Muscat, Oman

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Muscat means ‘anchorage’ in English, and it is obvious why it got that name being protected by a rocky island. The above photograph is from the internet – it was taken in 1970, two years after my visit.

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This is Muscat harbour in 1903, the fort that can be seen is the Al Jalali Fort.

In the 15th century Muscat was a minor port, but once Vasco de Gama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 in his attempt to find a way to the spice islands things began to change.

In 1507 a Portuguese fleet under the command of Afonso de Albuquerque, which was on its way to attack the island of Hormuz, sacked Muscat.

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The island of Hormuz controlled the straits of Hormuz, (even then), the island is 8 km (5 miles) off the coast of Persia (now called Iran).

The Portuguese attacked and captured Hormuz in October 1507, which allowed them to control the trade in to and out of the Persian Gulf.

The importance of Muscat for the Portuguese was due to the safe anchorage and that they could replenish their water barrels. Barracks and warehouses were built by the Portuguese in Muscat, but the Ottomans attacked, so the Portuguese built a fort in 1550 at al-Mirani, but the Ottomans attacked again two years later and the town fell and the fort destroyed.

The Portuguese regained the town two years later and this time they built another fort on Fort al-Jalali on a headland, and rebuilt the twin Fort al-Mirani, both forts had cannon so commanded the anchorage.

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I ‘doctored’ a modern map to illustrate how the two forts commanded the harbour.

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Fort al-Jalali which I took in 2016

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Fort al-Mirani one of mine from 2016

Later the Portuguese built walls around the town as a defensive measure, but the expense of occupying and defending Muscat was a strain of Portugal’s finances. Trade was not as prosperous as they thought and by 1630 the British & Dutch dominated the Persian Gulf. The local Omanis captured Muscat in 1650 and that was the end of Portugal’s rule.
The new rulers became a colonial power themselves by taking over certain Portuguese colonies in East Africa (Swahili coast), and then became involved in the slave trade based in Zanzibar, which was ruled by Oman. It was not until 1970 that slavery was made illegal in Oman.
When I arrived in 1968 the ‘Secret war ( 1962 – 1970)’ still had two years to run, not that I saw any of the fighting, just that we were aware that British troops were involved alongside the Omani troops fighting communist rebels.

We arrived off Muscat on the afternoon of the 10th June, and it was hot! Cargo work was to start the following day, and we were to unload in to barges. From memory Muscat didn’t have a dock facility and all ships worked at anchor in to barges.
We didn’t have anything to do (except an anchor watch) so those of us who were off duty decided to go for a swim. With borrowed flippers and a face mask I was able to enjoy another world. All kinds of coloured fish and plants waving at me as I slowly moved through the water. It was calm, quiet and peaceful as I checked out the multicoloured coral, it was if they had been painted recently.turtleI was fortunate to see a turtle who was paddling along with all the time in the world heading out to sea. Picture is of a turtle in Muscat harbour.

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Found the above on the internet, and it is a photograph of the sea around Muscat, although I have a feeling that it was a lot clearer and more colourful when I went swimming in 1968 – pollution perhaps?

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But I do remember very colourful sea creatures.

I borrowed a spear gun and thought that perhaps I could spear our dinner. So I aimed my gun at a large looking fish with plenty of meat on it – pulled the trigger and the harpoon shot out and hit the fish in the side, but the harpoon just bounced off the fish and I don’t think the fish was aware of being attacked . . . so much for the great fish hunter.

I should have stayed with the others in the boat because while I was experiencing armoured plated fish they were fishing and caught so many that the there was just enough room in the bucket for the water to keep them fresh. We were all looking forward to fresh fish for our evening meal. The fish were multicoloured and looked quite ‘plump’.

We had little knowledge of fish and just to be safe we asked the carpenter (who was Chinese) as to the best way of cooking the fish. In our experience we have always found the Chinese to be knowledgeable about fish and the cooking of the same.
All the Chinese (carpenter and engine room fitters) were from Hong Kong and they were all called ‘John’ and they were referred to as ‘the Johns’.

This was not derogatory term, because it has a link to history. In the late 1700’s a Chinese seaman who worked for the British East India Company was given the job of looking after Chinese seamen in the Limehouse area of London. He had a partner, who was English, and his partner had a daughter who this Chinese seaman wanted to marry.

After they were married the Chinese male wished to buy a property for him and his wife, but could not buy property, because he wasn’t English.

So he used part of his fortune that he has amassed over the years to pay for an Act of Parliament to allow him to become British. This was passed through Parliament in 1805 and he became the first Chinese to be naturalised and he called himself John Anthony .

