Of goats and forts

Fort view over Nizwa

Fort view over Nizwa

Everyone loves a goat. And surely every traveller enjoys a good fort, too. My recent travels have included both, together, in two different countries and very different parts of the world.

At the end of my fifth week in Oman, vaguely settled and itching to explore before the summer heat stops all tourist activity, I decreed that it was time we explored beyond the bounds of Muscat. We packed up the car and drove two hours inland and up, into the mountains to the ancient fort town of Nizwa.

Nizwa was our choice because it is close – only a hair over 160km from Muscat – and we’d heard about the famous Friday livestock market which starts at 6am and is over by 10am. An overnight trip was definitely in order.

Jebel al Akhdar

Jebel al Akhdar

There is a bus from the main bus station in Ruwi, but as it was the last weekend with our rental car, we drove. Highway 15 heads directly inland from the Muscat City Centre junction of the Expressway (just past the airport turnoff as you’re heading towards Seeb) and just keeps going straight all the way. The mountains become quite lush (comparatively – it’s still desert) very quickly after departing from the coastal route. The towering, jagged peaks are impressive; the ravines that tear through them even more so.

The city of Nizwa sits snugly on a wide plain, and it wasn’t until I ascended the Great Tower of the old fort that I realised how green and verdant it really is. The date palms the area is famed for crowd every farm, field and back yard, making the plain a sea of green from above. The fort is a faithful reconstruction of an original which has stood since the 1600s. The great tower and immediate complex now house an interesting museum with information on the history of Oman from prehistory to the recent past, and an interesting record of Nizwa as seen through the eyes of various historical chroniclers. There are also displays relating to dates and the date crop – one of the area’s biggest industries; traditional Nizwan and Omani dress and customs, and silver-working – another specialty skill of the area.

Beyond the fort area is the restored souk. Here Be Goats. Lots of goats. Arriving shortly after 7am, the market was in full swing. We waded through whole families of goats to get to the central ring, where vendors were trotting their wares around a central viewing platform like Crufts entrants competing for Best in Show. There were long-haired goats, spiral-horned goats, soft looking kids and scraggly old nanny goats. Doubtless many of them were headed for nearby mountain farms, and a drive out into the wilderness of Jebal Al Akhdar later in the day gave us plenty of opportunity for goat-spotting in the hills, and even some random camel spotting.

The other location yielding Goats and Forts on recent travels was Cat Ba island in northern Vietnam – a common jumping-off point for explorations of the famous Ha Long bay. Many travellers will have to confront an array of choices on how best to make the most of a visit to this iconic area of Vietnam based on time and/or money concerns. Is it worth splashing out on a cruise or should I base myself on Cat Ba and explore from there? Should I take an afternoon, a 1 night or a 2 night cruise? Should I visit Ha Long bay or the less explored Bai Tu Long bay? Decisions, decisions.

For those who choose Cat Ba island, the island itself offers, among other things, a short hike from the main tourist strip up to the prominent ‘cannon fort,’ an interesting outpost for the Viet Cong during the American war, as it is known in Vietnam. As with many tourist spots in Vietnam, the entry fee is minimal (40,000 VND) and the site is sparse but informative.

The hike took maybe 45 minutes up, and only about 20 minutes down, and is very easy to follow from the main street with a basic tourist map. Once at the summit, there is a preserved cannon, mounted in situ in its pit. There are also the preserved tunnel and bunker systems used by the soldiers of the outpost, and exhibits including photos, personal effects, letters, written accounts and memories of people who staffed the outpost, and who lived in the area through the war. It also offers a fantastic viewpoint from which to enjoy the natural beauty of the surrounding bay.

Freely roaming mountain goats again stole the show on the day. As we approached the summit, mournful bleating rang out from a kid separated from its family, and we listened to the call and response bleating from kid to parents as they picked their way back together. Turning a corner at the ‘airstrip’ – a circular helipad now home to a display of decommissioned ordnance – there were a pair of goats gently grazing next to some ammunition cases. Flying back down the steep hill at the end of the walk there was a whole family of goats perched on various precipitous outcrops looking for all the world like a folk album cover photo.

Goats and Forts. You gotta love em.

Goat family

Goat family

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