Oman

Nizwa Fort rises from the sand like an Arabian Nights palace. Turrets soar skyward into the searing blue. Grand gates are able to welcome convoys of camels five abreast. But the 24 slits around the towers hide a sinister purpose. Each once held a cannon  that could blast desert raiders intent on capturing this dusty crossroads. And as Nizwa commands the trade route between Dubai and the Omani capital of Muscat, many have tried.

Nizwa’s souk contains all you need  for a modern-day conquest of Oman: handmade copper cups, coffee pots, spices and leather goods. Plus curved daggers should you meet a masked assassin on the road to Abu Dhabi. Dates are sold by the bucketload, and date syrup is also on sale, although centuries ago it was boiled and thrown at attackers of Nizwa Fort.

On Friday mornings, regional tribesmen  descend upon this medieval market as cows  and goats are sold for wedding feasts and desert barbecues. Sometimes camels are  still peddled as ‘ships of the desert’:  millennia-old means of transportation  across the Arabian Peninsula.

Indeed, the car only replaced the camel  as Oman’s vehicle of choice in the 1960s.  As petrol is cheaper than mineral water,  I’ve chosen a Toyota jeep as my means  of transport. With a population of just four million scattered across an area the size  of Germany, the country’s tarmac  highways are blissfully clear.

Visitor numbers are also tiny: four million  per year compared with over 15 million apiece in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This has allowed Oman to pioneer low-impact tourism, where the finest sights are preserved for culturally minded visitors. Nowhere is this more apparent than the UNESCO-protected oasis of Falaj Daris.

Falaj are ancient irrigation systems built  by hand 1,500 years ago. Each canal courses through orchards alive with date palms and pepper trees, colouring the sandy scrub deep green. As the water is now used for irrigation, not drinking, it’s permissible to swim in the snaking canals. Local children dive in, then pluck dates for a lunchtime snack. Falaj Daris also runs underneath Nizwa Fort, 10km south of this oasis. Instead I’m driving 30 minutes north to the water’s lofty source.

Jebel Akhdar is the highest point in Eastern Arabia. Its name translates as ‘Green Mountain’. Here, rainfall waters terraces of peaches, walnuts, apricots and grapes. At 3,000m in altitude, it’s spellbinding by car – but must  be a different story by bicycle. The Tour of Oman (an annual cycle race organised by  the Tour de France) regularly climbs the route. Top riders Chris Froome and Vincenzo  Nibali have both won the week-long tour.

I’m in Jebel Akhdar to stay in accommodation that exemplifies Oman’s tourism strategy.  The mountaintop Alila Hotel is a vision  of 21st-century Arabia: it combines stone  floors and traditional Omani construction techniques with handmade copper  fixtures and luxurious pools.

Aside from morning yoga and starlight meditation, the hotel also pairs guests with locals for a taste of the real Oman. I join  a local guide for a five-hour hike through  Jebel Akhdar’s green wilderness, then try  a Via Ferrata, a cliffside climbing trail that once formed the only accessible route through  the surrounding mountains.

Dawn shoots a fountain of golden light over  the emerald valley. My jeep and I follow the  sun for four hours towards the Arabian Sea, a region of the northern Indian Ocean. Oman’s diverse topography comes into its own along this route. Soaring cliffs fade to wadi

rock formations, then endless groves of palms,  plus asphalt roads that ribbon like Arabic calligraphy through my journey’s first dunes.

The food changes too. Inland cuisine includes harees (wheat porridge) and machboos (fried rice topped with pine nuts and sultanas). Coastal food means fresh tuna hauled in by barefoot fishermen, all seasoned with cardamom and tamarind, a remnant of the Omani empire that once stretched to the spice island of Zanzibar.

Sea life abounds at Ras Al Jinz, the country’s most easterly point. Humpbacks, whale sharks and dolphins bask in the same warm seas  that lap against nearby Iran and Pakistan.  I’m here to see the thousands of loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles that lay their  eggs on the sandy shore.

At midnight a guide wakes me from my Australian-built safari tent at Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve. We join a moonlight group of eco-tourists to watch the nation’s most magical sight: massive mother turtles laying scores of eggs into sandy hollows, plus baby hatchlings making a mad dash to the safety of the sea.

Another day, another climatic zone. Ask  a travel agent to describe Oman and they will talk about the Wahiba Sands, blood-red dunes as high as ocean waves that stretch as far as the eye can see. The topography is Star Wars meets Lawrence of Arabia, with tracks of snakes, desert foxes and vultures dusted nightly by the shifting sands. Some 3,000 Bedouin herders still call this desert home, adding a taste of modernity to a traditional diet of camel milk, coffee, rabbit and dates.

This being Oman, my accommodation  is five-star. Desert Nights Camp appears  like a mirage from the sea of sands.  Turbaned staff offer cold towels and mint  tea to visitors stepping out of their 4×4 jeeps. Their ‘tents’ are like boutique lodges, with  outdoor beanbags and carpets on which  to plan your desert adventures.

At dusk the residents of the entire resort climb a nearby dune for drinks as the sun  sets over Saudi. At dawn we’re up for sandboarding (like snowboarding but more painful) before guides offer dune tours  via quad bike and Land Cruiser.

Thoughts of rain are far away. But I drive  my Toyota into a tropical storm due south  in Salalah. Oman’s second city abuts the  Indian Ocean and receives the same  yearly monsoons as India’s Malabar Coast.  A population dominated by migrants  from the subcontinent lends a tropical

air. Coconuts and mangoes are offered by roadside sellers, and street curries include layered biryani rice and unctuous lentil dhals. The palm-fringed beaches rival those in Goa, while the archaeological site of Khor Rori is said to be one of the Queen of Sheba’s palaces.

Khor Rori was the main trading port of frankincense. These scented balls of tree resin, known as the ‘white gold’ of Arabia, were exported from Salalah to Rome,  China and India for untold centuries. The frankincense tree forests north of the city make up another UNESCO World Heritage Site. I drive there, dodging both clouds and camels. Turbaned workers are tapping the trees for scented sap as views over ocean, desert and ancient city tempt from below. That’s Oman: scratch the surface and centuries of history come to the fore.

From Travel Colours June 2018

5 Senses – Sight MUSCAT FISH MARKET

The 21st century meets the timeless at Muscat’s brand new Fish Market. In 2017, Norwegian design firm Snøhetta installed this arabesque UFO, which shields 100 seafood salesmen from the searing sun. The daily catch is alluringly photogenic. Giant snapper and Indian Ocean tuna are hauled inside by barefoot fishermen, then hawked to Muscat restaurateurs. Visitors are also welcome in
the new seafood café.