Thursday, 16 November 2017
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Sunday, 5 November 2017
We have just taken off from Salalah and the desert is dissolving into a misty haze below us. As we clip the edge of the Empty Quarter we can make out some of the big dunes and see dead straight tracks through the sand. We drove almost a thousand kilometres on our big loop from Salalah but I'd love to come back and do the whole route through the Empty Quarter. I can understand Thesiger's addiction to the desert and for a country which is nearly all desert there is a huge variety of things recommend it. Mountains, wadis, beaches, ancient villages, castles and forts and above all, the very nicest people you could wish for. Everyone we encountered was, without exception friendly, welcoming and helpful. Not to mention immaculately dressed. I wonder what they made of us sweaty tourists in our dusty clothes.
I don't think I have ever felt so safe in a country. Whether looking for something to eat at a desolate truck stop, or flagging down a battered Toyota on a lonely beach road, or walking through back streets, we received nothing but smiles and courtesy. There are cultural differences of course and it would have been nice to interact with more women but we seldom had the opportunity. But somehow, for a country in the Middle East, Oman seems to have pulled off that rare trick of nurturing friendships with all of the outside world, not just the places that share its politics, religion or culture. Of course we are here as tourists and can only really have a superficial view after just two weeks. But Oman feels like a place at ease with itself and with others, which makes it a lovely place to be.
But no sooner had we hit the swell outside the marina than we saw them all around, their silver-grey fins flashing in the low sunlight.
Saturday, 4 November 2017
The wind got up overnight. Sharp gusts that rattled the tent before everything became perfectly still again. Then another gust, like a ball of wind ricocheting through the dunes and into our tent before heading on its way. It continued like that for most of the night but all was calm again in the morning
At dawn Philippa scooted out of the tent and up the big dune to watch the sunrise. I followed a couple of minutes later and boy was it hard work getting up that steep ridge. A gleaming sliver of pink sun was just emerging over the sand when I got there, and we climbed further up to see it rise over the sweep of the desert. Our tent and sleeping son were now out of sight far below. It was utterly peaceful and we watched the desert changing colour from tawny brown, to rust and amber and gold.
Back down the steep slopes in the cool sand, my legs dug in almost up to the knee with each step. The camp was still in shadow and likely to remain so for an hour or so, so I got the stove going. Tom emerged for hot chocolate and then scrambled eggs (love that stove - did I say?). Then he was straight up the dune while P and I began the process of breaking camp.
Eventually the three of us got everything packed away, as the sun finally hit us and the heat bounced off the stony plane. I set the satnav, turned the key in the ignition and was rewarded with a blood-freezing series of small clicks. Maybe I needed my foot in the brake. Click click click. We were all alone in the Empty Quarter with a car that wouldn't start.. It had started every single time without hesitation over the previous two days, but now of course it had broken down. I popped the bonnet and cleaned up the battery terminals. Click click click. We tried rocking the car in gear in case the starter motor wasn't engaging with the ring gear. Click click click.
We did at least have plenty of water, enough food and some shade, but if this was a starter motor issue, we would need a tow truck and the nearest garage was 100Km down the track in Shisr. And worse, it would kill the end of the holiday. Tom said "Well, I guess I can catch up on some homework" and pulled out his tablet. P reached for her Kindle. I switched on the satphone and dialled the car rental guy in Salalah. "That number is not available at the moment" said the voice. I rang the Muscat office and it rang out. It's Friday - the weekend. But about three unanswered numbers later I finally got hold of the Muscat agent, Nithin. I told him what had happened and could hear him going white. "I'll call you back" he said. But moments later we saw a white SUV heading down the track and Tom and I waved it down. It was an Omani tour guide with a Swiss family coming back from a sunrise tour in the desert. They pulled off the track and drove over to our camping area. Khaled, the guide had a go with the ignition and we all thought it sounded like a starter motor problem. Then I remembered that my plug-in cigarette lighter adapter would also show what charge the battery had. I plugged it in: 9.4 volts. Enough to turn the starter a bit but not enough to properly engage it. Khaled had a portable battery pack, he attached it to our battery and vroom. We were sorted. It was such a relief. We would have been OK one way or another but it could have been a long, boring day waiting and trying to stay cool. What was mystifying was why the battery should suddenly have lost charge. I'd been careful to unplug the various chargers from the car's outlets when I noticed they didn't turn off with the ignition. But not careful enough. The three quid gizmo for listening to Steven Fry read Arthur Conan Doyle was still plugged in under the armrest, belting out Bluetooth as hard as it could all night. It was just enough to strand us in the desert.
