Words – Dominic Bradbury
Pictures – Dominic Bradbury and Faith Dunne
Heat does strange things to you. Like making you actually enjoy camping, swimming, walking: all those outdoor things that in England fill you with horror and bad memories. In Oman – even at winter time, which is the best time – the heat hovers around the eighties in the day, and still raises a sweat at night with your tent flaps open, up on a cliff top, with the sound of the sea crashing against the rocks below and complete darkness all around. The sort of darkness where you can see more stars than you ever thought possible, and a meteor coming down seems so bright it looks like a distress flare. Even getting up at five o'clock in the morning doesn't matter in this heat, out on the eastern-most tip of Arabia, because we have something to do, something to see.
Picking our way down the scree on the one side of the cliffs that isn't a sheer drop, using torches to try and find our feet, we finally make it down to the beach. And then we start making our way through a warren of burrows and pits in the sand, like walking a minefield, until we get to the sea, crouch down and wait. Just as the dawn finally breaks, shapes slowly begin to move.
A green turtle, tired after a night of burrowing and laying maybe up to a hundred eggs, is making its way back across the beach and towards the waters where the Gulf of Oman meets the Arabian Sea. As we quietly watch, others emerge from their burrows and head back to the warm, blue ocean where they belong. Followed by the babies. The babies who haven't been taken away in their egg shells by the desert foxes or picked off by the ranks of sentinel crabs, eyes up on stalks, looking for a meal. "You can't help them or get in their way," whispers Maria, who knows her turtle law. "They have to make their own way to the sea, or they'll never find their way back when it's their turn to breed."
It's one of the glories of Oman's rugged eastern coast. Just around Ra's al Hadd thousands of green turtles return to the same familiar spots every year to lay their eggs. This part of Oman, like so much of the country, is unspoilt, untamed and often only accessible off-road in four-wheel-drive Land Cruisers, Rovers and the rest. For the four of us, driving around in a Discovery called Bernard, the turtles are the high point of a four-day camping trip out of Oman's capital, Muscat, about 100 miles to the north-west.
We have wound our way down a sometimes precarious, always beautiful trail: a swim in the turquoise waters of Dibab sinkhole, connected to the sea half a mile distant by some complex route of tunnels through the limestone; climbing and swimming up the Wadi Shab – a valley track past small, intricately irrigated date plantations, up towards hidden lagoons; a look at the lonely ruined hillside mosque at the ancient city of Qalhat, once a great port visited by Marco Polo. And then through the growing city of Sur, where you can visit the boat yards that still carve out the distinctive wooden dhows that once helped make Oman one of the greatest trading nations of the Gulf and beyond.
This is the perfect way to see Oman: driving and camping, making sure you have the best of everything packed up with you – especially water – and know exactly where you're going. We packed up after the turtles, had a last look over the lunar plateaux of the cliffs, which British planes used as a staging post during World War II, and moved on to the desert. A few hours drive westwards and you come to the Wahiba Sands, where the patient Bedu nomads often save the cars of the dafter lone travellers stuck in the sands, but just has to be appreciated for its calming silence and the sheer wild expanse of the sweeping dunes. "Who forgot to pack the tin trays?" asks Faith, my adventurous wife, disappointed with a lack of sand surfing. The Wahiba, like the Empty Quarter which crosses into Saudi Arabia to the north, is one of the great uninhabitable swathes of Oman that helps explain why only two million people live here.
Even the capital, Muscat – which we start heading back to, planning our next expedition – has a slightly empty feeling, despite being a modern Middle Eastern metropolis. Spread out into a handful of separate districts, Muscat seems to have no heart, despite attempts to preserve traditional architecture with strict building codes and to gentrify the city with strange plastic roadside statuary and hundreds of little municipal gardens, painstakingly raised and watered daily in the middle of all the heat and dust.
There's none of the sky-scraping modernity of Dubai, and the old port quarter of Oman – Muttrah – does have its charms, with a souq filled with traditional Omani silver jewellery, sold by weight, and shops filled with old British compasses and telescopes traded by visiting seamen over the decades. Yet the museums are disappointing, the night life slow, and despite good restaurants and one of the best hotels in the Gulf - the palatial Al Bustan – Muscat is best treated as a base for exploring the coast, the desert and the interior, just as the country starts opening up to tourism.
Because this is a good time to see Oman. Despite a big expat community, it's only just starting to pull the visitors in, but because of long standing links with Britain Oman has a conveniently Anglophile attitude in many ways of life. English is widely spoken, our plugs fit their sockets and the benign autocrat who rules the Sultanate of Oman – Sultan Qaboos – still thinks warmly of his days at Sandhurst.
Since coming to power in the early 1970s Qaboos has turned a backward, introspective, divided country into a progressive, modern state. The oil revenue that began flowing around the same time was ploughed into infrastructure, education, hospitals and building programmes. Now it's a clean, safe, hospitable country – with a liberal Muslim approach – and stands starkly in contrast with neighbouring Yemen. The frustrating Omani bureaucracy, which means visas and permits for just about everything – including seeing turtles – seems a small price to pay for security compared to the hostage-taking badlands just next door.
Respecting Omani heritage, Qaboos has also pushed forward restoration programmes for cultural jewels like the country's dramatic system of forts, although at the moment its mostly Omanis and the occasional bus load of German packagers who reap the benefit. Nizwa, about 75 miles inland from Muscat, is worth a trip partly for its wonderful weekend goat market (the weekend being Thursday and Friday) – filled with the calming colours of the traditional dish-dash robes worn by Omani men and boys – and the restored fort, whose parapets almost touch the neighbouring mosque. Slits riddle the fort for pouring out boiling hot date syrup on intruders, and date plantations still reach right into the old heart of the city. A visit to the date traders reminds you that before oil it was dates, or pearls, or even frankincense that gave Oman its place in the world.
Another hour or so's drive out of Nizwa, past a vast, ongoing castle renovation project at Bahla, now a UNESCO world heritage site, you find yourself at Jabrin. In a charmingly nonsensical Omani way the new black top road comes to an end just before you reach the place that the road was built to take you to: a palatial seventeenth century fort which sits in a plain surrounded by almost nothing, except one of the most impressive, out of the way set of council houses you are ever likely to find. The old Imam's tomb at the fortress is just as intriguing as the room upstairs where he kept his horse, or the old meeting room with under floor spaces for hiding your assassins, just in case the negotiating started heating up.
Tripping out of Muscat like this takes you to the best of north-eastern Oman, although to reach the much greener, cooler monsoon-kissed lands of Dhofar to the south probably means a plane ride to Salalah. The worst mistake you can make is to think Muscat is Oman, especially in summer when the heat gets to over 120 F and most Omanis go elsewhere. The beauty of the country is in its unspoilt coast, the reefs and sea life that are making diving a growth industry, and the beauty of the mountains, towns and desert plains. Given the bureaucracy – and the price – of getting around it pays to plan ahead to make the most of it all, but worth it while the tranquillity and unspoilt charm of the place stay that way.
* Travel companies such as Abercrombie & Kent (0171 730 9600), Cox & Kings (0171 873 5000) and Kuoni (01306 740888) are now offering tours and tailor-made packages to Oman, while local specialist tour operators can be found through the major Muscat hotels or in the new Insight Guide to Oman and the UAE (Insight, £16.99). Consult the guide book for details on car and 4WD drive hire, but for off-road trips remember careful preparation – or a guide – is essential (see Off-Road in Oman by Heiner Klein and Rebecca Brickson, Motivate Publishing, £8.95)