East of Salalah to Khor Rouri, Wadi Dharbat, Mirbat & Hasik, Jebel Shams, Nizwa & finally Dubai! Sunday 24th June to Wednesday 19th September 2012
Writing this just over a month on from our last update so much has changed particularly the fact we've lost the car -which is a bit of a major! I've dragged my heels a bit on doing this last update as for a while it just felt too hard to write it. Anyway - life moves on and all that ….to continue from where we last left off…
The 25th June dawned bright and sunny as ever out here ..HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANDREW! We had a quiet day in our favourite spot offering free Wi-Fi and really good coffee Café de Paris and Skyping friends and family. Andrew actually got an unexpected birthday gift when a man we'd spoken to many times in the Café presented him with a Quran. He didn't know it was his birthday obviously -just a coincidence. This is a big honour so we were very flattered -though being in both Arabic and English and with a detailed explanation of each section it was HUGE and a bit of a weight to lug about! That night we went to the Oasis Club out at the port for steaks and (big treat) a bottle of red wine …yay!
Next day finally we were off heading east towards our first stop the historical site of Khor Rouri (KR). We got there a bit late and it was about to close so we headed to the nearby Wadi Dharbat to camp. This is a very scenic picnic spot -particularly when the Khareef is well underway -when the pastures turn a beautiful luminous (though muddy) green and the water falls gush. We'd come too early for all this -but it was still very beautiful a scenic pasture with grazing cows, and Pakistani men selling paddle boat trips and candy floss stuck out in the sun all day long poor beggars!
The drive out there was very beautiful with views over the caves and mountains which were occupied by the Sultan's army (and the British SAS) during the 1970 insurgency. Actually as an aside you have to really admire what the present Sultan has achieved in this country since 1970. Then there was virtually no infrastructure only one hospital and few schools. Now the facilities are all very impressive -what's particularly good is it seems to have filtered everywhere the poorer members of society in the remote rural areas get facilities too, not just a wealthy elite. The "good life" seems to have spread throughout society here far better than anywhere on the Asia subcontinent. Good job!
The beautiful clean looking water at Wadi Dharbat would be tempting for a paddle were it not for all the warning signs about a snail like parasite -the Bil Haraziasis - we googled this and it sounded very alarming -apparently it leads to a total shut down of all your internal organs -quite enough to keep us out of the water! We keep being told everywhere we go that we're here too early - and no doubt it would be way greener in a few weeks - but it'd also be very crowded, drizzling with rain (albeit warm rain)and a virtual mudslide-so on the whole we're quite happy to have it as it is! By early evening the other visitors all left and the candy floss salesmen shut up shop and we had the place to ourselves -and a few cows. We parked up under a tree and had dinner (a precooked curry bought earlier at Lulu's Hypermarket) a really great camp spot, though noisy - bloody cows!
Next morning we were objects of curiosity for other visitors who come here from all over the Gulf trying to escape the ever soaring temperatures there. There was a large group from Muscat who were having a bit of a party, singing dancing the works! We also met people from Kuwait, Bahrain and a very gregarious group of Saudi men who even offered us a 6 pack of Heineken! Sadly we were a bit too taken back to accept. An opportunity missed -we regretted it later!
So we packed up and headed back to KR where we successfully got in this time - at a cost of just 2 OMR ($5 Aus.) for us and the car. KR is a historical site dating from the same time as the ancient site of Al-Baleed in Salalah. They'd obviously put a lot of effort into getting the site "tourist ready" it had path ways around the ruins and a fairly good museum. There were about 10 local guys lounging around saying they were guides but when we asked them questions about the site none of them had a clue -bit of training need! Anyway what we did work out was that these ruins perched overlooking a pretty bay were once (2,000 years ago) the site of a bustling port one of the biggest/busiest in the world from which frankincense was exported all over the world.
Very interesting to Andrew was the boat building work there. We'd been given a heads up by the guy at Al-Baleed that this was the site where traditional boat building was carried out to rebuild the old wooden boats that historically came from here. He'd also told us to get in touch with Tom an American Marine Archeologist in charge of the project, as he thought he might well need to recruit boat builders.
