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Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Yes Sur.

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...

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Sunday, 29 October 2017

Oman in a day.

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. 

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To the desert

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.

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Up, up and away.

Oh to have a bed. That whole Great Outdoors thing is all very well but we appreciated mattresses sheets and pillows last night. After a strangely western breakfast of Cornflakes and Nescaf√© (not in the same bowl, obviously) we set of for Bahla fort, the oldest in Oman. There's been a fort here for three thousand years but it took quite a beating in various battles over the last few hundred and when it was restored it took two years just to dig the rubble out. It is a huge labyrinthine complex and not a place for anyone with a fear of bats. They perch in any gloomy corner, and in a mediaeval fortress there are many, many gloomy corners. We got used to coming around a corner and seeing the beady eyes, mousy faces and rather sinister fingers gripping a wall or a roof beam. 

The one thing Bahla fortress lacks though is any sort of explanation about what it is you are seeing. They spent millions on restoration but stopped before the info-board phase. Still, it was fun to get lost in the passageways and find low-doored jail cells, wells with linked troughs ready to be filled from the bucket, original wood carvings around the doorways and Arabic lettering picked out in alcoves. It is a mighty citadel and we realised as we left that there was a whole other part that we never found our way into. At the base of the fort are the crumbling mud walls of an old village, long abandoned. 

With the temperature pushing 37 degrees we walked back to yesterday's restaurant for cool fruit juices. The friendly manager remembered us and had just what we needed. Again.. We could well understand why the author of our guidebook says he's been going there for twenty years. 

And on to Nizwa on a road that curled north to the mountains and then south through the plane. We passed a series of new housing developments all in characteristic Omani style. All are built with a high wall around them and have towers and castellations, like little fortresses. An Omani's home is his castle. 

Nizwa has its own massive fortress with a broad tower, two thirds of which is filled with earth so as to better absorb cannon fire. We didn't bring our cannon so couldn't put it to the test. And anyway we were going to another massive installation: Lulu's hypermarket. Lulu's is about the size of Wales and contains every possible item known to man except pork products. Though you can get turkey bacon. The three of us stuck together knowing that to split up could mean separation for several days. Philippa leapt giddily from one aisle to the next: "ooh cupcakes, and look at this green pistachio pudding, and let's get that pink semolina". The pink semolina incidentally turned out to be terrific. We spooned it with our sporks (thanks Helen!) along with a perfectly assembled Greek salad, numerous flatbreads, hummus and assorted fruit, in the green gardens of the Falaj Daris just outside Nizwa. There is a falaj in a deep channel there all the year round, fed by a spring seventeen meters deep. It's a popular bathing spot and dads were sitting in it neck deep, splashing their kids in the way of dads and kids everywhere. It's Friday, the weekend here, and families just out of the mosque were also picnicking on the grass in the shade of the trees.. Several of the women were wearing beautiful abayas in soft russet colours or deep blues.  Those that walked by us made a point of smiling and saying hello. 

We had another hour and a half or so of driving to do though, heading deeper into the Eastern Hajar. This was an area that decided to rebel against the previous Sultan in the 1950s.. He spent most of his time in Salalah almost a thousand kilometers to the south and the tribal leaders decided they'd look after themselves thanks. The Saudis decided this would be a good way to promote Wahhabism in Oman, and the Sultan asked the British for help. The RAF bombed a couple of villages and the rebellion foundered. The ruins of one of the lovely old mud brick villages is a tourist attraction now but we maintained a tactful distance.

In Birkat, the heart of the rebellion we turned left and up a steep but beautifully engineered tarmac road towards the Sayt plateau. A little way up we were stopped at a Police post where the officer got bored with our inability to find exactly the registration papers he wanted. In any event, the main reason for the control point is to ensure people have four wheel drive, ready for the very steep ascent, but more dangerously, the brake-eating descent. It's about thirty kilometers of really steep gradient. Our Toyota was up for it though and we swooped through pass after pass with the dark mountain ridges flowing out around us. Eventually we turned off onto a smaller road, which became, as they do, a single lane dirt track which dropped away to nothing at the edge. 

