I left the mountains that had beguiled me so and moved from Oman's desert interior to her salty coastal plain.
A different Oman, no longer dominated by the Rub' al Khail's echoing void but by the call of the waves. Fishermen and maritime trade replace goat herds, camels and date farming.
However, it wasn't the contrast between coast and hinterland that struck me most as I rolled into the capital; but the difference between Muscat and her gulf neighbour to the north.
A deeper history and lower profile. No second Dubai here.
A deeper history and lower profile. No second Dubai here.
They share economies built on energy extraction, expats, and low paid workers from the sub-continent. But here the modernity felt bridled. Sultan Qaboos bin Said decree that buildings be no more than twelve stories (and predominantly white) allows the surrounding Al Hajar mountains to impose beautifully as back drop.
Muscat - Picture credit to Matteo Colombo
With the more spurious architectural flowerings thus avoided it seemed to me that Muscat has better retained its charm. Less is trampled, more preserved of its long and distinguished history as a trading and imperial epicentre.
History, however, could wait as I finally reached the sea after a long day in the saddle on increasingly busy roads for a rendezvous with newly discovered extended family, Martin and Sue. ( Martin being the brotherof Nick, my uncle Ray's son, who had so kindly put me up in Orvieto.)
The very sad story of a distressed cat scared of its own tail awaited me. Seemingly straight out of a children's book. Alas there was no friendly elephant who, perhaps once scared of his trunk as a calf, could dole-out salutary good advice. Just two very patient and concerned owners trying their best to help their much loved pet abetted by vet proscribed prosac.
Rather than increase the poor cats distress with my alien presence and no doubt odd scent I availed myself of the hospitality of Avani and Vishal. Who knew I had such an extensive network in Muscat? Avani had previously worked with my mum as a teacher and that was all it took to offer me a place to stay for a few days.
Those days were initially spent with too little of the above and too much cycling to Muscat’s embassy quarter trying to negotiate the next stage of my trip.
The plan had been to head south to Aden in Yemen and take a ferry to Djibouti from where East Africa awaited. I'd been advised not to cycle through Yemen. Good advice from people whose judgment I value. But still my intent lingered. Risks undoubtedly awaited in Yemen. A bombing in the capital Sanaa a few weeks previously, continued American drone strikes and reports of dozens of tourist kidnappings over the preceding year.
But were these risks quantitatively more threatening than those I was already navigating? (Not a new line of inquiry for this tour.) Cycling some of the least safe roads in the middle east here in Oman surely represented a greater chance of lost life or limb. Was it rather that they represented instead a risk of a qualitatively different nature. One more exceptional and fearful though not necessarily more dangerous. Or was I simply being naïve?
These ruminations were rendered moot by the Yemen embassy turning me down for a visa, just as they had in Dubai and Tehran.
But this doesn't tell the whole story. Alternatives remained to me:
But this doesn't tell the whole story. Alternatives remained to me:
I might have headed back north to the silk road via Iran.
I could have taken a flight to Dijbouti and continued with the African gambit.
But I didn't.
Stymied, I now had an excuse to give into the desire for comfort and to see my family. It let me conclude that barred from Yemen I would fly, and if I would fly it would be to Melbourne the better to rendezvous with my parents at my sister’s house in Sydney. All neatly explained by the desire to minimize the number of flights I would need to reach Australia.
The decision to turn south from Tehran, away from the beckoning silk road, had felt a natural reaction to the weather. A change of direction not intent. This decision felt different. The result of all too human failings. Both bureaucratic and of nerve.
Many months removed from this decision I remain conflicted about it. I've had joyous moments as a result but there will always be regret and the bitter taste of ideals compromised.
My last night was spent at Martin's colleague Steve's house as my miraculous Muscat network continued to deliver a level of hospitality way beyond anything I had a right to expect.
Watching yet more evidence of Oman's love affair with football
So it was that with the south cut off and Dubai representing a much more cost-efficient and direct airport for antipodean departures that I set out northward.
On the outskirts of As Suwayq an especially large wadi slipway was being put to good use.
Not exactly the village green at Pims o'clock.
Not exactly the village green at Pims o'clock.
For the Omani's it was football but for the Indians and Pakistanis who make up an increasingly important part of Oman’s economic and demographic reality, if not its political one, it could only be cricket
The friendly participants invited me to play a few overs during which I demonstrated such a lack of skill that I considered claiming to be Canadian to save country, if not Queen, some embarrassment.