We offered Khaled our heartfelt thanks. He was taking the Swiss family to Fazaya Beach which was to be our final destination today. I was pleased (and so were they probably) that we hadn't delayed them unduly.
I called Nithin at AST and said were were sorted, and then we were on our way again. Back to Shisr for fuel and a chat with a bunch of lads at the garage. They were in a jolly mood, messing about and avoiding the heat. They didn't have much English but asked where we were from and where we were going. They were so friendly and such a striking looking bunch. Tall and slim with strong faces and white teeth. One had just been milking his camels and gave us a plastic bottle of camel milk which we put in the cooler. Thank you! Goodbye!
We wanted to head due south and could have retraced yesterday's steps on tarmac, or cut straight across the desert to Mudayy on a track. We went for the track and it was a filling-loosening, spine-jarring ride across featureless stony desert. Yes we should probably have gone the easier route. After two hours we hit tarmac with the opting of turning right to Yemen (about an hour's drive) or left to Mudayy. We turned left.
Mudayy was a scrappy little place where just about every every grocery shop - no matter how tiny - advertised itself as a restaurant. We knew of one called the "Pakistani restaurant" and it had huge trucks parked in front. But when we got there, there were a couple of small tables with plastic chairs and not a hint of food being served, so we bought cold drinks and made polite, if limited conversation with the fat man leaning on his chair who'd been speaking Urdu with his friends. They encouraged us to stay, but we still had a fair bit of ground to cover. And lunch to have. We found a little oasis park at the edge of town, with palm trees around a green tank pond. There were seats in the shade so we had cheese and tomato sandwiches like the English people we are.
The tarmac road south from Mudayy lasts about a kilometre before turning into graded track. But it was smoother and the landscape became more interesting; deep sandstone gorges carved out by the monsoon rains. The track looped and curled over and through the canyons and followed dry wadis. We passed a couple of military bases before hitting smooth, smooth tarmac again. And immediately the landscape was different. Fuzzy with grass - drying out now - but it had been lush a month or so ago. There were camels wandering about everywhere, and cattle grazing too.
We drove parallel with the coast, looking down on the blue ocean from high in the cliffs. At an army checkpoint we slowed to show our documents to the soldier with the gun at the barrier. But he flashed us a smile and waved us through.
At the sign to Fazaya Beach we turned onto a rutted track which went steeply down the cliffs, and into a beautiful broad shoreline with golden sand turning to scrub back to the cliffs. The beaches came and went for about five K and we went to the end before returning to the penultimate beach to set up camp. But first, into the warm sea. Big waves were breaking and we body-surfed as the sun set. A little further along we spotted Khaled with the Swiss family and brought him a pack of dates to say thanks. He made us sweet tea and we all compared notes on where we'd been in Oman. Pretty much the same itinerary in fact and we'd flown in to Salalah on the same flight too. Small world.
Our tent is up, on the beach facing the sea. We've had supper and we are sitting in the dazzling moonlight watching the surf roll in. The Swiss are camping at the other end of the beach but other then them we have this stretch to ourselves. Bed beckons. I'm very glad we got here. There can't be too many people who can say that because of Steven Fry they were almost stranded in the Empty Quarter...
This is the day that I have been waking up at five in the morning and thinking about for months. It has required the most planning, the most conversations, the most emails and the most equipment. We've bought a folding shovel, portable sand tracks a tyre compressor and rented a satellite phone. We have the phone numbers of everyone in Oman that might be in a position to help if things go wrong but ultimately my job is to make sure that it doesn't. Today is the day that we head north into the largest continuous sand desert in the world. The Rub al Khali - the Empty Quarter which spreads north into Saudi Arabia and west into Yemen. It is six hundred miles long and three hundred miles wide. Thesiger trekked through it by camel and today we would follow in his footsteps, setting off from Salalah and heading north over the mountains and down into the desert.
But first, a posh Hotel Breakfast on our terrace overlooking the marina. This is a huge development just outside Salalah. A complex of luxury hotels, apartments and boutique shops. It feels somewhat empty at the moment but this whole coastline is going to look very different in a few years if the number of bulldozers is anything to go by.
