Sohar & Muscat Wed. 9th to Thurs. 17th May 2012
Getting through immigration was easy, a case of paying the fee of 20 OMR each (just over $50 Aus. so quite pricey) for a month's visa. Actually 10 days was a much more reasonable 5 OMR -but we were unsure of our exact plans and thought we'd be cautious in case we had a "car problem" when far away from a border. Anyway having sailed through immigration we came to a stop at customs. "What is this?" asked the young guy gazing with astonishment at the vehicle, before asking us to pull over. It was all going ok -they looked in the back and walked around and gazed at our documentation in an uncomprehending way- but I think we were about to be on our way -when they glanced in the cab and noticed that we were right hand drive. This was a major hoo haa. No such car had ever driven on Omani roads apparently and this was definitely not allowed.
Various people up the chain of command were summoned but all of them said the same, as did the police who were called. In desperation we rooted out the booklet issued by the AA in Australia who supervise the carnet, and it clearly listed Oman as a complying country, meaning that they have agreed to let vehicles under the carnet enter the country. The booklet gave the address and contact number of the AA equivalent in Oman, but they wouldn't call them. I'm not sure if this swayed them, but eventually we were allowed to go…after 3 hours! Whew!
By this time it was dark, so we were grateful that the roads were really good and well lit. Unsurprisingly given our experiences at customs we were obviously a real novelty and we got waved and hooted as we drove along -first impression were that Omanis are a friendly bunch! We hadn't really done much to plan our trip to Oman, to be honest in Dubai we were wasting so much (seemingly futile?) energy on job hunting that we scarcely thought about it! Anyway having picked up a map at the well-stocked though unmanned tourist office at customs we'd decided to head for the coast in the hope of finding some nice beach parking with some cooling sea breezes.
The first town on the coast we hit was Sohar - which sounded a very nice spot in the LP write up. On the way we stopped to both change money and get a bite to eat. We generally just use the ATM so don't change money often on our travels but after all the mess ups of the last few months - getting the cash advance on the visa to go into Iran, then not going and the additional cost of shipping -the poor visa card is alarmingly high so we've decided to start changing the USD currency we'd stock piled for Iran.
The Omani currency -the Omani Rial (OMR) is very strong, This is the first currency we've been exposed to that is bigger than ours -i.e.) I OMR is $2.60 Aus. and it's a bit disconcerting. We're used to thinking in large figures so we keep thinking that everything is very cheap…..then realizing with a jolt that it definitely isn't! Actually Oman feels pretty pricey on an initial viewing. It's probably not bad cf Europe but coming from Asia it's up there. For example 2 coffees in Starbucks (where we go to both escape the heat and use the Wi-Fi ) are about $10 Aus. ! Outrageous!! Internet and phone calls are also costly - Skype is banned - mind you there are of course ways around that! The one exception mercifully is diesel which is priced at a very reasonable 0.146 or 38 cents Aussie a litre. Petrol is even better at 0.12 or 31 cents Aussie.
We're glad we've got our own accommodation as hotels here are very pricey -there's not a real "back packer" scene and most hotels are pretty top end and priced accordingly. The plus side is that there's a real camping culture here and like UAE you're pretty much allowed to camp where you like, with no police or other hassle and it's very safe ..though come in the winter not the summer!
Indeed, since being here we so like Oman that we have widened our job search to include here. Unfortunately it's not that easy, Oman is really well run by the Sultan. Whilst the system is undemocratic here, in that the Sultan has absolute power, it is actually hugely successful as he is a really switched on character who since coming to power in 1970 has really shaped Oman into the rich prosperous nation it is today.
Though comfortably off, Omanis are more like us, in that they do work -they don't have the crazy wealth you see in UAE, and the original flavour of Oman as a country remains -rather than seeming a bit like a knock off Disney flavoured version. A strong policy here is "Omanization " a process by which Omanis are trained to fill all skilled jobs (though cheaper labour from Pakistan, India Bangladesh et al still take up unskilled roles.) Thus westerners are really only recruited when an Omani cannot be found, which makes sense, but is tough from our angle. Nevertheless Andrew has had some interest and has an interview looming so fingers and toes crossed.