After ten minutes on this the track ran out and we parked. Across the gorge from us, basking in the late afternoon sunshine was a collection of tiny dun coloured houses, one of which would be ours for the night. Cliff House has been open for about eighteen months or so, at the bottom of this little village. We put a nights worth of kit into a duffel bag and walked down into the gorge; at the bottom, a dry wadi feeding small terraces. We walked across it under a pomegranate tree. Tom took the swaying wood-slat suspension bridge and we ascended the rocky steps in the other side to the village. It was silent. No-one came to meet us but we found our rooms and sat out on the terrace watching the afternoon fade. After ten minutes or so teenager in a brown dishdasha and white hat appeared with a checking-in book. All the columns were in Arabic and he wasn't sure of the translation but I wrote names and dates and times in various places which seemed to do the trick. He showed us into a palm-thatched terrace for coffee, gave us a big smile and was gone. 

It's a magical place, perched on the side of the gorge and it's ours for the night. We can hear kids playing on the other side. But other than that there is hardly anyone about. We've been sitting on cushions watching the afternoon turn into evening. From the mosque across the gorge, the muezzin has called the faithful to prayer twice; his call echoing through the mountains for several seconds. 

As it got dark, two boys brought us stainless steel pots of fish biriani, a salad, yoghurt and a split pomegranate. We ate where we sat. Our rooms have thick stone walls, and roofs of wood poles and palm thatch. The gorge is quiet and at eight o'clock, it's probably time for bed. 

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Thursday, 26 October 2017

Back to civilisation

(No photos for the moment thanks to Mr Apple, but plenty on Instagram @Richard.Lister)

My back was less than thrilled at a night under what passes for canvas these days but we all slept and apart from what sounded like a lizard mucking about by the groundsheet it was a very peaceful night. The muezzins call to prayer drifted up to us at dawn. The songs from different mosques mingled and separated as they floated over the dark landscape. P and I got up as the sun was turning the very top of the nearest peaks pink. I lit the brilliant little wood stove, and have discovered that the perfect ingredients are: three coin sized chunks of Omani barbecue lighter wood which is soaked in vegetable oil, a big handful of Waitrose cat litter, a piece of cotton wool and a flint and steel. One spark does the rest and the stove stays hot for a good hour. P and I had tea and then made porridge for breakfast, watching the sunlight creep across the plain towards us. Then we dismantled the tent, packed everything away and drove to Al Ayn to see its beehive tombs. These sizeable stone tombs were built 5000 years go and twenty one of them line a ridge behind the village. There are no signposts, no car park, no barriers in fact nothing at all to say you are at a remarkable historic site. Apart, that is, from the great brooding tombs standing sombrely on top of the hill. We drove into a dry wadi a little way, parked in the shade and walked up the hill in blistering heat. The tombs are made from cut stone and double walled. Archaeologists discovered that each contained the bones of dozens of people. We were the only people there and walked through the site, wondering about the people who had built them.

Next stop Bahla; Oman's capital for at least four hundred years. The road curved through a succession of date plantations, each of which had a small mud brick fort. These little castles still looked lived in to some extent. We then took a mountain road which was disappointingly tarmac for most of the way, but became a very rough, very bumpy and very steep track which was in the process of being made properly driveable and "motorists enter at your own risk". One section was steep enough for Tom to admit he was nervous, which I count as a small success. 

Our hotel was just this side of Bahla and although it was only eleven "we have been expecting you Mr Lister". City slickers that we are it was nice to have a shower and Wi-fi, before heading out to lunch at a cafe full of Omanis. It was hopping and we got just about that last table in the place. Much of the food is Indian-influenced and P and I had biryanis, Tom had squid masala, and we were brought plates of salad and chapatis and a bowl of yoghurt and sweet lassis. It was an absolute feast and all around us waiters were rushing with trays of food and people were eating with gusto. It worked out at about a fiver each. It was so good and we were so full that it was nearly three when we emerged and I wimped out of going to the massive Bahla fortress. We can do that tomorrow. Instead we went to Jibreen Castle which was smaller, but only just... it's where one of the early rulers of Oman lived and has been restored to the eyeballs. This meant all the rooms came our rather the same, but here and there were glimpses of the old decor; beautifully painted flowers around doorways and on the roof beams. The Sultan's meeting chamber had strategically placed grates in the floor so his soldiers could leap into the room at the first hint of conversation turning violent. There were deep wells and a grate for pouring boiling date sap over intruder's heads. They were ready for anything though it seemed to have had a fairly peaceful existence. 

