Apr 06 2008

Oman – in search of the Arabian Leopard

Published by at 7:37 am under Oman,Travel Club

When our friends Dave and Judy Willis invited us to Oman in Dec 2007 we knew we were in for a treat. I had first met this intinerant Aussie couple in Kenya’s Masai Mara years earlier while following the lives of the Marsh Lions and the various leopards that Angie and I had come to know. In those days life for the Willis family revolved around their battered old Land Rover which had carried them to many far off places and provided a mobile home for their young sons Mateo and Miguel. Dave is a talented painter who moved with his family to Oman some 15 years ago. Like us, Dave has a passion for big cats – particularly leopards – so when he took up residence in Oman his attentions soon turned to trying to photograph the illusive and critically endangered Arabian leopard; there are probabaly less than 100 left in the wild. The only way Dave could photograph these illusive cats was to use all his ingenuity and dogged persistence and the help of remote cameras strategically placed along trails and near scent posts used by the
leopards. The leopards had to take their own photographs by treading on a pressure plate or breaking an infrared beam – they are just too shy and wary to show themselves to humans. In time Dave combined forces with scientist Andrew Spalton who was researching the status of the Arabian leopard in Oman. When the opportunity to make a film for Oman TV came along Dave contacted me to see if I would like to be involved, which is how Angie and I found ourselves visiting Oman – a country we knew little about. I was delighted to be asked to present and narrate the English language version and to help Dave and his son Mateo put the finishing touches to their film.

What a revelation Oman proved to be, a country that has long remained hidden from Western tourists but which is now rapidly gaining popularity as a holiday destination. There are mile upon mile of unspoilt beaches, rugged mountain scenery as well as gravel and sandy deserts to feast the eye on, made famous by adventurers and explorers such as Wilfred Thesiger. Angie and I had met Thesiger in London many years ago, a man with a face carved from granite and a literary touch when writing about Arabia that has been rarely supassed. Thesiger’s black and white photographs are stunning in their stark simplicity, capturing a world that is now all but lost.

Dave and Judy took us camping in the Jabal Samhan Mountains, one of the last refuges for the Arabian leopard. Nightfall among the Jabal is a hauntingly beautiful experience, made sharper by the chill air that wells up in clouds of mist at sunrise. Dave took us along the narrow game trails frequented by the leopard, pointing out the places where they most often leave scrape marks and scats to let other leopards know of their whereabouts. The precipitous terrain looks bare of game but somehow the leopards find enough to survive on, the sparcity of large herbivores reflected in the smaller size of these leopards with males weighing around 30 kg and females 20kg – half the size of their African counterparts.

We were fortunate to spend time with Hadi Musalam al Hickmani, a bright eyed Jabali – son of a family of camel herders who for centuries have plied their trade in these mountainous regions and know every nuance of the area – and something of the life of these secretive big cats. Arabian hospitality is legendery and one night we feasted on camel meat and bowls of frothy camels milk, hunkering down in our sleeping bags and blankets to hide from the dust storm that blew-up in our faces later that night. Camels are a thing of beauty and fascination seen in the gravel deserts – better still trekking over yellow and red sand dunes. We were able to experience the thrill of traditional camel races and marvel at the skill of the riders as they clung like limpets to the rump of their mounts, thundering down the runway of sand to the delight of the villagers and filling us with a sense of wonder at these ancient rituals.

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