Salalah & around Thursday 31st May to Sunday 24th June 2012
Our initial impression was that Salalah had a very different feeling to the north it reminded us of Kerala in south India -very lush and green, with banana plantations and coconuts. This impression was quickly reinforced by the fact that every other person seemed to be from Kerala!
We headed to the seafront where there was a very full on game of soccer happening on the beach and just hung out and watched for a while.As mentioned before this whole coast had a history of trade with Africa and the people in this region were very African in appearance, many of them descended from people originally brought here as slaves.
Salalah has a different climate to the rest of the region -and we had actually got there a month or so too early as people kept telling us, as this is when the Khareef kicks in. The Khareef is a wet season unique to this region in Oman. When most of the gulf countries are sweltering under temperatures which soar over 50 degrees -this region has gentle misty rain turning the desert landscape to a vivid shade of green. The tourists flood in and room prices triple-not our problem thankfully! We'd really quite like to see it but we'll have to see how we go time wise -though it's tempting to linger in the cooler climes.
It's pleasant here in the evening though it still climbs to over 30 by mid-day. The waves become very rough through this period and swimming is banned as the undercurrents are very strong and people drown every year - though Andrew reckoned it had very real potential as a surf spot!
The first couple of nights we camped down the far end of the beach - which was reasonably cool….though it faced directly onto the nearby port which could sometimes smell a bit. All was well though -the only problem we had was being woken up by the police at 2 am the first night! They checked our passports, said sorry for disturbing us and left us alone -but of course after that it was nigh on impossible to get back to sleep, the nights still being a bit sticky.
Thus, we were very lucky to meet Mr. Awdah Saied El - Sadooni a day or so later. Awdah was interested in our trip and came over to interview us for a local magazine he has links with and to take pictures of us and our car. He also arranged for us to go to the local Cultural Centre and and meet the Minister of Tourism. The cultural centre has some really good old photographs on display taken by a British Explorer Wilfred Thesiger in the 1940s and 50s. This whole region has changed so much in a relatively short time that the pictures seemed from a different world and made fascinating viewing. We googled him and Wilfred seems to have lead an amazing life- the son of a Baron he was a professional explorer, without the boring financial considerations which hold the rest of us back!
Awdah and the minister felt a bit sorry for us car camping in the heat so they made a few calls and arranged us some free accommodation for the time we spend in Salalah. Driving along the beach road we'd noticed the soccer stadium..well we're now living at it! We have a comfortable ac room within a complex with a huge TV room and communal kitchen which presumably is used by visiting athletes -though we're rattling around in it alone. We've had very good sleep since being here, done all our washing and thoroughly relaxed and we're really grateful to Awdah for arranging it.
He's also very kindly provided us with a key for his beach villa in Rakhyut a little town renowned for its gorgeous beaches just 130km down the road, which will now be our next stop.
In the meantime we've had a good relaxing time in Salalah. We've got back into self-catering since we left Asia behind and so we're often to be found picnicking beneath the palm trees. We actually drew an amicable crowd of over 20 the other day standing 10 feet away and watching as we ate our tuna sarnies. We had a bet, and yes, when we asked they were Bangladeshis! Just like the good old days!
Though we're not eating out we did venture up to the local watering hole of choice - the Oasis - which felt like a proper pub with a great cliff top location. Beers here are 2 OMR or just over $5 Aus. each -way cheaper than the competition though still not really part of our budget, sadly depleted as it is! The club is run by a friendly South African guy and serves what looks like great food too.
We made a point of visiting Salalah's most ancient site Al-Baleed and the next door Land of Frankincense Museum. Frankincense comes from the Dhofar region we are now in and its fragrant smoke is always burning in specially crafted holders. It is cut from the bark of trees -we saw one example at the museum but hopefully will see a lot more of the trees when we travel further afield. There are various types of Frankincense, graded from the cheapest which is just suitable for burning to the most pricey which can be eaten and is used as a medicine, for chest and throat problems I think. I tried some -it tastes awful, like smoky clay so I think we'll stick to the burning variety!
