Oman opens sprawling oryx reserve to ecotourists

1 / 2
An Arabian Oryx at the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Umm Al-Zamool, some 290 kilometers south of Abu Dhabi near the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia.(AFP)
2 / 2
An Arabian Oryx at the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Umm Al-Zamool, some 290 kilometers south of Abu Dhabi near the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia. (AFP)
Updated 23 December 2017
0

Oman opens sprawling oryx reserve to ecotourists

HAIMA, OMAN: The Gulf sultanate of Oman is looking to carve itself a new niche in ecotourism by opening up a sanctuary for one of the desert’s most fabled creatures — the Arabian oryx.
Once extinct in the wild, the rare member of the antelope family famed for its elegant horns has been dragged back from the precipice in a sprawling reserve fenced off for decades from the public.
That changed last month when authorities for the first time officially opened the sanctuary to visitors — part of a broader bid by Oman to boost tourism as oil revenues decline.
On a recent outing, wildlife rangers in SUVs patrolled the sandy plains of the reserve in central Oman’s Haima province, spotting groups of grazing oryx and other indigenous species.
For years, the main goal has been a basic one — ensuring the oryx can survive by focusing on “helping the animals here reproduce and multiply,” said sanctuary spokesman Hamed bin Mahmoud Al-Harsousi.
But now, as numbers have ticked up from just 100 some two decades ago to almost 750 today, the authorities began eyeing another role for the reserve.
“There has been more interest in its tourism potential — to take advantage of its uniqueness and rare animals,” Harsousi told AFP.

The Arabian ‘unicorn’

The story of the Arabian oryx — sometimes referred to as the Arabian “unicorn” due to its distinctive profile — is one of miraculous survival.
Hunted prolifically, the last wild member of the species was killed in Oman by suspected poachers in 1972.
The species only clung to existence thanks to a program to breed them in captivity and in the early 1980s a batch of 10 were released into Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary.
Since then, regenerating the oryx has been an often precarious process.
The Omani sanctuary sprawls over 2,824 square kilometer (1,100 sq miles) of diverse terrain — from flat plains to rocky slopes and sandy dunes.
Its own fate has been nearly as tortured as that of the oryx it houses.
In 2007, the sanctuary became the first place ever to be removed from UNESCO’s World Heritage list as the government of Oman turned most of it over to oil drilling.

Plunging oil prices

Now, as oil prices have plunged over the past few years, it is the wildlife once again that has become an increasing priority for the authorities.
Harsousi puts the current number of Arabian oryx in the sanctuary at 742 and says that other species are flourishing there too.
“In the past three years, we have been able to increase the number of the Arabian gazelle, known as sand gazelles, from 300 to about 850,” he added.
In addition to the animals, there are 12 species of trees that provide a habitat for diverse birds.
Oman has been on a push to transform itself into a tourist draw — pitching its beach resorts to luxury travelers and desert wilderness to the more adventurous.
Officials in the sultanate told AFP that a major tourism plan would be announced within a matter of weeks.
Those working at the oryx sanctuary hope that it can help play a lead role in luring visitors to the country.
But there are also fears that greater openness could see the return of an old foe — hunters.
With that in mind security is being kept tight, said Abdullah Ghassab Obaid, a wildlife guard at the reserve.
“Thirty guards and a police patrol are working to provide security in the reserve to prevent any infiltration.”


Head for heights: Jeddah teacher conquers Mount Kilimanjaro

Khulood Al-Fadhli and her brother Bader at Uhuru Peak. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 14 September 2018
0

Head for heights: Jeddah teacher conquers Mount Kilimanjaro

  • Khulood Al-Fadhli tells Arab News about the physical battle she won to ascend Africa’s highest peak
  • As soon as I reached Uhuru peak, all the exhaustion went away, remembers Al-Fadhli

JEDDAH: A 36-year-old Saudi-based Green Leaves Playgroup principal went on an extreme adventure in August by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. It was the first on her seven summits list.

Khulood Al-Fadhli said she had a love for adventures ever since she was a child.

“My father instilled a love for adventure in me. I remember 10-15 years ago, when Eid vacations were extremely cold, we used to camp in Asfan for two nights and climb Al-Qamar mountain, and I enjoyed climbing that mountain. So, climbing mountains was something within me since childhood,” she told Arab News.

“Fast-forward to who I am now, I still love it. I go to that area in Asfan, and sometimes I take my kids there and tell them, ‘This was my Eid’,” she added.

She halted these activities for a while. “At the beginning of my married life, I turned away from these adventures for a while. I was only focusing on raising my kids and my career, until this happened. I found a group that organizes these trips to Kilimanjaro, then I read about Mount Kilimanjaro and the process of climbing it. Climbing up takes you five days, descending the mountain takes you two.”

Al-Fadhli said It’s not about the peak, it’s about the journey itself. “I was really amazed when I read the things that happen within the journey.”

She explained that the effects of high altitudes could strike at any moment during the climb and can be life-threatening in certain cases. “It’s not about being mentally or physically fit. There’s a chance of getting altitude sickness, and I always say this altitude has a very bad attitude! Because high altitudes can cause one to feel nauseous or have a headache and dizziness. Sometimes the extreme ones are life-threatening; water fills in your lungs, or your brain. If any of these happen, you should immediately descend because it’s very dangerous. Alhamdulillah, nothing like that happened during my trip.”

