Tag Archives: Tourism

So – Oman, eh?

Our final day was spent entirely at leisure, giving us ample time to wander the grounds of the hotel taking photos – it really is very nicely arranged.

Then, with a cry of “Ready, Chedi, Go” ((c) the distaff side) it was time to pack, take a final contemplative gin and ponder on the last few days. At this point, let me remind you about that Times article about the country and its Sultan.

I think the keys to what we saw in our ten days in Oman, and particularly our time under canvas, are: Planning; Preparation; and Persistence.

Despite my carping about camping, the team at Hud Hud Travels did a simply outstanding job of making it appear easy to offer top service whilst operating under difficult situations, such as having a kitchen up a mountain or in the desert, for God’s sake!

Above: Lakshan in his desert kitchen.

Above: Chanaka and Patrick in the service area of their desert tent.

Patrick and Devon managed the camps superbly and I still find it awesome that all that stuff was set up and run specifically and only for the two of us – planning and preparation of the highest quality.

Add to this the enthusiasm, energy and expertise of Rashid, and the result was that Jane and I were able to experience aspects of Oman that were simply not available any other way. The luxurious comfort of our stay at the Chedi was hugely relaxing and enjoyable, but also felt starkly at odds with the realities of life we’d seen in the previous days.

I still have strong reservations about camping, but I also admit that my experience would have been less trying with better planning and preparation on my part. Remembering to take my walking boots would have helped, for example, as would a more suitable choice of night attire and other footwear.

But the award for most admirable planning, preparation and particularly persistence has to go to the people of Oman who live in the desert and the mountains. For them, there is no electricity; water quite possibly arrives only once a week on the back of a 4×4 truck; food may well be shared between those who have and those who have not. Theirs is a tough, tough life, unimaginable to a soft westerner such as myself, perched precariously on a higher level of the Maslow pyramid; and yet they live it with patience and determination and they live it well. It was remarkable to see the effusiveness, humour and mutual respect in their interactions as we experienced the different environments. For these people, planning and preparation is not just for comfort, it’s a matter of life and death; and their persistence in making it work is at once admirable and bemusing.

I now return to a life with all mod cons and creature comforts, and I do so gladly, for I have been habituated to such a life and can’t easily cope with any other. But at least I do so with my eyes opened wider and my horizons broadened further, thanks to the efforts of all of the people who have made the last ten days truly memorable.

Oman Day 7 – Back to “civilisation” with a bump

Wednesday Feb 27. So this was it – our goodbye to the camps that the Hud Hud Travels team had so splendidly set up and run just for us – sad in a way, but holding out the tingling anticipation, at the end of the day, of:

  • getting online
  • unlimited running hot water
  • unlimited electricity

I may not be as jaundiced about camping as I was earlier in the week, but still my heart leapt at the prospect of all of the above.

However, there was packing to be done and breakfast to be had before we said our goodbyes and headed off for the day’s adventures. These largely centred around a drive over the Hajar mountains, widely touted as the most scenic drive in these ‘ere parts. Touted correctly, too, in my opinion. The road itself is a bit of a bone shaker

Hajar Mountain scenery, Oman

(and should not under any circumstances be undertaken in anything but a robust 4×4 – see later) but offers some really spectacular scenery.

Hajar Mountain scenery, Oman

 

Hajar Mountain scenery, Oman

Hajar Mountain scenery, Oman

Hajar Mountain scenery, Oman

You’ll notice in the last of these that there’s a village nestling among the savage scenery. This, and others, are inhabited by people who have lived in the Hajar mountains for generations. For them, life is simple, spelt t-o-u-g-h, but it’s one they know and when the government, in an enlightened attempt to make life better for them, builds an entire village for them

Government-built housing in Hajar mountains

the uptake is quite low, according to Rashid. However, the younger generation are more prepared to move and so eventually social housing projects such as this may well be fully populated, and the problems of delivering water, electricity and life’s other essentials to the remote areas of the Hajar mountains may well diminish.

At the high point of the drive is the Salma plateau. If you want my opinion, it’s a bit up-and-down to be credibly called a plateau

Hajar Mountain scenery, Oman

but I suppose everything’s relative. Anyhoo, the most interesting feature of the plateau are the “beehive tombs”, some 28 of which can be found here, with many more in other locations such as Al-Ayn and Al Khtum.

"Beehive" tombs, Oman

"Beehive" tombs, Oman

Above are two of the well-preserved ones, but many have decayed. The workmanship on them is quite remarkable.

"Beehive" tombs, Oman

Jane crawled inside one to see what it was like inside.

As you continue the drive, you can look back and see the ones which have survived over the centuries.

On we drove, enjoying the spectacular mountain scenery.

until we came to a village nestled in the middle of all this rockery!

The question naturally occurred to me – why the actual do people set up a habitation in such remote parts? Rashid’s answer was simple – they found water, and had developed skills in locating sources of water which enabled them to perpetuate this life, tough as it is. This village is called Qorun (I think) and, indeed, is centred around a well.

Above you can see the tanks to which well water is pumped before being loaded on to the water trucks for distribution to the remote parts of the village and other mountain sites, too.