We checked out and headed to Lulus for three, five-litre drums of water, some food and a means of playing audio books through the stereo; a three quid Bluetooth device so we can get our fix of Sherlock. We have a lot of driving ahead of us.
The road north from Salalah - and there is only one - goes all the way to Muscat a thousand kilometers away. There was still plenty of greenery from the monsoon as we climbed into the mountains. Valleys full of trees. Camels munching grass. Several camels were wandering along the verge of the highway too. The steep road was crawling with heavy trucks crossing the desert and finding the gradient hard going. When we came to the top, we slowed for an army checkpoint but they waved us through. We were less than a hundred miles from the Yemeni border.
The road at this point was a proper six lane motorway with streetlights and speed cameras. But everyone pelts along it. We sailed through dead flat desert but some of it was being cultivated and there were odd buildings scattered around. We followed the old frankincense trade route and at one point we pulled over to see a small plantation of frankincense trees. They looked brittle and ancient, bowed by the wind.
And on, to Thumrait which appeared at first glance to be not much more than a glorified truck stop but in fact is a decent size town, and as with everywhere else here, getting bigger. We refueled - the opportunities are few and far between here - and found a restaurant for lunch. We got a single dish each and when they came, remembered that one dish for three of us would probably have been fine. Tom had an egg biriani and P and I had various kinds of noodles, and there was hot sauce and yogurt and a fresh salad and lemon with mint to drink and we did our best and then some, but couldn't finish it all. And the bill was about a fiver each.
On through the flat desert and then we turned left off the road to Muscat, onto a two lane strip of tarmac that heads north west towards Shisr/Shisur/Shasar depending on the sign/guidebook/map. Even here there were small farms and surprisingly green stretches. We saw men baling hay and stacking it onto a lorry. Great irrigators stretched across the land, but around the islands of green, dust devils whirled and low dunes stretched sandy fingers into the road.
At Shisur we turned off to look at the alleged site of Ubar, the "Atlantis of the Sands".. Legend has it that the ancient city of Ubar was once the most decadent in the Middle East with pillars plated with gold and various other excesses that incurred the wrath of God who caused it to be swallowed up by the sands. Well various adventurers including Sir Ranulph Fiennes set out to find it and using satellite images they settled upon a site in Shisr where a sinkhole was revealed to have swallowed what looked like the remains of an ancient fortified caravanserai. More excavation revealed that it had been in continuous use since at least the Iron Age. They also found a medieval chess set. We walked around the remains of the old fort's stone walls and down to the sinkhole. It was not hard to look across the desert and imagine camel trains arriving laden with dates and frankincense. Ubar? Maybe...
We met a tall dishdasha'd Omani called Abdullah who'd studied at Bangor in Wales and told us all the places he'd seen in the UK. And had we enjoyed Oman, and were the people friendly? Yes on both counts. He offered to guide us into the Empty Quarter but we politely declined. We took his number though just in case... Next door to the ruins is a little shop selling cold drinks so we had coconut water and mango juice. A few K further on were a couple of lonely petrol pumps, and a guy who will deflate your tyres for the desert, so we took advantage of all of that and continued on the tarmac. Less than a kilometer further on, the tarmac ended and we were on graded desert, shadowed by a line of telegraph poles marching off to the horizon. No farms here, though a couple of trucks came the other way, billowing dust behind them. And then off in the distance in the late afternoon sun, a line of big dunes marking the start of the Rub al Khali. It was a thrilling, awe-inspiring sight seeing these huge hills of sand lined up like the border into another country. Forty five minutes later at Al Hashman, a scattering of low white buildings which looked vaguely military, the telegraph poles abruptly ended. Now we were really on our own and the track was in places more desert than track as we wound into the giant dunes we'd been watching. The sun was low, highlighting every ripple and curve in every dune. The sand was lit orange, peach and apricot. It was stunning. We drove on for about twenty K until we came to a huge curved dune with what could almost be a dried lake bed at its base. It was smooth and flat and perfect for camping. We drove across it and set up the tent in the lee of the dune. The sun was going down so we fought our way up the ridge of the dune to look out across the glowing desert. Just us and the dunes as far as the eye could see. As we ran down the sheer slope the sand groaned and boomed, an extraordinary sound.