The museum was really well done with lots of information about the growth of the region. Al Baleed is what remains of what was the thriving port city of Zafar. Dating from the 12th century the port was once a thriving metropolis from which frankincense was shipped to India in exchange for spices. The remains are well signed with a walkway through them, and consist of several mosques of varying size, the city walls and some houses belonging to prosperous merchants. They look very atmospheric when lit up every night.
The town having been an important port there was an interesting display around its naval history, and some beautifully restored examples of traditional boats from all over Oman. There was also a very heavy looking stone anchor found locally which was over 1,600 years old.
The Al-Husn Souq an old market was a really interesting place to wander and look at the local perfumed oil, scarves, and of course frankincense. The ornate silver Khanjar silver swords are also on display, they're beautifully handcrafted in silver but we're not really in the market to get any more souvenirs before one of us gets a job! Our job hunting in Oman came to naught incidentally. People were very nice and approachable but (due mainly to Omanization) it is very difficult for them to hire outsiders. We'll have to give it a last push in UAE and limp on towards the UK if no joy.
Anyway, as well as the Souq we caught an informal market on the streets which is apparently on most days. Run and attended by men only, the goods on display were ones which were needed to survive in the desert, mainly guns knives & water carriers. Our car got a lot of attention, with one guy wanting to swop his near new landcruiser for it. I think he actually might have been serious too!
It being that time again, we once more got the car's oil change done. Thanks to all the team at Mobil Oil's distributor here Oman Mechanical Services Co. and particularly Mr. Sunil the marketing manager at their Muscat office for kindly providing the oil. See their site: www.omsc.co.om Thanks also go to the team at Toyota, who did the oil change for us, and helped us with some minor maintenance jobs. Special thanks to salesmen Rajiv and Shiva from India (Goa, and Pondy respectively) who also took us out for a great lunch -thanks guys
So, we were all set to finally leave Salalah and head towards Rakhyut when we got a phone call from Gumarsha our friend from the emirates to inform us she was arriving in Salalah the next day..so we waited. Next day Gumarsha arrived with her entourage in 2 cars. With her were her husband a friend of hers Miriam and 8 servants most of whom we'd met before so we've really enjoyed catching up with them. Actually a bit of a funny story -when we first came to Salalah we went into an upmarket apartment complex Samharam Tourist Village -next to the beach we were camping at, and asked them if we could sit in their lobby and have a tea/coffee while we used the Wi-Fi. The receptionist said that was fine, and so we did so a few times, until a couple of days back when the smarmy manager said there was a new policy and Wi-Fi was only now for guests, which was a bit unfriendly.
Anyway Gumarsha wasn't happy with the villa she initially booked (no garden) and she asked us where we recommended and we took her there -where she has now taken 2 adjoining villas (a ladies' and a mens' one) which made Mr. Swarmy squirm a bit when he saw us! So..we now get to use his Wi-Fi after all, as we are now sort of guests -so yah boo sucks to him!
Actually Gumarsha had organized a room for us and was very insistent we stay with her for the week but we are all sorted in our stadium. It's funny …some times after weeks of car camping we'd really give anything for one night in a room just to regroup ..and here we are now with 3 potential choices on offer. It just shows the truth about the incredible nature of Arab hospitality ..it's just a shame we can't put one on ice for leaner times!
We spent a great few days with Gumarsha and party. We drove out to the mountains and saw where the green hills will be best viewed in a few weeks when the khareef kicks in, though for now they remain brown and dusty! We also went to "little Kerala" a strip of shops manned by Keralans selling coconuts, bananas & papaya, where Gumarsha bought several banana trees to plant at her gardens in Al-Ain and Abu Dhabi.
I went swimming early each morning with the ladies at the beach out the front of the villas, the same one where we'd camped and swam before. On the last day before they left we had just finished swimming, staying for safety within the shallow white water areas, when we spotted we weren't alone. Just where we'd been swimming there was a huge shark -at least 2 metres long -right in the shallow white water where I always thought they wouldn't go!! No more swimming there!