Tom was away in Australia but we met Eric his number 2. Not surprisingly this wasn't the case -other than Tom & Eric the whole team of boat builders were from Kerala - way cheaper than hiring Westerners or Omanis - but it was really interesting to meet Eric and have a look around. Eric hails from Hawaii but spent much of his childhood sailing around the world with his family so we swopped travellers' tales for a while. It was really interesting to have a look around the boat - which was a perfect re-creation of the original -right down to misspellings in the carving on the front!
We left a few minutes too late as evening prayers had just kicked off -so we had to wait a few minutes whilst the gate men went through their routine before we could leave. Like many of the countries we've visited religion is far more prevalent here than at home, and the whole day is punctuated by the 5 lots of prayers which stop everything.
We headed on east towards the town of Mirbat. Now - particularly in the blazing heat- it was deserted but in the 1970s it it saw a lot of action being the scene of a major battle between the Sultans's Forces (backed up by the British SAS) and the local insurgency. Mirbat on the whole looks like it's seen better days
There are some lovely old merchants' houses, though they are falling into rack and ruin and a battered old fort- and a castle in the middle of the town. This later had been renovated but it wasn't open when we visited. The coast along here is limestone based -which gives it its stunning white and blue colouring.
Just out of town was the Bin Ali Tomb a white onion shaped tomb set picturesquely on the edge of town surrounded by grave stones. Same format as a few we've been to -the great man inside his grave covered with a green cloth. There were a few worshippers there when we were -no information in English -but we managed to piece together that he had been a "very good man." Quite a nice resting place.
We decided not to stay the night in Mirbat but to begin heading on towards the small settlement of Hasik the end of the road here. On the trip a few weeks ago we visited Shawaymiyyah which is 50km further on from Hasik up the coast - though you have to go back to the main road and a long way round as the road hasn't joined up yet -though it should do so in the next 2 years or so when the road will be completed. Anyway we went as far as we could south of Shawaymiyyah and now plan to do the same north of Hasik. That night we drove a few kms down the road from Mirbat and camped at a little beach near a small town called Sadah -lovely and peaceful -though we did get an early morning call from 2 Indian guys in a huge water truck come to water the palm trees!
After breakfast we drove on. There is really nothing particular to see in terms of tourist attractions in this area but maybe that's the whole attraction. It really was very beautiful -with the cliffs on one side and the wild sea alive with cormorants on the other.
Truly spectacular views all the way and barely another car in sight. Andrew is renowned for having sharp eyes and he spotted something just off the coast. We pulled over and it was a truly incredible sight -literally hundreds of turtles of all sizes paddling just near the edge of the shoreline - presumably fishing. You really couldn't catch it by camera but it was a truly awesome spectacle -we sat and watched for ages.
At the "end of the road" just before we hit the workmen working away on the road (some of them sheltering from the heat in the little drainage holes we still think of as our picnic spots) was a beautiful waterfall overhanging the limestone cliffs.
We hung out camping in this area for a few days just chilling out on the beach -collecting shells and relaxing - you have to bring your own (tent) accommodation and all your food -there's no infrastructure out here .
It's very relaxing just watching the wildlife especially camels and feral donkeys. Much of the land around here is happily part of a protected environmental zone.
Just near where we saw all the turtles there was a work team making a concrete break wall on the way to building a port in this area, and we hoped this wouldn't mess up their environment too badly.
After a couple of days we drove back through the mountainous area on the edge of Jebel Samhan. There is some incredible bird life here and we stopped a few times to take pictures -always easier said than done -the birds are very elusive!
We also saw numerous chameleons - scuttling about the rocks changing colour to blend in, and the equally hard to spot locusts. These destroy the long awaited greenery so all in all, despite the interest it generates it's only there for a short couple of months. There is one of those magnetic areas here - where you feel you are accelerating uphill -all an optical illusion. We took a picture from above -though we didn't bother experiencing the illusion we've seen it all before!
We saw a lot of cars parked up on the hill and thinking it was a scenic view spot we went up to have a look.
There we found a big group of Omanis all men of various ages -the sexes seem to socialize separately here. They were hanging out, playing cards, smoking sheeshas and having a picnic. We sat and had tea with them -really welcoming people.
As ever they were interested in the vehicle and we took them down for a look around - it was only a few days later after our disaster that we knew that this had in fact been the last of many times on our trip that we were to do this :((((
That was all in the future though -and we drove back for our last night in Salalah. We camped down on the beach as our "Sports Centre" accommodation was now taken by some of the people arriving in a steady trickle to see the khareef. The temperature is definitely getting more reasonable now and especially with the sea breeze we had quite a comfortable night.
