Days 4 & 5: Turtles and the Land Before Time
After leaving the comfy, modern city of Muscat, we headed south toward Ras al Hadd, along the coast of Oman. After outsmarting the GPS, which was convinced that there was no coastal road past Sur, and that we were driving in the sea, we found the Turtle Beach Resort, our abode for the night. The place was a series of charming little huts on the edge of the beach, which is also the edge of the desert. As with everywhere else we went along the coast during our trip, the tides were very low. It felt a little strange to walk along the shore through coral reefs that should normally be underwater, but we got to see lots of crabs scuttling away from us, and giant sea slugs that might also have been scuttling away from us, but too slowly to determine definitively.
As the name of this place suggests, however, the main wildlife attraction is not the gelatinous blobs or the claustrophilic crustaceans, but rather Green Sea Turtles. The nearby beach at Ras al Jinz is one of the most important nesting sites for these massive creatures. Oman has done a good job of trying to protect this site, and visitors are only allowed at two times of the day: 9 pm and 3 am. We opt for the 9 pm option, and start driving through the desert in the dark. One constant feature of the Oman driving experience is that the roads are very good, but the signs are not. We drive toward where we think a sign is directing us, which seems like a road to nowhere. Just when we are convinced we are going the wrong direction, we see a light in the distance, and discover that we have somehow found the Ras al Jinz Scientific and Visitor Centre. After getting our tickets and assembling with our assigned group of fellow tourists, our park ranger, Abdelaziz, who like every other ranger or Omani official is wearing the traditional dishdasha, gives us a brief talk, tells us what we’re not allowed to do once we get to the beach (unfortunately, taking pictures is among the forbidden actions) and then leads us out.
At the risk of getting too sentimental, the night was already off to a magical start before we saw any turtles. The sky was covered in more stars than I have ever seen at one time.
Abdelaziz had said when we were assembled by the visitors’ centre that the waves would look green because of plankton. I assumed this meant that during the day, if we saw green water, we should be assured that it was just friendly plankton and not algae or something invasive. BUT HE ACTUALLY MEANT THAT THE WAVES WOULD BE GLOWING GREEN. I knew about bioluminescence, of course, but had never seen anything so magnificent before.
Then Abdelaziz informs us that they’ve found a turtle laying its eggs, but that we have to wait for a previous group to move on so as to avoid disturbing the turtle.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but these turtles are HUMONGOUS. We walk behind one behemoth that’s laying her eggs in the sand. The eggs look like ping pong balls and are heaped in a mound. They are very soft, so they don’t break despite being dropped one on top of the other. After seeing this magnificent sight, we find another turtle that’s using her massive flippers to bury her eggs in the sand. Whenever you see footage of turtles swimming, their flippers look like soft little paddles in the water. But somehow, they can really pack a powerful punch when flinging sand. Finally, the rangers find a baby turtle that has just hatched and is waddling along in the sand. These newly hatched turtles find their way to sea by following the light, which is where glow-in-the-dark waves come in really handy! The newborn waddles around a bit, gets confused by the ranger’s flashlight and eventually makes it way to the briny deep. A few minutes later, the turtle that had been burying her eggs scoots out to sea.
Everything about the night was incredible.We returned to the resort to sleep, and the next morning we had breakfast and laid on the beach, convinced that we had reached the high point of our trip.
It’s hard to say with confidence, but we might actually have been wrong.
On our way back to Muscat the next day, we hoped to stop at Wadi Shab, a riverbed canyon that we’d heard was a must-see. Once again, we had quite an adventure trying to follow Oman’s road signs. Ultimately, it was a caravan of vehicles filled with what looked like other tourists that proved more reliable in leading us to mouth of the wadi. We have to take a small boat across this part because te water is high.
Now, in Uganda, any place where tourists are liable to visit presents an opportunity to jack up prices, and perhaps even solicit bribes. But in Oman, there’s a sign informing tourists of the maximum amount they should pay for the boat crossing. We hopped in the boat, took the short trip across and start walking along the riverbed. In some places its completely dry, and it others there are large pools of water. But all along the way, the scenery is gratuitously beautiful. It’s so surreal that it looked to me like the Land Before Time.
We knew we were in for a hike before we would reach the pools at the source of the wadi, but all along the way, we were certain that around the next bend we would arrive.
Even when we reached the clear, pristine pools of water, we weren’t at the end. Once again, the most amazing part of the journey wasn’t captured on camera. That’s because that part involved jumping off the rocks into the water, swimming through a narrow opening between rock formations into what I can only describe as a cave where with the waterfall feeding the wadi. Believe me when I say it was like crossing over into another world.
After an incredible experience at Wadi Shab, we made one more stop at Hawiyat Najm park (once again, after getting lost due to a lack of signage). The main attraction there is a deep sinkhole that is fed by both sea water and fresh spring water. I had originally thought about jumping in and swimming, but it was getting late and we didn’t have any towels in our car. Once again, a friendly park ‘ranger’ was present to inform us and invite us for coffee.