And that was our day. We're about to have dinner in the hotel, which we suspect will be largely along the lines of what we had for lunch. 

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I was briefly aware of a distant muezzin at dawn but slept on for another hour or so, until sunlight was shafting in from around the shutters. It's warm but fresh at this hour and after breakfast we set off to explore the village. We followed the falaj which gushed under houses and through sluices and off to the plantations around us. It would have been nice to see how they controlled the flow which was constantly being rerouted but we never saw who was doing the rerouting. The sun was getting hotter as we walked to the edge of the village and then along the edge of the canyon. There were several watchtowers. I climbed up to one and saw that what we had taken to be a small, high window was actually the doorway, reachable by a single stone step jutting below it. Every old building in Oman seems to have been designed around how best to defend it. With the heat building we stopped at a point overlooking a cultivated area in the valley bottom, with another defensive tower. Birdsong echoed off the cliffs. 

Back at Misfah Old House, the manager plied us with cold bottles of water and a porter to carry our bag back to the car, a five minute walk away at a parking area outside the village. Next stop, the nearest supermarket for some picnic lunch essentials. We stopped at the first one we saw which said in the door "please note, supermarket for ladies only". P donned a headscarf and went in. Only to come out two minutes later as they had nothing we needed. We went on to a bigger hyper market at the edge of town and got large bottles of water, tomatoes, and fruit. But no bread. P went to the bakery two doors down and bought six chipatis for 20p. We were heading to the old part of town but stopped first at one of the juice bars which seem to be everywhere in Oman. It was a tiny place, steel and tile and immaculately clean. I had a glass of watermelon, T had mango and P kiwi juice, which we all agreed would be better mixed with something else.  Al Hamra is a friendly little town. When we first stopped here an old man in dishdasha and turban went by a tractor giving us the once-over with beetle brows. I smiled at him and he beamed back. People here seem genuinely pleased to have visitors. Everyone, but everyone is friendly. 

On then to al Hamra old town which is really at the edge of the modern development. It is supposedly one of the best preserved mud brick settlements in Oman and it is really astonishing. Three and four story mud buildings with wood-barred windows and thick wooden double doorways in faded blue and green. Sadly, most of it was derelict and crumbling. People have moved to newer buildings but some are still inhabited and the date plantation which was its raisin d'etre is still flourishing. We found out later that only about seven families still live here. We found one building open as a museum. The guidebook said it had been a house of Sufi women who lived like nuns. It was just as it would have been when it was built three hundred years ago; plane mud walls, rugs on the floors and beautifully painted roof beams. A young Omani man in a brown dishdasha and smart white cap showed us around. He said it had been home to several families (presumably after the Sufi women had left) and in one large room there were two women demonstrating some of the Omani traditions. There were a couple of fires going on the floor, smoke drifting out through open spaces in the roof. One woman smeared dough over an iron hot plate. To make thin chipatis for us. Another roasted coffee in a long handled ladle. She ground it in another metal pot with a flat ended spike, rhythmically pounding it and tipping the cup so that it chimed in the floor. Our guide said that was how it was always ground and if you heard it from the street you knew they were making coffee. They squeezed oil from a seed paste which we dipped our fingers in and rubbed into our hands. Philippa ground some wheat in a stone mill wheel and had a paste of saffron and sandalwood smeared in her forehead to cool her down. It was like looking back into another world. Afterwards we sat on the floor of the sitting room with rugs and cushions, drinking Omani coffee and delicious sweet ginger tea and nibbling dates. Our guide sat with us and we were joined by another young Omani for a fascinating conversation about the village and Omani life. They were very sad that the old village had fallen into disrepair and liked the fact that on the whole, Oman had tried very hard to maintain its cultural traditions. They said Kuwait had used its oil money to level its old buildings and build new ones and now was beginning to regret having lost so much of its heritage. Sitting in this lovely simple room with the breeze coming through the little windows, looking out across the date plantation it felt like a Oman has a lot to savour. In ten years though, old Al Hamra will either be a restored world heritage site or it will have crumbled to dust.  

