Magazine article Geographical

Arabian Sights

Magazine article Geographical

Arabian Sights

Article excerpt

OMAN IS ONE OF THE most exciting countries to visit in Arabia, yet until recently tourism was unknown there. Only in the late 1980s was a cautious welcome extended to tourists. Many aspects of the Sultanate of Oman are protected -- in Nizwa city even groceries are protected by the walls surrounding the supermarket -- yet it is easy to break Omani barriers and discover this developing destination. Oman has not only a high concentration of forts but also some of the most open landscapes in Arabia: high peaks abut stark deserts and wide wadis, or seasonal watercourses. Yet the country is easy to explore by foot, vehicle, and boat. Omanis can be reserved, but visitors are welcomed warmly.

Majestic Muscat

Muscat, Oman's capital, is a majestic port overlooked by stone watchtowers and filled with ornately tiled mosques. It is also the place to stock up on provisions: its souk, or market, is regarded as the most vibrant in the Middle East. Traders from all parts of Arabia crowd the narrow alleyways, selling everything from dates to khanjars, traditional silver daggers.

Leaving Muscat, the main road runs south through Wadi Sumail to Oman's famous forts and to Jebel Shams, the highest peak in eastern Arabia. Oman has numerous forts due to its history of internal conflict, and because its topography is ideal for defence measures. Just west of Nizwa city, Bahla Fort is an imposing mud-brick construction that was recently named a World Heritage Site. Ten kilometres beyond Bahla lies ornate Jabrin Castle, a fort that served as a residence for rulers. Not only the grand exterior but also the detailed interior -- high doorways, tiled ceilings, and wall murals -- reflects Jabrin's royal heritage.

The track up to Jebel Shams is known as one of the roughest in Arabia. Some Omani nomads churn butter by attaching milk to their saddles and riding camels along its bumpy terrain. On this track, I could have strapped milk to my vehicle and made cottage cheese. But the horrific drive is worth it. The peak looks down onto miniscule villages, ancient rock carvings, and enormous fissures known as `Oman's Grand Canyons'. Birds, ibex, and goats wander across hiking paths that meander around the summits of Jebel Akhdar.

Dhofar, Oman's southernmost province and an epic 800-kilometre drive from Jebel Shams, is the only part of Arabia that has a monsoon climate. Dhofar's lush hills, limestone cliffs and alluvial fields resemble Southeast Asia rather than the Middle East. This rugged, ripe landscape supports a variety of birds, many of which are related to African species. Wandering up hiking trails in Jebel Samhan, a mountain range on Dhofar's coast, I spied Abyssinian sunbirds, laughing doves, and black kites. As the hiking paths approach Jebel Samhan's summits, spur trails lead to cascades. At one impressive falls, water pours through the verdant forest like a riot cannon and spills onto the rocks below, evaporating into the steamy air. Downstream from the falls, flamingos, egrets, and porcupines gather to feast and gawk at tourists. Occasionally, porcupines disappear into the lairs of Arabian leopards. The leopards which are nearly extinct in most of the Middle East, still survive in Jebel Samhan, thanks to the Omani government's progressive conservation policies. …

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