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The Sharqiya Sands is a unique and beautiful habitat slowly opening up to students and travellers. Now a new institute of outdoor learning is aiming to help people understand and conserve one of the greatest sand deserts on the planet

The Sharqiya Sands used to be one of the most inaccessible parts of Oman. Today you can reach them in a less than two-hour’s drive from the capital city of Muscat, on a modern, three-lane highway. And there is now a growing adventure travel industry in the northern periphery of the sands; employment opportunities have been created for the local Bedouin people, and local handicrafts are kept alive in what is a narrow winter window, when temperatures drop to single digits at night.

Despite the new road, the sands remain one of those unique, increasingly scarce, silent places where mobile phones don’t work, and where there is little evidence of human activity beyond the local Bedouin community.

As such, the desert, previously known as the Wahiba Sands and recently renamed the Sharqiya Sands, provides an ideal platform for Outward Bound Oman, the only Outward Bound school in any Arabic-speaking nation to run wilderness courses each winter, when temperatures drop to a tolerable level. Mostly young Omanis attend multi-day courses where you sleep out under the stars by night, and by day travel on foot, or by camel. They learn key life skills needed to enter the world of work, while increasing their awareness of and connectivity to the environment.

With the support of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Al Said, ruler of Oman, the completion of Oman’s first purpose-built centre of outdoor learning was formally celebrated in Muscat on 1 October by HRH Prince Andrew, Chairman of the Trustees of The Outward Bound Trust in the UK, and His Highness Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, Minister of Culture and Heritage in Oman. Located some 12km into the sand sea, it is the first of three such outdoor learning centres that will be constructed in the next two years.

BACK TO THE SANDS

In addition to being a base for outward bound courses, the new desert centre will act as a national, regional and global hub for arid environment, geographical and biological research, so ensuring a benchmark study undertaken by the Royal Geographical Society back in the 1980s remains of continued value.

To this end, the centre is equipped with basic fieldwork equipment, including camera traps, for use by residential research groups from schools, colleges and universities. An automatic weather station has been fitted to the roof of the building, enabling groups to monitor the prevailing conditions remotely, and to compare and contrast them with their home area.

Importantly the building is the first self-reliant, self-sustaining building of its kind within Oman, and generates 100 per cent of its power through solar energy, – seen as being the future of energy provision throughout the country.

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DESERT UNIVERSITY

In January 2018, supported by grant aid from the Anglo Omani Society in London, and in partnership with the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, the Geographical Association and the Institute for Outdoor Learning, a group of four geography teachers were flown out from UK to Oman as part of the ‘Discovering Oman’ project for a week’s fieldwork visit, the outcome of which is a series of curriculum-linked lesson plans that will go some way to embedding Oman, and the desert, in the UK’s school geography curriculum.

They will be followed in 2019 by a similar group of UK teachers who will focus on creating teaching resources for GCSE and A-level students.

In addition to a series of academic journals and research papers, at the end of the 1980s research programme a high quality educational resource – The Wahiba Sands Study Pack – was produced for teachers, with a series of lesson plans and activities linked to the geography curriculum.

Now the RGS-IBG has partnered with Outward Bound Oman to upgrade and digitise that original resource pack, making it accessible once again to all teachers with an interest in arid and extreme environments.

oman 3The Bedouin of the Sharqiya Sands

BACK TO THE SANDS

The RGS survey in the 1980s, the first integrated geographical survey of one of the greatest sand sea deserts in the world, showed the area has a unique range of mobile, stable and cemented sands (aeolianite) and a diverse flora and fauna. At the time, the Sands were home for some 3,000 settled and nomadic Bedu communities.

Earlier, the government of Oman – through the office of the Advisor for Conservation of the Environment, Ralph Daly – had invited the RGS to undertake a six-month geographical survey of this little known sand sea – an area estimated to be 9,400 square kilometres. Dr John Hemming, then Director of the RGS called on Durham University’s geography department – and in particular Dr Roderic Dutton, who had specialised in community development in Oman since the early 1970s.