This is why Chinese crew members were called ‘John’ in general terms, but once one learned to pronounce their individual name correctly then we used their correct name.

Unfortunately, John Anthony died some months after being naturalised. There is a restaurant in Hong Kong called John Anthony . Check out their menu.

Back to the bucket of fish as we stood around while carpenter ‘John” surveyed our great catch. He managed to keep a serious face as he studied the catch but eventually he just burst out laughing. Every fish that we had caught was poisonous – so they were returned to the deep.

Later, after showers we were on deck with a beer in hand (of course) when all of a sudden, we saw a whale very near the ship. The whale surfaced and blew continuously. I never expected to see a whale in such warm waters, and I’m not sure what type of whale it was, but I found this piece of film of  Muscat whales .

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Without air-conditioning the only place to sleep at night was on deck – for me I preferred the monkey island, which usually had a wooden deck.
When off duty and siting outside many of us would wear a large bath towel in the form of a lungi, which is a southern India / Sri Lankan dress for both males & females. A lungi is much cooler than trousers or shorts.

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This is not me . . .

To try and sleep in the Persian Gulf heat I would obtain two very large bath towels, soak them in water and place one on the wooden deck on which I would lie, and then pull the other over myself in the hope that I could sleep before the towels dried out and became stiff.
The day time temperature was around 41 c (105 F) and the night time temperature would drop to 34 c (94 F) – lime juice and salt tablets helped.

For my sins of yesteryear I now suffer from rheumatism, which I blame on sleeping on and under wet towels on wooden decks.  . . . any chance of compensation I wonder.

It would be forty eight years before I returned to Muscat, but this time I didn’t have any problems sleeping because the Azamara Quest was air conditioned, the beds were comfortable, and with only 650 passengers, sleeping was not a problem.

One could fall asleep on the balcony if reading a book, how time had changed.

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Azamara Quest – in 2016 Maureen & I sailed in her from Singapore to Dubai.

 

 

Bombay to Muscat

We sailed from Bombay (now Mumbai) for Muscat (which is in Oman), and we planned for a few changes.
The first officer was due to leave us when we arrived in Dubai, and the second officer would be moved up to first, and I was to be the second officer – all very temporary, but for me it was worth an extra ten pounds a month, (about £178 in today’s money), until the new first officer arrived, and the second and myself move back to our own slot.
We were hoping that the new first officer wouldn’t join us for some months, the extra cash would help with the bar bill.
It was the 6th January 1968, and I was on the midnight to 4.00 am watch when we entered a huge shoal of flying fish. I’d seen this type of fish before and even eaten one or two when the Chinese crew cooked them, but this time the sea was full of them as it they were being chased. I shone an Aldiss lamp on the water only to see the whole area around the ship covered in flying fish.

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To avoid predators flying fish accelerate to 60 km per hour (37 mph) before launching free of the water. Upon opening their wings they can glide over 183 mtrs (600 feet) or more before they enter the water to repeat the exercise if necessary. They glide about 1.2 metres (4 feet) above the water.

I only wished that I had a camera to record such a site, which lasted for over one and a half kilometers (about a mile), before we sailed out of the shoal. I just wondered what was chasing them, and why where there so many.

I entered the chart room to check the chart in case our location would give me a clue as to why there were so many flying fish, when suddenly the quartermaster rushed in and asked me to look ahead.

The quartermaster was also the helmsman, but at the time we were on autopilot, so his duty was as a bridge lookout.

‘Flashing lights Sahib, starboard side!’ and pointed ahead through the chart room window and to starboard (right hand side) of the bow.
I followed him out onto the wing of the bridge and looked where he was pointing. I felt my heart give a jump, the whole area was covered in flashing lights, at that moment the lookout in the bow rang one stroke on the fo’c’sle bell, which was the signal to warn me that he’d seen a light to starboard.

My first thought was that we were about to enter a large fishing fleet and we didn’t have enough time to alter course as the fleet ahead stretched across our bow.

Local fishing boats were made of wood and propelled by oars or sail and would not have shown up on our radar. Plus, native fishing boats were renowned for not showing lights until a large ship was quite close, guaranteed to give the OOW a heart attack.

My mind was racing, how many would we sink as we ploughed through the fleet.

All of the above thoughts flashed through my mind as I studied the lights, when I realised that the lights were not of a fishing fleet, but bioluminescent.

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The above & below photographs gives an idea of bioluminescence at night at sea.

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Most deep-sea animals produce some bioluminescent light, but the phenomenon isn’t relegated to the deep: one of the most common sightings occurs at the surface of the ocean. Many small planktonic surface dwellers—such as single-celled dinoflagellates—are bioluminescent. When conditions are right, dinoflagellates bloom in dense layers at the surface of the water causing the ocean to take on a sparkling sheen as they move in the waves at night. (The above is quoted from https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/fish/bioluminescence).

