The Muscat–Sur coastal road
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The principal route into Sharqiya follows the new coastal highway from Ruwi in Muscat south to Quriyat and Sur, with the Arabian Gulf on one side and the rugged summits of the Eastern Hajar on the other. Attractions here feature an interesting blend of the historical and the natural, including the old fort of Quriyat and the ruined city of Qalhat, along with Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi, two of Oman’s most scenic wadis, while the off-road drive up across the top of the Eastern Hajar to Ibra via the Bronze Age tombs of Jaylah is another highlight. Past here lies Sur, the historic centre of Oman’s famous ship-building industry, and still one of the prettiest towns in the south, and the turtle beach at Ras al Jinz.
Access to the eastern coast of Sharqiya is via the Sharqiya coastal highway (opened in 2008), which sweeps travellers south from Quriyat to Sur in little more than an hour. Plans to subsidize construction costs by a system of road tolls have been mooted but have not yet been put into effect, although a line of toll booths stands ranged across the highway 18km south of Quriyat ready to spring into action. The highway has provided a boon to development in the area, although it has also taken a toll on the various natural attractions it passes en route, while the increase in high-speed traffic and fly-by tourists has destroyed some of the area’s original, slow-motion charm – an inevitable, if slighty depressing, consequence of Oman’s ineluctable modernization.
Some 4km south of the turn-off for Fins, brown signs point inland to the ancient tombs of Jaylah (or Gaylah) and the village of Quran. This is one of the most memorable drives in Sharqiya, a spectacular off-road traverse of the barren uplands at the top of the Eastern Hajar with a cluster of wonderfully atmospheric Bronze Age beehive tombs en route. The track also offers a convenient short cut from the coast to Ibra, although it’s probably no quicker than taking the main road through Sur. The route comprises about 50km of generally good graded track, but there are some pretty rough, and sometimes extremely steep, sections here and there – 4WD is essential, as are strong nerves if you’re driving yourself.
The route begins by switchbacking vertiginously up the flanks of the Eastern Hajar, a breathless thirty-minute drive with increasingly spectacular views down to the coast below. At the top, you reach the sere Salma Plateau at the summit of the Eastern Hajar: a rolling expanse of gravel plain, dotted with only the sparsest of vegetation. There’s virtually no sign of human habitation until you reach tiny Quran, one of the loneliest villages in Oman – little more than a haphazard cluster of houses tucked away in the lee of cliff, and feeling an awfully long way from anywhere.
The ancient city of QALHAT was, up until the sixteenth century, one of the most important on the Omani coast – “A sort of medieval Dubai” as travel writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith described it in his Travels with a Tangerine. Qalhat’s importance derived from its status as the second city of the Kingdom of Hormuz, serving as a major commercial hub in the Indian Ocean trade routes. The fame of the city attracted visitors including both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. Despite its prosperity, the city suffered from certain strategic weaknesses. A falaj system provided a reliable source of water, but there was almost no agricultural land available and all food had to be imported by land or sea. Qalhat’s already tenuous foothold on the Omani coast was futher undermined by a serious earthquake at the end of the fourteenth century, while just over a hundred years later, in 1508, the newly arrived Portuguese delivered the coup de grace, sacking the city, massacring its inhabitants and setting its buildings and large fleet of boats on fire, an event from which Qalhat never recovered.
The ruins of the city, originally triangular in plan, cover an area of over sixty acres, although it’s difficult to make much sense of the confusing wreckage of assorted walls and towers scattered over a rocky headland and along the adjacent wadi (look out for shards of antique Persian pottery and Chinese procelain which litter the site). The only notable surviving structure is the Mausoleum of Bibi Maryam, a quaint little cuboid building enshrining the remains of the saintly Bibi Maryam who, according to Ibn Battuta, had ruled the city until a few years before his visit in 1330. The colourful tiles which covered the walls right up until the nineteenth century have now vanished, and the dome has also collapsed, though the remains of the delicately moulded arches and doorways have somehow survived the years.
The site was officially closed at the time of writing, although there’s nothing to stop you walking up for a look anyway.
The first town of any significance south of Muscat, QURIYAT lies some 80km from the capital, a 45-minute drive from Ruwi along a fast and relatively empty new stretch of dual carriageway which weaves between the craggy foothills of the Eastern Hajar. Quriyat had the dubious honour of being one of the first towns in Oman to experience the destructive attentions of the Portuguese fleet under Afonso de Albuquerque. Albuquerque’s soldiers attacked the town in August 1508, setting it ablaze and massacring its inhabitants – captives, it is said, had their noses and ears cut off, a popular Portuguese way of discouraging further resistance to their rapacious rule.
The town centre – a modest huddle of buildings and a low-key souk – lies around 7km off the coastal highway. The principal attraction is Quriyat’s fort, which sits right in the middle of town, on your left as you drive in. Unfortunately, like so many other forts in Oman, it was closed at the time of writing for renovation – long overdue, judging by the crumbling exterior plasterwork and general air of dilapidation. In the meantime, you can still admire the fine old wooden entrance door flanked by two rusty cannon and the shuttered ground-floor windows which ring the building on three sides, suggesting that domesticity, rather than defence, was formerly the principal concern.
Continue along the road past the fort and a large mangrove swamp to reach the town’s pretty seafront corniche, at the end of which is the harbour, with boats drawn up on surrounding sands overlooked by a round watchtower sitting proudly on the headland above.
Some 35km from Sur at the easternmost point of the Arabian peninsula, RAS AL JINZ is home to Oman’s most important turtle-nesting beach, visited by thousands of magnificent green turtles every year, who haul themselves up out of the sea to lay their eggs in the sand. This is perhaps the finest natural spectacle anywhere in Oman (even if, ironically, you can’t actually see very much after dark) – a magical glimpse into a natural cycle which has been in existence for the best part of two hundred million years.
