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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