As I rode away with a sheepish smile on my face I considered what it meant to be an expat as opposed to an immigrant. These friendly, hardworking gents out in the sun building roads, in the restaurants cooking food were immigrants. The friendly, hardworking folk Id stayed with back in Muscat building airports, teaching in schools were expats. So what determines the overlapping lines of this particular Venn diagram. White vs brown? West vs East? Skilled vs unskilled? Is a Bangladeshi engineer an expat? Is Arun the Indian finance manager living in Dubai an immigrant? Is expat a subsection of immigrant? They’re synonyms but only up to a point. It is tempting to boil it down to money, or more correctly Class. Ones position in the modern globalised economy. But on reflection its appears more complicated than that. Alternatives and permanance seem also to be involved. Perhaps an expat implies a voluntary, temporary sojourn vs an immigrant who means to make their home permanently. But then how to square British 'expats' putting down retirement roots in Spain or the south of France. The more I thought about it the more it seemed tempting to treat it simply as a convenient euphemism for welcomed vs unwelcome foreign workers.
Without conclusion and exhausted by the mental gymnastics required by identity politics in the modern world economy I continued on my way along sandy roads, hugging the coast, as best I could.
Connecting up the dotted settlements of the Al Batinah coast revealed a comforting pattern.
Occasional small towns with friendly marketplaces
(Unless you happen to be something to eat.)
Intermittent fishing villages snaking out further along the sea front.
Where jetsam and fishing paraphernalia piled up around beach side shacks.
Then quiet stretches of sandy road.
Before a return to the outskirts of the next town centered around a marketplace and a fort - such as this one at Barka.
So it goes cycling Oman's coastline. Fort, fishing, fuck all, back to fort.
I thought it was great.
The stark lines of the cookie-cutter forts sit at once perfectly and peculiarly within their surroundings. Unadorned, unembelished, utilitarian. Memory's mortar embodiment of the keenness with which superiority along this vital trading coastline was contested by all those with imperial pretensions in the Indian Ocean.
Euro-centrism is perhaps a forgivable sin when considering the history of colonialism since the 15th Century but it seems to me that a great disservice is done if we overlook Arabian and in particular Omani history in this regard. Oman played a decisive role in ejecting the Portuguese from the Arabian peninsular and the straights if Hormuz and would go on, by the 19th Century under the Sa'id dynasty, to replace them as the key trading power in the western Indian Ocean. So outward looking were the dynasty that briefly the capital was even moved to Stone Town in Zanzibar. The move coincided with the empires high water mark with fractures and internal conflicts became more acute allowing British influence to grow.
Sitting in the shade of these well preserved fortification this regions exciting role in the territorial and trading ambitions of the colonial era seemed very close at hand.
Indeed so thick and fast do the forts come that I have found they have become dislocated from their location in my memory. Is this fine example from Al Suwayq? Al Masnaah? Naaman? I can no longer say.
And appreciating her demurely pretty stucco doorways
Was this bullfighting some crass attempt to cash in the similarity between the towns name and a certain Catalan city? A remnant from Portuguese colonial days? I gave up the search when on reflection I realised that I had no appetite to see a bloodsport be it a culturally significant local practice or a tacky import. As it turned out this was a mistake as the sport of bull butting does not appear cruel. Though I can at least be satisfied that I was right-ish as it is thought to have been introduced by the Portuguese.
One reason for my haste to push on was a slowly congealing notion to camp that evening out near Suwadi Island. My information was patchy, gleaned from snatches of conversation locals, but apparently a land-bridge to an island just off the coast periodically reveals itself at low tide during certain times of the year.
It just so happened my visit coincided with such an ebb.
Rashly I decided to try and take a short cut when I saw roads leading in the general direction of the headland .
Soon after the road petered out into a dusty track next to this fenced of ghost development.
Never one to knowingly miss an opportunity to make life harder for myself if it will save me from having to retrace my steps I decided to test out my beach riding skills.
The going was predictably slow but it was a lovely day and after rounding a few dunes the island began to peek out at me.
Seeing ones destination and reaching it proved to be two rather different things.
A number of sizeable inlets remained despite the low tide. For those curious, carrying a fully loaded touring bicycle weighing perhaps 55kg through thigh high water with sticky sandtraps sucking at your feet is precisely as easy and fun as it sounds.
With the inlets forded I found myself in the midst of an unexpected parade where unsuitable sedans cruised up and down the beach.
Less South Beach, more Southend
Clearly I had underestimated the popularity of this island and imaginings of a quiet place to camp dissolved as I closed in on the headland to find it all a bustle.
In any case to reach the island required further bare foot squelching across the revealed mudflats. Lesson learnt I left the bike locked next to an incongruously positioned camel and went to see what I could see.
Ascending the steps to the too-well restored fort in late afternoon haze.
Looking back across the muddy crossing point to the mainland
Its not hard to see why it was a popular spot with the locals
I lingered as the views became yet more delightful with afternoon wearing on towards the golden hour.
Incoming tide and lowering sun were my cues to leave in search of a camp spot for the night.
Joining the motorized exodus along the main drag which my *short cut* had earlier circumvented I soon spyied a quieter track along which small fish were being dried. Carefully picking my way along to avoid spoiling the catch I found a scrubby dune some 200 metres to the right of this picture which I decided would make a perfect resting place for the night.
