Oman day two continued
10.02.2019 - 10.02.2019
Cute cat in Quriyat
After our morning visit to the Grand Mosque in Muscat we left the rest of our city-sightseeing to be picked up at the end of our tour with Said and headed south out of the city following the coast. The road was impressively well-constructed and scenic, winding through the rugged foothills of the Eastern Hajar Mountains.
On the road to Quriyat
Although not officially on our itinerary Said proposed a short stop in Quriyat to see the fishing port and old Portuguese watchtower.
Coastal view, Quriyat
Back in 1508 this was one of the first towns in Oman to come under attack from the Portuguese fleet as that country set about colonising the coastal area. They set fire to the town and massacred its inhabitants. Those they took captive are reported to have had their noses and ears cut off, a popular Portuguese way of combatting resistance to their colonial ambitions.
Views across the fishing port to the town
We drove along the sea front or corniche to a point from which we had good views of the fishing port (quiet at this time of day) and the small town beyond. From the small park here we had excellent views of the restored Portuguese watchtower on a rocky islet at the harbour mouth. These watchtowers dot the Omani landscape and we were to see many over the coming days, but this was our first.
The Portuguese watchtower
We stopped again at the nearby Bimmah Sinkhole. Like other sinkholes this was caused by erosion – the soft limestone beneath the surface was gradually worn away by water from rain higher up in the mountains which ran through an underground channel to the sea nearby until eventually it collapsed. But locals traditionally have another explanation, as the name of the park which surrounds the sinkhole reveals – Hawiyat Najm, that is Shooting Star, Park. They believe a falling meteor crashed to earth at this spot. Some versions of the story say it was actually a piece of the moon that fell to Earth.
There is another legend too, told by the people of nearby Tiwi. They say that the other name of this hole, Bait al-Afreet, which means ‘House of the Demon’ (or of the Goblin) actually refers to the home of a djinn, a mythical being who can be either good or evil. It is said that the nature of the Djinn living here in the Bimmah Sinkhole can be either pleasant or unpleasant, depending on its mood and the politeness of the humans visiting the pool. In the worst cases it is said to entice people into the water and then through an underwater tunnel to the sea where they would drown.
While this is the stuff of legend, it is the case that the sinkhole is connected to the sea, from which it is separated by only 600 metres by a tunnel. The deep emerald green colour is attributed by some to the mixing of mineral-rich fresh water from the underground rivers with the saline water of the ocean.
This beautiful lake which formed at the base of the sinkhole is uneven in shape (a bit like a hook, I thought) but is roughly 50 metres by 70 metres and approximately 20 metres deep, although the depth varies with the tides, according to Said. Said also said that it formed relatively recently, i.e. within living memory, but I can find no reference to the actual date online and suspect that may not be the case.
Swimmers at Bimmah Sinkhole
Whatever the facts, the sinkhole is today a popular tourist stop and deservedly so. While we didn’t swim in its waters, I would have been sorely tempted had we had more time, and even without taking a swim we were able to enjoy the striking contrast of its deep green waters and dry rocky surroundings. Chris went down the 80 steps to take photos at the foot, but I contented myself with strolling around the perimeter and taking my pictures there.
Sign at Wadi Shab
From Bimmah we drove to Wadi Shab. I had already learned from my friend Grete’s blog and elsewhere that a full visit to the wadi can by quite challenging, with a steep path to negotiate, and Said confirmed this, so we only stayed a short while to take photos of the waters near the parking area. This is located somewhat incongruously directly beneath a flyover as the modern main road we had been driving on crosses the wadi high above this point, but is pretty nevertheless, and there were other things too to catch my eye and lens, such as another tour guide feeding the ubiquitous goats and some colourful graffiti.
For those who do want to visit the wadi, small boats ferry you across this stretch of water to a footpath on the far side, from where a stony and at times rocky path begins. At the far end you may need to swim through several deep pools to reach the most scenic parts – another reason for us not to attempt the walk as Chris (while a very good walker, unlike me) is not a strong swimmer and dislikes being out of his depth. All that said, descriptions from those who have made the effort abound online and make the rewards sound wonderful!
At Wadi Shab
As an alternative Said proposed visiting Wadi Tiwi, which is accessible by road, and yet less busy – that sounded great to us. But before that we stopped for lunch at a roadside café in the small village of Tiwi itself, where we enjoyed excellent spicy-coated kingfish, rice, puri-style bread and dahl, washed down with fresh mango juice.
View of Wadi Tiwi, with the road on the right
Said himself lives in a village in this wadi, when he isn’t escorting tourists around the country, so he knows it well. He drove up the steep road to a viewpoint overlooking the first village, nestled among the date plantations.
View of Wadi Tiwi
After we had taken some photos there offered to drive up further, an offer we were pleased to accept.
From the road through Wadi Tiwi
The road up was pretty amazing - narrow, winding, with sheer drops at times and huge boulders dotted around. I found these very scenic until Chris pointed out that they must have fallen from the mountains towering above us. Suddenly they seemed rather less appealing!
Clearing the road, Wadi Tiwi
We passed a spot where men were clearing some smaller stones from the road, perfectly illustrating Chris’s point, and reached a spot from where we could see the last village at the head of the valley. Children had just arrived home from the school they attend in Tiwi, and Said told us that as no school bus could manage to navigate this road they are ferried to school in 4WD cars.
