Spotlight on Wusta Region - Jewel in the Bay
A VERY different flavour of the Wusta region can be found just offshore from Mahawt wilayat. Looming on the horizon just a few kilometres away from Flim on the Wusta coast is Mahawt Island after which the wilayat takes its name. Fringed by extensive mangrove forests, its lush green splendour stands in sharp contrast to the harsh desolation of the mainland.
The island is the most prominent of three islets dotting the turquoise expanse of the Ghubbat Hashish bay. Access to this secluded getaway is by boat from Flim, which is around 19km from the wilayat’s main administrative centre at Hejj.
It’s a 10-minute ride to the island by boat, but the trip is possible only when the tide is in. Much of the coastline along Mahawt, including the ecologically important Barr al Hikman peninsula, is surrounded by extensive tidal mudflats, which can be crossed only at high tide. When the tide is out, it is possible to wade across to the island — a risky undertaking left best to expert fishermen and local residents given the slushy nature of the mudflats. Flim is a key staging point to the Island. Outboard engines sputter to life with the rising tide as boats ferry local fishermen and residents along with supplies of foodstuff, fuel and other goods to the island.
Mangroves are the very essence of Mahawt Island. They are spread in a lush forest all around the island. And quite unless those growing in khawrs (creeks) elsewhere along Oman’s coast, Mahawt’s mangrove trees grow 15 metres tall with gnarled trunks attesting to their age. Flamingos, among other varieties of birds, forage amid this verdant heritage. Well-known birdwatchers Hanne and Jens Eriksen have reported sightings of the newly discovered Oriental White-eye on the island — possibly the only place in the Arabian peninsula where the White-eye has been spotted.
On the south side of the island, the mangroves make way for sandy beaches dotted by barastis, the traditional date palm based homes of local fishermen. Fishing is the mainstay of the island’s 200-strong fishing community. The waters around the island are rich in kingfish, Emperor fish and, of course, shrimp — Mahawt’s major revenue earner. Development on the island is limited in view of its ecological importance. Residents are encouraged to move to the mainland and benefit from easy access to modern infrastructure and services, including schools, health services and social amenities. However, potable water is pumped to the island by pipeline from a small desalination plant built at Flim
The waterfront on the south side is also littered with the wrecks of majestic baghlas, badans and dhows that once plied the high seas to the East African coast and the Indian sub-continent. Prior to the advent of modern commercial ships, Mahawt Island was an important stopover for passengers and goods bound for destinations outside the Gulf region. Given its proximity to international shipping lanes, the island served as a staging point for outbound maritime transport and travel, while doubling as a holding area for incoming passengers and imports.
According to local residents, travellers and goods were ferried by dhow to waiting ocean-going ships anchored offshore. The dhows returned with disembarking passengers and cargo imports bound for villages and towns elsewhere in the Sharqiyah and Wusta regions. Trade links with Zanzibar and India in those days centred around the export of Omani fish and salt, with imports mainly constituting rice, timber, spices and foodstuff. Elegant badans that attest to the island’s proud past lie abandoned on the beach. Many of these traditional boats are still in pristine condition and deserve a place in a maritime museum rather than left to the elements on a remote beach.
Mahawt’s extensive coastline also holds a strong fascination for bird lovers and nature buffs. Tucked away along the coast are little sandy stretches that attract great swarms of gulls, terns and other birds. An increasingly popular destination for visitors is the remote fishing village of Khaluf, involving a good 45-minute drive from Flim. The dirt track snakes through the surrounding expanse of the sabkha, a moist mix of mud and salt. Continuous use has hardened the track into something of a blacktop. But driving along these tracks can be treacherous especially at dawn after overnight moisture leaves them slick.
Khaluf is an atmospheric Bedu fishing village with an expansive beachfront swarming with gulls and terns. They feed on small fish thrown up by the sea, unperturbed by the regular arrival of fishing boats laden with the day’s catch of Trevally, Sea Bream and other fish. The landings are quickly weighed and transferred to waiting coolbox-mounted pickups or refrigerated trucks, which then set out to markets elsewhere around Oman or across the border into the UAE or Saudi Arabia.
A curious sight on these shores is the rusting hulks of ancient pickups caked with mud, grease and grime. The vehicles are used to haul fishing boats higher up the beach beyond the high tide mark. The liberal coats of grease on the pickups are meant to deter corrosion and rust. Just beyond the village are delightful swathes of white sand beaches that offer tranquility and solitude.
They serve as hideaways for campers and picnickers, never mind the hundreds of sea gulls and terns that bask in the morning sun on these shores. A new blacktop links Khaluf with the carriageway connecting Sinaw with the wilayat of Duqm. The road, skirting Bedu hamlets, enables the speedy despatch of fresh fish to lucrative markets elsewhere. Khaluf’s civic infrastructure is also targeted for major improvement. A reverse osmosis desalination plant will provide the village’s potable water needs, while other amenities are planned.