#953. An Omani odyssey

By John Shingleton | Travel Photography

Jan 15

A few weeks ago, new DearSusan contributor John Shingleton, told us of an undestination in his adopted home (Australia). This time, he’s in the Middle East.


A few weeks ago my story on the Berkeley River in Northern Australia was featured in DS as an undestination. I make no such claim for the destination in this story; Oman, which I visited last year. It is somewhere to escape the madding crowds, most of the time.

First, let me explain why I was in Oman in late December. I live in Terrigal on the Central Coast of New South Wales. It is a beautiful place to live except over the Christmas/New Year holiday weeks. It is high summer. The schools are on holiday and the heat is on. Terrigal becomes a very crowded place as the population of the town swells with holiday makers, so last year my wife and I decided to head off to Oman on the Persian Gulf.

It’s a long way to go to escape the crowds and, although we had already travelled a lot in 2018, we had no hesitation in booking to go away at year end. It was only a 14-day trip and we would have liked to have stayed longer but the first weeks of the new year are peak tourist season for Oman, with “snowbirds” from Italy and particularly Germany, escaping the European winter. The hotels were all full when we tried to book, so it was a short but very sweet trip.

We really took to Oman. It has an exceptional history. Up to 1970, it was a very backward country. Not even a country but just a loose collection of often troublesome tribes ruled by a very old fashioned autocratic ruler, Sultan Said, who was fiscally and socially very conservative. It is said that he kept the country’s oil revenue in a large chest under his bed and he did not spend any of it on desperately needed infrastructure.

In 1970 the country had only three schools, one hospital, no newspapers, no radio or TV and sported only two graded roads. Then, the average life expectancy of an Omani was just 47 years. This all changed on 23 July 1970 when the Sultan’s son, Qaboos, engineered a coup with the support of the small Omani army and the British Government and to send Sultan Said into a comfortable exile in a suite at London’s the Dorchester Hotel.

Coups often end badly and the track records of autocrats around the world are not good. But the Omanis really struck lucky with Sultan Qaboos. He has turned out to be a very enlightened and forward-thinking ruler. Having oil revenues has certainly helped and Qaboos has spent wisely on schools, hospitals and roads. No lavish “look at me, look at me” monster skyscrapers and blingy high-rise cities. No late model fighter jets and no dabbling in regional fights. All a marked contrast to Oman’s Gulf neighbours. Having a dominant, moderate Islamic sect; Ibadhi, has also helped immensely as there are no sectarian tensions.

In 2010 The UN Development agency rated Oman out of 135 countries as most ”improved” over the past 40 years. It did start from a very low base but it has done very well. The roads — there are not many but the population is small — are generally very good and often superb. The public buildings are modern. There are many schools and hospitals. Healthcare and education are free to all. Life expectancy is now 77 years. Airports are very modern. The country is clean. There is no graffiti. I have never driven anywhere where the drivers are so courteous. Sydney drivers please note. With the country in such good shape, it is little wonder that Sultan Qaboos was so well respected but sadly he died just a few days ago on 11th January 2020. He has been succeeded by his cousin Haitham Bin Tariq Al Said.

Oman is still a deeply religious, modest and conservative country. Ninety-nine per cent of the Omani men and women wear traditional dress — the dishdasha, the long white coat-like garment for men, and the burqa for women. If the sight of women in burqas upsets you then Oman is not for you.

So, back to our trip. After the long flight, we ventured forth into this interesting country four days before Christmas. After a few nights in the capital city, Muscat (the only city) we headed to the interior for a few days on the road. Lots to see. Very harsh mountains, massive deserts, forts and ancient buildings, an interesting coastline and of course camels. Thousands of camels.

Then we flew to the jewel of the south, Salalah, close to the border with troubled Yemen. Salalah is turning itself into a resort town with European tourists lying in the sun by the pool, polishing up the skin cancer. As that was of no interest to us we took a Toyota 4WD and a guide and headed out of town where there is a great deal to see. If we had been able to stay longer I had teed up our guide to take me inland over the mountains into the Empty Quarter. Now that would have been interesting. Perhaps another day. So much to see – so little time.

As it was we really did pack a lot of travel into the thirteen days. We had wonderful food in some great hotels and interesting roadside food with the locals including eating freshly cooked camel meat. It’s chewy like beef jerky.

We saw enormous blue turtles laying eggs on their breeding grounds at night. We saw real souqs and touristy souqs. we saw forts, abandoned villages and magnificent canyons and mountains. I met many charming Omanis — English is surprisingly widely spoken — and I met a number of Iranian tourists. I never pass a chance to chat with anyone along the road. Contrary to the narrative we are given in the West I found the Iranians I met to be charming, friendly and eager to be liked. I am sure not a single one of them was an extremist eager to slash my throat or drop a nuclear device on Terrigal or New York.

I took my Leica Q as my only camera. I have been into the one camera one lens philosophy for ten years now and my photography is all the better for it. But whatever floats your boat is the right choice. If you are happy travelling with one camera, or heaven forbid two, and a bagful of lenses, go for it I say. I’ve been there and done that. I won’t pontificate at length about my choice of camera because at the end of the day for me it’s only the photos which count. If they were great and I had taken them with a Lomo it would be surprising but it would still not matter.