The night was moonless & cloudless and the stars in the clean atmosphere of the ocean appeared to reflect off the water, so adding to the illusion of a fishing fleet. I must admit that I was not the only one who was expecting us to plough in to a fishing fleet. The quartermaster turned to me with a big smile and said, ‘All’s well Sahib’.

A comment with which I heartily agreed.

As the ship broke through the water it created white foam, that turned a deeper and deeper green until at the top of the wave that we created it became emerald, like icing sugar on a cake.
The ocean area that had not been disturbed with our passage was a sea of flashing green and white lights.

As we passed in to a clearer area I shone a light to see if the luminescence was still around – it wasn’t.
I wrote a report of what had happened, taking in to account barometer readings, temperature, state of the sea, wind strength and direction and cloud cover etc, at that time many merchant ships reported the weather at their location to assist in forecasting weather ashore.
The first successful weather satellite was launched in April of 1960, and it wasn’t until 1965 that meteorologists produced the first global view of the Earth’s weather, so the reports from merchant vessels at sea were a great help to meteorologists.

We arrived in Muscat the following afternoon.

Muttrah Oman before 1970

Muscat, Oman in the late 1960’s was very ‘old school’ – we anchored in the harbour and dhows came out to us into which we unloaded cargo.

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Larger dhows for cargo carrying

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This is an old picture of Muscat harbour, (1903) but it hadn’t changed all that much when I visited in January 1968. We anchored near Fort al-Jalali to work cargo – I suppose in times gone bye I could have said that we anchored under the guns of the fort.

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The fort is still there – originally built in the 1580’s by the Portuguese to protect the town from attacks made by the Ottomans. It was twice captured by the Persians in the early 1700’s.

For most of the 20th century the fort was a prison, and was closed as such in the 1970’s. It is now a museum.

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An old map of the harbour and at the centre of the ‘star’ is where we anchored. I still have a small sketch that I made at the time, of where we anchored and the above fits the bill well.

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The old town in the distance.

During our stay we all tried our hand at fishing – part of our crew were Chinese and they caught about twenty-five fish, and one was very large and they had real problems in landing it on deck.

The fishing equipment was all ‘home made’, ships rope with a hook on the end and a bloodied piece of meat.

Those of us with a more sensitive nature used the pull tab off beer cans and sometimes this worked, as the fish saw a silver item in the water and thought it was a smaller fish.

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I used to like supplying the bait for those who used the ‘pull tab system’, via of course  . .

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The Chinese fishermen did catch a large ray and they had a fight on their hands, but the ray won, it broke the line and swam off with the hook.
The Chinese answer was a thicker piece of rope and a bigger hook.

DSC06223rThe fort was still there in 2016 when Maureen & passed through Muscat on our way to Dubai.

We sailed from Muscat at 6.00 pm on the 8th January 1968 for Ras al Khaimah in the ‘Trucial States’, as the various sheikdoms were called in 1968.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Muscat, Oman

We arrived off Muscat, Oman around 7.00 am on the 29th April – Maureen’s birthday.

I’d not seen Muscat for about fifty years, and my memory of the city was of ‘yesterday’, so when we arrived the only piece of Muscat I remembered was the cliffs, the old fort and a few houses along the shore line.

DSC06127rThe old fort overlooking the town of Muscat.

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  The old town, with a piece of yesterday floating in the harbour.

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Harbour side road, and the one thing that jumped out at me was the lack of rubbish.

DSC06136rThe road leading from the harbour area, which was spotless.

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The dhow in the harbour is similar to the dhows that were used fifty years to carry cargo from the ship, in which I sailed, to the shore.
The vessel behind is the Sultan’s yacht – thanks to oil.

DSC06145rFind the rubbish . . .

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Even under the freeways the pace was litter free – very impressive.

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Opera House

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Center of a roundabout – water flowed past the bows of the dhow.

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Part of the parliament area. . . . more like advisers to the Sultan, than a parliament as we know in the UK, Australia etc. I had a feeling of a benevolent dictator.

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Location, location – the Sultan’s home.

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A weekender. . . .

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Muscat Souq.

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We were told that if you are asked to buy anything and you refused the approach they would not keep pestering you.
They were correct – each time we refused to buy, the seller backed off, unlike the sellers in Bombay and Cochin.

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As a rough guide AUD $4 = one rial, many items were not as cheap as they first appeared, but we did buy a few items.
We did buy a stuffed camel for our grandson – it was made in China of course!

DSC06229rWe sailed for Dubai in the evening.