On Tuesday 12th June Gumarsha et al all left, heading back to the UAE from where they head on to Mecca in Saudi Arabia where they'll be spending the month of Ramadan. It was really good to see them all again.
Not quite sure how but what with updating the website, job applications (still an ongoing backdrop) and spending time with Gumarsha and party as at Wednesday 13th June we're still in Salalah. Tomorrow -we're REALLY about to head off to explore the area farther afield, first stop being our friend Awdah's beachside apartment in Rakhyut.
West of Salalah to Mughsail, Shaat, Rakhyut & Sarfait Update: Wednesday 13th - Sunday 24th June 2012
Prior to leaving Salalah to take the road to the west we had -as ever- to do a bit more car maintenance. Andrew had noticed that the radiator was leaking and that the sump plug - a cheapo plastic one we'd bought in the absence of anything better - needed replacing. He went to Easco Radiators where the owner Mr. Muneer originally from Kerala (the entire work force of Salalah seems to be Keralan!) very kindly let Andrew use his premises to remove the radiator and weld in a new metal plug for no charge. Thanks to all at Easco we really appreciate it.
Having got the car up and running on the way out of town we stopped at the Mausoleum of Nabi Umran. We'd never heard of Nabi, and he didn't make it into our guidebook but as we kept seeing the signs we pulled over for a closer look. There were no signs in English but we gathered he was a prophet and also a giant being over 40 feet judging by his tomb. Having a look later on the internet we found out that he was supposedly the father of Mariam (Mary) and thus Jesus's grandfather. Jesus is also an important prophet in the Muslim faith and the site is visited by a great many pilgrims who come to pray over the tomb.
After that we finally left Salalah and hit the coastal road to the east heading the 30 odd kms to Mughsail. On the way we stopped for our lunch picnic right next to a water hole where a herd of camels were meandering around which was nice. This is very much camel country and they are everywhere- which is a bit of a worry as the dusk sets in. We've seen the wreckages of a few camel related accidents on the road and hitting one would be pretty awful on a lot of levels!
The road sweeps along Mughsail bay ending at a range of cliffs which stretch towards the border with neighbourng Yemen. Just before the cliffs start there is a rock pavement with numerous potholes which act as blow holes funneling the water through as the waves crash on the rocks.
There was a little coffee shop there selling lackluster Nescafe (it's surprisingly hard to get good coffee in this region -thank God for Café de Paris on Salalah beach!) and a picnic area with shaded seating and teams of Indian workers hard at it getting it all looking shipshape before the khareef tourists arrive en masse. They'd blocked off some of the blow holes to increase the power of others so there was a reasonable display -though apparently it gets way stronger come the high seas of the khareef.
Just after this we went through an army checkpoint -there are a few on the road to the border with troubled Yemen. As ever the army guys were a bit freaked out by us-but after taking our passport details they were happy to let us drive on. They were pretty amazed that the steering wheel is on the "wrong" side. Actually we get a lot of reactions re: that. I guess people who haven't travelled out of the Gulf are quite unaccustomed to the fact that left hand drive vehicles aren't the norm. They often stare at our steering arrangements with what looks like utter astonishment.
We drove on, along the cliffs - it started to get cooler and more misty as we got higher. A few kms along we saw the turning off to Shaat - and particularly the "Sea overlooking site" there. We might just have swept past Shaat but a guy we'd met in our regular Wi-Fi and coffee shop, the aforementioned Cafe de Paris, had said it was worth a look for the views.
I think it might just have been "discovered" as a tourist point as no one we mentioned it to afterwards seemed to have heard of it. There was a concrete area for parking and half a dozen shaded areas for picnicking. When we got there -about 4pm - there were no views of any sort to be had -in fact it was nigh on impossible to see your hand infront of your face the fog was that thick!
This is the weird thing about the khareef time -whilst the misty air which rolls in does make everything cool and fresh and green it's not that great for visibility and for a lot of the time the amazing views end up totally shrouded in mist!