We spent so long at the house that it was now early afternoon and we still,had a fair way to go to get to our intended destination for the day, the beehive tombs at Al Ayn. We left Al Hamra, past the ghostly deserted village of Ghul (which, apparently is the origin of our word "ghoul") and then onto a dirt road through the mountains. We found a shady spot beneath a tree for a picnic and realised we didn't really have time to get to the tombs and find a good place to camp. So we made for the camping spot I'd found on The iOverlander app (thanks Sam for setting that up) which lists places that overlanders have wild-camped. It's down a long dirt track next to a river in a small gorge. When we got to the track a sign said "Road closed". Ah, but we found a way around the bit with roadworks and eventually got to the spot marked in the gps. It's a mostly level stony plateau near the edge of the little gorge. There's another pair of campers here but it's very secluded and peaceful. We put up the new tent - for the first time in fact - lit the new wood stove, heated our supper, had tinned fruit for pudding and cups of hot chocolate. A feast! Crickets are cricketing and the faint song of a muezzin is drifted up from the village about three kilometres away. There is a sliver of moon and we are watching the stars come out. It couldn't be more peaceful. 

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Down low, up high.

We turned the light off last night with the sound of the rushing falaj beneath us, though this stopped around ten. And apart from some peeping and groiking from the various fauna, all was quiet in this ancient village. 

When we arrived yesterday we were greeted quite formally by an Omani man who served us little cups of black Omani coffee and dates, as we sat in an open sided room which looks onto the palms. Breakfast was in the same place this morning and we sat by a German couple who were also heading down to Salalah and seemed to have the same feeling about exploring as we do. They were nice to chat to in the sunshine.. The guests are German and English and French and all were intrigued by clear plastic bags full of water hanging from beams in the roof. The Omani man seemed a bit embarrassed when we asked about them yesterday and we thought he said they were in case of fire. But the manager a dapper Indian man, said they were for flies. "Flies?" We all asked sceptically? "Yes, when the fly comes up, he sees a reflection of himself magnified in the bag and he runs away. It really works!"  Our German neighbour wondered whether it only worked at ceiling height as there were a fair few flies at our level...  But breakfast was plentiful and good and included a dall which I ate with a chipati and felt pleased with myself. Tom found some cereal. 

Philippa had found a famous cave nearby - Al Hoota - which is the biggest cave system in the Middle East. So we made for that. It has a little electric train, but when we got there it was out of action. We walked in with a guide instead and saw that the train only went about a hundred meters into the hillside before dropping everyone off, so we didn't miss much. About a kilometre of the cave is open for inspection, and it feels like a long , dimly lit aircraft hanger full of rocks. Our guide walked at tremendous speed along the gantry which meanders through it. We trotted along behind him feeling rather warm. The temperature is in the low twenties in the cave. It has bats, which leave droppings eaten by insects, which are eaten by big, big spiders, which in turn are eaten by the bats. We were happy to have this explained to us and didn't feel the need to see any of it in action. It has all the usual cave stuff; the stalag mites and tites some of which look like animals or people, precarious bits which will fall off one day but not for millennia, and strictly no photos, though you can take photos here if you like. Al Hoota also has blind cave fish which we saw pootling about in the little lake at the end of the cave. And here our guide told us that they can get so much water during the rainy season that the whole thing floods rather dramatically and they have to close it. In 2012 they had to close it for the subsequent four years. There was so much water that the walkways and lighting had to be re-installed. Now they have pumps to keep the level low enough that fresh air can get in, but they still get overwhelmed by the big rains. It was all rather good and we enjoyed it. Our German friends were there too and were heading on so we said our goodbyes in the car park. We went back to Al Hamra hoping for a cold drink in a juice place we had spotted but it was very closed, so on then the Jebel Shams. Or possibly Jabal Shems. Our guidebook isn't entirely clear. But in any event it is the tallest mountain in Oman, all 3005 meters of it. We could see it in the haze; a gently pointed wall of rock like a canine sticking out above the other teeth. The road was initially tarmac and then gave way to graded dirt and took us up the opposite ridge. It was lovely and (almost) cool at the top with a fresh wind and big views. There were a few tourists about but nothing in Oman seems to be crowded. The Jebel Shams resort seemed shut when we got there; its big metal gate was locked. We circled around a bit, went back to the driveway and magically, it opened, and we went in for lunch. 

