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Muscat & Oman
House & Garden, October 1998

"Watch out for sharks and be careful of the water snakes, they are all poisonous," murmured Said as he deftly parked above a breathlessly beautiful bay filled with pink and white coral-flecked sand. Fortunately I caught a whisper of a smile cross his face as he closed his eyes and reclined back into the depth of his seat. The sea was shockingly warm and had about it a langourous whiff of prawn. At last I had arrived in the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, a place of mythical associations in my own mind: perched on the edge of the endless desert of the Empty Quarter, home of Aladdin and travelled by Thesinger and Severin.

As recently as the 1960s, the gates of the walled capital of Muscat were locked at dusk and the country boasted only one school and one hospital. Then the present sultan, Sultan Qaboos, packed his reactionary father off to a retirement in Claridges and Oman opened its doors to the outside world. Some, but not too many, petro-dollars have since paid for the infrastructure of a late 20th-century state and a smattering of well-appointed hotels, but as I was to discover tourism is still refreshingly thin on the ground.

The sea beckoned again at the end of my first day in Oman, though this time as an observer. Beneath the Ras el Had headland and a mantle of desert stars lies a beach where the massive green turtle lays its eggs. In the moonlight we could see the bobbing heads of cow turtles emerge from the sea. At dawn the beach was covered with small bomb craters, egg-filled depressions, from which tank-like tracks led back to the freedom of the sea.

On our way back to find some breakfast I was gently jostled awake by Said and put out at a village of old mansions that stood beside a tide-flooded lagoon. Even at this early hour there was no shade. I followed the silent line of passengers into a battered and elegant ferry boat. The bare, henna-dyed feet, rich gleams of gold jewelry and silver embroidered hems of the women's trousers flashed from beneath the wind tossed swirls of their black veils. The men cut no less of a romantic dash. The wind tugged at their loosely knotted kashmir turbans while their long purple and mauve cotton robes, the ubiquitous dishdash of Oman, crackled and creased like so many loose sails.

As the ferry crossed the lagoon, an entire fleet of traditional wooden dhows with their sleek lines and slanting bows, were revealed at anchor. No longer used to fetch silk, gems and spices from the Far East, they now fish the rich waters off Oman. At the Sur beach market I could have bought a large picnic hamper full of glistening fish for £3.

Travelling inland, the fertile palm gardens of the coast give way to an arid gravel plain overlooked by the silhouette of the Hajar mountains. On either side of this dramatic vertical wall of mountains, which everywhere dominates the horizon, lie a scattering of oases. These precious outposts of fertility lie at the centre of Oman's national identity and have been fought over for centuries. Relics of this fighting, a string of crumbling forts and romantic dark-age castles, crown the eminences and repay the effort of a visit with their painted halls, carved plaster work, pre-Islamic devil towers and echoes of a tribal past as splendid and as fierce as the mountains themselves.

At every stop we were entertained with cups of coffee, an ubiquitous national obsession. It is weak, but flavoured with rose petals, cardamon, saffron or cloves, and served with a bowl of dates. Having read that it is discourteous to show the soles of your feet, I constantly tried to wiggle my bulky frame into a neat bundle during these sessions. It was only when faced with the horny souls of an old man that I asked my guide if this still applied. "But he is a Bedouin" explained Said, "and he is probably thinking about camels".

The heat at midday was blistering, the sun strong enough to melt a portable telephone and explode a can of Coke. This was the time to swim in rock pools beneath dusty green palm trees and luxuriant bananas such as those of the Wadi bani Khalid. Fearless river fish plopped about in the shallows. When the afternoon breeze began I strolled through palm gardens filled with the twinkling calls of hidden birds and the erratic flight of the locust which reveals brilliant carapaces of green, yellow and purple. On the river beds the light blue wings of the Indian roller flitted past pink oleanders.

One afternoon I left the palms belonging to the village of Al Ayn to climb an escarpment crowned with a long line of beehive-shaped tombs. These drystone mausolea were built by the Magan culture, a league of 32 cities which traded with Sumeria back at the birth of literate civilization some four and a half thousand years ago. We only turned back in search of a late lunch when these towers glowed a golden-red in the late afternoon sun. As usual, the food at the local roadside cafés, curries, salads and grills, were magnificent and cheap, reflecting in their pure fresh flavours the many influences that have landed upon Oman's shores. Even today, most of the chefs and waiters are from Karachi, Bengal, Kerala or Sri Lanka. In the evening we sat outside in the warmth of the night, eating slowly and watching the ebb and flow of business around displays of silk and gold.

For the visitor, Oman seems to have arrived at a delightful crossroads. The hotels offer bars, swimming pools and air conditioning to mitigate the heat, yet Omanis wishing to drink are only allowed into the hotels in their elegant national dress. You drive on either hand swept motorways or up dry river beds from one site to another, and once there you are likely to be alone. It's a refreshing step back to an earlier age without any of that other worldy discomfort.

Travel Facts
Only hotels have bars and licenced restaurants, the local roadside cafe-restaurants are 'dry'. The Omani's are used to the forceful presence of British women though there own women are heavily veiled. It is good manners (for both male and female visitors) to keep your legs and fore-arms covered though there is no need to go overboard with a head-scarf. In hotels wear a dressing gown over your swimming costume to the pool. Non Muslims are not welcome in mosques. Buy a map of the country and the Maverick Guide to Oman by Peter Ochs before you go and read either Thesinger's Arabian Sands, Tim Severin's Sinbad Voyage or Jan Morris's Sultan in Oman on the flight. Shop for gold, a full outfit of Omani clothes, frankincence, incense burners, Indian clothe and traditional silver jewelry.

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