I got the stove going, and heated up the curries we'd got in Lulus and discovered that they like 'em hot in Oman! It seemed appropriate though. Now the moon is almost full, breaking through dappled clouds and it's so bright we can see each other's faces quite clearly. The three of us are casting long moon-shadows on the sand and the dunes around us are so well lit that we can still see their apricot colour. The silence is absolute. No cars, planes, animals, insects, people. And the air is completely still. It is a wonderful place to be. I'm so glad we came.
Wednesday, 1 November 2017
The Indian managers were distraught that we didn't stay for Breakfast. "You REALLY don't need to leave now...stay for twenty minutes and eat with us. You can leave at 8 and be in PLENTY of time for the flight". We weren't so sure and it was a good thing we left at 7 as the rush hour traffic was crawling towards the airport. The "twenty minute" drive took more than twice that, but all was fine. We handed over the car keys to the AST rep, and checked in. We'd done exactly 1600 kilometers in our ten days.
Salalah is quite different from the rest of Oman in that it catches the edge of the Indian Ocean monsoons. It rained every day in June apparently and all the Omanis go to escape the heat further north. Everyone told us we were going a little too late to see Salalah at it's lush finest, but flying in we could see green mountainsides and water glinting in broad river beds.. In the desert all around there was plenty of evidence of heavy rainfall, with dried rivers, streams and rivulets zigzagging all over the landscape.
Ours was the only plane at Salalaha's gleaming airport. Our car was waiting for us and we headed onto the coast road. It felt much greener than northern Oman with great avenues of mature palms, and extensive fruit plantations. We stopped at one of the many fruit stalls that lined the road. The seller sliced the top off three coconuts with a machete and popped in straws for us. There is a much more African feel to Salalah too The roadside stalls are scrappy little places, though laden with fruit. And parts of the waterfront are more down at heel than in the north, with once handsome buildings now sagging; shutters hanging from peaked windows. The picture-perfect palm trees on the white sand beach had stray dogs sleeping under them.
We will be covering a lot of ground over the next couple of days so this was to be an afternoon of lazing by the hotel pool and generally recharging our batteries. And also recharging the batteries in the many, many handheld electrical devices we seem to have accumulated. Annoyingly, there will have to be one more, as the promise that we would be able to play an iPod through the radio turned out to be false. We've been listening to Steven Fry reading Sherlock Holmes to us and can't possibly continue without him - especially on the endless desert roads we'll be on this week. So, to the Salalah branch of Lulu's tomorrow for a little plug-in speaker... But that's for tomorrow. Pass the pineapple juice.
As we were getting into our sleeping bags last night Philippa popped out to er, powder her nose, and there followed a strange hoarse grunting noise followed by a series of shrieks. Very shortly after that Philippa re-entered the tent like an Olympic diver entering a pool. She'd been startled by some sort of mammal outside and resolved that nose-powdering was perhaps a daylight activity. We haven't yet worked out what the animal was but the options are: fox, honey badger or were-rabbit. The rest of the night was grunt-free and we were lulled to sleep by the sound of breaking waves.
Our stretch of coast was still all ours this morning and P and I were up shortly after sunrise. It's still cool at that time and it was nice to get the stove going and make some tea. I love this little stove. It fires up immediately and a cup of wood chips is enough to boil water for tea in ten minutes, then make porridge and after that, heat more water for washing up. It leaves almost no ash, folds up to the size of a couple of tins of tuna and cost about a tenner. I may become a distributer...
As we were having breakfast something happened which says a lot about Oman. We'd seen a small green truck go by on the track. It turned and came back towards us. This is the point where you brace for someone to say "you can't camp here" or "you have to pay" or decide they will make their breakfast right next to you. But they were checking to see if we had any rubbish they could remove, and when we didn't they gave us a cheery wave and left.
Tom was up shortly after us and straight into the sea. He is basically a labrador, and was in the water minutes after our arrival last night. P and I joined him in the warm rolling waves this morning. The current can be a bit fierce along this coast but there was just enough of a bay and a shallow dropoff to keep it safe. Our own private beach.
As it began to get hot, we reluctantly took down the tent and packed everything away, ready for our last day in northern Oman. The road back to Muscat is a smooth, fast highway, but there is a stretch of smaller coast road too, and we took that through villages which the guide book spells one way and the Omanis another. That's a fairly common occurrence and makes loading destinations into the satnav a bit of a challenge. In Bimmah (Bamma) we bought a couple of tomatoes from "Sale of Vegetables and Fruit" to bolster our picnic supplies. Every shop sign in Oman has a very literal English translation underneath, so we've passed many "Cleaning of Clothes" locations, along with "Tailoring for Gentlemen" shops and signs offering the "Sale of Spices and Nuts".