We'd come to do the "balcony walk" which follows the escarpment somewhat precariously  until you come to the old deserted village of Ghul, which we saw in the distance as we began our ascent of the mountain. It looked rather lovely. Mud block houses with castellated roofs which looked like little fortresses and blended in perfectly with their surroundings. But after driving to the start of the hike there seemed no way to get onto the path in that direction. First we walked through the village rubbish dump, then to an ancient cliff ledge building where the path dead-ended. Stumped, we ended back to the car park and asked a young couple who had just finished their walk. They said the path went the other way to another abandoned village. So we took it. 

P and I had both been dreading it a bit, as it did all seem a bit near the edge from the write ups and when walking with a fifteen year old who ambles about without a care in the world thinking about something else, it can all be a bit stressful. It was a bit precarious and there was the odd moment of bladder tightning but it was terrific. The deep gorge between us and Jerald Shams (thanks spellcheck) was a mighty fine thing. It rippled with curving cliff face and had deep gashes where rocks had fallen away. Way down at the bottom there was a flat Grey riverbed slithering through and at least one cluster of buildings next to it. It all felt rather biblical. The escarpment above leaned over us like a wave from time time and kept us in the shade. After about an hour of steady descent we saw a cluster of ruined houses built into the rock. The flat rock walls were held together with some sort of basic mortar and some of the big roof timbers were still in place. A coupe still had decorated wooden doors. It felt like the Anasazi ruins P and I hiked to in Arizona called Keet Seel. Dusty and silent, looking down over this huge gorge. We were at the end of it where it began to turn back on itself and in the end of the horseshoe we could see ancient agricultural terraces and a few more houses. We stopped in the old village for our Iranian apples which a couple of goats thought they should probably have. They waited for the cores edging a little closer all the time until they were almost in our laps.  A French guy leaving with his wife told us that if you climbed above the village you could see a pool of fresh water in a cave. So we had to give that a go, scrambling up the rocks and along crumbling ledges, through olive trees and camel thorn until we saw it; a beautiful broad pool with a pebble beach emerging from the arch of a cave. It felt like Eden. You could really imagine this special place being the hub of the village with people washing and collecting water and swimming. A real oasis surrounded by heat and rock. It was magical. 

We yomped back along the path as the sun slid shadows up the cliff wall on the other side of the canyon. When we came to the village if al Khitaym where the path starts there were three ladies in bright blue abayas at trestle tables covered with little woven key fobs and wrist bands. A little girl was there too and said she had just finished making one of them so clearly we had to have it. The ladies were busy tying their wares around our wrists and we were gently taking them off again, but it seemed only right to get some. The Omanis don't seem to be trying to fleece tourists wherever they gather. It would be very easy to set up the balcony walk as a paid attraction, or sell us cold drinks. But there's none of that. There isn't even a sign showing you how to get there. But we all park in this tiny village and stomp through it so in return we bought several little wristlets and woven key chain wotsits and everyone was happy. 

It was getting dark as we drove down the dirt track and was completely dark when we came to the car park.. Omanis are careful and considerate drivers but the lack of streetlights kept me on my toes. At Misfat we walked back through the darkened alleyways, worn paving stones gleaming in the moonlight. Supper on the rooftop of the Old House was just what we needed before a long exhausted sleep.

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Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Deeper into the mountains

It was a muggy night in our little room with a fan humming and ticking from the ceiling. So we were up early, brushing our teeth at the outside sink with a couple of hopeful frogs at our feet. We had Omani coffee with breakfast. It's nutty and not too strong and would taste good with a couple of dates I think. Tom interviewed the young manager for a school project he is doing on the impact of tourism on Oman. The manager is an easy going Nepali who's been working in Oman for three years he said. He's also very patient. He had to suffer an obnoxious young man with more money than friends who sat with him as he was having his supper last night and went on and on about how awful Nepali food was and how he wouldn't do another trek to Annapurna because the Wi-fi wasn't very fast. Totally clueless. 