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  • pascaljappy says:

    Thank you John, wonderful photographs of what seems to be a peaceful gem. And what a “success story” for the country. It’s easy to see why Oman us used as a negociation middle man between more extreme parties. And, for what it’s worth, all the Iranian born people I have met or worked with were delightful. The coutry has a troubled past but I think it was recently very peaceful and interesting until trump demonized it.

    The look from that Leica Q is so lovely. The background in the photo of the smiling gentleman (2/3 down) is simply wonderful. And, you can count me in when you create the “one camera one lens” travel photography club 😉 That’s my prefered MO as well.


  • Dan says:

    I like the pictures a lot.
    How did you find the country from a safety perspective? Did you hire a guide or went around on your own?

    • Dan, Oman is definitely safe. Very safe. In fact I would say that it is the safest country of the 53 I have visited-so far.
      Yes we had a guide/driver and having a guide is really a necessity to understanding the sights and getting around.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Thanks for sharing such wonderful and interesting photos with us, John. I’m way too old to be able to travel all over the world and see everything, and it gives me enormous pleasure to be able to see the results of the travels of all the other members of DS.

    Religious differences affect people in different ways. Oman seems to live its religious beliefs in a quiet and friendly way. This might explain why it has been left in peace, while neighbouring Yemen is in an uproar. Western religions have had a sorry history of persecution and wars, so westerners don’t have too much to brag about. It’s a pity human beings can’t learn to live with one another – it rather gives the lie to their notion that they are the most intelligent of animals. Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved all the other animals so much!

    (Despite my love of animals, I’m a bit “iffy” about camels. They are apparently rather bad tempered. And there’s an awful story about one in Western Australia, last century, on an expedition to find Lasseter’s Reef – attacking and killing the expedition’s camel driver, by biting off the top half of his head.)

    The opening to your story is rather startling. Son seizes control with the help of the army, and dispatches dad to London? And for the following half century, sonny has reigned over the place sensibly? He must have been rather young when he sent his father packing. And to raise life expectancy in the country by 64%? I think our present Prime Minister is a bit like Dumbo Tramp, and would rather lower the life expectancy in this country, so he could cut spending on health care and age pensions and use the money to buy expensive cars for politicians, and other similar garbage, instead.

    In my analogue days, I had one favourite camera – equipped with all the accessories I could afford (the 500mm lens was rather too expensive – and too bulky!) And reviewing the photos I took with it, as I reached the point when I decided to chuck analogue and go digital, I realised that the extra lenses really weren’t “necessary” – I’d taken not much more than one percent of all those photos, using the w/angle or the tele lens! And with street or travel, the need for extra lenses does fall away.

    One of my friends has a Leica Monochrom (I think that’s what it’s called), shoots with one lens, and takes the most brilliant B&W photos I think I’ve ever seen. Not my choice – a major part of the reason for shifting to digital was so that I could (at last!) do my own colour processing & printing. Your photos, John, take the best of both worlds – the quality and convenience of the Leica and a single lens, with the beauty of colour. For me, the colours are a major part of “travel”.

    The clothing differences seem to stick in some people’s minds, in much the same way some people come back from a holiday in Europe, saying silly things like “I wish all those foreigners would learn to speak proper English!” (True! – I’ve heard one of them actually say that!) I think if I lived in Oman I would probably choose similar clothing – it probably originated from a preference for avoiding skin cancer, or keeping cool in the heat.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Thanks for this, John!
    A simple, but straight-to-the-heart invitation to travel!
    Like with Pascal O. pics, the more sophistication enters our lives the more I feel refreshing to see “simple travel feelings” 🙂
    And thanks for the mention of Ibadism, super interesting!
    I am buddhist, but familiar with many islam branches, and lived many years with an ismaeli girlfriend, but I confess total ignorance about that important movement!
    Regarding Iranians, don’t worry… only the US govt stupidly creates that demonizing narrative… most of the rest of the world knows how kind, friendly and educated most Iranians are 🙂
    Then about the single-lens approach, let’s be fair: the Leica Q, like the Ricoh GR and (for some people) the Sony R1, are very special babies… wonderful rendering!
    Great post!

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I meant to mention, John – you said you saw enormous blue turtles laying eggs on their breeding grounds at night! I tried three times, going to the east coast of Malaysia, to see the turtles laying their eggs – had great holidays there, the people on the east coast are utterly delightful – but alas, no turtles for me! So I’m as jealous as all hell of your trip to Oman!

    Instead, I have a photo (A2 I think) of a turtle who has recently laid her eggs, making her way back to the Indian Ocean – taken at Ningaloo, by my brother-in-law. We’ve mounted it, and I’ll hang it in our dining room.

    • Pascal Ravach says:

      I had once the “opposite” joy, during a boating picnic on a minuscule island around Mayotte: seeing hundreds of baby turtle coming out of the sand and running to the sea… such a luck and a fascinating moment 🙂

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