The breakfast buffet this morning is huge, with choices of various breads, Indian, English, American and Middle Eastern dishes, plus Continental cold meats / cheese and cereals.
The whole place seems in a bit of a muddle this morning though, as there are no cups by the coffee machine, so people take them off the tables; there are no spoons in the cinnamon nor syrup, they run out of waffles as well as orange juice, no teaspoons are available so David has to stir his coffee with a dessert spoon.
I managed to get a couple of waffles before the ran out
David had to 'make do' with a fry-up.
Our first stop on today's journey is at the fish market in Muscat, housed in a nice new modern building, a mere four months old.
The long thin fish on the left are barracuda, while the big yellow ones with spots are the famed kingfish.
The market is all very clean and the produce looks of high quality.
Most of the workers in the market are 'middle men' rather than the fishermen themselves, often ex-boatmen who maybe now find the all-night fishing a bit too much.
Totally in awe of his skill and speed, we watch this man de-bone and fillet a large fish in next to no time.
Next to the fish market is the equally new and modern vegetable market.
Most of the produce is imported, and among the more familiar items, we see a lot of typical Indian vegetables, obviously to appease the immigrant population.
The dates, however, are local and a must to accompany kahwa, the traditional Omani coffee.
Said asks if we would prefer to take the main road between Muscat and the coast, or a short-cut which would mean 20km of off-roading.
Without hesitation, we both answer in unison: “off-roading please”
The road is way smoother than either of us anticipate, but the geological formations alongside it are fascinating: bleak, ragged, crumbly hills more akin to man-made slag heaps than anything nature has created.
I desperately try to take pictures through the car windows at every turn in the road, most of which don't turn out at all.
The only other car we see on the 20km journey.
Eventually, we stop on a ridge to tale photos out over the surreal landscape at Wadi Al Hawh. Is this really Planet Earth, or did we travel to the moon by mistake?
Hawiyat Najm Park, featuring Bimmah Sink Hole
Fresh water is mixed with sea water in this sink hole, making for a beautiful iridescent aquamarine colour, some 50m x 70m large and 20m deep.
Despite the Arabic name Hawiyat Najm, which literally means 'the falling star', this depression was not caused by a meteorite as suggested by local folklore, but rather as a result of limestone erosion. Said suggests it was a fairly recent occurrence, maybe 25 years ago.
The area around the sink hole has been turned into a leisure park, with decent toilets, shaded picnic areas and steps leading down to the water for locals and tourists to swim. Apparently it is a very popular place with families on the weekend. I can see why as there is a nice cooling breeze coming in from the sea.
Kahwa and dates
Before we leave, we are invited for kahwa by Said's friend who is the gatekeeper guardian of the park.
Kahwa is more than just a 'mere coffee' to the Omanis, it's a ritual that occupies a special place in their society. Friends and guests will always be served coffee and dates, usually in small, handle-less cups.
By handing back the cup without any further ado, you indicate that you would like some more. If you have finished, you should shake the cup as you give it back.
Wadi Shab Oasis
What an odd place. The initial access to the oasis is underneath a highway flyover, with the pillars supporting the road sitting on an island in the wadi.
Having read all about this place before we left home, I had already decided I was going to give it a miss. Hearing that after the initial boat trip across the river we have to walk for an hour or more along a small rugged ledge and scramble over huge boulders just to get to the initial pools; then if we want to see the main attraction, we need to swim and wade across three pools; and in order to enter the cave, we actually have to swim through a hole between the mountains then climb up using a rope to reach the waterfall.
I think we'll leave this place to the adrenalin-seeking youngsters we once were.
Apparently, the 2012 Red Bull Cliff Diving final was held here in Wadi Shab.
To make up for not fully exploring Wadi Shab, Said suggests that we drive up the road through the five villages of Wadi Tiwi. Sounds like a fair exchange to me.
My, oh my, what a drive! This really has to be one of the most amazing roads ever. Initially the road runs along the valley floor, between date and banana plantations and rock pools with boulders so large we discuss how they could possibly come to have rested in such a place.
Known as the 'Wadi of Nine Villages', the road snakes its way between towering canyon walls in amongst old, traditional settlements (where Said seems to know everyone), criss-crossed by a network of aflaj (the traditional Omani irrigation channels).
I am fascinated by the huge, upright boulder in the middle of this village. Real or mad-made I wonder...
Said expertly handles the car around huge boulders and rocky outcrops in some impressive bends.
Trying to grab photos of passing scenery is proving quite a challenge, with me hanging out of the window holding on to the camera for dear life.
Eventually Said does stop the car so that we can take a proper look at the views.
If driving up was impressive, travelling down is mind-blowing, with impossibly sharp bends, large rocks jutting out into the track, crumbling plantation walls and local houses seemingly blocking our way.
During the rainy season this road becomes completely impassable for a few days as flood water gushes down the valley.
The ever-present falaj (irrigation system).
At the bottom of the valley, we stop at a small road-side restaurant in the village of Tiwi.
We order traditional Omani kingfish which is lovely and fresh and comes in a tasty coating. We also have a dish with vegetables, a spicy sauce, a salad and roti; and no self-respecting Omani would have lunch or dinner without a mountain of biriyani rice.
With the appearance of a sleepy little seaside town, it is surprising to learn that Sur is the fourth largest city in Oman (after Muscat, Nizwa and Salalah) with nearly 70,000 inhabitants.
