Travel Journal: Oman
The rugged landscape of Oman is a geologist’s dream and for PhD candidate JOËLLE DUCOMMUN the desert became a reality.
The importance of field work goes far beyond picking up chunks of rocks along the road. It’s the heart of the story. The bridge that enables us to link the data from the laboratory to the natural processes we are trying to understand.
By the end of 2015, I had been working on my PhD at the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences for more than eight months and was becoming desperate to get the samples I needed to go on with my project.
When I finally received the permit allowing me to collect the samples in the sultanate of Oman, despite my enthusiasm, I headed off with mixed feelings.
In my previous travelling experiences, I had always been overwhelmingly excited by the taste of adventure, knowing I would be stepping across new paths and shaking unknown hands.
But for this particular expedition I couldn’t help but feel some apprehension.
The importance of field work goes far beyond picking up chunks of rocks along the road. It’s the heart of the story. The bridge that enables us to link the data from the laboratory to the natural processes we are trying to understand.I was confident with my planning and selection of the areas I wanted to visit but I knew the black and white pictures of outcrops I had been contemplating in publications were nowhere close to reality.
I was soon confronted with difficulties when it got to technical details of the organisation and I had no more than a vague idea of what to expect in the country itself.
Oman is home to the world’s best preserved ophiolite; a piece of the crust once lying at the bottom of the ocean and now exposed in front of our eyes, ready to unravel deep mysteries about its formation.
The journey began in the Wadi Hemli area, a few hundred kilometres north of the capital Muscat.
After the chaos of the city, the endless succession of small stalls is slowly replaced by a rugged landscape with spectacular mountains piercing the horizon above the vast Al Batinah plains.
Progressing into the highlands, large wadis gradually narrow down until consisting only of partly dried riverbeds smoothly carved in the deep crustal rocks and cutting through the craggy cliffs.
The chaotic arrangement of boulders and pebbles in the riverbeds are there to remind the visitor that behind the peaceful appearances lies a capricious and fury nature.Abrupt weather changes and heavy rainfall regularly transform the serene wadis into raging rivers, transporting sediments down the valleys where they will rest until the next turmoil.
The second part of the field work was undertaken in small valleys surrounding the old city of Ibra. Despite the proximity of the city that seems to have an impact on the atmosphere and the size of the villages, spectacular views and intact hidden side valleys had a lot to offer.
Interestingly, the outcropping crustal rocks in the area are also the one that best preserved their pristine oceanic character.
Nothing in the present landscape seemed to evoke the origin of its components. But the trained eye is astonished by marvellous hard rock pillows, the shape that lava takes as it cools down when erupted at the bottom of the ocean, as well as the red tarnish typical of the weathering of rocks that emanated from deep below the surface, from the mantle.
Rocky landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see, with the exception of rare oases busting with vivid colors and water canals known as falaj.
In the middle of this arid scenery, colorful villages where life thrives on every corner, shining houses with tinted windows or modest racks, sheep, goats, from time to time camels, but mostly people.
Warm and welcoming people, people who are proud of their culture, people with avid curiosity who are not afraid of the barriers imposed by language and people who are willing to share and to open their homes to two strangers walking around with hammers.
I was stunned by the generosity and the hospitality encountered. My field partner Matthew Valetich and I were invited for breakfast, for dinner, for sleepover, for getting on a camel and even for attending a traditional wedding.
When welcomed into an Omani home, we were offered kawha, the traditional strong and bitter coffee flavored with cardamom, rosewater, saffron and served with dates.
So many people contributed to make this trip not just a scientific success but also a moving human and cultural experience.
When it was time to leave the country I felt relieved to have been able to collect and ship a nice suite of samples. But mostly I was deeply grateful to have been given the opportunity to work in the field, to share bits and pieces of the science with random people avid to know why we came all the way from Down Under to collect rocks that are so familiar to their environment.
I am thankful to have been inspired by the people that made this trip a beautiful life lesson. Among them, Matthew deserves a special mention for the heavy lifting and hard work, for staying calm in hectic situations, for putting up with my stubbornness but mostly for sharing this adventure.
The words of the novelist Nicolas Bouvier are now deeply resonating in my heart when I look back at my adventure in Oman: “Travelling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you.”