Never mind it was a novelty to sit in the cool damp air and we spoke to a lot of fellow travelers from Karachi (via Dubai) and Saudi who'd all come on the annual migration to escape the worst of the gulf heat. That night we drove just down the road to the one (Pakistani run) restaurant in the area where a big screen had been set up to watch the European Cup. Soccer is really big here, replacing the passion with which cricket is celebrated on the Asian sub-continent. France and Croatia were playing and we watched until half time when the score was an uninspiring 0 0. We later found that the final score had been 3, 2 to France -so maybe we should have stayed! It was wonderful to sleep in the cooler air after the last few hot sticky nights and I even dug out my sleeping bag ….bliss! The next day we were so pleased we'd made the effort to sleep there as we caught the brief interlude when the fog rolled back and we had an incredible view down to the ocean below. The limestone cliffs rise 1.3km about the ocean -according to locals this is the highest cliff rising from the ocean anywhere in the world. Not sure if that's true or not but it was certainly an impressive vista down to the ocean below.
We drove down to the nearby sink hole which was full of birdlife -could have done with some binoculars. Down on the cliffs at another nearby viewpoint where we had our breakfast picnic we were a bit worried to hear gun shots zipping around us. We peered over the cliff and saw a group of men (who at the average age of 60 odd were definitely old enough to know better!) who were taking pot shots at passing birds. It's a wonder they didn't hit us! This is illegal here (shooting birds I mean -but presumably Aussie tourists as well) as the Sultan has strong views about protecting wildlife -very black marks.
We were told this was probably one of the final times before the khareef begins in earnest and the mist rolls in that the visibility here would be that good so we felt that for once we'd timed it right. Whilst not green yet you can see the new shoots coming through in the plants which gives everything spring- like feel.
Our next destination was the village of Rakhyut, but as there was reputed to be a very steep drive down (and thus back up) there we decided to do our exploring first and then head there to stay put for a couple of days r & r. The roads are still good out here though the meandering camels/donkeys and steep hills are a bit of a challenge. Next plan was to drive all the way out to the Yemeni border. Everyone we meet is united in the view that going to Yemen is a really bad idea with the current political issues - sadly as it's supposed to be beautiful .
It being Friday the roads were pretty quiet and after we passed through the nearby police check point we had the road more or less to ourselves for the 80 km odd to the border. The new road being put in was an amazing feat of engineering zig sagging up and down the cliffs which lead to Yemen. The vegetation here was different -lots of green succulents on the limestone cliffs and frankincense trees in patchs. It was really very striking and a great drive.
We made it to the border where we went and said hello to the border guards. As we'd extended our visa the one time permissible from within Oman we were interested to know if we could do a visa run into neighbouring Yemen just to get another visa. Yes we could we were told, but it would cost $60 USD each (ouch) as well as the visa fee back into Oman so we probably won't bother -just good to know all our options!
We drove the loop road back towards the Rakhyut turn off, past the small coastal town of Dalkut -all very scenic. There are camels everywhere here, and we pulled over to see one that was being treated by 2 struggling boys. They eventually managed to remove a four inch long parasite that had wedged itself within the poor thing's mouth.
It was a very scenic drive the rolling hills still dry and brown but showing lots of patches where green foliage was starting to come through. We completed the loop road around and got back to the main road to reach the 26km turn off to Rakhyut just as dusk was falling. We'd been told right -it was very steep! Up and down several times -ending in a very steep down - but we made it. Our friend Awdah who'd kindly lent us his villa to use had printed us off a Google Earth map to find the villa -and there it was slap bang on the beach front -our home for the next couple of days. Thanks so much Awdah we really appreciated it.
Rakhyut was a small quiet fishing village, though no one seemed to be doing much fishing at present -it's too dangerous during the khareef's high seas. We noticed a lot of damage to the buildings particularly on the sea front -apparently there was a severe flood a couple of years ago.
Rakhyut is a quiet little place, with a new hospital, just a couple of small shops & restaurants and the obligatory screen to watch the football just near the beachfront. Everyone was really friendly and interested in us and our journey and we spent a very pleasant couple of days there, just relaxing and going for a couple of long walks along the spectacular coastline. Really relaxing spot.