As we were eating our breakfast we had company when a herd of camels came past. One of them was actually quite tame and happy to be had fed our cereal and to get a neck scratch from Andrew -I was a bit wary of all the teeth!
We soon got inundated which was a bit alarming but their herder came and moved them on. Not often you get to share your cornflakes with a camel ! As an aside camels are ALWAYS itching themselves, we've noticed using sign posts to reach all those hard to get places!
There is apparently an Arabic curse which translates as ''may you be bitten by the fleas of 1,000 camels" which is starting to make a lot of sense!
So we spent our last day in Salalah at the Café de Paris and headed off early evening to begin the long drive back up north. Generally we don't drive at night but due to the intense heat, and the fact that the roads are very good here we decided to make an exception, so we rested up all day and started driving as dusk fell. It was foggy and cold to start with and I actually had to put a long sleeved t-shirt on for the first time in forever!
So on we drove through the night to arrive in the early hours of the morning at the pretty desolate Jid-dat al-Harasis Plains. Have to say this isn't exactly the most exciting driving we've done on the trip to date -as I said the roads are good …but it is so BORING just a long stretch of desert which goes on and on. We'd detoured here to see the famed Arabian Oryx -a large deer like white animal with big horns. Once almost extinct in the early 1960s one of the last pairs were caught and sent to the US for breeding and now there is a reservation out here. We were keen to see them in their natural habitat.
We got details about the reservation from the LP but it was somewhat out of date and when we later goggled it I saw that the sanctuary had had its UNESCO heritage sight status revoked to quote:
"The World Heritage Committee deleted the property because of Oman's decision to reduce the size of the protected area by 90%, in contravention of the Operational Guidelines of the Convention. This was seen by the Committee as destroying the outstanding universal value of the site which was inscribed in 1994.
In 1996, the population of the Arabian Oryx in the site was at 450 but it has since dwindled to 65 with only about four breeding pairs making its future viability uncertain. This decline is due to poaching and habitat degradation."
Maybe this is why it's so hard to find and also probably it's more geared up to people going on very organized trips from Muscat -rather than blow- ins like us just stopping by. There is nothing much in the way of signs to get there -but we stopped a few times at petrol stations and the Keralans running them were able to push us in the right direction!
We found the centre and had to wait an hour to go in which we spent sharing breakfast with the slightly strange caretaker type guy who lived in a trailer at the gate. When 9 am rolled around we were allowed to go and have a look at the herds of Oryx - not quite in the wild -they were up taking water in a large pen and then promptly wandered off when we arrived - but there seemed to be a reasonable number of them and they looked happy and healthy. Probably we could have done with a guide - there was no centre and no information - but they were nice looking animals and it was good to see them looking happy and healthy in what is their - albeit somewhat controlled - natural habitat.
By now it was too hot to even think about sleeping so we had to have a power drink and drive on, both feeling a bit jaded! As I said this stretch of road has got to qualify for the "most boring road trip in the world" stakes and the blazing overhead heat didn't help, neither did having a flat tyre!
We'd really noticed that -despite the roads being way better- we've had more flat tyres here in the Gulf than we did throughout Asia -it's the crazy heat. So - down the road we pulled over and decided to put our 2 new tyres on the car from where there'd been stored on the roof since Maxxis kindly gifted them to us. Had we known that they'd not be in use any more after 24 hours or so we'd have left them where they were….
Anyway we pulled over to a small garage run by Pakistani guys. In Oman to run a business as a foreigner you need an Omani partner -most of the the small businesses -restaurants, car workshops and the like - we see seem to be completely run by foreigners (mainly Turks, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis or Indians) with an invisible Omani partner presumably in the background - or just on the payroll! The small workshop we stopped at had a Bedouin lady as the Omani contingent and she was definitely very hands on! You don't really see many local women here - I mean obviously you see them usually in groups - but you rarely get to interact with them other than briefly in a "customer service" sort of way. Bedouin women seem to be a bit of an exception as they seem to be less sequestered and able to mingle more with foreigners which was nice.