Packed up, we nosed out of the gate and back on the track we'd driven in on. The down was a lot harder than the up. A steep rutted single track with perilous drops and just enough dust to keep things slippery. When we got to the village of Al Zammah we turned along the wadi towards the exit of Snake Canyon and parked in the shade of a date palm. All of these villages are built around a water source which they use to cultivate date plantations. Every community has a falaj for distributing the water; a gravity-fed series of channels that ensure everybody gets what they need. We saw them in Tenerife and the White Towns of the High Alpujarras in Spain, where the falaj system had been installed by the Moors. Even after the Moors were thrown out decades later, one Moorish family remained in each village to regulate the falaj. 

We walked in to Snake Canyon; its massive narrow walls like an entry into something from the Hobbit or Indiana Jones. The south end of it is mostly dry at this time of year apart from a few pools somewhere in the middle.  To get to them was a fairly challenging clamber over and through the massive boulders in the main channel.. There was no path as such but we found our way through as the sun got higher and hotter. Soon though the canyon walls closed in on us and we were in cool shade. After an hour or so we came to a narrow pool that reached both sides of the gorge. We waded through to a deeper one where we swam in the cool water, frogs and fish darting out of the way. There may have been splashing.. Walking back seemed quicker and it was hotter too, but so peaceful. We didn't see another soul on the whole walk.

Back in the car we took the road back up to Bait Bimmah, and then after crossing a dried river, up the other side of the gorge, where knuckles were whitened a little further. Eventually we came to the village of Balid Sayt, ringed by high rocky hills and invisible until you get to the ridge that overlooks it. Its name is a derivation of lforgotten village" as one of the famous warlords who came through sacked every other village in the area but didn't know this one existed. Tom wondered what it was called before the warlord came through... 

It's handsome from a distance. A romantic ruin of a mud brick fortress stands at its highest point. Clustered around are small blocky mud buildings, and around the village as a whole an elaborate system of terraces fed by the falaj. 

Closer up, Balid Sayt is just a rather plain little hill village with goat droppings on the pathways lots of patches roofs and a fair bit of rubbish strewn about. And why not. It's a real place with real people who have probably always led a fairly simple farming existence. It is just about on the tourist trail but there was a sense in the guidebook that tourists are tolerated rather than welcomed. The advice was to dress modestly and park outside the village. The former was easy enough but we followed the official parking sign and ended up in the village anyway. Being lunchtime there was hardly anyone about. Voices drifted down from square, windows barred with iron or wood. A smell of spices competed with the smell of goat in the alleyways and I was tempted to knock and a door and put that whole hospitality thing to the test. 

A couple of black-clad women with kids waved and smiled to Tom and we saw a few other women in distinctive red shawls but otherwise all was quiet. We found our way up to the ruin and bent through the door that was designed to stop invaders in their tracks. There was a lovely view across the cultivated valley. All was peaceful.  

The road from Balad Sayt up to  the highest point - Sharafat Al Alamayn -climbs nine hundred meters in eleven kilometres. It's a hang-on-to-the-steering-wheel kind of ascent with the views growing bigger at every hairpin. We stopped to pick up a young Omani guy walking with a bag of groceries up the track. His face was burnished from the sun and he seemed glad we stopped for him even though he wasn't hitching. We took him a couple of K and he motioned us to stop when a small settlement appeared on the plateau beside us. He hopped down the hillside and his blue gown was soon invisible in the scrub. 

At the very top, the road becomes tarmac and we stopped to admire the view. It was too hazy to see clearly and we couldn't find Jebel Shams, the highest point in Oman, which was looming over us. Apparently. Or then again, not, in fact. The drive down on smooth, wide tarmac felt like flying. The next range of snaggly rock summits arranged itself before us as we descended. Soon we reached the pleasant, prosperous-looking town of Al Hamra and stopped for an ice-cream at the "We love Ice-Cream and Nuts" shop. We ordered by colour. Philippa's turned out to be bubblegum flavour, Mine was a delicious white vanilla and Tom's was bilious green Turkish Delight. Which was a first for him and an instant success as he loves Turkish Delight. 

