Oman: Watching life emerge from the sands of Arabia

By Vicki Virtue

Oman is a superb location to witness the birth of turtles, writes Vicki Virtue.

Oman's conservation programme seeks to improve green turtle numbers. Photo / Vicki Virtue
Oman's conservation programme seeks to improve green turtle numbers. Photo / Vicki Virtue

The Middle East is renowned for many things but turtle conservation is generally not one of them. However, along Oman's beautiful east coast there are some important nesting sites for the endangered green turtle.

The turtles' ability to make it to adulthood is a precarious one, so the country's conservation programme is aimed to help the process and bolster the dwindling population. If the number of turtles coming on to the beach to lay their eggs is anything to go by, the programme is a resounding success.

At Ras-al-Jinz, the eastern most point in Oman, I made my first foray on to the beach, around 11pm.

Flanked by wardens, to ensure we didn't misbehave, we all sat on the beach quietly in great anticipation. Our guide was staring intently at the sand in front of us, I had no idea what he was looking for, but I looked expectantly at the same spot. Imagine my delight when the surface started to shake and a baby turtle popped up.

One newborn followed another out of the sand, legs flailing wildly as they headed towards the water.

But navigating sand mounds isn't the only challenge for a baby turtle, avoiding the prowling foxes is a much more perilous task. To help the tiny creatures, we picked them up and took them to the water's edge, where they could swim to safety.

On the same night we were also lucky enough to watch the turtles laying their eggs. The foxes are equally as keen on a dinner of turtle eggs, so the mothers dig a hole about half a metre deep, into which they lay a large number of eggs, hopefully too deep to be reached.

Despite their wariness of foxes, the mothers didn't seem at all bothered by a group of tourists, sitting and peering at their rear ends. With the warden's well-placed flashlight I counted one mother laying 48 eggs.

After returning to our hut at about 1am we set our alarms for 4.30am because turtle watching doesn't happen at entirely convenient hours. Despite his assurances to the contrary, we had to wake Ali, our guide, who was still fast asleep on a mat outside at 5am.

While our basic barasti huts amounted to little more than camping, they were certainly more convenient than driving an hour to the nearest town for a hotel.

Morning proved to be a better time to see the turtles. Apart from the lack of other visitors, due to the ridiculously early hour, we could see much better than the previous moonless night. With flashlights forbidden, dawn is also the only time it is possible get decent photographs.

As the sun rises, the turtles retreat back to the sea, leaving the beach indented with their tracks.

While the turtles are the star attraction, the scenery in Ras-al-Jinz also makes the region worth a visit. The beautiful, empty beaches are set against stark, rocky mountains and vibrant blue skies. Well away from the country's main highways, the region is a delightful mix of traditional old Arabic villages and uninhabited expanses of countryside.

Ali looked surprised when I asked him if he had travelled to any other county. "Why would I want to leave here?" he asked. And I must say I could see his point; the quietness, the scenery and the turtles do give the area a rather idyllic atmosphere.

The scenic coastal drive from Muscat, Oman's capital, takes about five hours, with part of the road unsealed. Magnificent palm-fringed wadis (water pools) are dotted along the route, at the base of the towering Hajar Mountains.

Small fishing villages occupy parts of the coastline, Tiwi being one of the prettiest. On either side of the small village are the beautiful emerald pools and lush palm plantations of Wadi Tiwi and Wadi Shab, two of Oman's more attractive spots.

Evening trips from the nearby town of Sur are the most popular way of visiting the turtles. But staying at Ras-al-Jinz puts you closer to the action, giving you the chance to meet some of the friendly villagers and wandering camels.

In fact if you spend too long there, you may well end up like Ali, and never want to leave.

CHECKLIST

Visas: New Zealand passport holders don't need a visa to enter Oman.

Getting there: Emirates has several flights a day to Dubai from New Zealand.

From Dubai, you can either hire a rental car and drive across the border, or connect with an Emirates flight to Muscat and pick up a car on arrival. Ensure the hire car insurance covers the area you plan to travel to and off-road driving. Dubai to Muscat via the coast road will take about five hours.

Getting around: Getting from Muscat to Ras-al-Jinz is an easy trip by rental car. The best road map to assist you on the journey is the one produced by the Ministry of Tourism, readily available in Muscat. You may have the odd local wanting to hitch a lift, which is extremely common in Oman, generally quite safe and can help with navigation. Many will speak at least a little English. Road signs are all in English and Arabic.

Currency Oman's currency is the rial. It can be difficult to buy Omani currency outside Oman but most major currencies are changeable inside the country. All major credit cards are accepted in the cities and larger towns. Your ATM card will most likely work in the ATM machine at the HSBC Bank in Muscat. Change money before you head into the small villages and towns, as they tend to operate on a cash only basis.

Further information: Lonely Planet's Arabian Peninsula is an excellent book to plan your trip and find a hotel in Sur or the huts in Ras-al-jInz. Also check out omantourism.gov.om.

- NZ Herald

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