Anyway that first night we headed to the beach, which was full of late night picnickers and pulled up for the night. Thankfully there was some breeze blowing though it was a bit of a sticky night - it's getting tougher and tougher to sleep in the car as the summer kicks in. Next morning we were eating breakfast when some Omani guys wearing their traditional outfits of the long dishdasha and the distinctive embroidered hat the akama approached us. They were very friendly and interested about our trip, and when we asked about their hats (we'd not seen them before at that stage) they very kindly gifted us one each!
Ibrahim, Ali and Khalid are cousins who work in tourism and we went and visited their office nearby -Asian Crown Travel & Tourism -part of the Asian Crown group of companies. Ibrahim tailors tours of Oman and has plans to develop overnight desert camps as well as other activities. See their site for more about their trips -it's a fantastic country-we'd definitely recommend it! www.asiancrown.net
First job that morning was to drop off our spare tyre to get the puncture repaired. After all the rough roads we've ridden over the past months 100% puncture free (i.e. all the KKH) it's a bit annoying that we got a puncture in Dubai heading to the border on a very smooth good stretch of road. In fact incredibly we worked out that it's over a year (and 25,000km) since we last had a puncture……way to go Maxxis! www.maxxis.com
Mind you the searing temperatures might have something to do with it! So we dropped it off at the garage, and then the guys -with typical Arab hospitality- insisted on treating us to lunch at Ibrahim's farm a few kms out of town where he'd constructed an open air "dining tent".
We enjoyed a gorgeous meal of chicken, bbq'ed fish and salad with coffee to follow, which was absolutely delicious. Andrew got a head dress put on so he was an honourary Arab!
After dinner we were all hanging out relaxing and admiring the new German Shepherd when a really high wind got up. Actually there had been thunder and lightning intermittedly all afternoon, though the guys were pretty sure it wouldn't rain for a while. It reminded us both of the "build up" period in Darwin, when the heat gets up to almost unbearable levels and you can't believe it won't rain..but it doesn't for what seems like forever. Anyway we got no rain but the most incredible desert storm suddenly hit the farm.
Sadly we were unable to get a picture through the thick of it as our eyes/mouths were choked with sand. We rushed inside the tent whilst the tempest blew around us. When we emerged after it passed the fence had blown down -where it had been standing proud just minutes earlier, but worse the poor dog was now a homeless statistic as her house had flown 6 feet in the air and crashed through the fence before landing 100 metres away! It took 5 guys to lift it back in so it wasn't that light!
This was our first glimpse of a desert storm and we can now vouch for how sudden and powerful they are! If you were camping you'd want to peg your tent down well! Thanks so much to Ibrahim, Ali and Khalid & Lulu (their handyman from Dhaka, Bangladesh) for their hospitality. We had a great time.
That night we headed back to camp once more at the beach, which had been ok if a little noisy, but then we met Ahmed. Andrew had had a chat with him the night before, and when we got back to the beach he was waiting for us with an invitation to go and stay at his farm 30km out of town. Thus we spent the next couple of nights staying in the luxury of air conditioning in a lovely rural setting.
Ahmed lives in a compound of several homes with his family and children. As the family practice a form of purdah Andrew as a strange (!!) man couldn't enter the family compound where the ladies of the family slept but we slept in the guest room which had a side door into the compound but faced the outside. The farm had many goats, & grew dates, mangoes & cucumbers.
There was a large tank which you could fill directly with cold spring water ..bliss! I spent many a happy hour there with my book. It was lovely to get into the air conditioning for a while and we were very grateful to Ahmed and family for their hospitality. It really is heating up now - and it's impossible to sleep beyond sun up..at 6am. Even at that hour the heat is intense.