Our base here though is Misfah, up a wiggly road from Al Hamra. Here we must dress modestly, covering knees and shoulders, not take photos of people without asking and not make nuisances of ourselves. All perfectly reasonable. Why should people have their way of life spoiled by lumbering westerners crashing about in speedos snapping everything that moves with an iPhone. The path through the village to Misfah Old House is rock worn smooth and shiny by generations of feet. The house itself is surrounded by big date palms on the edge of a steep terrace by the falaj, which, as I write, is rushing with water. A frog is going "groyyyk" somewhere close and we have heard the call to prayer from three different mosques, the song echoing off the cliffs. Two nights here in a room exactly like the living quarters we saw in the Nakhal fort with arched alcoves, wooden pegs sticking out of the walls for hanging things and small shuttered windows at floor height to catch the breeze. We will sleep on mattresses on rugs in the floor. Well, I think. 

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To the Lebanese cafe for breakfast. "No coffee, so sorry".. OK so back to the juices then and omelette with a little cheese, lots of sliced tomato and cucumber, various pickles and a huge stack of flatbread which we snaffled for lunch. The rental agency delivered our four wheel drive and we went to Carrefour. As you do in Oman. It was the most pristine, gleaming shopping mall In The World. Not a thing out of place and a man on a ride-on floor cleaner following us down the aisles. There were apples from Iran and rambutan from Thailand and we bought both, along with a coolbag's worth of other bits and pieces and then we were finally off to the mountains. The motorway followed the coast from a distance, through low-rise suburbs and scrub. Occasionally we saw camels in fenced compounds. Slowly the busy Muscat traffic peeled away and after a couple of missed turns and next-exit u-turns we angled away from the invisible sea towards the misty outline of the mountains. 

Nakhal marks the point where the mountains start. Its big fort has been renovated and looks like a set from the Arabian Knights. For a pound each we had the run of the place, with just a handful of other tourists around. Tom was straight up the precarious ladder into a lookout tower We also found the jail with a set of stocks in it, and the date storage room and the men's quarters placed at the side of the fort that takes advantage of the prevailing breezes. The women's quarters took advantage of the prevailing heat. It all smelt of clay and stone dust. Ancient rifles had been hung around the mud walls. It felt like we had finally arrived in Oman.

Leaving Nakhal, the smooth curving tarmac got narrower and narrower, then became concrete, then dirt. Then it got steeper. And steeper; threading through dips in the rocky ridges and skirting the cliff which fell away beside us. The sat nav guided us all the way here to Bait Bimmah and dinner is served in fifteen minutes. As we recline, a large bat is picking off the moths over our heads. 

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Does anywhere sound more exotic than "Muscat"?  It summons images of camel trains arriving from the Empty Quarter, traders from Zanzibar moored up in weatherbeaten dhows along the quay and a general aroma of cardamon, frankincense and goat. Yes, well it's not like that at all in fact. 

Once, Muscat was its own Sultanate, cut off from the rest of Oman by the mountains, and heavily fortified along the coast thanks to the Portuguese who colonised it.. But they were kicked out and in the 1970s, with the discovery of oil and the seizure of power by a new Sultan, Muscat was Modernised. Not like the skyscraper forest of Dubai, but more like a posher version of what it used to be. Low rise buildings with castellated walls, broad avenues - of smooth tarmac.   There are also narrow alleyways with small apartment blocks and washing hanging from balconies but much of the character of the city has been lost. For a while though it remained a fairly closed society. To visit required the endorsement of an Omani resident and it wasn't until 1983 that the first organised group of fourteen tourists was admitted. Today, there's a cruise ship moored in the harbour. 

We went first to the fish market at one end of the corniche along the waterfront. It's a modern building with a metal roof like a shoal of fish flowing over it. Inside on metal tables, gleaming tuna, a pile of orange roughy - one still flapping - fish with green bodies and tangerine-coloured fins. The sellers are used to tourists and a couple posed for photos holding fish and knives up with a grin. But most of the people there were buying fish not photographing them. 

