A palm thatch Bedu hut keeps out the bugs, but lets a breeze through and we had a comfortable night in our little patch of desert. We woke to birdsong and sparkles of light through the thatch. The sand was cool and soft on my bare feet and we assembled for breakfast which included rather nice little pancakes to eat with our dahl. Tom is more of a cereal, toast and marmalade breakfast person so while he has dahl for supper he eyes it suspiciously in the morning. As we were heading back to pack, Hamid said the camels were ready. So, to the camels then.
There were about fifteen of them kneeling in the sunshine, all watching us with their big brown eyes and unfeasibly long lashes. A couple of them were complaining with long guttural grunts but the rest seemed relaxed and interested in us. We sat on rugs behind the humps and clung on as they rose up back legs first.
As we were led through the dunes I immediately wanted to be heading deeper into the desert and finding somewhere remote to camp.
P and I have both been reading Wilfred Thesiger and as we rolled with the camel’s gait, casting long shadows in the sand I could see why he wanted to stay in the desert and live the life he lived.
The camel behind me kept bringing his head alongside my leg and in contrast to the rough mat of fur on the rest of their bodies, the hair on their faces is silky soft. After twenty minutes we were dismounting – the camel’s front legs kneeling into the sand first. Well that was fun.
The drive back across the desert to Al Wasil was less straightforward than it appeared. We seemed to be on the same track that we’d come in on, but hit tarmac somewhere further west of the town than where we had set off. A useful lesson in not taking the desert for granted. We found Al Wasil’s pretty little sandcastle fort, and back in the main drag we got the tyres re-inflated for a pound.
Instead of turning east to the coast, we headed north back into the mountains to see Wadi Bani Khalid.. This turned out to be a very good move.
We’ve been to a few wadis which promised water and turned out to be dry, or no more than a falaj-full at this time of year. But Wadi Bani Khalid was a string of beautiful, blue-green pools cutting through curving limestone.
We swam from one to the next in water about the same temperature as we were. They were deep too and Tom and I dived from the rocks. As we went further up, the pools became narrower and at one point we swam beneath a huge boulder that had fallen from the gorge and been eroded by the flow of water. Reflected ripples shimmered on the rock walls. P noticed a bees nest above us with honeycomb sticking out of a cleft in the rock. At the top, another little pool with a small waterfall for dunking heads. After the desert this seemed ridiculously lush. A real oasis..
P and I retrieved the makings of a picnic from the car and followed the cliff path back alongside the water, getting above the waterfall and finding numerous other pools and boulderscapes.
There were other tourists here too of course, including the German couple who decided they would sit directly opposite us, perhaps five feet away to dry off as we were having our sandwiches. There was some sort of battle for tourist territory going on that we really didn’t want to get into with an overweight sun worshipper in not enough clothes. We moved upstream a bit, dangling our feet in the water and watching the little fish nibble our toes. And all of a sudden it was three in the afternoon and we still had rather a long way to go.
After curling back down the mountains to the plains we filled up with petrol (40p per litre) and finally struck out eastwards. After the hot middle of the day, Oman wakes up again at about four with people shopping and meeting in the numerous coffee shop. The roads are busy and there are little children waving and smiling.
They always look perfectly turned out; the boys in little dishdashas and caps, the girls in brightly coloured sarongs. They won’t be called sarongs here of course but that will have to do until I discover the right word…
We sped from one little town to the next with the sun going down behind us. There was a lot of dust in the air so the sky had an apricot glow for most of the way. It is dark at 6 and half an hour before, we hit the coast just north of the fishing town of Al Askhara. There were kids playing on the beach and milky blue waves crashing in the dusk. We saw big dhows moored offshore. Tom wanted to get out and into the sea but we needed to get to the turtle reserve at Ras al Jinz.
The satnav didn’t quite know where it was which was a little disturbing as we cruised up the coast road surrounded by total darkness. But we got there in the end; a modern hotel all on its own about fifteen minutes walk from the beaches where thirty thousand turtles come to lay their eggs every year. Before it was built in 2008 people used to drive up on the sand to see the turtles, scaring them off and generally disrupting the whole process. Now the hotel, which is part of the reserve, acts as a gatekeeper. No cars on the beach and the number of people is strictly limited. About 25 of us went with a guide and waited at the edge of the nesting area while a spotter went to see if there was anything we could see. Our guide (another Hamid) was strict about not using torches or camera flashes. He got a text message from the spotter and we moved down the beach where a turtle perhaps a meter and a half in length was shuffling back to the sea having experimented with a hole, but decided not to go ahead with it.
Hamid said most forays are like that, especially on a moonlit night, which last night was. They don’t like to be so exposed while they lay eggs and will wait until it is darker. So that seemed to be that, but a few minutes later we were alerted to baby turtles hatching nearby.. We’d been briefed to be careful about where we trod and these little things came flapping past us and over our feet while we looked on, not daring to move.
They are so little and so desperate to get to the sea, it was quite moving to watch them arrive at the surf line in the dark as the waves pounded in. What a start in life. It takes twenty years for the females to mature and return to the beach to lay eggs of their own, and only one in five hundred of these little turtles will live that long. Once they do though they return to nest every few months, for perhaps sixty years.
Further down the surf line another turtle was doing just that. She’d dug a meter deep hole and was laying a stream of golf-ball sized eggs into it. She lays a hundred and fifty at a time in just a few minutes. We went in groups of five to see her, standing behind her so she wouldn’t be distracted. It felt a bit intrusive initially until we could see that she was so focused on what she was doing that she paid no attention to us at all.
After she’d finished laying the eggs she began the laborious process of covering them up. Back flippers first and then the front ones, scooting the sand behind and under her. It can take an hour and a half to do this and when the hole is filled to beach level, she digs a dummy hole a couple of meters away and leaves it unfilled in the hope of distracting predators, like the foxes that live in the dunes. We left her to it, and walked back to the hotel in the moonlight.
Our day began with camel rides in the desert, before wadi swimming and a picnic in the mountains and rounded off watching turtles hatch and lay eggs by the Arabian Sea. If you wanted to do just one day in Oman, that would be a good place to start.