Next stop the Bamma/Bimmah sinkhole set in carefully watered and manicured gardens. It's a natural hole in the rock about the length of a full-sized swimming pool and at the bottom, down 80 or so steps, a turquoise pool with little fish. On the way out a largish bird with a beak like a kingfisher and electric blue markings shot past us. That's one thing that we haven't seen too much of in Oman; birds and animals are in fairly short supply in this arid landscape. We've past a couple of oryx roadsigns but I get the impression that is wishful thinking.
It's been a busy few days so we decided to get to our hotel in Muscat in good time to relax a bit and repack for tomorrow's flight to Salalah. But the guide book promised a spectacular road through the mountains to the village of Umq with all manner of livestock to see on the way. It sounded like a lunch plan so up we went on a single graded track that started steep and soon got steeper. Soon we were high in treeless rock looking down across jagged canyons at the sweep of the coast. At one point I took a wrong turn and we were going up a track so steep and narrow that we had little option but to keep going. It was taking us away from Umq though so eventually I managed a thirty-nine point turn and we found the route again.
Umq turned out to be a scattering of ancient houses around a huge wadi. Dry now, but the forest of palms and the massive boulders strewn across it suggested that it gets a lot of water every now and then. A woman was feeding some goats outside her house but apart from that all was quiet so we backtracked a little to find a lunch spot under a tree. Tom and I hopped over the mighty boulders to check out the huge cliff wall that had been carved and curved by the water. It would be great to see the wadi in full flood. Oman must look like quite a different place when it rains.
Back down to the Muscat road and we settled in for an easy drive through low rocky hills. P snoozed, T did screen-based things and all was quiet. Muscat is really a vast metropolitan area and we reached the outskirts with thirty kilometres still to go before we got to our hotel. This side of the city is glossy with marble and bright with neon. But everything is relatively low-rise, and it hasn't sold its soul to glass and steel.
Our hotel was handyish for the airport and at the edge of Muscat's development. The entrance was almost impossible to find and involved going over a stretch of unmade track.. Inside though the two Indian managers were simply desperate for us to like the place. So helpful and friendly, shaking hands with us all and asking about our trip. Had we enjoyed it? Were the people friendly? You look a little tired sir, you must relax now! We did.
Our friend David was here on business and staying on the other side of the airport so we met at a hotel after a frenetic drive through seething rush hour traffic. He and three of his colleagues were waiting for us at O'Malley's pub, where we were promptly kicked out because Tom was under age. We haven't really noticed the lack of alcohol but having a beer in the hotel's gardens was rather nice. We moved on to a terrific Turkish restaurant and ordered fish and calamari and big flat breads with sesame seeds. It was a jolly evening and interesting to find out about some of the other places they'd worked like Yemen and Somaliland. The Yemenis are apparently every bit as friendly as the Omanis, though less well-dressed. It's sad how much more difficult it has become to see such places now. I've always wanted to go to Yemen and who knows when it will be safe enough to travel to again.
We said our goodbyes and dropped David's colleague Max off at the airport on our way back. We was still nursing a hangover from his birthday celebrations the evening before. His night flight must have been fun...
We did the last bit of packing, ready for our 9am flight, and sank into bed.
Tuesday, 31 October 2017
Ras al Jinz prides itself on being the first place in the Middle East to see the sun rise, due to it being at the easternmost point of the easternmost country in the region. The hotel offers the option of a 5am trip back to the beach to look for turtles and watch the sun come up and we had sort of decided to do it. But last night Hamid said at this time of year they really don't see anything in the morning and it's more of a sunrise watch, which frankly was a big relief as it meant we could all have a lie in. That said, P and I were awake at six anyway while the teen slept on.
Lots of people left early but we lingered over breakfast and had a stroll around the turtle museum - which was terrific. There were many Facts: loggerhead turtles can dive a thousand meters down (which is really quite a lot), the oldest frankincense burner found in Oman is 4200 years old, and Native Americans have the same beliefs about a turtle carrying the world on its back as many Asian cultures which makes ethnographers believe it's a very ancient tradition which crossed to America when there was a land bridge. The only jarring note was a largish bowl of water containing four hatchlings swimming about. They should really have been in the sea, a point made by several people in the visitors book.
