Well, it seems that the ship’s measures forestalled attack by pirates, but now we’ve got terrorists to contend with and in order to deal with this threat we’re skipping Sharm El Sheikh, where there has been a recent raised alert. Instead, we’re staying an extra night at Safaga, a resort on the Red Sea coast. The main reason people come here, though, is because it’s a gateway to Egypt’s major antiquities, such as the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Karnak and Luxor Temple. Well, since we’ve ‘done all those before’, as we say in tourist speak, Claudio and I have opted instead to take a trip to Hurghada, supposedly a fast-growing resort with some of the best beaches in Egypt. The snorkelling, too, is supposed to be good and, if so, it will diminish my disappointment about Sharm, because really that was the only reason I wanted to go there.
But I get ahead of myself because first came Oman and a town called Salalah on the Arabian Sea. As you might imagine, there’s not a great deal to see here and taxis, so we were told, were extortionate, so we opted to go on the ship’s “tomb, beach and souq” tour. The guide, Rashid, was a lovely, friendly guy who told us we could ask him about anything… religion, politics, the camels walking down the side of the road. The latter were of the most immediate interest and we were all too hot and weary to get embroiled in any political or religious debates – and I was still suffering from the hacking cough that made people turn and glare at me. Since 4 x 4s have largely replaced camels as a method of transport, these are now largely used for their meat (supposedly very tasty) and milk (very low fat). There are superior camels that are used for racing, but these are kept in stables where they are carefully looked after. New technology has also invaded this ancient sport. Once young boys were the jockeys, but this has now been forbidden as the bouncing around has been shown to make them infertile, so the animals are now driven by remote control devices from the 4x4s driving alongside the track.
It’s a pity we weren’t on camels that day, though, because our coach was involved in an accident when it ran into the back of a car which had stopped suddenly at a red light. The penalty here for jumping the lights is about £1200 and a month in jail, so not a risk to be taken lightly. Still, it no one was hurt (coincidentally, the ship’s doctor was on this trip) and we were quickly transferred to another coach and soon after found ourselves at Job’ s Tomb (yes, he, the prophet of the Old Testament). This was just as well, really, because, although the barren mountainous scenery (the Qara Mountains) has a certain dusty beauty, it does get rather monotonous after a while.
Job’s tomb, too, was a bit of a let-down. Housed in a small, bright white domed construction on top of a peak, all we could see was a strip of green cloth covering what might have been some kind of memorial stone (who knew? No one was there to ask) a plaque explaining who Job was and a family tree showing how Mohammed was descended from Adam and Eve and the prophets. Outside, there was a footprint in a rock that was supposed to belong to someone holy (I didn’t quite manage to catch who) which had the tourists lining up to take pictures of it, but to be honest, to my eye, untrained as it is in famous footprints in rocks, it just looked like indentations in the rather random shape of a foot. Rashid told us later that green is the colour of Islam. The tomb didn’t seem particularly ancient or even particularly sacred.
Next up was the beach – Mughsail Beach, in fact, which is nearly two miles long with high cliffs at both ends, but no shade at all and the sun was bearing down like a blowtorch. Even though the sand is lovely and white, the sea azure blue and there are shaded picnic areas set back from the beach, I don’t think I could ever be tempted to take a dip here – apart from anything else, it all just seemed so bleak. They also bring tourists here for the blowhole – a hole in the limestone rock over the sea through which the sea spumes at high tide. Fortunately for us it was high tide. And that was it really. Not much more to do here except head back to the welcome airconditioning of the coach. Apart from us and one young couple we saw cavorting in the waves (obviously tourists because she was wearing a bikini and no local girl would do that), the whole two miles was deserted.
We also drove past the grounds of Al Husn Palace, “the personal residence of His Majesty the Sultan Quaboos of Oman”, all very modern in a peachy stone the colour of the desert and set behind a large double wooden door and high walls, so we couldn’t really see much. We also drove past the old fishing village of Taqah, where the picturesque boats lay on their sides in the sand while across the road the fishermen’s houses – definitely not pretty, just a handful of large white box shapes- sat grilling in the heat with not a single tree or bush in sight to relieve the starkness. Finally we visited the Al Husn Souq, which seemed to sell mostly frankincense (which I couldn’t resist buying), bottles of fragrant oils, jelabayas and thousand upon thousand of the round hats that are so popular here (Zanzibar has had a big influence over the culture apparently, which is why Oman is different from the other Gulf states, according to Rashid). Who buys all this stuff, though, I can’t imagine, as I’m sure the locals don’t waste their money on cheap terracotta pots to burn frankincense, or buy fancy hats from Africa, and the precious few tourists about nearly all seemed to come from the ship. And we all getting a bit souveniered out by now.
At dinner that night, Claudio told everyone that the most exciting thing that had happened all day was the accident in the coach. I think he was (mostly) joking! Still, the jewel-encrusted camel fridge magnet was good.