The academic survey, called the Oman Wahiba Sands Project, was given unprecedented support from the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces, local and international business community and individuals keen to see Oman’s natural heritage better understood. The model the RGS adopted, designed by Dutton, was to study the earth sciences, the biological resources and the people in an integrated way, trying to understand change, influenced by the fundamental geomorphological processes at one end, and the onset of oil generated socio-economic change at the other. The findings surprised all involved.

The results were published in a monograph of the Journal of Oman Studies: Special Report No. 3. The earth scientists, led by Andrew Warren, confirmed a great variety of sand dune types from the stable mega dunes of the ‘high Wahiba’ to the more mobile ‘low Wahiba’. An ancient cemented sea of ‘aeolianite’ underlie the sands, creating remarkable formations and patterns, an attraction to all tourists who travel through the area. A significant feature of the Sands was the sea mists and high moisture levels of the sands that serve as a sponge – providing a rich ecosystem full of life, including remarkable woodlands of Prosopis cineraria.

The flora of the sands comprised eight lichens, four micro-fungi, one macro-fungus, one fern and 162 flowering plants. The Prosopis woodlands, the dominant vegetation feature of the Sands and their margins, provide shelter and food for the Bedu and their livestock and a habitat for wildlife such as Sand Cats and Ruppell’s fox. The avifauna numbered 115 species and the abundant invertebrates represented 31 taxonomic groups.

The biologists, led by Paul Munton, advised that the primary management objectives are to: preserve the diversity of the dunes and the raised channels (to the west); to maintain the populations of Prosopis trees and other plants and of the gazelle and other animals: to conserve and enhance the rangeland resource; to protect the relic Prosopis woodland for its economic and wildlife importance.

Roger Webster, who led the social science team, advised on recognising the special needs the Bedu have for the utilities and mobile services that are so designed and located that the Bedu can maintain their preferred lifestyle, obtaining a share the amenities the government was providing everyone in Oman.

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SHARQIYA TODAY

Today Oman’s tourism revolution is putting pressure on all natural and cultural heritage assets – and the Sharqiya Sands is one of the pressure points in the country, due to the rapid growth of domestic tourism, off-roading and international visitors staying at the growing number of lodges that have been established both on the edge and also in the interior.

Fortunately, there is a growing community of academics and field scientists in Oman interested in the future of the Sharqiya and their role to maintain Oman’s natural and cultural heritage. Topics considered a priority for future research teams included a repeat multi-disciplinary survey to monitor and understand the changes that have taken place in 30 years. This change to assist future conservation strategies.

More recently the National Field Research Centre for Environmental Conservation published a monograph, Field Research in Oman: Past, Present and Future (2014), with suggestions for topics to be undertaken by research teams in the future. This included the proposal to create a conservancy within the sands, limiting access by tourists on agreed tracks and to ban off-road driving. The Outward Bound Oman Desert Centre will offer new opportunities to address these and other recommendations arising from more recent research.

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GEOGRAPHIC FACTS
• Geographic location: Pacific Ocean
• Latitude/Longitude: 0°37’09”S, 90°21’29”W
• Population: 25,124 (2010)
• Ethnicity breakdown: 81% Mestizo, 7.5% Native Indian, 7.3% Caucasian, 4.2% African-Ecuadorian(2010)
• Land area: 3,093 sq miles (8,010 sq km)
• Ocean area: 23,000 sq miles (59,500 sq km)
• Number of islands: 127 (including 19 large, four inhabited)
• Language: Spanish
• Currency: US dollar

