Muscat, the capital of Oman, is a city that possesses a stunning setting. I have already shown some of the beaches that line its vast shoreline. What I haven’t shown you is the view inland. A mere ten-minute drive can take you into another world, into the mountains soaring high above the city sprawl.
It is very easy to remove yourself from the city to an entirely different environment. We decided to spend a day gallivanting around villages relatively close to Muscat. It was an experience I would highly recommend.
We were collected early in the morning and whisked west to the fishing village of Barka. The men were showcasing their catches of the day, some of which were scarier than others. It is a place you have to visit if you come to Oman, simply because the photos do not capture the smells and the noises of the market. Seafarers patiently pick the schools from their nets. Old wise men shout out prices and shout other things to their colleagues, who are their rivals but also their friends.
The best view of Barka and its fishy market are from the adjacent fort. There are scores of forts in Oman, with the majority stationed on the long sections of coast. Historically, Oman has been a strategically important region for a long time. Aside from a brief Portuguese conquest, however, it has retained its identity and withstood barrages from sea and land. These simple yet intimidating forts are a significant factor in the successful defence of Omani territory.
From here, we moved inland to the old capital city of Nakhal. The temperature was rising, as was our altitude. To cool off we decided to take a dip in a natural spring, called Al-Thowara, with some locals. They seemed particularly excited that a girl was brave enough to strip down to swimwear and join them. This was a hot spring, originating directly from the mountain situated above. The temperature was perfect, and it was a place that I could happily have lazed in all day.
The temperature in Al-Thowara was reminiscent of a warm bath. We were later taken to another spring in another old town of importance, Rustaq. The temperature in this one, however, resembled a kettle that has just been boiled. Al-Khasfa’s natural spring is not for the faint-hearted! It was interesting to note that this particular spring was segregated, and that the men’s was significantly more populated than the women’s.
Inbetween getting wet and wild we visited the fort at Nakhal, one of Oman’s finest examples of its historical heritage. The fort is perched on the edge of the mountains, and offers wonderful views of the surrounding area – perfect for defence. We were told that Nakhal is the local word for ‘palm’, which is understandable given the array of palm trees dotted around the majestic fort. Our driver informed us that, rather than being a defensive citadel, this was a home for the important families in the region.
One tradition we particularly liked involved what appeared to be a treasure chest that was sitting in one of the domestic rooms. The tale here is that this is presented to a woman whom the man wants to marry. Inside the wooden box are gifts to the potential bride, with the male showing off his wealth and status. The woman will carefully examine the contents and, if satisfied with the presents, will agree to marry the man in question. Seems a bit over-the-top to me, but I guess there isn’t much difference between this and a gawky teenager standing on a young girl’s lawn holding a stereo over his head playing a cheesy song. No, I’ve never done that. Stereos were so 20th Century.
I am digressing the topic. Another aspect of Omani history I had been looking forward to seeing were the Wadis. These are large valleys which can transport water from the mountains towards the coast. They cannot be called rivers, however, because they are often dry unless there is a period of heavy rain. This, as you can imagine, does not happen often in the Middle East. What you are left with is a bone dry valley amongst the picturesque mountains.
Whilst driving along a wadi on the way to Rustaq our vehicle was stopped by the police, and requested to get off the road. It wasn’t that we had done anything illegal; rather, we were heading for a collision with a mass of zooming two-wheeled machines. This was the first day of the Tour of Oman, and incredibly we were driving along the course route. We disembarked and listened for any sign of life. Aside from a raucous school bus, there was little. Ten minutes later, however, with sweat beginning to drip from our burning forrids, a pack of cyclists sped by. They sounded like a swarm of wasps on the attack. It was even on the BBC!
It was lovely to get out of the city and see how the rest of the country works in harmony. Once again, the people we met were wonderful. From Nabil, our driver, guide and funny man, to the curious people we shared a spring with, via the men at the market who kept giving us free samples of their fruit, the smiles of locals made our day. There is much more to any country than its main gateway, and it seems Oman has much to offer.
Love you all