Muscat to Masirah to Salalah Thurs. 17th to Thurs. 31 May 2012
We delayed in Muscat a few days longer than planned for various reasons which was nice as we met some very helpful locals. First off whilst camping near the Corniche in our usual spot Austin and Betty (locals now but originally via Mumbai and Goa) came over to say hello. A typical Mumbai entrepreneur Austin runs a number of businesses in the area, including a couple of restaurants.
He invited us to go to one "Stomach" in the stylish Jawaharat A'Shahi Complex (with some very stylish cars parked in the vicinity!) for the weekly Friday -the equivalent of Sunday in these parts- morning breakfast buffet. This was delicious and we were very grateful. The buffet is available every week -on the centre's first floor - definitely recommended for a really good "all you can eat" breakfast.
One thing leading to another as it does - we liked the area and decided to spend the day around the beach and this is what lead to us meeting Juliet and Eva from Mumbai (again!) and Jakarta respectively -of course both places we've been to on our trip. They very kindly invited us out for dinner and after this we all went back to Juliet's house, met her lovely family her husband Arvind and children Angela, Anna & Aaron and were invited to spend the night in their spare room. This was really good, as the last couple of nights had been really hot and neither of us had slept well. As I think I've said before whilst usually a breezy night is good for camping, here the air is just red hot so it brings no relief. Thus Juliet's offer was really welcome and we had a great time actually staying a second night just to enjoy a really good home cooked meal -Biryani one of our faves! Thanks guys we'll definitely stop by again as invited on the way back through.
So finally -laden down with all sorts of goodie bags which Juliet very kindly put together for us -we set off on our trip south. Having done a bit more research speaking to the guys at the tourist information Centre we'd decided not to head straight for the hills but to continue along the coast south towards Salalah, Oman's second city, as we are promised that the temperatures drop as you head down due to the existence of the trade winds.
We left Muscat via Bandar Jissah -an attractive coast area up a steep winding road with great views along the coast. This is an area quite developed for tourists with a marina, a huge resort/ hotel complex and a water sports/diving centre with a busy restaurant -with shock horrors - beer on sale! First time we've seen it since we've been in Oman -it was almost $9 Aus. a pint though, so we didn't bother! Our LP said that we could camp here "at the discretion of the management for a small charge." Times have obviously changed as they wouldn't allow this..but no worries we camped at the really nice Jissah Beach near the small friendly fishing town of Qantab for free -so all was good!
It was a bit of a warm night, but thankfully there was an ocean breeze, which whilst not cool wasn't too hot so we slept ok, though it quickly started to get hot in the morning. It was a gorgeous spot in which to wake up though, looking out at the famous sea arch just off the coast from the small bay where we had our early morning swim.
We stopped off for a look at the very posh Al-Bustan Palace Hotel. This hotel was built specially to house the GCC (Gulf Cooperative Council) summit in 1985, and has won numerous awards as the best hotel in the Middle East -and believe me there's a fair bit of competition going for that one! It was very swanky and deluxe set in a beautiful green garden framed by the mountains.
There was a very posh atrium, which felt a bit like a cathedral, with an ornate dome and even a harpist plucking away in the background. We treated ourselves to afternoon tea with scones, jam (strawberry and date) and clotted cream. Very decadent and a bit of a budget blow out at 11.5 OMR approximately $30 Aus. for 2 ..way more than the usual day's food budget! Great fun.
Diversion like this are why we move so slowly …we ended up having another night at Jissah beach, setting off early next morning for our next destination the coastal town of Sur. Leaving from the Bandar Jissah area we took a short cut through to the Sur road which was an interesting desert route, past feral donkeys, camels and even a load of Indians putting up a power pylon!
The roads are very good here - and you don't get the distractions of Asia - herds of cows, trucks going the wrong way etc …though the driving is a bit crazy…especially as they drive on the "wrong " side of the road here. We're had a sign made in English with an Arabic translation "Right hand drive" which we put on the back of the car. The speeds they travel maybe no one has the chance to read it though!