Visits begin with a walk across the sands in the darkness to the edge of the waves, from where you’ll see the ghostly silhouettes of perhaps a dozen or more green turtles emerging slowly from the surf and then heaving themselves laboriously up the beach – a Herculean trial of strength for these enormously heavy creatures. Half an hour later, having found a suitably sheltered location, the turtles begin digging themselves carefully into the beach, scooping out clouds of sand with their flippers to create a sizeable hole in which they then proceed to lay their eggs.
The whole scene is particularly magical at daybreak, as the sun rises, revealing the beautiful, cliff-fringed beach dotted with the great humped outlines of departing turtles, leaving great plough-tracks in their wake as they make their way slowly back down the beach before disappearing, exhausted, into the waves.
Far and away the most appealing town in Sharqiya, SUR enjoys one of the eastern coast’s prettiest locations, with the old part of town sitting on what is almost a miniature island, surrounded by a tranquil lagoon and offering views of mingled water and land in every direction. Sur is also one of the most historic settlements in the south, formerly a bustling port and trading centre whose maritime traditions live on in the intriguing dhow-building yard, the only surviving one of its kind in Oman. Further reminders of Sur’s illustrious past are provided by the trio of forts and string of watchtowers which encircle the town and harbour.
Sur’s attractions are quite spread out. The small but lively town centre and souk – a colourful tangle of brightly illuminated shops and cafés – lies at the western end of the island, from where the breezy seafront corniche runs down the coast for 1km or so to reach the old harbour, home to Sur’s dhow-building yard and a trio of watchtowers, beyond which lies the pretty village of Ayjah.
The easternmost major settlement in Oman, Sur has always looked to the sea. Following the demise of Qalhat in 1508, the town developed as the region’s most important port, shipping goods to and from India and East Africa, and also established itself as the country’s most important ship-building centre (vestiges of which remain). A succession of reverses during the nineteenth century eroded the town’s fortunes, including the arrival of European steam-ships in the Indian Ocean, the British prohibition of slavery, the split with Zanzibar and the rise of the port of Muscat. Recent years have seen a modest revival in the town’s fortunes thanks to the opening of the massive OLNG natural gas plant just up the coast.
Oman was formerly famous for the excellence of its boats and the skills of its sailors, whose maritime expertise – backed up by a detailed understanding of the workings of the local monsoon (a word derived from the Arabic mawsim, meaning “season”) – laid the basis for the country’s far-reaching commercial network, and for its string of colonies in East Africa. Boats were formerly built at centres all along the coast, though only the one at Sur now survives – offering a fascinating glimpse into an almost vanished artisanal tradition.
The word dhow is generally used to describe all traditional wooden-hulled Arabian boats, although locals distinguish between a wide range of vessels of different sizes and styles. The traditional Arabian dhow – such as the large, ocean-going boom – was curved at both ends, while other types – such as the sambuq and ghanjah – boasted a high, square stern, apparently inspired by the design of Portuguese galleons. Traditional dhows were driven by enormous triangular lateen sails (a design which allowed them to sail much closer to the wind than European vessels), although these have now been replaced by conventional engines. Another peculiarity of the traditional dhow was its so-called stitched construction – planks, usually of teak, were literally sewn together using coconut rope, although nails were increasingly used after European ships began to visit the region.
For a fascinating insight into traditional Omani boat-building, seafaring and navigation, read Tim Severin’s entertaining The Sindbad Voyage; Severin’s specially commissioned dhow – the Sohar – was built in Sur and now sits in the middle of a roundabout in Muscat.
South of the Bimmah Sinkhole lie the dramatic Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi, a pair of spectacularly narrow mountain ravines, hemmed in by vertiginous sandstone walls with a verdant ribbon of date plantations and banana palms threading the base of the cliffs. Driving south, Wadi Shab is the first of the two you’ll encounter, and perhaps the most rewarding. There’s no road into the wadi (unlike Wadi Tiwi) – which is a significant part of its charm – even if the entrance has now been disfigured by the concrete flyover carrying the coastal highway. In a 4WD you can negotiate the first kilometre or so over deep, loose gravel, but after this progress is on foot only, as the gorge narrows, with a small footpath running along a small rock ledge just above the wadi floor, choked with huge boulders. It’s possible to walk for another 45min–1hr up the wadi before the track becomes difficult, passing the ruins of old villages, further plantations, and deep rock pools en route – those around the end of the trail are a refreshing place for a swim, although the wadi’s popularity with local and foreign tourists means that you’re unlikely to have the place to yourself.
A couple of kilometres south of Wadi Shab lies the almost identical Wadi Tiwi, another spectacularly deep and narrow gorge carved out of the mountains, running between towering cliffs right down to the sea. It’s less unspoiled than Wadi Shab, thanks to the presence of a road through the ravine (although, as at Wadi Shab, the dramatic scenery at the entrance has been ruined by the construction of a large flyover), although it compensates with its old traditional villages, surrounded by lush plantations of date and banana, and criss-crossed with a network of gurgling aflaj.
The road into the wadi was being widened and modernized at the time of writing (and should be complete by the time you read this), running along the valley floor, between plantations and past the rock pools which collect between the huge boulders below. After around 5km you’ll reach the picturesque village of Harat Bidah, where the road narrows dramatically, squeezing its way between old houses and high stone walls. Past here the tarmac ends and a rough track climbs steeply for a further 5km up to the village of Mibam – a spectacular, if nerve-jangling, drive.