As the gloom gathered and I laid my tarpaulin safe in the knowledge that a tent was perfectly superfluous on such a pleasant night. The only interruption to my restful evenings reading was a friendly fisherman. After introducing himself he asked whether I should like to come and stay with him and his family. Feeling comfortably well situated I instead suggested we share some of my tea together and promised to avail myself of his offer should the weather turn.
A blissful night followed. How could one not feel like all was right with the world when such unsolicited generosity mingled with the gentle sound of waves all around.
Back into the coastal routine the next day. What the road lacked in surface it made up for in tranquility.
By the end of a satisfying, if blustery, day I was just south of As Suwayq looking for a place to camp before I hit the sprawl
This friendly gent shared some water and requested a photo.
I briefly considered a beach-side spot
But as the sun set spectacularly I decided upon a slightly more private location with greater protection from the brisk sea breeze.
The leeward side of this wall provided both and a discarded mat to boot.
As occasionally happens I had reached that moment on tour when the small frayings at the edge of ones kit require resolving rather than patching. In this case the straw that forced me to go something other than food shopping was my headphones finally kicking the bucket.
Mostly I find these occasions both unpleasant and inconvenient but few countries can be as obliging for the linguistically inept British cyclist than Oman.
Every single shop front, from the smallest village corner shop to department stores in large towns, presumably by decree, has bi-lingual signage.
The translations are curious and amusing by turns but undeniably helpful.
Combine this with the amazingly high quality of english spoken in Omani and even a buffoon incapable of more than a few words of arabic can quickly and easily make even esoteric purchases.
Barely bothering to glance at the map I continued. Keeping the sea close on my right was more than sufficient a navigational aid.
until it wasn't...
Such abrupt road endings and enforced diversions helped keep monotony from the door as I continued my coastal roll. .
Sizeable Sohar was a pleasant place to stop for a late lunch and I dawdled in her well manicured gardens.
I passed that night in a small patch of marginal scrubland on the outside of town.
I had not spent the night alone.
Whether my visitor had been an inquisitive goat or cheeky rodent it had done an excellent job of chewing through my pannier. No longer being waterproof was at least unlikely to cause me much mischief here on the Arabian Peinsular.
Beginning the new day well rested if slightly miffed I heard from my ever diligent support team back home in Loughton. I had roped mum and especially dad into helping organize my flight to Australia. However the flights that we'd identified and thought booked in Muscat hadn't been quite as booked as hoped.
Thus it was that I pulled away from the coast at the next inevitable fort and went looking for an internet cafe.
Liwa obliged and flights were booked with the most bike friendly airline I could find. Economy dictated that I book flights sufficiently distant and so I suddenly had time on my hands.
I had noted at the fort that a motorway was under construction and feeling like I had plenty of room for a failed gamble or two I decided Id go and see whether I could get onto it and turn it into the widest dedicated cycle path ever.
Success! Great japes followed atop the newly minted surface.
Slaloming along with music blasting into my ears from newly acquired headphones. I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
Not too long later I spied a decrepit beachfront building which looked like it might be just the ticket for a shady spot of lunch.
It may not look like much to the untrained eye but on closer examination I new exactly what I had found:
Home for the next few days.
Utterly isolated by the newly constructed motorway and with tens of kilometers of empty beach front stretching away on either side. I had time on my hands and, with a little imagination, a seaside villa all to myself.
From veranda to sun lounger all mod cons provided.
Just me, the birds and the sea.
I spent the days reading Franzen's Freedom, bathing in the sea, and smoking too much tobacco from a broken midwakh pipe that I'd found and repaired. Occasional expeditions to the nearest town to get provisions and use facilities were the only intrusion in my impromptu seaside holiday for one.
Three days passed this way before I felt the call to move on. I rejoined the under construction motorway and regretfully rode north. Currently Oman's Highway 1 runs about ten kilometres inland from the coast. When this new highway is finished the isolated stretch of silence I had found will be nothing more than a memory. Progress will replace the quiet with car horns and the Doppler effect. But the memory of that run down slice of solitude will be kept by me at least.
The motorway's progress came to an abrupt end too soon forcing me to leave my personal road, wave to the bemused workmen and rejoin the world.
I was trying my best to soak up everything I had come to love about Oman. The regular roadside makers warning of flash floods and signalling how deep the water is rarely failed to elicit a wry grin as a peddaled past. But the water does flow here. Proving this and managing to surprise and delight every time were the occasional bursts of wadi verdant vegetation. It may not flow very often by British standards but its there. Gurgling life under the surface.
This in part accounts also for the wonderful diversity of bird life encountered along the way.
Even a shortsighted amateur twitcher sans binoculars couldn't fail to be enchanted by the great variety of egrets and heron, flamingos and frigate birds, the warblers and the wagtails.
It seems a shame to leave Oman on such a poorly portrayed note. (My camera phone just can't do birds justice.) But the UAE border is almost in sight. Fear not though dear and patient readier, if you have developed one tenth of the affection I did for Oman, you'll be glad to hear that my route will see us returning very soon.