WILDLIFE
Aside from the Galápagos’ most famous residents – the giant tortoises – the islands are also home to the world’s only marine iguanas. They can be primarily seen lazing around in the sun sneezing excess salt everywhere, or occasionally diving into the water – they are excellent swimmers – in search of a meal, nibbling marine algae off submerged rocks. The islands are also home to land iguanas, including a bright pink species classified for the first time in 2009, after being located in a remote part of Wolf Volcano. Sharing the rocky coastlines with the marine iguanas are Galápagos penguins, the only penguin that lives at or near the equator. The roughly 2,000-strong bird population is mainly located in the colder, nutrient-rich waters of Fernandina and Isabela, and this small population size and restricted range means they are graded as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN. Further out to sea, the islands are also a hub of utmost importance for over 2,900 marine species, including sea lions and turtles. To the far north, the remote uninhabited Wolf and Darwin islands witness vast gatherings of hammerheads and even whale sharks, whose presence helped establish the Galápagos Marine Reserve in 1986, now – at 133,000 square km – one of the largest such reserves in the world.

TIMELINE
1535 Discovered by Spanish
1832 Annexed by Ecuador
1835 Visited by a young Charles Darwin
1859 Darwin publishes his theory of evolution by natural selection, based on observation in Galápagos
1941 Used as a base by the US military for the duration of WWII
1959 Official creation of the Galápagos National Park
1978 Designated the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site
1986 Creation of the Galápagos marine reserve
2012 Death of Lonesome George

DEMOGRAPHICS
In 1941, the Galápagos’ human population consisted of just 810 people. The number of residents sky-rocketed during the 20th century, reaching 18,640 by 2001, and 25,124 by 2010. Population pressure meant that the islands were added to UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ list in 2007, promoting then-Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to make reforms to the country’s ‘Special Law for the Galápagos’, essentially creating a separate citizenship for Galápagos residents. Its purpose was to act as a control on the number of mainlanders moving to what has become the richest province of the country (thanks to tourism) and threatening the sustainability of the biodiversity which made it such a profitable international tourist destination. Only authorised Galápagos residents are now allowed to work on the islands. Recognising these efforts, UNESCO subsequently reversed their decision in 2010.

PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY
The islands famously occur at the meeting point for three major tectonic plates, the Nazca, Cocos and Pacific. Tectonic activity is ongoing among the youngest, most western islands, such as Fernandina and Isabela, which are less than a million-years-old. Further east, where continental drift has carried them away from the volcanic hotspots which cause the islands to emerge from the sea in the first place, the oldest islands, such as Española and San Cristóbal, are between three and five million-years-old, and are still only just beginning the long process of erosion.
Each of the major islands consists primarily of one main cone-shaped volcano, with the exception of Isabela which is formed of six that have since merged together. Many of the islands have enormous underground tunnels formed by the cooling outer crusts of lava, with fast-flowing liquid inside. These were often used as habitats by native species for years, with the skeletons of extinct animals such as giant rats found inside.

FLORA
The islands are home to between 552 and 614 known native plant species, more than 30 per cent of which are endemic. The flora of the Galápagos is predominately desert vegetation, given how only the humid highlands generally receive enough rainfall to sustain lush green plant life. The more common dry areas of the islands are frequently populated by shrubs and cacti, plants which are well-adapted to drought-like conditions, only flowering during rare periods of high rainfall. By the coasts, mangroves play a very important role in the local ecosystem, providing breeding sites for birds such as pelicans and frigate birds, as well as a shady refuge for marine wildlife.
Across the Galápagos, there are hundreds of threats posed by invasive plant species. There are at least 866 recognised introduced species now settled in the wild, the majority brought deliberately by humans. One of the most urgent threats is quinine, a tall, rapidly-growing evergreen tree introduced in the 1940s which has spread across Santa Cruz, significantly altering the ecological composition of the vegetation and making survival more difficult for native species. Similarly, the spiny Asian blackberry shrub, introduced in the 1970s, has been observed invading wetter parts of the archipelago and forming impenetrable thick forests, negatively affecting the seed germination of native species.

Kuoni

Oman AK

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