The last village in Wadi Tiwi
Then we drove back down, with me trying (and not always succeeding) to take photos as we did so.
From the road through Wadi Tiwi
A Wadi Tiwi village
Towards the bottom I asked Said if we could stop to take photos of those huge boulders in the stream, which he helpfully agreed to.
The sound of the running water was so peaceful and unexpected in this arid setting that I had to shoot a short video too in order to capture it.
Our last stop of the day was in Sur, where we visited the dhow-building shipyard, said to be the last working traditional dhow factory in the world. We saw some dhows of various sizes and in various stages of completion.
Partly built dhow
Said explained the traditional techniques and then left us to look round on our own and take photos while he went to the nearby mosque to pray. You can climb a ladder to see inside one of the dhows under construction and watch the carpenters at work on various boats.
Workers in the shipyard
Stern of a dhow
Smaller boat in the shipyard
I also shot a short video here as I was fascinated by the rather tuneful rhythm of the hammers.
From the shipyard we went to a nearby spot where an old dhow, said by Said to be the oldest in the country, is on display alongside some other old boats. This is the Fatih Al-Khair, built in Sur in 1951, according to the sign, and now beautifully restored.
We hadn’t yet changed any money into Omani Rials so we stopped in the centre of Sur to do that, changing only a small amount as our tour was on full board. Then we drove the remaining distance to our hotel for the night.
Ras al-Jinz is the easternmost point in Oman and on the entire Arabian peninsula. We were staying at the Ras al-Jinz hotel for a reason, and for that one reason only – turtles. The hotel itself is fairly basic (despite describing itself as ‘luxury’) but it sits right on a beach where green sea turtles come to lay their eggs. While guests of other hotels can and do visit the beach in the evenings to see the turtles, only the guests here are right on the spot, and only they can visit on the morning tours.
After our sleep-poor night there was some temptation to skip turtle viewing … no, I’m not serious! To come all this way and not try to see them? Madness! So after a fairly basic buffet dinner (with the baba ghanoush and watermelon juice rising above the general mediocrity) we gathered with all the other hotel guests and tour groups from elsewhere in the hotel lobby. Rangers down on the beach report when turtles have been seen, and at this time of year, which is low season for egg-laying, there are no guarantees. We thought we might have a long wait but only ten minutes after the 8.30 PM gathering time, the call came for the priority hotel guests group to leave.
Outside we were divided into two smaller groups and walked the kilometre or so to the beach under a beautiful starry sky (with my favourite constellation Orion directly overhead) by the dim light of a few torches. It was dry but sandy in places, and we were encouraged to walk briskly and to stay together as a group. I will come back to that walk in due course …
Arriving on the beach we went directly to the spot where one of the turtles was to be seen. No torches were allowed here apart from that of the guide, which he was careful not to shine in her face. I imagine that the rule against tourist use of torches is because we might not all be so careful.
She had finished laying her eggs when we arrived and started to cover them. We stood watching for a while as her large flippers swept the sand backwards. Taking photos, without flash of course, is allowed, but challenging in this light. But I pushed my ISO setting as high as it would go, and managed to capture a few dim images.
Green turtle covering her eggs
After a while we moved on to a second turtle, also in the process of covering her eggs. The guide explained that making the hole can take several hours, egg laying about 15 minutes, and re-covering the hole again several hours. So I guess at this low season you would have to be very lucky to see them actually laying.
Green turtle covering her eggs
When we left this second turtle, we thought that was the last of the action for the night, but as we gathered near the start of the path back to the hotel the guide got a call from another one nearby to say there was a hatchling on his way down to the sea. We hurried over and were able to see him, although the large size of the group surrounding this tiny creature meant that good views were harder to get. The guide showed us how he was attracted to the torch light and would turn towards it, but after a couple of minutes we left him to follow his path down to the sea. Amazingly I managed to capture him on video, not on my usually reliable camera (the video setting couldn’t cope with the low light as well as it did when shooting stills) but on my smartphone.
Addendum: a few days later I read up a bit more about turtle activity on this beach and realised that what had seemed a happy coincidence for us was in fact almost certainly some clever staging by the rangers. The hatchlings usually emerge at dawn so it is very rare to see one on these evening tours, and as a result rangers often keep one back and release it in the evening so visitors can see it!
Again we thought that was it for the night, but another call came in, this time to say a female had finished her heavy work and was also on her way back to the sea. It was pretty hard to take photos of her, so after a few attempts I gave up and just enjoyed the spectacle as she pulled herself down the beach and disappeared under the waves.
Green turtle returning to the sea
So that was our last turtle sighting and we made our way, again as a group, back to the hotel. We had a decision to make – did we want to go on the morning turtle tour also? We might have said yes, but remember I said I would return the matter of the walk down to the beach? Well, on the way down I had unfortunately badly ricked my neck while gazing up at the stars – a flare up of an injury I had had just prior to this trip. By the time we got back to the hotel my left shoulder was extremely painful, so my vote was for skipping the morning tour given that our evening had been so productive. Chris agreed, keen to catch on much-needed sleep, so we headed back to our room and did just that.