The heat was mounting as we drove through desert landscapes ..going past sand dunes and camels. They were various signs warning of sand storms, and a few times we saw evidence of the sand encroaching on the road. We were warned that this could be very dangerous causing you to lose control of the car, and a couple of times driving through small whirlwinds of sand you could see how fierce they could be.
We'd been looking out in vain for somewhere to have our picnic, but there wasn't any shade to be had.. until Andrew spotted a perfect spot..the drainage pipes under the roadway!
These were provided for a nearby small wadi (dry riverbed) which apparently floods after heavy rains. Anyway it was a great spot -overlooking an attractive bay. We sat next to each other in our little adjoining cubby holes and enjoyed our tuna rolls!
Perhaps because of the heat the whole area had a deserted feel and we drove through little settlements which were all boarded up, without anyone around making them feel like ghost towns.
There are a couple of renowned Wadis on the way to Sur and we stopped to have a look at them ..Wadi Shab, and Wadi Tiwi. They were quite attractive -lush and green, but we didn't really see them at their best which comes after the rains.
The problem is that after heavy rains causing flash flooding wadis can be quite dangerous if you get caught in them with people drowning every year. You have to be very careful camping anywhere near them during the wet season.
Just short of Sur we stopped off at Qalhat one of the most ancient sites in Oman, dating from the 2nd century AD. Now there's not a lot left to see..but in its heyday it was a very busy port, and the likes of Marco Polo stayed here . The site of the old town was all sealed off -we think they're going to renovate it .but we got through and had a look around the ruins -the most impressive being the Tomb of Bibi Miriam. It was all quite atmospheric with the sun setting across the mountains as a backdrop.
We drove on to arrive at Sur as darkness fell. Sur is an attractive little coastal town with a long history of boat building -they still produce the lovely old wooden dhows here. We went to find the internet to check our email-asking at the Sur Beach Hotel -they directed us to their coffee lounge opposite which was a real experience.
The coffee lounge seemed to be men only (though I was made welcome) and consisted of rows of chairs watching a TV screen where football was playing. Incidentally football (soccer) replaces cricket here as the national obsession. Anyway the men sat in these - some in groups some alone and a lot of them had brought their own food from home, but the focus of the place wasn't coffee -it was the sheeshas or the "hubble bubble' water pipes, which came in a variety of flavours. So there we sat in rows, us checking our emails in what felt like big private home, with a big fug of smoke around us, and the bubbling of water pipes as a back drop. A bit different!
It was still pretty hot here when we went to find a beach to park at. It was Wednesday night (which is the equivalent of Friday night in Oman weekends being Thursday, Friday) so there were herds of people hitting the beaches. We tucked ourselves away down the far end, but it wasn't the best spot as there were lights everywhere so we were lit up like a football field, and that cursed hot desert wind was blowing. Not a great night's sleep!
Next morning we got up early to do our site seeing heading first to the Sunaysilah Castle. Over 300 years old it was really well restored and quite interesting. Forts/Castles are a big focus in Oman and the government takes great pains to make sure they are beautifully presented. Sadly the town's other castle Bilad Sur Castle was shut being renovated - but we got a picture from the outside showing the unusual shaped towers which it's renowned for.
We had a wander along the seaside walkway or corniche which had lovely views over the water to the pretty little white washed village of Ayiah.
We weren't quite sure how to get to the dhow yards ..but luckily we were helped by a carload of students, who stopped to say hello, and offered to take us around. Ironically the "traditional Omani'" craft being showcased was largely being carried out by "host workers" from Kerala! We had a look around and even climbed up a rickety ladder to get up into the boat - in our picture I'm actually feeling a bit worried as to if I'll make it down again ok..though obviously I did!
Later on we went to the Maritime Museum -though unfortunately it was shut. Never mind the gate was left open and we got to have a look at the restored boats on display -including the famous one the Fatah-Al-Khair an old (70 years) dhow which saw out its working life in Yemen, before retiring here to be fully restored and put on display.
From here we drove across to Ayjah. In our LP it said that you could get a small boat across here, rather than drive right around. Times have changed though and now the boats have died away as there is a swish bridge across. The problem was we weren't sure if we would sneak under the barriers - we measure 2.7 metres at our highest point, but we now have our new tyres (thanks Maxxis) on the roof so we were a bit borderline.