Said looking out over the estuary
Turtle in the water
During the 1500s, Sur was the region’s most important port, importing and exporting goods from India and Africa, including slaves.
It's for the construction of dhows, the traditional Arab sailing vessels, that Sur is famous today, however.
Sur established itself as Oman’s most important ship-building centre around the 16th century, a trade which continued until the beginning of the 20th century and is barely kept alive today.
The word 'dhow' is generally used to describe all traditional wooden-hulled Arabian boats, although locals will either refer to them as safena or suh-fin which both basically mean just ‘ships'; or they will use the more specific names such as boom, sambuq, ghanjah – which for all intents and purposes are different styles of dhow.
Houri Al safeena – a small sailing boat used to send a rescue team to stranded boats.
Launch samak – diesel boat from 1983 used for fishing with cast nets.
Al Mashouh – a light canoe with a square shaped stern used for ferrying sailors to their ship and back.
The traditional Arab sailing vessels known as dhows are still being produced here at this shipyard in Sur, the only remaining of its kind in Oman.
This dhow has been a 'work in progress' for over two years now, and will cost somewhere in the region of 200,000-300,000 Rial (ca £400,000-600,000).
Traditionally, dhows were constructed of teak planks sewn together using coir rope and powered by enormous triangular lateen sails. These days iroko wood is mostly used.
Many people work on the construction, with each person having a specific task, such as this woodcarver. Traditionally all the work was carried out by locals, but these days many immigrant workers, mostly from India, have taken over the jobs.
I decline the invitation to climb on board the partially finished ship as health and safety is non-existent.
Ras al Jinz Hotel
We continue to our hotel for the night, and as soon as we have checked in, we go to our room and await the porter bringing our bags.
He arrives fairly promptly, but once he has left, we can't find the key to our door. We search everywhere. No sign of it. Eventually we give up and ask Housekeeping for a spare, so that we can actually lock the door when we leave the room.
As it will be a late night tonight and an early start tomorrow, we try to have a bit of a nap, but struggle to get to sleep on the very hard bed.
Some two hours later, a very sheepish porter turns up with the key that was in his pocket all along. Doh.
Turtle Information Centre
There is only one reason for coming here: turtles.
One of the main tourist destinations in Oman, Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve was set up in 1996 to protect the rare and endangered green turtle which returns every year to lay its eggs on the same beach where it was born decades ago.
The well laid out visitor centre showcases the lifecycle of the green turtle as well as the archaeological findings from this area through museographical displays – whatever that means!
There are interactive displays and a short film showing the life of a turtle and the work carried out here.
Having a bit of an upset tummy, I am not feeling up to much food this evening. The buffet is mostly Indian, with the odd international dish thrown in. I stick to potatoes with a yogurt-type dressing.
Turtles are big business here, and I have to admit to finding the whole organisation rather too big and commercialised with far too many people.
This is considered the low season as far as turtles go, so we are told to gather in the lobby at 20:15 for news on whether any turtles have been spotted on the beach this evening. The area is very crowded, with nowhere near enough seats for everyone. We are lucky, as we arrive early to find a spare sofa.
We wait. And wait. And wait. No news.
Finally, at 21:15 we rush off in seven different groups. As hotel residents, we have priority and are in group # 1.
We exit through the rear of the hotel, each group being led by a local naturalist with a torch. Initially there is a smoothish gravel path, but soon the ground becomes like slippery mud, then slightly looser sand. As we get near to the water, the sand is deep and soft, making walking rather hard work.
This photo, taken the next morning, shows the gravel path leading out from the hotel
Here you can see the 'slippery mud' (the shiny bit reflecting the sun) and just how far away the sea is.
With just a small torch, it is hard to see what is going on, but eventually we come across the one and only female who is on this beach today. She has finished laying her eggs and is now covering them with sand, ready for her to leave them to their own devises as she returns to sea. Flash photography is strictly forbidden, as is individual torches, making for very dark conditions for getting any sort of photograph of the turtle. (For my photography friends: these images were taken on ISO 32,000)
After digging a hole by scooping out clouds of sand with her flippers, the turtle deposits up to 100 eggs, before carefully covering them again and returning to sea, exhausted.
The eggs take around 60 days to hatch, and the tiny creatures then have to not just burrow their way to the surface of the sand; they have to make it safely to the ocean, avoiding any predators on the way.
AS there is only one turtle on the beach tonight, each group is only given five minutes at the nesting site, before moving on to make room for the next group.
Sitting on a rock at the water's edge I become aware of something luminous in the water, being washed up on the beach with each wave: bioluminescent algae or glow-in-the-dark plankton. Never having seen this phenomenon before, I am absolutely mesmerised. Trying to take photos proves impossible, so I just sit there enjoying the spectacle, which coupled with the bright starry sky above, makes this a totally magical moment.
As we leave to return to the hotel, the turtle has finished her duty and sets off to sea. Confused by all the people crowding around her, she leaves the nesting site in the wrong direction, and it saddens me that maybe we have caused her some unnecessary stress by our presence here tonight. Or at least the sheer numbers of us – there must be between 70 and 80 tourists here this evening.
Returning to the hotel we are offered a ride in the pick-up truck, which we gladly accept.
What a perfect ending to an amazing day! Thank you Undiscovered Destination for this fabulous trip.