Anyway the drive continued on its boring way until by early afternoon we arrived at Nizwa -an old city which was the former capital of Oman. It looked like a really nice town - and we remarked that it was a real shame that we only had time for a very quick look - little did we know that we'd end up staying in Nizwa for long enough to be heartily sick of it! However as at then we just stopped briefly to change some money and headed on towards the mountain range of Jebel Shams. We were really short of time before we had to leave Oman next week and we were due back in Muscat in a couple of days for our press conference with the ferry company and our ferry trip up to Musandam.
We did have a discussion as to whether to cut out going to Jebel Shams and just have a night at Nizwa have a quick look at its famous fort the next morning and then head straight to Muscat. We decided to press on both as we were really keen to have just a quick look at the mountains and partly as we'd been cooked on the road for 24 hours and the temperature was still up there so we thought a cool night in the hills would be very welcome. It was a decision which we came to regret in hindsight!
Anyway that night feeling a bit jaded we drove the 70km odd to Jebel Shams which was actually a bit farther than we'd expected as everyone uses Nizwa as a base for exploring this area we'd sort of thought it would be a bit nearer. Anyway we got there ok. We drove along the Wadi Ghul which lies beside the mountain -apparently this is an area of amazing views -though it was dark by this time so we didn't really get to appreciate them.
We began to climb but soon the road started to get very steep -and due to the fact we were both really tired as soon as we'd really started to climb (about 1km on from where the tarred road ended) we pulled over at the first large stopping point and both slept really well. Had we known it was the last time we'd ever sleep in our old car we may not have done so! L(((.
Next morning we woke to an amazing view and had showers and breakfast -again more last times" L(((- before driving on up the mountains. As we were still pretty tired -and by mid-morning it was pretty hot - we decided to just drive on a little bit and find a quiet (shady) corner to hang out in. We drove on stopping a few times to look at the view, and once to buy berries from some children. The phone rang at some point and it was the ferry company running the new ferry service from Muscat up to Musandum. They were confirming that they were happy to sponsor us for our ferry trip and were arranging the press coverage (they were using our trip to promote the new car ferry service) which we were really excited about. Then we stopped to get out the picnic …and 20 seconds later our trip, car & dreams were in tatters.
I really can't face writing about it all again - see the update on 3rd July 2012 on our site's front pages for all about the worst day of our lives. That night Andrew slept at the car to look after our stuff (he was visited during the night a few times by potential raider -who left in panic when he rose out of the wreckage!) and I accepted a very kind invitation made to us both by Hamood the owner of a nearby resort the Sunrise Hotel -www.sunriseresort-om.com.
Even in such dire circumstances I couldn't help but be knocked out by the somewhat eerie beauty of this whole area. We really would love to return - Insha'Allah in happier circumstances! We'd have to recommend the Sunrise Resort too lovely setting and vey kind people just think I was too shell shocked to thank them properly!
Next day with a huge tow truck we headed back to Nizwa where the car was taken to the police yards and officially "cancelled" i.e.) the damage (bad crack in the chassis) is so bad it cannot be rebuilt. There we met our saviour Ahmed and he took us to the cheapest hotel in the region (still a very hefty 25 OMR a night or $67 Aus. we negotiated them down to 15 and later 10 OMR but still a whack more than we're used to!) where we remained up to 2 weeks ago when we crossed back into UAE.
Seeing some of the other cars in the yard showed us how lucky we'd been - quite a few of the vehicles looked like no one would have got out alive. It's a bad area for accidents on the whole - very good roads and fast cars and people tend to travel at speed.
As I think I said Nizwa was a nice little town but we got a bit over it! We got into a routine where we spent mornings from 5 am -11am when it was already getting very hot -stripping off the cars' parts. Anything re-usable we kept to one side for the eventual rebuild. By the end the poor old car was a scrawny remnant of its former glory. It was really very sad painstakingly taking apart what we'd built all those years ago. RIP old car!
We really missed having a vehicle out here and (whilst of course there are exceptions) the taxi drivers here are pretty awful -often trying to charge us ludicrous amounts (i.e.) 10 OMR or $25 for a journey which should be $1 Aus.!) I guess we're usually insulated from all that! We usually hitch hiked to and from the car which was very successful and we got lifts with all sorts of friendly people from all over the Gulf. We then spent the afternoon sheltering from the heat and watching TV (amazing how compelling "Top Chef" becomes when we're stuck in this situation!) - interspersed with the odd trip into Nizwa.