But Ras al Jinz overall? We liked it and it seemed a good way to fund turtle conservation while letting us tourists get our snaps and at the same time limiting the impact on the nesting sites. If you are up for fifty degree (C) temps, the summer is the best time to go when the beach is full of turtles.
On to Sur. It has the last boatyard still making dhows and there were a couple under construction when we got there. It is all done by eye apparently, with no pre-cut parts and no blueprint, just tradition. These days though, much of the work is done by Indian boatbuilders. We saw several at work, trimming long beams with an adze, and shinning up a high spar to tension a rope. The boatyard was a well worn place with bits of wood stacked up and dogs sleeping in the shade. We wandered through and no-one seemed to mind. A prosperous looking Omani with silver hair greeted us and we chatted briefly about what we'd seen. He hoped we enjoyed Oman. We do.
Around the corner from the boatyard is the last big fishing dhow made by the boatyard in 1951, supposedly the same type of vessel used by Vasco de Gama. It was bought by a Yemeni sea captain and then a local boy made good bought it back and the people of Sur raised the money to build a little park for it, where it is now beached. If Sinbad had a boat, this would be it. Actually Sinbad supposedly came from Sur so who knows. It was a handsome and exotic looking thing and it would have been lovely to have a look inside it but it was display only.
We tooled about in Sur looking for fresh juice, but settled for ice cream instead, and after picking up picnic stuff we carried on towards Muscat and the Wadi Bani Awf. The Bradt guide book says if you see one Wadi in Oman, see this one. The book is wrong. Yesterday's wadi is the hands down winner. This one involved a little boat trip across the water to get to the path and then a good, if bakingly hot, walk through a handsome gorge but there were too many people and too much pipework and lumps of concrete about the place. It was good to see but the swimming wasn't a patch on yesterday's wadi. We've been in Oman long enough now that we are fussy about wadis...
After a picnic and a swim it was four o'clock, and we had a three K walk out and a boat trip to do, then we had to go further up the coast to find a place to camp, and it would be dark in two hours. So we hustled back through the gorge, onto the little boat to cross the water and away. We are now on the rocky headland along from Fins. The tent is up, the supper is finished, the surf is crashing on a little beach next to us, the moon is out and I'm writing this. But not for much longer...
Sunday, 29 October 2017
A palm thatch Bedu hut keeps out the bugs, but lets a breeze through and we had a comfortable night in our little patch of desert. We woke to birdsong and sparkles of light through the thatch. The sand was cool and soft on my bare feet and we assembled for breakfast which included rather nice little pancakes to eat with our dahl. Tom is more of a cereal, toast and marmalade breakfast person so while he has dahl for supper he eyes it suspiciously in the morning. As we were heading back to pack, Hamid said the camels were ready. So, to the camels then.
There were about fifteen of them kneeling in the sunshine, all watching us with their big brown eyes and unfeasibly long lashes. A couple of them were complaining with long guttural grunts but the rest seemed relaxed and interested in us. We sat on rugs behind the humps and clung on as they rose up back legs first.
As we were led through the dunes I immediately wanted to be heading deeper into the desert and finding somewhere remote to camp. P and I have both been reading Thessiger and as we rolled with the camel's gait, casting long shadows in the sand I could see why he wanted to stay in the desert and live the life he lived. The camel behind me kept bringing his head alongside my leg and in contrast to the rough mat of fur on the rest of their bodies, the hair on their faces is silky soft. After twenty minutes we were dismounting - the camel's front legs kneeling into the sand first. Well that was fun.
The drive back across the desert to Al Wasil was less straightforward than it appeared. We seemed to be on the same track that we'd come in on, but hit tarmac somewhere further west of the town than where we had set off. A useful lesson in not taking the desert for granted. We found Al Wasil's pretty little sandcastle fort, and back in the main drag we got the tyres re-inflated for a pound.
