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Mary’s a ‘legend’

‘Intrepid’ traveller Mary Dods disappears from Gizzy on a regular basis to travel to foreign lands, the more foreign the better . . . well, she used to, before C-19 came along. She talks to Justine Tyerman about her most recent trip, in September last year, to the sultanate of Oman on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Mary has travelled far and wide, to all the continents of the world . . . except Antarctica.

She usually travels with Intrepid and has been on so many of their trips, she's now considered an “Intrepid Legend”. This entitled her to a free trip — number 11, to Uluru — and discounts on all future adventures. For her 14th Intrepid experience, Mary chose Oman.

“The country appealed to me because it's so different from anywhere else I've been before and it's a totally Muslim country — there's a lot of negativity about Muslims these days so I wanted to see and experience the place and the people for myself.

“I can honestly say I've never met such polite, well-mannered, courteous, considerate, gentle and genuine people — they were not sophisticated, there were no airs and graces, but they were very self-assured and comfortable in their own skin.

“They seemed genuinely concerned for our welfare and not the least bit avaricious.

“It did not feel like a pretense, just for the tourist trade — there's not a big tourist industry in Oman anyway.

“I found them deeply religious, spiritual and soulful — absolutely delightful,” she says.

Mary flew from Auckland to Dubai and then took a half-hour flight to Muscat, the capital of Oman, a city of 1.4 million people on the Arabian Sea.

There were 10 in her group, mostly from New Zealand and all of a similar 60+ age-group.

The trip was a seven-day circuit, travelling by air-conditioned 4WD vehicles with English-speaking Omani guides, staying one or two nights in each location.

Accommodation was in comfortable, traditional hotels with great food.

'Safe, spotlessly-clean and orderly'

Mary enjoyed the entire trip but certain aspects stand out for her.

“I loved the contrasts — the starkness of the arid landscape dotted with small, vivid- green oases where water flows from springs or ‘wadi' (meaning ‘place of water').

“The water in the wadis is turquoise and emerald green and incredibly clear because they are surrounded by rock so there's no sediment in the water. We swam regularly, always totally covered-up as is the custom there — except for at international hotels where tourists can wear Western-style swim-wear.

“People live in family clusters around the ‘wadis' supporting themselves by growing dates, citrus and pomegranates. The bunches of dates are enclosed in bags to protect them from birds. Dates are very much a part of Omani life, eaten raw, used in cooking and made into juice.

“Many of the men in these little communities go to work in nearby towns, and the children are bused to schools in government-funded buses. Education is free for all girls and boys.”

Another highlight for Mary was visiting the turtle reserve at Raz Al Jinz, the eastern-most point of the Arabian Peninsula.

“It's an important nesting site for the endangered green turtle — over 20,000 females return annually to the same beach where they were hatched, in order to lay their eggs.

“We went to the reserve after nightfall with experienced guides. What we witnessed was amazing. We saw large green turtles digging huge holes, metres wide and deep with their flippers, laying hundreds of eggs and then covering them up. Then they went back to sea, exhausted.

“We spent a couple of hours there and were allowed to pick up the tiny turtles and take them to the sea. There was something very endearing about the squirmy little baby turtles. They were driven by an incredibly powerful instinct to get to the sea.”

The next stop was Wahiba Sands where Mary's group went “dune bashing”.

“This involved careering up and down massive steep sand dunes as the sun set over the desert. The colour of the sand was dazzling, all red and glowing.

“Next morning we scrambled right to the top of a sand dune, with the aid of a rope, to watch the sunrise at 5.30am — it was well worth the early start. The whole landscape turned apricot just before sunrise, and then as the sun came up from the horizon, it was blindingly bright.

“The desert landscape was amazing — not a tree, building, road or vehicle in sight, like an alien planet.”

“Our accommodation at Wahiba Sands was in lovely Bedouin-style, self-contained units with air-con and ensuite bathrooms.

“The food was delicious — big platters of flat-bread, hummus, cucumber and salad greens, followed by a main course of chicken or beef strips cooked over gas, not overly spicy but very flavourful.

“We also had tasty vegetable curries on the trip, no doubt due to Oman's historical exposure to the spice trade.

“There was always plenty of fruit, tea and coffee available at mealtimes too. Arabic coffee made with cardamom and served with dates is a time-honoured custom.”

The tour ventured high into the Hajar Mountains where the air was cool and refreshing after the heat of the desert.

“We visited Misfat Al Abyreen, a mountain village 1000m above sea level, and Jebel Shams where we stood on the edge of the incredible Grand Canyon of Oman, famous for rock climbing, hiking and abseiling.

“The walking tracks are very narrow tracks with no guardrails and sheer drops to the valley floor far below. It was stunning,” Mary says.

“The trip began and ended in Muscat where our group visited bazaars or ‘souqs' which are covered for shade due to the 35-40C heat, and the spectacular Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque with its soaring vaulted ceilings, glorious mosaics and beautiful grounds.

“We had lunch with members of the Sidab Women's Group which promotes traditional crafts such as weaving, sewing and knitting.

“The restaurants in Muscat were an eye-opener. Cars would drive right up on the footpath, wind down the window, order food which would then be delivered to the car — a Muscat-style drive-through.

“Our accommodation in Muscat was in a beautiful historic hotel with carved wood walls and ceilings, and parquet floors.

“On our last night, we took a sunset cruise around the harbour, sipping Sprite, Coca Cola and fresh fruit juice instead of champagne.

“Alcohol is not widely available in Oman so the destination would probably not appeal to those who like drinking, bars, dancing and nightlife.

“But for people who are into outdoor pursuits like hiking and rock climbing, and seeing a totally different culture and way of life, it's an absolutely exquisite experience.

“That's why I often travel with Intrepid — they always introduce you to the local people and culture so you get a real feel for their lifestyle.

“Oman is a lovely country to travel in — safe, spotlessly-clean and orderly with dramatic, varied scenery, very little rain, fantastic roads and delightful people.

“It's ruled by Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said and the Omanis all seem to love him, presumably because they are so well cared-for. If you ever get the opportunity, go to Oman.”

MAJESTIC: The magnificent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman. Picture supplied
An Omani man selling dates and citrus fruit at a souq (market) in Muscat. Picture by Mary Dods
The desert camp at Jebel Shams. Picture by Mary Dods
Mary's room at the Jebel Shams camp. Picture by Mary Dods
One of the wadi we swam in on the trip. Picture by Mary Dods
The wadi at Bani Khalid where Mary swam . . . fully clothed. Picture by Mary Dods
Picture by Mary Dods
Mary's guide, driver and their friends in the Hajar Mountains. Picture by Mary Dods
The spectacular Grand Canyon of Oman. Picture supplied
DRAMATIC, STUNNING SCENERY: The red-orange, golden glow of the desert. Picture supplied