We let down the air suspension as a precaution, and thankfully we made it under with millimeters to spare …whew…drove across the bridge ..but then bashed the far barrier on the way out the other side. The wrong angle I guess! Never mind no real harm done and thankfully we were on the right road to head out of town so we didn't have to cross back into Sur.
We'd missed seeing inside the Al-Hamooda Fort here but we had a look at the outside and wandered past the old merchants' house and up to the old lighthouse which had a great view back over Sur.
This whole area really grew as a sea port trading predominantly with Africa -Oman had extensive colonies here (in fact Zanzibar was once Oman's capital) and you could really see this looking at the locals here -a lot of them had very dark skins and African features and hair.
That evening we headed out as it was already getting dark so went only about an hour down the road before looking for a camp spot. The next stretch of road is renowned for attracting turtles that come ashore to lay eggs. There is a big nature reserve at Ras Al-Jinz - but whilst no doubt well-meaning it's got mixed reviews in terms of being turtle friendly -just too many tourists wielding their mobile cameras about -and also you could only see it as part of an organized group which was no doubt pricey ..so we by passed it and camped a bit farther on at Ras-Al-Hadd at the encouragingly named "Turtle Beach. "
We found a spot and camped up on the headland. We were pretty tired after not sleeping well the previous night so whilst we wandered up the beach a little way with the torch we didn't really look hard and didn't see any turtles.
The big relief was that amazingly just an hour down the road from Sur the temperature had really dropped -due as promised to the trade winds which were sweeping around. Whatever it was it made a welcome change -the wind blowing was cool rather than feeling as if it had come straight from a furnace and we slept better than for a long time.
The next morning the heat was back and we were up early to find we were surrounded by locals -being the weekend here they'd come to hang out at the viewpoint. They told us we'd not see any turtles here (apparently "Turtle Beach" never has any??) but we will see plenty at Masirah Island where we head next so we didn't feel too bothered.
On we headed through desert roads -there were a few warning signs about falling asleep at the wheel. I can well see how that might happen - the desert roads are very same-same. The monotony was only broken by the odd camel and some of the interesting vehicles passing -like the boat hanging out the back of the cruiser -they don't need trailers here! It was a welcome diversion when we saw 2 totally amazing windsurfers zipping around a lake - must be ideal conditions for the sport here and they were very good, and a few cars pulled over to watch them for a while.
Driving down the road we only had to look for one turn off -to Shanas the small ferry terminal which provides ferries to Masirah - and we kept a good look out for it. Annoyingly when we stopped for petrol the friendly Bangladeshi pump attendant -told us we'd over shot the turning by 40 km. Bloody annoying on a drive this hot and dull!
Anyway back we went to find that the sign for the turn off was missing, and you didn't get a sign telling you you were heading to Shana until you were almost there and it was pretty redundant! It was just a small track and we'd passed it thinking it was just a turn off to a farm. So, we got to the ferry terminal too late to cross that night, though the ferry captain kindly said he would take us across out of hours for 150 OMR -just under $400 Aus! We decided to hang on to the next day and pay the more usual 10 OMR!
Shana was a real one horse town -we ate at the only (Indian run) restaurant (fish and rice) and camped at the only petrol station …tucking ourselves behind a wall so we and particularly our shower tent didn't get blown away in the strong winds.
Next morning we overslept waking up at 6am the time we'd been told the ferry left. Thankfully we were only 5 minutes away so we didn't miss it..with all the faffing around getting loaded we didn't sail until 6.30am anyway. The whole ferry was choc a block with land cruisers -very much the vehicle of choice for the fishermen - so our car hopefully felt at home!
Anyway we arrived after 15kms and 1.5 hours at Hilaf -the main town in Masirah which isn't really saying a lot! To be fair whilst a ghost town during the day -particularly from 12-4pm when it shuts down completely - at night it does have a certain buzz as all the fishermen appear to eat.
There aren't a lot of ladies here - or you don't see them -and when you do they fully cover -usually wearing abaayas and covering their faces -so I guess it is more traditional here. We went to check our email at the only hotel in Hilaf -the Masirah Hotel -and the Indian manager very kindly let us do so for free as long as we mentioned his hotel here -the only real hotel in Hilaf itself, with very friendly staff.
