Julia Stephenson: The Green Goddess

Three (smallish) cheers for eco-friendly Oman
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The Independent Online

I am in Oman for a family wedding (thankfully, not one of those self-consciously whimsical barefoot beach ones, but in a register office). Anyway, you can't get near the beach at this time of year because the sand is as hot as coals. If you must swim, you face a blister-making, Tony Robbins-style fire-walking dash to reach salty oblivion.

I know I should have avoided flying here, but a sister only gets married once (or, in her case, three times), and not pitching up would have caused ghastly ructions, which I'm too feeble to face.

Unlike the eco nightmare that is now Dubai, Oman is protective of its stunning wildlife and scenery - at the moment. The United Nations environmental programme states it has one of the best records in environmental preservation, something not many countries can boast.

There are no high-rise hotels and an absence of glitz and flash. All building in the country is rigorously controlled and low-rise. If you build above four storeys, officials will come round immediately to insist it's taken down (a bit like Kensington and Chelsea). All the buildings must be whitewashed and consequently melt into the ravishing desert landscape.

The Sultan is quite green minded. He's instigated strict environmental laws ensuring the coastline is protected and the ocean unpolluted. Hunting is illegal and regular surveys of the varied wildlife mean this is one of the most studied environments in the world. Five hundred species of bird have been recorded, 13 types of whale and dolphin, and many sites reserved solely for turtle breeding. The endangered antelope Arabian Oryx has been successfully re-introduced and numbers are steadily growing.

Unlike the UK, they don't even have a water shortage. Thanks to the falaj - a 2,000-year-old irrigation system powered solely by gravity, whose origins are shrouded in mystery - fresh water is effortlessly supplied throughout the country.

It's not all good news, of course. Meat is most definitely off the menu. Sheep are regularly shipped to Oman all the way from Australia in conditions that have been criticised as being of unbelievable cruelty. They are then at the mercy of a culture where animals have little protective legislation. Fortunately, there are plenty of other culinary options: the delights of meze, local vegetables and sumptuous fruits make it veggie heaven.

Unfortunately, some hotels don't reflect the Sultan's environmental interests. At one hotel, all food arrives wrapped, for some reason, in acres of clingfilm and tin foil, and men wearing protective body suits regularly climb into the resort's water features and fling buckets of chlorine wildly about. Enquiries about the hotel's environmental policy are met with a brusque, "We don't have one". It's probably better to shack up with a Bedouin or the Sultan if you want a more eco-friendly experience.

For those intrigued by the place, but concerned about flying here, the Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61. com), who is surgically attached to all the world's train and ferry timetables, has extensive details how to get here without having to get on a plane. Come the green revolution, when flying is either taxed out of existence or (more likely) becomes socially unacceptable (we're nearly there now judging by the understandable howls of complaint I received last year when I flew somewhere), you'll need to earmark six days each way for the journey of a lifetime. And if you plan to walk on the sand, I recommend a fire-walking course first - don't let my bad experiences put you off. Shout cool moss and run for your life.

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