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June 17, 2011

Turtle Watching in The Oman

by Val Reynolds
Turtle tracks in sand

Turtle tracks in sand

Based in Singapore-style city Dubai in the Arabia Gulf, Dave Reeder took advantage of a quick trip into the more relaxed and green Oman, specifically to watch the centuries old story of giant turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs

Was it a good trip?” my friends all asked, the week after I’d had three days out of Dubai. Yes, it was a great trip. Oman is stunningly beautiful, even though we only saw a hint of it!

So I escaped the steel and glass city of Dubai, thanks to the local natural history club. A team of about 12 of us went in convoy, from one side of the Arabian peninsula to the other – from, if you look at an atlas, the Gulf to the ocean facing East Africa.

Anyway, this late-40s New Zealander turned up in her giant V8 Landcruiser and we set off, to rendezvous with the rest later. In the way of expats, she was easy to talk to and she drove us to the Omani border where I took over the driving of this 2-ton monster.

Fast down the coast, we turned inland about 30km before the capital Muscat, rising up through the mountains on great roads. Because it was the Islamic festival of Eid, most locals were with friends and so the traffic was light. We then ended up late afternoon on the edge of the Wahaybah desert – which stretches across to Saudi Arabia and is serious Bedouin country – looking for the desert camp. Seems, however, that there is a political battle between Bedouins and government on the ‘proper’ name of this part of the desert, with the Bedouin destroying signs that have the ‘wrong’ name on them!

Of course, the supplied map was dreadful and our mobiles didn’t work. Finally, with sunset approaching we found a rough track into the desert and, after about five miles, found the camp – up a hillside in deep desert sand, which somehow I got the Landcruiser up!

Frame tents covered in fronds and branches of Barasti

Frame tents covered in fronds and branches of Barasti

Simple place. A-frame tents covered in barasti (a kind of interlocking frond and branch arrangement), with hard metal beds inside – memories of school! – with a communal eating area and a shower/toilet block. The whole group then assembled piles of drinks and nibbles on the back of a 4×4 and we drank our way through to the dinner bell at 7pm. Food was simple, buffet style, with rice and dhal, boiled eggs and sausages, bread and salad. Breakfast much the same.

Plus a small Bedouin troup of musicians who, sadly, didn’t speak any English but tried to help me understand the oud – the Arabian lute – and how to play it.

An early night for all, as we were tired and wanted an early start. Next day we went in convoy to a serious wadi (a dry channel that floods after rain) way up in the mountains – five miles up rough tracks, some 20 miles off the main road. Up and up we went, finally reaching the end of the road and the start of rolling over giant boulders and the like. But so green! And, when we reached the end of the road, there was a walk up through falaj (irrigation) systems and, finally, two enormous pools of clear water – about the size of two Olympic swimming pools! Unfortunately, because of the holiday, it was stuffed with more people than you can imagine – many brought up first in taxis and then, after decamping, on the back of small trucks.

But it was a magical place and the peace and beauty of it out of season must be amazing. So unspoilt. Wonderful.

Then, a drama. A German family with us had twisted their front wheel coming up, so it was at a serious angle to the vertical. With far too many cars on this twisty road, they somehow got it out, with us taking the luggage and a mother/daughter combo. Serious 4×4 guys made light of it – they were ready to drag it out of there, if necessary!

Anyway, they set off for the nearest town (some 90km away) and we headed for camp two about 150km south of Muscat. The coast there is stunning and we ran between it and the mountains across a kind of lunar landscape with the sun low in the sky and the most amazing colours everywhere. Finally we found the camp – similar to the others but with wooden-sided tents. Same kind of food and then, at 9.30pm, we set off in convoy to the beach.

Turtle tracks on the beach

Turtle tracks on the beach

This area has some 20,000 green turtles laying every year which means, despite the remoteness, that it gets popular. The night before, at the main beach, there had been some 1,000 visitors! So our guide took us to a smaller, more remote beach. Serious instructions in the car park – no lights, no shouting, no flash – and we set off following the three Omanis who found the most suitable turtles on the beach.

The beach is dark but you get used to the light, until a crowd of dumb people keep turning the lights on and off. Seems their children were scared and so started bawling and shouting and demanding to be taken home. Talk about destroying the atmosphere … But we could see the tracks up the beach, the mounds that the cover the eggs and then, by magic, a turtle in its self-dug pit laying eggs the size of golf balls. Maybe 120 of them.

Once they’re at work, they’re very placid and didn’t seem to mind us. Even co-operating when the guides unwound a fishing net that had got caught around a flipper of one busy laying.

The moment was incredible. Such a privilege to see, under a black sky filled with more stars than I’ve ever seen – no ambient light, of course. So we went on and they showed us other nests and other turtles. Apparently they take about three hours to climb the beach above high water mark and dig three holes, the first two as decoys to fool the foxes that come at night for the eggs. About the same amount of time to lay and then the same again to rest before hauling back down to the water. The hole is about two feet deep and bigger than the turtle, obviously; then, when covered over, the mound is about a foot above the surface.

After an hour or so, we went back to camp and to bed, woken at 4.30am to go back down again. This time, with the faintest hints of dawn in the sky, we were told it was a “free beach” and we split up, watching the last couple of turtles make their way back to the water. And then the treat of seeing tiny hatched turtles emerging from earlier mounds – they take five or six weeks to incubate. They’re tough! About the size of a cigarette packet, they had to be held really tightly else they’d squirm away. We spent maybe half an hour gathering up any we could find and putting them into the water – with dawn, seabirds were starting to gather for this feast …

And that was the most amazing thing. Out of every hundred, maybe two survive and to know that I helped, in whatever small way, to try and improve those odds was such a wonderful feeling. And then to watch the sun come up over the ocean and the colours of the cliffs behind changing. Wow!

After breakfast, a couple of cars set off on convoy up the coast on a rough road – here an ancient tomb visited by Marco Polo on his way back from China, there a giant sinkhole. Finally, we got to Muscat and hotel apartments. After welcome long hot showers, we were ready for more exploring. We went round the old part of Muscat with its 16th century Portuguese forts.

Then, next morning, a run up the coast through tiny fishing villages. Part of the Eid celebration involves new clothes and everywhere we saw small children rushing towards the car in their new finery, faces full of smiles. Omanis are so friendly. Then we cut in land and headed for the Emirates border at Al Ain – a stunning run through the mountains with loads of fertile little oases and beautiful small villages. Lunch in Al Ain in an archaeological site of bronze age settlements and then home.

What a trip! For those who imagine that the Middle East is all desert and no wildlife, this kind of trip could be such an eye-opener. Traditional ways of life. Loads of greenery, often in the most unexpected places. And wildlife from birds and camels, to turtles and whales – strangely, the whales off the Oman coast never migrate, like all other whales. Why would they want to? It’s a paradise …

Dave Reeder Consultant Editor

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