Off we drove to explore Masirah -which can be done in a day as it measures about 150 km around in total. It really is a great spot -very peaceful and an absolute dream for camping - you can just pull up anywhere and grab yourself a deserted beach.
We met a group of Europeans here via Dubai who were keen windsurfers -its very big here having near perfect conditions - presumably the guys we watched on the way down were heading here.
Masirah doesn't have a fort which is unusual in Oman. Apparently there is a story behind this - it is a punishment for the less than Arabian hospitality they showed to a British ship that was wrecked off the coat here in 1904. Apparently when the survivors struggled ashore they were promptly massacred ..and supposedly some of them were eaten! The Sultan ordered destruction of all the buildings on the island as a punishment. There is a small monument to the unfortunate sailors around but we couldn't find it -later discovering that it was within the section of the island controlled by the military which is off limits. We almost drove into this on one occasion - before we saw the warning signs. Not a great camp spot!
The only other site the LP mentions is the 300 year old grave sites of some early native settlers -which they describe as "surprisingly elaborate" we think we found them from the location description but there was nothing there but a pile of rock. Maybe they'd eroded away recently!
There was once a small museum here but we found it had been moved into the foyer of the island's only posh resort the Masirah Resort -which was very flash and 5 star, with a very nice Goan manager. He was happy for us to wander around the turtle information, and have a look at the shell displays. The island is world renowned for gorgeous shells and you can pick gorgeous looking shells up anywhere just causally beach combing, though there are some varieties that are especially important as this is the only place that they are found in the world.
Anyway after this we'd exhausted the island's manmade attractions so we concentrated on the natural beauty of the island. That night after dinner in Hilf we headed out to the east coast and went to look for turtles. This time we were in luck -in fact we were inundated - this is the largest logger head turtle nesting site in the world (as well as having 3 other species present) and they were everywhere. Each night we were there we went for a short walk with our torches after dark and very quickly found them.
It really was quite special watching them lumber up the beach lay their eggs and lumber back -though the whole process seems to take forever so we saw bits and pieces of several rather than watch one all the way through after the first couple of times. It was really special to be able to witness this is such natural surroundings -apart from one time when we met a local man with some friends who were visiting from Muscat we were the only people there. Every morning the whole beach was criss crossed with hundreds of turtle tracks.For more information about turtles and other animals here in Oman see the excellent Government environmental website: http://www.eso.org.om
So -for a few days we pottered around the beaches and swam by day and turtle watched by night. It really is a gorgeously restful spot perfect for a holiday - if you're a nature/camping type that is -not so much going for a keen night clubber!
After a few days of this we sadly bid goodbye to Masirah and headed back to the ferry. On the way we stopped to full up our water tank. The water factory didn't have a tap that would fit our outlet so a good Samaritan let us use the tap at his house. We got to say hello to his friendly camel.
On the ferry back we also had a truck load of camels as neighbours. Apparently Omani camels being slight and fast are very much rated on the camel circuit and the choice specimens we saw being transported had been bought by a Sheik from Abu Dhabi and were on their way to be trained to be racing camels.
So once again we hit Shana and headed on through the desert. We were now very much travelling without any input from our guidebook.. this whole region doesn't feature in the LP. Oman doesn't have a huge infrastructure for tourism yet and many of the places we've enjoyed staying at have no hotels -but it is really good for camping, and has so much natural beauty that the untapped potential for tourism here is huge.
Unfortunately we'd not headed far when we got a flat tyre. As we hadn't had much warning we were in an awkward position to get our little jack under it. The original jack which was as old as the car (28 years) finally gave up the ghost on the trip and we replaced it with an Indian one which is pretty useless. Anyway we managed to find someone to lend us a jack and got it changed and the old one mended but all in all the whole episode ate up much of the day -and it was dark as we headed the 14km out to the coast to Raz Markaz a small fishing town which we decided would do as our camp spot.
We couldn't really see much when we pitched up and being really tired we very quickly showered and went to bed. Next morning the gorgeous little bay surrounded by limestone cliffs thus came as a real surprise.
