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Sunday, 11 April 2010

Man, Oman

I am just back from a very fine week in the Sultanate of Oman, trekking in the mountains, desert, and spending time by the sea reading. Oman is an exceptionally interesting country, a small nation on the Arabian peninsula connected by its historical, cultural, religious, and sea-faring ties, as much to Africa, Asia, as to the Middle East. A predominantly (moderate) Islamic country, it is not as oil rich as its neighbours, so it has had to diversify its economy. For the past 40 years it has been ruled, benevolently and intelligently, by Sultan Qaboos, who has won international awards for his far-seeing commitment to environmentalism. Oman is also a leader, in the region, in education, health, and eco-tourism. Oman is mainly a gravel desert, and mountainous, country, very hot and humid most of the year (it is bisected by the Tropic of Cancer), with some monsoons in the summer in the south, and a cooler breeze along its long coast (the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman).

Politically, it is diplomatic, and has had ties with Britain, but also has worked with Iran, among others. The country has been stable for the past 40 years. The people of Oman, based on those I met, are universally friendly, welcoming, and pleased to show tourists around. They are proud of what their Sultan has achieved, and how clean and beautiful their country is; and of its history of forts and dhows. It's geography is stunning and unique. It is specially known for its "Wadis" - mountain-fed streams that form rock pools in narrow, palm-lined gorges (fjords) that rise thousands of metres on either side, and snake deep into the mountains, that lie off the coastline, inland a few hours from the sea. It also has a part of the legendary Empty Quarter, and has sand deserts, as well, where Bedouin still live. It also has several of the world's finest luxury resorts, including the Chedi in Muscat.

As my 43rd year was the worst of my life, I wanted to turn 44 in a different place, and to explore a different culture. I had always had an interest in Arabia, but had never been there. So it is, my wife and I travelled to Muscat, via Bahrain, and spent a week touring, with Passion-Trek (recommended). Abdul, our young, handsome and athletic guide, was a lot of fun, and also thoughtful. We swam in hidden caves and remote Wadis (the best swimming of my life), as well as sinkholes, and the sea. One night, we camped in the desert. I had strong black coffee with the Bedouin (my first coffee in 8 months, as I have to be careful with my digestive disease), and avoided camel spiders and scorpions. We ended our vacation with two nights at the Chedi, the most beautiful hotel I have ever seen.

As it was my birthday the night we arrived, they upgraded us to a suite, and sent me a surprise cake - very sweet! The service was impeccable, and the giant fountains and palm tree garden outside our balcony were exotic and mesmerising. Every day was hot - none less than 34 Celsius, and night time the air remained a warm 30 Celsius. It was always sunny, or just slightly overcast. The food was mostly rice and spicy lamb, or chicken, or prawns, with an Indian or Asian bent. Oman offers the traveller unlimited opportunity for adventurous trekking, or pampered beach reading, or both, and the safe sense of the nation and its placid people was most assuring. I hope to return some day, and stay longer, exploring more of the mountains, and the south.
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