Although they are usually placid and gentle, camels have a reputation for being cranky and hard to get on with, and they’ve been known to spit when they’re unhappy. I was certain this one was going to take a bite out of my leg at any time.
Camels are very large and very bony, but also very resilient. They are able to travel long distances and carry heavy loads. These ones seemed happy to carry tourists up and down the dunes hour after hour.
Camels usually have one calf at a time and mother and child will stay together for up to five years. This newborn was keeping close to his mother’s side.
But this camel had the best deal – a free ride and a great view… and loving it!
Legends abound about Sinbad the Sailor, but the people of Sur will tell you that Sinbad came from there hundreds of years ago. Certainly the boats he would have sailed in have been built there for centuries and still are today. Sur has a strong history of ship building and was the gateway for trade with East Africa up until the building of the Suez Canal. We visited the only remaining dhow building factory in Sur on a fine, warm morning when the sun was glistening on the waters of the Gulf of Oman. In the showroom were intricate, commemorative models of special dhows that have been built there.
We ventured into the outdoor factory to see the labourers busily working on different stages of two dhows which were being constructed for members of the Saudi Royal family. We were able to wander for as long as we wanted around the factory area and view the unique construction methods being used to form the curved shapes of the hulls of the boats. Holes are drilled in the large planks with hand drills and then they are joined together with huge nails. In the past ropes made from coconut fibre were used to lash the timbers of the boat together and many traditional sailors believed that they were stronger than nails.
In the guest lounge we leaned against Omani style cushions drinking strong Turkish coffee from tiny cups and eating dates while the work continued around us. The smell of freshly cut timber filled the air as did the sounds of the workers going about the business of constructing these elegant vessels. As we left the factory an Omani dhow sailed into view and it was easy to imagine Sinbad standing on the deck.
The Wahiba Sands cover an area of 12 500 square kilometres in between Muscat and Sur and are what we all imagine true desert to be. The golden sand dunes reach to the horizon and beyond and seem to undulate as the wind blows across their slopes. The sand moves so much that it’s hard for even a seasoned local like our guide and driver Yahya to find the entrance to the road that will take us deep into the interior of the desert.
Our first stop is at a Bedouin home – their permanent winter camp is set between the dunes with tents surrounded by a wire fence to keep the camels and goats out. The girls of the family greet us as honoured guests, with dates and mint tea in fragile coloured glasses. They show us their handcrafts, woven from goat hair and richly coloured, and encourage us to buy a mat, a key ring or even a mobile phone case.
We leave their camp and travel further into the desert. We pass many camels with their calves. One is so young it is only just upright and stays close to its mother’s side. We arrive at the Safari Desert Camp and are welcomed with yet more dates and the traditional Omani dessert Halwa, a sweet and sticky confection of date syrup and almonds which is reserved for special occasions. Our home away from home this night is a magnificent Bedouin tent furnished with traditionally embellished beds, drawers and chests, and decorated with enormous cushions made from brightly coloured fabrics shot with silver and gold thread.
Later in the afternoon we drive out beyond the camp for some dune bashing. It’s a hair raising experience as we climb up the steepest dunes and continue to go higher and higher. Finally we stop and leave the car to walk up even further. Just when I think we’ve reached the summit of the highest dune there’s another behind it. The colours of the desert change minute by minute as the sun starts to set and the lights of the camp come on more than one hundred metres below us. Even after the sun has dipped below the horizon the light in the sky reflects on the sands in an ever changing palette. The only sound comes from the light breeze that blows across the top of the dunes. Only when it is completely dark do we walk back to the car for the precarious ride straight down the slope to the plain below.
Our evening meal is a traditional Omani barbecue of lamb, goat and chicken with salads, rice and breads, which we eat while sitting cross legged on plump cushions at traditional Bedouin tables. After dinner we sit outside admiring the multitude of stars in a sky lit by a full moon which rises over the sand dunes and guides us back to our tents at the end of a once in a lifetime Arabian night.
I am a lover of symmetry, patterns and design and the arabic architecture of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque gave me plenty to admire. The Mosque is in Muscat, Oman, and its white Indian sandstone stands out vividly against the stark mountains which surround the city. It is open to the public, both Muslim and non Muslim, in the mornings from Monday to Thursday and the only restrictions are that visitors are asked to wear appropriate clothing which covers arms and legs and women need to wear a head covering.
The ladies’ prayer hall is intimate and peaceful, while the main prayer hall is almost overwhelming in its decoration. There are ornate carved doors, tiled mosaics and Persian style niches. The carpet, which covers almost all the floor area is the second largest in the world and took four years to be hand woven in a single piece. All this is overhung by a Swarovski crystal and gold plated chandelier – the largest in the world, truly magnificent and perfect in its setting.
Outside we wandered at will, explored the colonnades and marvelled at the dozens of mosaic niches which tell stories from the Koran. Even the gardens were set out in straight lines with matching designs. Symmetry was everywhere and I loved it.