerful turtle as she repeatedly swept large quantities of sand over the eggs.

We also saw baby turtles scurrying across the beach just a few feet from the water.

Back to the sweeping turtle again: We had to be careful not to get too close as several times, we got 'hit' by the flying sand!

The turtle used both her front and back flippers to move the sand as efficiently as possible. 

Despite the dire warnings from the guide not to talk in anything but a whisper and not to use flashlights, we noticed that all the guides did both. But of course, I and everyone else was only able to take photos because of those flashlights being used.
After being on the beach for close to two hours, we had to return to the Reserve even though we never saw the turtle finish covering the eggs. I wondered how long it took before that was completed.
This entire day had to have been one of the highlights of our entire trip so far, I thought. The experiences had all been so vastly different and nothing like we have ever seen and done anywhere else in this amazing world.

Posted from Cape Town, South Africa on December 2nd, 2016.


  1. Great stuff Annie. Thanks for all the work! You guys do so much. I've been in Berlin three weeks and have only done one touristy thing . . . go to the Berliner Dom, the big cathedral church. I put the headphones on at the tour stations inside and thought that you guys must have worn them earlier! :)

  2. Andrew,

    Great hearing from you. Glad you seem to be loving Berlin; that was the only city we've been to in Germany but we had a fabulous time too. Perhaps one day we'll be back to visit other parts of the country as I would like to visit Munich if we're anywhere close!

    Love you!

  3. "The driving forces of Berger Paints - reflect the very spirit of its founder Lewis Berger - who laid the foundations of brand Berger way back in 1760 in the UK. With modest beginnings in India in 1923, today, Berger Paints India Limited is the second largest paint company in the country with a consistent track record of being one of the fastest growing paint companies, quarter on quarter, for the past few years." Loved the turtles!!! Lil Red

  4. Lil Red,

    THANK YOU for looking up Berger Paints and finding out about the company! I remember you did the same thing with a post last year (??) when I had a picture of Steven at some border crossing in front of a Berger Transport truck. Can't remember where we were coming from or going to, though! Glad you liked the turtles - thought you would!

    See you and Pat soon,

  5. Big fan of the turtle pictures. Thanks for all you share with us.


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