Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sharqiyyah Part I: In the Desert

We went on our first excursion this past weekend (weekends here are Thursday-Friday) to Sharqiyyah, in the eastern region of Oman. We spent our first night in a touristy Bedouin-run desert camp. Though virtually everything was sand, the scenery was unbelievable. Giant dunes surrounded the camp, and we spent the afternoon “dune-bashing” in 4X4’s with drivers so familiar with everything it was like they were driving to the grocery store. They were almost eerily nonchalant about the whole thing. Those of us in the back, though, had a much more exciting experience (to say the least). They dropped us off on a massive dune behind the camp and we spent the rest of the afternoon messing around – walking, taking pictures, sweating, etc., and left after watching a beautiful desert sunset.

After a traditional Omani meal  of rice, meat, fish, hummus, cucumber salad, etc. (eaten with our right hands, of course) a group of Bedouin musicians began playing in the main tent. We sat around on big cushions and rugs listening to the music, drinking tea and coffee, eating dates, and enjoying life.

The next morning I tried sandboarding (riding a snowboard down a dune), which, in my mind, turned out to be a mistake. (Everyone else thought it was an excellent choice and loved the humor I unintentionally provided.) The climb up the dune was exhausting – hot sun, slippery sand, and carrying a snowboard. We had to sit and catch our breath at the top for a good 5-10 minutes before trying to go down. Then the real fun started. I lasted probably a good 5 seconds before I stumbled off the board with so much momentum behind me that I could not stop sprinting down the dune. Running faster than I ever have before, I (incorrectly) thought I could make it to the bottom. I wasn’t so lucky, as I bit the sand hard, at a full sprint, and was covered head to toe in sand and rattled for a good hour. Don’t worry, though, after a sponge bath, some ibuprofen, and a nap I was fine. (The whole ordeal was captured in pictures, so there’s a fantastic action-shot of me face-planting and lying on the ground.)

Almost right after my wipeout, we began the drive to the other desert camp, called Ras Al Jinz. It was very different. Very desolate – no dunes or anything, just sort of rough country. We went to a beach about 15 minutes away on the Indian Ocean and spent the day swimming, hanging out, and playing football. More of the same followed once we got back – big cushions, coffee, tea, dates, and conversation. 

The night was short, however, as we were up at 4:00AM to go to the Ras Al Jinz green sea turtle reserve to see turtles on the beach making their nests and going back into the ocean. Since we were going to be up at 3:45-4:00, a few of us decided to stay out under the stars/full moon all night. We ended up getting maybe an hour or two of sleep, but the wind really picked up and we were all freezing. The turtle reserve was cold, too. Tours at the turtle reserve are either at midnight or 4:00AM, because that’s when the turtles are out. They make nests and lay about 100 eggs before burying/disguising it and going back to the sea. It’s an all-night job, and the reserve is very strict about when people can be on the beach, how close, when you can take pictures, etc. to preserve things as best they can. They do a very good job. 

Since it’s winter we only saw 3 turtles, but in July (at peak turtle season) you can have more than 100 on any given night doing their thing on the beach. Quite a sight, I’m sure. There’s 7 kinds of sea turtles in the world, and 5 can be found in Oman. This particular reserve is really increasing the green sea turtle population, and it’s one of the largest turtle-protected areas in the world. 

The next morning we killed some time in Sur, a beautiful city on the Indian Ocean and wandered through a Dhow (traditional Omani maritime trading boats) yard. Since it’s not really used anymore, the yard serves more as an unofficial museum. 

After some time in Sur, we headed off to Wadi Shab, an amazing place that will get its own post and photos soon.

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