Angry shouts puncture the morning air. Heads twist to stare at two men in colourless dishdashas, nose to nose in furious confrontation. Beneath the stark, earthy battlements of Barka fort, they could be warring tribesmen from three hundred years ago in Oman’s turbulent past. Instead, their fingers jab towards fish writhing in a small motorboat and argue about a stolen catch. The argument fades behind us, replaced by the sound of bartering on the beach and hopeful gulls in the air.
My friend Marc and I step over gutted fish entrails in the sand by the stalls. Bright, gaudy umbrellas fill the sky, casting welcome shade from the desert sun. It is March and already forty degrees. Marc glances at the sweat on my forehead. “This is nothing. In summer, it gets hot enough to crack the dashboard of a car,” he says mischievously.
Tourists stroll between the maze of boats, pulled high from the water. Their cameras click incessantly. The Omanis do not mind. Howls of laughter come from one of the boats when boys see their faces on an LCD screen. This is Barka fish market. The fish could not be fresher if we walked into the sea and caught them ourselves.
“Assalamu alaikum,” Marc says to an old fisherman. The man nods and flashes a gap-toothed grin. His leathery face creases against the glaring sun. “Wa alaikum assalaam,” he replies in gentle tones, wishing peace on us as well. He sweeps his open palm across the array of fish on a tattered, blue tarpaulin on the sand. He will sell whatever his family can catch. Today, it is tuna and grouper. The next stall has a marlin that fills the sheet.
“Bikam?” Marc asks, starting the bartering for the tuna. This takes some time, involves much arm waving, horrified gasps, and even walking away, but Marc gets his fish with a look of triumph.
We drive by the fort where Ahmad Al Bu Said invited his Persian enemies to a banquet, fed them, and then had them executed. Forts dominate Oman, a constant reminder of battling tribes in this unassumingly beautiful country.
We are camped on a beach nearby with thirty other teams, ready for tomorrow’s punishing endurance race through the Jebel Akhdar mountains. By mid afternoon, the delicate aroma of our fish is wafting from the barbecue. Sunset comes quickly here and sparks an Omani passion – beach football. Swelled by people from the village, hundreds of players fill every available inch of the beach, silhouetted against a blaze of orange. Families watch and cheer from the side. It makes me miss home. I have been away too long.
As darkness falls, the murmur of waves follows me and I phone my family. Little, grey flashes dance around me in the sand. “I’m surrounded by ghost crabs,” I tell my young daughter. “No, don’t get scared, that’s just what they’re called,” My wife answers, “She’s hiding behind the sofa. What did you say?” I leave the camp behind and the crabs dash out of my way. Then I stop.
A large creature is splashing in the inky-black surf. My imagination spikes. “There’s something coming out of the water towards me…” I am torn between fear of the sea-monster and wanting to see what it is. Then it reaches a patch of weak light. “It’s a huge turtle,” I whisper. I stare in fascination as a three-hundred pound loggerhead inches its way through the sand. “I think she’s going to lay her eggs.”
Oman has 1,700km of coastline, most of it sandy beaches. Over 60,000 loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles come ashore to lay millions of eggs throughout the year, but usually on Masirah Island or at Ras Al-Hadd reserve. Not where we had just been playing football.
The turtle scours the sand in clumsy jerks then she uses her powerful flippers to dig a hole in methodical swipes. I am mesmerized as she lays her clutch of one hundred golf ball-sized eggs over the next hour. I am so close I can see salty tears sliding down her cheeks. The crabs return, scuttling over sun-bleached driftwood. By the time they are born, the hatchlings will face many threats before a terrifying, predator-filled scurry to the ocean. Few will survive. She covers the nest and crawls back into the surf. I shiver in the chill off the sea. It is late, the fires are dying and I head for my tent.
The dawn tide has wiped away my footprints but I glimpse the edge of her tracks, like tractor treads, leading back into the Gulf of Oman. Her nest has disappeared. A breeze carries the scent of the ocean. She is out there, somewhere. I stand on an empty beach and smile.
About the Author: Rob Tye has won several fiction and travel writing competitions including the “New Travel Writer of the Year” competition in 2013 run by the British Guild of Travel Writers. He has trekked on Kilimanjaro, camped with Bedouins in Oman, and climbed frozen waterfalls in Scotland. He lives in the New Forest, England with his wife and family.