We got to have a look around Sohar over the next few days. It's a really pleasant little coastal town, which was a major power 1,000 years ago, but is now just a pretty little town with a history of sea faring - the legendary Sinbad (the sailor) supposedly came for here. We got up early once and went to the fish markets - a gorgeous new gleaming building at one end of the scenic corniche or seaside walkway. The fish market was really good -rivaling anything we've seen anywhere on our travels -with loads of different fresh fish-definitely work a look, and we got some fish to cook on the BBQ for dinner.
Sohar has a distinctive 13th century white fort (forts are very much part of Oman's heritage and you see them everywhere) but it was closed for renovation so we just did a loop around the outside through the manicured gardens and around the obligatory soccer game (no cricket here) and back along the seafront. Everyone was really friendly and it's so clean here - still finding that quite a shock after years in Asia!
We seem to spend a fair bit of time in shopping malls since we've arrived in the middle east ….not really our natural habitat but a good bolt hole from the heat outside in the middle of the day. We self-cater here (restaurants are beyond our budget) so we were pleased to see that Carrefours -the French supermarket chain we'd grown to love in Dubai also have a presence here in Oman.
So finally we left Ahmed's farm and Sohar and headed South East for a couple of hour's easy drive to the capital city of Muscat. We've now spent a couple of days here and it's a lovely spot if very hot.
The most atmospheric part is Mutrah and the nearby Old Muscat. Again it's too hot to breathe in the main part of the day so we've been lurking in the shopping arcade of the upmarket suburbs- but the Mutrah area comes into its own n the evening and it's really nice to walk along the mosaic covered corniche and see all the lit up mosques and shops.
Mutrah Souq or market is extremely atmospheric if a bit touristic, an Arab style market full of artifacts from Oman -lots of traditional silverwork old maps etc. As ever the Kashmiris are here in force with their pashmina shawls..they get everywhere!
We also had a look at Mutrah fish market first thing in the morning -very nice and with a good fruit and veg section -though we have to say the one at Sohar tops it.
We found a great camp spot right in the centre of town off the corniche tucked off in a little parking area, looking out on the gulf of Oman, with a good view of the giant frankincense burner which is lit up at night. This commemorates the fact that frankincense was originally a major factor in making this area rich.
It's really easy camping here, the police came down to get a look at us, and locals came down to picnic in the open air but no one bothered us at all -as I keep saying the only problem was the heat. It's really too hot to sleep in the car with just a (fairly gutless!) fan between us and the oven outside.
We shifted camp to sleep out of town on the beach front one night to get some more coastal breezes. This didn't really work the breezes were there but they were red hot ..like having a hairdryer on the "hot" setting blown directly at you. It's hardly surprising I guess the hot air comes straight off the Sahara desert. Next morning we walked through Mutrah and the central clock showed that it was 45 degrees at not yet 9 am!
Not surprisingly we've decided to head out of town to the cooler mountains but first we took a wonder around the old city. Old cities in our experience tend to be a bit higgledy piggledy and chaotic but of course this one was scrubbed clean!
The Muscat Gate Museum which leads the way into the walled old city was an interesting display and free -always a point in its favour for us!
We waited until evening when it was (slightly) cooler to take a walk along the water front to the impressive Sultan's Palace with the 2 Portuguese era forts guarding it. Old Muscat really is an attractive spot.
So, as at Thursday 17th May, after yet another hot and sticky night we're heading to the Hajar Mountains in the hope of finding some cooler air.
NB: As mentioned on the front page we got some really good news the first week after we arrived in Oman when Georgia from the marketing department at Exedy Clutches in Australia got in touch. It was such good news we didn't mind that she rang us at 3am (!!) to tell us that they were happy to come on board as a sponsor and are dispatching a brand new Safari Tuff clutch to us c/o their Dubai office. Thanks so much to all at Exedy but especially to Georgia and Karin. The old clutch is still going strong since it was fitted in Sydney many years and an incredible 250,000 kms ago- so we're really happy to stick with Exedy. To see more of their great products check out their site on www.exedy.com.au
Thanks also go to Ashraf and the team at Al Fakamah Drawing & Arts who made up our "Exedy" stickers up and a few other replacement ones, all for no charge. Thanks guys we really appreciate it.