Stephen Fry is innocent

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Oman is dark at 6pm and gets light at 6am so we’ve been early to bed and early to rise on this holiday. Well two of us have…
The teen in our midst was still deeply asleep when P and I climbed out of our sleeping bags and out onto the beach at sunrise. The sand was cool and the turquoise waves were lapping rather than crashing as they did overnight. As Khalid and his battery booster were still at the other end of the beach I quickly tried starting the car. It fired up first time and I let the engine run for a bit to make sure the battery was replenished.
We had tea watching the sun come up, and Tom emerged when the porridge was ready. P and I had camel milk in the tea and on the porridge. It is subtly different from cow”s milk. It doesn’t taste as fatty and has a clean, crisp taste to it. I found it very refreshing and drank most of the two litre bottle over the course of the day. It was such a nice spontaneous gift from the guy at the petrol station in Shisr.
Tom swam again and then we packed up our little camp for the last time on this trip as the sun became dazzling and hot. I found some turtle eggshells on the beach and there were what look like decoy nests dug out of the sand too. We were only about an hour away from Salalah so resolved to take it slowly along the coast road. So into the car and turn the key.
Click click click.
What IS it about this vehicle? I have never had a breakdown in a rental car EVER and this one ONLY lets us down in the MOST inconvenient places. And this time we had made doubly sure that nothing was plugged in, so we could no longer blame Stephen Fry. Khalid and the Swiss had already left so we opened the car doors to let the air through and waited for someone to appear on the beach road.
Which they did about five minutes later. We flagged them down. A couple of sun-beaten Omanis in an old Toyota, who came and parked in front of us, bonnet to bonnet. None of us had jump leads so they swapped batteries with us, I started our car and we swapped back. Another carload of their mates turned up and an older man who spoke English asked where we were from and how we liked Oman. Did we want to spend the day with them and catch some fish for lunch? It was a nice offer, but the beach was baking hot now and it seemed wise to head back towards Salalah given our battery troubles.
Shukran, shukran! And goodbye to our rescuers and to Fazaya Beach. Up the steep track to the road and on to Mughsayl a few K further on. The beach was right by the road; a perfect swathe of white sand, palm trees and a glittering azure sea. It could very easily be the site of a huge holiday development.  But it isn’t at the moment. Camels wandered around the lagoon on the other side of the road. The one restaurant by the beach was closed.
We parked there and walked in the shade of an overhanging cliff to see the famous Mughsayl  blowholes. Above these holes in the roof of a small cave below our feet, we could hear waves gurgling and crashing. Each wave brought a sustained gust  of warm air through the blowhole. It sounded like a dragon was shifting around and breathing through the vent. We saw a little spray come through but these blowholes are most active in the monsoon, so none of us got wet.

By the mosque there were a couple of small shops and what looked like a food stall of some kind. We bought cold lychees juice at the shop and asked if we could sit at the chairs and tables near the food stall. The man there gave us a big smile and brought us a thermos of sweet black tea.
It eventually became clear that he was also serving food from some big metal containers set into a series of trestle tables. He had four kinds of camel meat – stews and curries, and some fish biriani. As the fishing boats were literally across the road from him we had the biriani, which came with little limes to squeeze over it and small pots of hot sauce, which all three of us used liberally. A group of English birdwatchers arrived with their guide and got fussy about the food, talking needlessly loudly. “I just said ‘no, no, no’ and made him put some back” said a stout matron in a pink scarf displaying the unfortunate tendency of the tourist to forget that the foreigners they are dealing with are also people.
A German birdwatcher came over to ask about the eagles he heard massed nearby in great numbers. We eavesdropped shamelessly, and made a mental note of the directions.
Soon we were turning left at the roundabout by the cement works and right at the crossroads past the dump on the way to the sewage treatment works. Yup, it was glamour all the way. But the water treatment place was surrounded by trees and circling in the air above was a whirling cloud of huge birds. I have never seen so many eagles all at once, the feathers at the end of their wings spread out like fingertips. Some swooped lower and we could see their white heads and glaring eyes.
Twenty minutes later were at the hotel and Asif was at reception waiting to take the car and put a new battery in it. Our rooms felt cool and serene after the heat and we repacked everything for the morning. Asif returned with the car – anxious to show me photos of the new battery being installed. “Call me any time if there is a problem, this is my personal number”.
We set off back across the city to the Juweira marina where we spent our first night. Waiting for us there was a narrow wooden boat with an awning.
We’d booked a sunset cruise – primarily to see dolphins – and it turned out that we were the only ones on it. Cosmo, who was taking us was probably about thirty and from Kenya he said. He was interested that we had been there. “On safari?” Yes, we said, but also to Lamu. “I am from Lamu!! He said, clearly astonished. “This boat was made in Lamu!”. We talked about where we had stayed. “The Old Stone House – I know it!”  He was delighted to talk a little bit about home.
We chugged out of the marina.. “Will we see dolphins?” I asked. “Hmm, perhaps if you are lucky. They are really here in the mornings.”

But no sooner had we hit the swell outside the marina than we saw them all around, their silver-grey fins flashing in the low sunlight.

They were after the sardines which flickered in big groups near the surface of the water, whipping the water into a thin foam. We watched the dolphins for a good forty five minutes. One leapt vertically out of the water by the boat.
It was so peaceful bobbing on the rolling waves, listening for the puffs of air from the dolphins as they surfaced. The sun sank to the horizon, shrank to a pink lozenge and was gone. Our last Omani sunset.
The palms next to where we’d parked the car were alive with the chatter of roosting birds and we drove back to Salalah as it got dark and found the Baalbek restaurant; a Lebanese place run by Syrians with tables outside in the warm evening. Fresh juices and hummus and flatbread and then fish and squid and prawns. It was all splendid. We will miss this food, this landscape and these people.

Author: Richard Lister

Chasing horizons...

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