She experienced severe headaches during her adventure. “The problem I suffered was on day two: I had an extreme headache. I was the only one who had this headache.

“Then on the third day, I had the headache again, alone. I was asking the guide ‘Will I have these excessive headaches every day and will I be the only one having them?’ He said, ‘This is just the altitude.’ That comforted me. I took some painkillers and it went away.

“The fourth day the headache came. The fifth day, which is the summit day, the push of the summit, I did not experience any headache.”

Al-Fadhli admits it's not all about reaching the peak. (Supplied)

The summit day was an eight-hour climb that started at midnight.

“We woke up at 11 p.m., had our dinner then started our trek, climbing up at 12 a.m. They told us from 5 p.m. to relax and try to sleep as much as possible because at 11 you have to wake up.”

“Imagine me knowing that I am going to the summit at 11, and it was 5 p.m. and I was in my tent. I couldn’t even close my eyes, I was really excited.

“I was afraid of a headache, afraid that it would become severe at the summit. because they say it’s the altitude. The summit is around 6,000 meters high. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.

“It was 11, my phone rang. It was time to start packing our backpacks. My Panadol Extra was in my pocket, ready for my severe headache. I’d just have to reach into my pocket.”

Summit 

The members of the group must proceed with extreme caution, she explained. “We started our day at midnight, but a lot of people were with us, so many different groups from so many different places, and on your way up to the summit, you don’t see anything. It’s just you, the mountain and the stars and the headband flashlights of the people you’re with.

“And you see the flashlight from the ground all the way to the summit. It was a really lovely route. You can’t see the summit because it’s dark. You don’t know if you are heading for a cliff because of the darkness, which is why you have to use your flashlight — focus on your steps and the person in front of you.”

Her group consisted of seven people, but the number decreased.

“We reached a point where one of the men in my group suddenly sat down and had to hold his head. I remember how he looked, and I was really worried about him. He wasn’t like this on day one. The guide said, ‘Well, it looks like a severe altitude sickness that affected him.’ He stayed with him and had a talk. When someone stays and delays the others, one guide stays with him. Either we all wait and stay, or we move and one guide stays with that person.

“The guide asked him if he was OK, but he felt dizzy and couldn’t continue. He said, ‘I’m going to descend.’ Then the guide informed us that the man was descending, and I was shocked. The strongest one among us pulled out.

“Two hours later, a lady felt dizzy. Her husband supported her and encouraged her to continue, and the guide also spoke to her. I was looking at them negotiating from far away. Five minutes later, they also pulled out. From the seven, three had pulled out, and only four were left.

“One of the girls got really tired. She stopped and said she wanted to take a rest for 20 minutes and didn’t want anyone to wait for her. The guide told me she wanted to relax and take baby steps and she would like to have excessive stops for 20 minutes so no one should wait for her. She could stay with a porter. Someone was with her.

“I couldn’t know anything about her, so we were only three. Me, my brother and a lady. One hour later — which was three hours away from the summit — the lady said there was something wrong with her heart. It was beating irregularly.

“Five minutes later, the guide came to me and said she had pulled out. And it was only me and my brother. And that’s when I asked, ‘Bader, do you think we can make it?’ Everyone had pulled out. It was really scary.

“Imagine, you’re a group of seven going up together, and one after another pulls out. I felt like I was in a horror movie. And above all, it was at night.”

Al-Fadhli witnessed a breathtaking view. “At 4:35 a.m., I started to see the sunrise between the huge cliffs. I saw the sunrise while I was going up, and was completely overwhelmed at the beauty of the site. I was trekking and I looked to my right and there it was, the sunrise and the mountains. The feeling was overwhelming,”

She experienced physical exhaustion, but pushed through and succeeded. “When we reached Stella point, which was one hour from the summit, there was a sign that said, ‘Congratulations, you reached Stella point.’

“Uhuru peak is the top, and Uhuru means freedom. So many people reach Stella point then become really exhausted from the seven-hour walk, ascending in the middle of the night in the cold. Most of the people, like me, hadn’t slept.

“Imagine from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and I’m still awake. I reached Stella point exhausted. I told my brother and my guide I wanted to relax at Stella point. Let me think if I can actually make it to the top because I couldn’t even bend my toes. And I was anticipating the walk I still had ahead.

“I sat down and started to fall asleep. The guide woke me up, telling me we still had one more hour. I started to break down a little. The guide was very clever. He asked us all some questions because people tend to hallucinate at this point. So he asked some questions, making sure everything was fine — that I was just exhausted and tired and wanted to sleep, which was normal for a human body awake for more than 24 hours, trekking in the middle of the night in cold weather. And on that day, I did not have any headaches.

“My brother was my support. He encouraged me when I thought I had reached my limit at Stella Point.”

When Al-Fadhli made it to the top, she and her brother raised the Yemeni and the Saudi flags.

“My motivation was to raise both flags: My Yemeni flag as I’m from Yemen, along with the Saudi flag. I’m really proud of my roots, and I’m really honored to be living in Saudi Arabia. I was born and raised here and I consider myself Saudi. I’m telling everyone I’m from both countries. I’m very happy that I’m rooted in both.”

She successfully completed her adventure in good health. “As soon as I reached Uhuru peak, all the exhaustion went away. I reached the top in full health with no pains whatsoever.”

Al-Fadhli’s goal is to climb the seven summits before she turns 40.

Al-Fadhli has her sights set on several other summits. (Supplied)