Instead of turning east to the coast, we headed north back into the mountains to see Wadi Bani Khalid.. This turned out to be a very good move. We've been to a few wadis which promised water and turned out to be dry, or no more than a falaj-full at this time of year. But Wadi Bani Khalid was a string of beautiful, blue-green pools cutting through curving limestone. We swam from one to the next in water about the same temperature as we were. They were deep too and Tom and I dived from the rocks. As we went further up, the pools became narrower and at one point we swam beneath a huge boulder that had fallen from the gorge and eroded by the flow of water. Reflected ripples shimmered on the rock walls. P noticed a bees nest above us with honeycomb sticking out of a cleft in the rock. At the top, another little pool with a small waterfall for dunking heads. After the desert this seemed ridiculously lush. A real oasis..
P and I retrieved the makings of a picnic from the car and followed the cliff path back alongside the water, getting above the waterfall and finding numerous other pools and boulderscapes. There were other tourists here too of course, including the German couple who decided they would sit directly opposite us, perhaps five feet away to dry off as we were having our sandwiches. There was some sort of battle for tourist territory going on that we really didn't want to get into with an overweight sun worshipper in not enough clothes. We moved upstream a bit, dangling our feet in the water and watching the little fish nibble our toes. And all of a sudden it was three in the afternoon and we still had rather a long way to go.
After curling back down the mountains to the plains we filled up with petrol (40p per litre) and finally struck out eastwards. After the hot middle of the day, Oman wakes up again at about four with people shopping and meeting in the numerous coffee shop. The roads are busy and there are little children waving and smiling. They always look perfectly turned out. The boys in little dishdashas and caps, the girls in brightly coloured sarongs. They won't be called sarongs here of course but that will have to do until I discover the right word...
We sped from one little town to the next with the sun going down behind us. There was a lot of dust in the air so the sky had an apricot glow for most of the way. It is dark at 6 and half an hour before, we hit the coast just north of the fishing town of Al Askhara. There were kids playing on the beach and milky blue waves crashing. We saw big dhows moored offshore. Tom wanted to get out and into the sea but we needed to get to the turtle reserve at Ras al Jinz.
The satnav didn't quite know where it was which was a little disturbing as we cruised up the coast road in the darkness. But we got there in the end; a modern hotel all on its own about fifteen minutes walk from the beaches where thirty thousand turtles come to lay their eggs every year. Before it was built in 2008 people used to drive up on the sand to see the turtles, scaring them off and generally disrupting the whole process. Now the hotel, which is part of the reserve, acts as a gatekeeper. No cars on the beach and numbers of people are strictly limited. About 25 of us went with a guide and waited at the edge of the nesting area while a spotter went to see if there was anything we could see. Our guide (another Hamid) was strict about not using torches or camera flashes. He got a text message from the spotter and we moved down the beach where a turtle perhaps a meter and a half in length was shuffling back to the sea having experimented with a hole, but decided not to go ahead with it.
Hamid said most forays are like that, especially on a moonlit night, which last night was. They don't like to be so exposed while they lay eggs and will wait until it is darker. So that seemed to be that, but a few minutes later we were alerted to baby turtles hatching nearby.. We'd been briefed to be careful about where we trod and these little things came flapping past us and over our feet while we looked on not daring to move. They are so little and so desperate to get to the sea, it was quite moving to watch them arrive at the surf line in the dark as the waves pounded in. What a start in life. It takes twenty years for the females to mature and return to the beach to lay eggs of their own, and only one in five hundred of these little turtles will live that long. Once they do though they return to nest every few months, for perhaps sixty years.
Further down the surf line another turtle was doing just that. She'd dug a meter deep hole and was laying a stream of golf-ball sized eggs into it. She lays a hundred and fifty at a time in just a few minutes. We went in groups of five to see her standing behind her so she wouldn't be distracted. It felt a bit intrusive initially until we could see that she was so focused on what she was doing that she paid no attention to us at all. After she'd finished laying the eggs she began the laborious process of covering them up. Back flippers first and then the front ones, scooting the sand behind and under her. It can take an hour and a half to do this and when the hole is filled to beach level, she digs a dummy hole a couple of meters away and leaves it unfilled in the hope of distracting predators, like the foxes that live in the dunes. We left her to it, and walked back to the hotel in the moonlight.
Our day began with camel rides in the desert, before wadi swimming and a picnic in the mountains and rounded off watching turtles hatch and lay eggs by the Arabian Sea. If you wanted to do just one day in Oman, that would be a good place to start.
It was absolutely silent in our little gorge last night. The silence was broken first by the call to prayer, which finds you no matter how remote you are, then a donkey started up and sounded like someone with little musical ability practising the trumpet.