The other big surprise was that we must have fallen asleep surrounded by fishing boats as the marks where there'd all gone out to sea were everywhere but we'd heard nothing and other than the odd truck full of waving fishermen (Keralan) the whole area was deserted. They must have been the quietest fishing men on the planet -usually they are so noisy of a morning there's no way you can sleep through it!
Had you the supplies you could really hang here a week -but we just went for a swim and headed on our way. So …back to the highway and on. The main road heads a bit inland so you don't get to see the coastline making it all less interesting. Some people obviously have their own way of relieving the monotony though and we noticed a few times that whole sections of the road were marked with tyre tracks and there were even shreds of tyre rubber lining the road as evidence of these burn out sessions!
There's not much in the way of facilities here, and we were a bit concerned that we needed to change money before getting fuel. We stopped at a little out of the way bank - all on its own in the desert - and the manager gave us tea and agreed to change our USD for OMR out of his own pocket to help us out. He had no idea what the rate was so I told him the last rate we'd got and he agreed to that. Very kind.
After a day of a sandscape broken up only by salt flats, sand storms and the odd camel we were glad to reach the turnoff (40km) for Ash Shuwaymiyyah which we'd been recommended by our helpful bank manager to head to that night. As we headed out we hit a great viewpoint over a canyon and shortly after a sign warning us of a VERY steep downward hill approaching - which we went down tentatively worrying all the way down that we'd have to get back up!
Shuwaymiyyah is a little fishing town, the guy in the bank had said it was "good for tourist" but I'm not sure where they'd put them - there weren't any hotels at all -just one "Home" which seemed to have cornered the market in Bengali fishermen who were working here. We went down to the fish markets and chatted to one who told us he made 200 OMR (approx. $525 Aus.) a month -which seems pretty low for 12 hour days out on the ocean -but he seemed pleased -I guess it's better than he'd get in India.
On the other hand this is very much "oil country" and there are a few foreigners -mainly Europeans- who earn salaries in excess of 5,000 OMR (over $13,000 Aus.) a month ..and it's all tax free! Wealth is relative.
We were lucky to meet 2 nice Omani guys who were working in the oil fields nearby and had come in to buy fish and they took us on a desert drive to see a really nice wadi with a waterhole which they'd found.
Really great to have this local knowledge as we'd never have stumbled on it. The landscape around here is so beautiful -really dramatic with the deep canyons and the vivid patches of green vegetation. It's like nowhere I've seen before.
We had dinner in "town" (one strip of shops and fish factories) a really nice local fish called Shilei a bit like a red snapper -and camped down on the beach. All the fishermen drive landcruisers -taking them right down onto the beach to push out the boats and haul up the catch -but all this sea air is very bad for them! Andrew is already a bit paranoid about washing any salt off the car's body due to the threat of rust but after seeing the cars in our picture he's worse than ever!
Next morning we headed off-approaching the hill with trepidation - I had a wooden block ready with instructions to be ready to jam it under the wheel in case the car couldn't hold and we started to slip back.
We went into 4WD and took it slow and steady and thankfully made it up the hill in one go - whew! The engine did get a bit hot, so we let the car stop for a rest at the top and took some pictures back over the wadi.
We hit the highway and drove on - the winds were up and pretty ferocious they were too ..my headscarf was whipped off my head out of the window and away before I could do anything to stop it. I was really annoyed as it was a favourite and a gift -we drove back to look but it was long gone. This has nearly happened a few times but I've always caught it in time - we do have ac in the cab, but to avoid heating the engine we tend to save it for polluted towns and generally travel with the windows down, obviously a bit risky in these high wind areas.
Talking of risky Andrew spotted a woven mat which looked abandoned -and thinking it would be a useful thing to have on board pulled over to have a look. On picking it up for a good shake he found that it was already occupied ..by a large family of angry scorpions! He was back in the car pretty quickly.
The rest of the drive was thankfully uneventful -the same old desert landscape, camels, sand and a horizon of oil wells -busy pumping up the "black gold."
Finally by the early evening of Thursday 31 May we arrived at our next destination Oman's second City of Salalah.