At 10am the temperature was already in the upper thirties. We went from one shady spot to the next along the corniche towards the Muttrah Souq, the biggest in Oman. You enter beneath a heavy beamed roof and into a maze of covered alleys. It wasn't the crush we expected. They are used to tourists and every stall holder was out front with a special price for something, but it was done with a smile and no-one chased you along the alley as can be the way of such places. Lots of pashminas and Aladdin lamps and tourist bric-a-brac. But off the main alleys there were Omanis doing their weekly shopping for clothes and fabrics, lightbulbs and batteries. No-one tried to get our attention here. We bought some bits and pieces and haggled the stall holders down to prices that were probably only two or three times the locals' price but less, we hoped, than what the cruise ship passengers were paying. It was fun. The people were all relaxed and friendly. A relatively high standard of living means there wasn't the desperation for a sale that can be hard to deal with in other places. 

We took a cab to Old Muscat from Muttrah. "Twenty Euro?" Said the cabbie optimistically. He settled for 3 Ryal in the end (about 7 Euros). Old Muscat is old only in the sense that this was where the old bit of Muscat used to be. Now it is marble government buildings, the Sultan's Palace and a series of museums. We went to the National Museum of Oman and it was clearly designed to be a no-expense-spared showcase for the nation. It has the oldest hand made item ever found in the Arabian peninsula; a handy looking axe head that was two million years old. But there were boats of wood planking sewn together with coconut rope, curving scimitars and parrying shields made from rhino and hippo skins. I liked the detail about the rigid rules relating to hospitality, that anyone who arrives at your door has to be treated as an honoured guest; fed and given a place to sleep. The point was made that in a desert you are totally reliant on others to bring you news of the world around you and if you don't feed them when they need it, they won't come any more. Possibly because they will be dead. It was a great introduction to this place. Originally, the Omanis were only from the interior of the country. Those on the coast were Persians, Baluchs, Indians and other merchant stock. There's a sense of it being several tribal nations knitted together, and the faces and the subtly different clothing styles reveal the genetic variety. Wilfred Thessiger talks about the aquiline beauty of the Rashid in the desert and there are some striking looking people here. Tall, with high cheekbones, fierce eyebrows, very dark skin and gleaming teeth. The Omani women mostly wear black abeyas but some sparkle with diamant√© at the hem and others reveal bright coloured trousers as they walk. They cover their hair but very few cover their faces. 

By 5 the light was already beginning to glow and cast long shadows. After a quick photocall at the Sultan's colourful palace, we headed for the beach and a meal overlooking the water. There were people strolling the glowing sand and lads parading their cars along the strip...some things never change. 

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Pix to come!

We are reclining on cushions spread beneath a palm frond roof. One end of it is supported by a twisted olive tree with shaggy bark, leaning precariously towards us. There is a day's heat humming up through the rugs on the concrete floor; birds are tweeting-in the evening and crickets are striking up across the mountainside. A breath of a breeze rattles dry leaves. We're in Bait Bimmah, a collection of stone huts in the floor of a valley in the Hajar mountains. It offers dinner, b&b for those of us prepared to do the knuckle-whitening drive over the narrow dirt track along the canyons. 

So, Oman then.  It's our second day here and first impressions are of a laid back sort of place. Quiet, friendly, and immaculately clean. There is not a scrap of rubbish anywhere and apparently there is a law that cars have to be kept free of dirt (true!). Most of it (82%) is desert and though we are into autumn here now, it is on the warm side. Like 38 in the celcius. 

We arrived at the airport at about 6.30pm two days ago, and braced ourselves for a two hour scrum to get our tourist visa, go through immigration and pick up our bags. The whole process took roughly fifteen minutes. It was far and away the easiest international airport experience I have ever had. And there was our taxi waiting for us, with a tall, strikingly good looking Omani driver in ankle-length dishdasha and white embroidered cap. 

Muscat has many of the attributes of a modern western city. Busy freeways, gleaming new cars, neon everywhere, KFC, Burger King, the orange glare of street lights. But also the slim pillars of minarets, and the domes of their mosques, picked out in white floodlights. 

Our hotel could have been anywhere, with much marble and white leather furniture.  But the guy at reception could not have been friendlier or more welcoming, and recommended a cafe down the street for supper. "Beirut" has no pretensions, but fresh, plentiful Lebanese food and the juice of just about any fruit you can name. Once you have eaten well in a new place, it feels like it's all going to work out. 

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