Nizwa's highlights would have to be its beautifully restored fort and the Friday morning livestock and produce markets, which had a fantastic "olde worlde" feel, no doubt they've not changed in centuries. The locals are really friendly-which allegedly is a change as Wilfred Thesiger the British 19th century explorer was warned on pain of death not to go near the ferocious anti- Western people of this area back in the early 1900s. This is really hard to believe they are so charming now, gives hope for other hot spots of the world!
The Souq or market areas were really interesting - little stores selling locally made silverware and handicrafts, dates, Omani sweets ..firearms …you name it!
As well as Ahmed who helped us in so many ways, we have to mention the small Turkish restaurant run by 6 brothers -the Al Masharef- right next to where we stayed. Not only was the food great but the guys were lovely and welcoming and we were there so long we left feeling like family! There was also a nearby McDonalds wannabe "Hungry Bunny" nowhere near as good for food as the Al Masharef -but I did like the logo -and name!
We also fitted in a couple of trips (for interviews see below) up to Muscat so we caught up with Juliet and her lovely family, and new friends Dale & Chris from Cairns, so thanks guys for giving us somewhere to stay it was a real help. With Chris we finally managed to visit the ornate Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque which we'd driven past dozens of times. We'd tried to get here before but it has limited times for non-Muslims (8am -11am) and we kept missing it.
As expected it was very ornate and impressive, taking 10 years to finish -in the early 1990s I think. If you go make sure you take a long sleeved shirt to satisfy the strict dress code -or you'll have to buy an overpriced one on the gate as I did!
I was in long pants and a t-short with head scarf and they pulled me up -whereas Andrew sailed in in shorts -all a bit unfair!
Meanwhile in the background the ongoing saga of Andrew's job offer which never was dragged on. In short he went for 3 interviews, a company medical, an on- site meeting and was introduced as "your new boss" to site workers, so we pretty much though it was in the bag, as reported on the front of the site way back in July. I was concerned that Omanisation would have made it very tough for me to get a job there, but Andrew's seemed so good I didn't want to object. Then everyone involved went on holiday -one by one - and we hit the 4 weeks of Ramadan when nothing much happens and then Eid.. and somewhere along the line things fell apart. We have been told that the firm had real problems getting a visa - this may well be true - but in addition everyone concerned stopped taking Andrew's calls . So -there we sat paying $35 Aus. a night not knowing what was happening. Still we've had no official word though now we increasingly feel an offer is unlikely , though if we chase them we get the odd text saying "we're still trying to get your visa" so who knows??? Out of 3,000 employees you'd think getting one visa would be relatively straight forward. All very odd -appreciate that these things happen -but am personally very shocked at the lack of professionalism in not updating us-especially as they knew the dire circumstances we were in.
Anyway -no names as to the guilty party so we're not telling tales - but the whole process was really so stressful I wouldn't put anyone through it. So when our visa again came up for renewal (3rd time) we crossed into Dubai where we've been for the last fortnight, We caught up with Stephan and Corinne which was lovely and stayed with them a week. Thanks for your wonderful hospitality guys, as ever.
We then moved into the gatehouse accommodation of one of the homes of our Emirati friend Gumarsha where we've been to date. It really has been fantastic being back in Dubai after Nizwa so many mod cons - amazing book shops and the metro which gets you out of the clutches of the taxi drivers!
It's been great to see Gumarsha and family too, she usually lives in Abu Dhabi but comes to this house at the weekends as she enjoys the beach so it's been great to see her. I've even mastered swimming in the full rigmarole (long dress ) in view of Gumarsha's strict Muslim sensitivities!
Since we got here we've been looking for jobs -at first it seemed a hopeless task and was very discouraging but ….der der!!!.....today (Wednesday 19th September) I got an offer which I'm thrilled about, to work for a small Recruitment Agency here in Dubai. Thank everything we can breathe a sign of relief and start getting life back on track. Andrew is still looking but I'm sure he'll get something soon here in Dubai or I guess there is still a chance his offer from Oman could come through which will be a bit of a logistical juggle - but quite a few people who work in Oman choose to live in Dubai s it's not insurmountable. So -after a very awful few months our luck is finally changing!
Thanks again to everyone who helped in so many ways when our luck was down we really appreciated it. So the new pad when we get organized will be in Dubai not Muscat, and we can start getting our lives back on track.
As I said previously this isn't the end of our journey by any means - but just a (long!) put stop during which we're really excited about exploring this region.