We met a local guy Ibraham who offered to be our guide for an afternoon and took us out and about the local area. We visited a local cave we'd never have found alone, and drove up onto the higher areas (easier in his car than ours!) where we went for afternoon tea, cooked on our own fire. The temperature drops and the mist roles in after driving to a higher elevation for just 10 minutes- very dramatic. It's amazing to think this whole area will soon be a sea of emerald greenery.
On the way back Ibraham took us to visit his uncle's camel farm and we got to witness the camels being milked. We were given a bottle of fresh camel milk, which was really nice and quite sweet. We had the remainder over our cornflakes the next morning. Thanks to Ibraham and his cousin for taking us out and about and showing us the sights of Rakhyut.
Late the next afternoon we left Rakhyut -climbing the steep road out very slowly and steadily -avoiding the camels which came looming out of the mist.
We camped once more at the viewpoint at Shaat. This time the evening white-out didn't let up one bit in the morning and there was no view whatsoever to be had, so we felt lucky we'd caught the view the previous time. It was actually quite chilly and damp that evening so we were glad of the warmth of the fire we built to cook (warm through) the pasta we'd brought for tea - the night before's leftovers.
On the way back to Salalah next day we pulled over when we saw a busy camel fair. Camels are big business here.
These camels were milkers, and I was told a good milker would cost around 6,000 OMR or $15,500 Aus. Racing camels like race horses of course are even more valuable and can fetch huge sums.
One of the guys we met told us that our Aussie camels -which run wild in the desert - are actually descended from Omani camels. He knows this as his great great grandfather actually sold and transported camels directly to Australia for use by the early explorers. They are apparently a very good stock and are frequently sold to Saudi now for use as racing camels. There was a large pail of camel milk which was free to all - but we'd already had our quota that morning, so we gave it a miss. We headed on without making a purchase, as sadly we couldn't buy a camel, though I'm sure they'd make a good pet.
Once more we reached Salalah and our little "home from home" at the stadium where we spent a couple of days "re-grouping" before heading off again. The khareef is coming ever nearer - any day now we keep being told!- and you can see the lights and signs of festivities -fairground rides etc - going up everywhere. The roads are far busier too -as the rest of the gulf descends on Salalah.
In Oman we constantly meet very hospitable people and the kindness we are shown is often quite staggering. In our local coffee place for example more often than not our bill is paid without our knowledge by well-wishers who have come to ask about our journey. Incredible! One hospitable man who deserves a mention is Mohamed, whom we met along with his wife Amel and their daughter Sharzad. They very kindly treated us to a local specialty for a beach side breakfast - flat bread with egg and honey very like roti Chennai we had in Malaysia -delicious! Thanks guys -and good luck with your new arrival -due any day now.
Before leaving Salalah again we took a short trip out to see another local attraction Job's tomb, a site of real religious importance to Muslims as well as Christians. On the day we visited there were quite a few pilgrims there. Job was a prophet who was tested to his limit (by the devil) and inflicted with various nasties - death, plague, famine …ulcerous boils. Despite all this he never turned against God thus earning his status as a prophet. Supposedly (looking at the tomb) he was also quite incredibly tall - this seems to be a recurring theme with prophets in these parts!
That night we stopped for dinner at some BBQ stands on the roadside which we'd passed on the way up to the tomb.
This proved to be very interesting as most of the stands were run by Yemenis, who come with their pots & pans and herds of goats to set up shop during the busy khareef season. Of course the goats only have to walk one way!
The food was BBQ cooked in a particular Yemeni way, on top of layers of rocks, which allow the fat to drain off the meat, and give it a smoky flavour. A change from the usual Lulu's takeaway which we seem to live off these days!
It was good to experience a bit of Yemeni cuisine as sadly the way things are it looks like that (and our trip to the border above) are the nearest we'll get to a Yemeni experience. Maybe one day…..
Next morning (Monday 25th June) will be a very important day - Happy Birthday Andrew! We're not yet sure how we plan to celebrate - but pretty soon we'll finally leave Salalah again and head off to explore the east coast, first stop the heritage site of Khor Rouri.