As light snuck around the shutters P went to make some tea. I opened the wooden door for her and was startled to see a woman in a blue abaya walking past with a tray of bananas on her head. She was completely silent and didn't acknowledge me. She walked on and vanished in the trees.
We sat on the terrace drinking black tea with a little sugar and watched the morning break around us. A man in one of the modern houses down the gorge was having a furious row with, well everyone, by the sound of it. He went on and on and we realised that the acoustics of this place mean everyone hears everything. It's perhaps why nearly everyone walks so quietly here. A few women came past us on the path and made no sound at all.
We watched a man in a blue jumpsuit bringing our breakfast from across the gorge. Stainless steel pots with boiled eggs, some toast and marmalade, slices of orange and little pieces of the crispy flatbread we'd watched one of the women make in the Al Hamra museum. The man's younger brother was there too grinning at us and all bustle when his big brother asked him to do something. We came to realise that after breakfast they expected us gone. We'd been pondering a shower and a read and out by ten but they were changing the sheets and locking the doors to our rooms at 9.30. It wasn't unfriendly, it was just what they were used to.
Our host, a compact man with a shy smile and a few words of English took us into the village above us, sending his brother ahead to warn people we were coming. He said the village was three hundred years old and though people still used some of the houses, the last family had moved out and into the new houses across the gorge four years ago. There were people doing things in one of the buildings though and I saw shoes outside a couple of others.
The houses here are incredibly simple. Some were built into the cliff so the rock formed both wall and part of the roof. Several had a fire ring in the middle of a room perhaps twelve feet square with ceilings less than 6' high and roof beams black with soot. All had the alcoves with a shelf across that we have seen in every old building here. The walls were thick, the windows tiny and usually just an unglazed slot in the wall. The doors were no more than four or five feet tall and had basic patterns carved into them. Their inner edges were honed to an ebony shine where people had rubbed past them over many years. Stone steps wound up through the village, slippery with use. This was the Oman of old and you can understand people wanting somewhere more comfortable to live, but it's hard to keep this sort of heritage intact without inhabitants.
We said our goodbyes and walked back across the bottom of the gorge and up to the car as the heat rose. There were a couple more things to see up on the top; "Diana's View" over the mountains and across lush terraces, at the back of a ritzy hotel that she stayed in once. Well the ritzy Hotel seems to have sealed it off now, but we snuck around the side and the view was perfectly nice. Then to the remains of an RAF Venom jet apparently shot down by the rebels in the fifties when we were busy suppressing dissent on behalf of the Sultan. Various aircraft bits were fenced off by the road and the pilot was supposedly buried nearby though we couldn't find the grave.
Time to go. We had a rendezvous in Al Wasil at the edge of the Wahiba sands at three. The drive took us across a grey gravel plain, broken in one area by some black rocky hills. But there was little to see of any interest. We stopped for a picnic under a broad tree where a sudden fierce wind blue sand all over us and then stopped.
Al Wasil is the jumping off point for the desert and there were several people waiting to go in. We met our guide, a tall dark Omani in a dishdasha and turban who had us line our cars up to have the tyres deflated a little for driving on the sand. And off we went, the tarmac suddenly turning into soft orange sand. There were camels posing on ridges and low dunes rolling off to the horizon. After about twenty minutes we pulled into a compound full of palm thatch huts. In each a couple of low beds, a candle lamp on a chest and a mosquito net. The "Nomadic Desert Camp" is owned by a Bedouin family and what it lacks in swimming pools and Wi-fi, it more than makes up for in tranquility.
That said, at four thirty we all lined up again for a sunset drive into the dunes, zooming up steep sand slopes and trying to keep straight. After ten minutes or so we climbed on foot to a windy dune ridge and watched the glowing orange sun slip into the glowing orange desert.
At the base of our dune our guide, Hamid lit a fire, put a couple of pots of coffee on it and passed around first a bowl of water for hand washing and then a bowl of sticky dates. He's a laconic sort of chap, ready with a dry quip but saying little otherwise. When we'd all finished he nipped off across the sand joking about leaving us there. But he was actually going to pray, and we saw him silhouetted on a low ridge, kneeling and rising in private contemplation.
Then back to camp in the dark trying to work out how steep the sand dunes were in the headlights. After supper we sat outside our hut, the half-moon casting shadows of the palm trees on the sand and stars winking down on us.