A diversion was provided by a baby donkey, who wondered if we might have some food.

There are wild donkeys in the mountains, but also some which are owned by villagers, along with goats and sheep. If you look in detail at the layout of the village, you can see where the animals are kept.

Theirs are the shelters extending out from caves and hollows higher up the rocks to centre and right of the picture above – but those used to be the actual domiciles of the villagers themselves in times gone by!

After a while we reached the top and crossed over to the point where we could see the coast, and we stopped for lunch in front of yet another stunning view.

(The faint line across the middle is actually the horizon, with the ocean meeting the sky.)

Rashid spent some time explaining elements of the view to us, whilst around us there was a certain amount of wildlife activity. We were inspected by goats

A goat in the Hajar Mountains, Oman

donkeys

Wild donkeys in the Hajar Mountains, Oman

and, delightfully, Egyptian vultures.

(we think we spotted a Turkey vulture as well, but are not entirely sure. It’s amazing that Oman has to import its wildlife from other middle eastern countries, don’t you think?)

Lunch over, we made the descent to the coastal plain. This is where a 4×4 – and an experienced driver like Rashid – becomes essential, as the road is incredibly steep in places – difficult to convey photographically, but here’s my best shots.

Hajar Mountain Road, Oman

We saw a few more features on the way down: a face in the rocks;

the caves where mountain people used to live;

Mountain dwellers' caves, Oman

and another government housing project intended to encourage these folk to live in better accommodation which so far languishes mainly empty, since the people refuse to move.

We finally made it down to the coastal plain and spent a few minutes cruising the (lovely, smooth, tarmac) coastal road near a town called Fins looking for gazelles, since this is the coastal end of a reserve called Ras al Shajar. We saw a few, but they’re quite shy, so I have many photos of their back ends as they ran away.

Arabian gazelle, Oman

Then Rashid took us to see something that is, on the face of it, a bit strange – a Frankincense tree. It was rather marvellous to see something in real life that I had previously only come across as a biblical reference. So here it is – the only Frankincense tree in northern Oman:

Frankincense tree, North Oman

There are, Rashid told us, many in southern Oman, around Salalah, but this is the only one in north Oman. I’m not sure I can understand why people haven’t taken cutings from it to make other trees (because you can see where cuttings have been taken), but there we are. Rashid also told us about male and female Frankincense. Looking closely at the tree, this is a patch of female

Female Frankincense sap

and this of male

Male Frankincense sap

They are subtly dfferent in the scent they produce, apparently, but I’m only a bloke so I don’t really understand these things. The tree was in flower, so here’s your chance to see Frankincense flowers.

Frankincense flower, North Oman

Our next tourist stop-off (because by this stage I’d begun to feel that we were ticking the boxes – gazelles, tick, Frankincense tree, tick) was Hawiyat Najm, or the Sink-hole park. There’s maybe nothing unusual in yer average sink hole, but this one is slightly unusual in that it’s fed by both fresh water, from the mountains, and salt water, from the sea. Anyway, there are steps down into it and you can go swim in it if you like – after you’ve paid to get in, of course. Like Wadi Bani Khaled, this is very much a tourist spot, but it’s quite strking.

So there we were – all the boxes ticked and it was finally time to go to the hotel which would be our home for the next four nights – the Chedi, in Muscat. This is a seriously posh joint and I’m entirely pleased to report that we were upgraded to one of their Executive Suites, and so have separate bedroom, bathroom, terrace and lounge, which is where I sit and type, for these blogs don’t write themselves, you know. Jane has pointed out that all this luxury seems a bit fake after the gritty reality of life in the mountains or desert. I kind of understand what she’s trying to say, but I’ll grab that unlimited electricity and hot running internet with both hands and be grateful.

Tomorrow, we get to tour the highlights of Muscat, so tune in to the next installment to find out how that went. ‘Bye for now!

Oman Day 3 and 4 – In Transit (well, Toyota Land Cruiser, actually) to, and a day at, the beach

Saturday 23 Feb The day had a fairly relaxed start, as the main objective was just to get to our next camp. This was in Barr al Hikman, by the coast, and a good six hours’ drive; so we weren’t expecting to tick large numbers of tourism boxes. But there was interest and scenery in the day even so.

The first thing we did was to go and peer into the local gorge. Near our Jabal Shams camp was a sheer drop

with a view so staggering that it’s impossible to capture on camera.

see what I mean? I tried various video tricks to capture it and I will post any that worked here in due course. But it was a gorgeous view (see what I did there?)

The first stop on our journey was in a town called Bahla, which has a couple of highlights worth seeing. It enabled me to capture a shot of what a typical set of Omani shops looks like.

These are typical of the small, individual booth-type shops that stand by the roadside (there are national brand shop chains, banks etc as well). By decree of the Sultan all shops display a description of their trade or products in English as well as Arabic, which lends a strange familiarity to a very unfamiliar scene! As it happens, these shops were next door to Bahla’s Grand Mosque, which is a striking building.

Grand Mosque, Bahla, Oman

The main thing that Rashid wanted us to see was the fort, which is being reconstructed, and is a very impressive edifice.

(In front of it is the special local hall for celebrations such as weddings – but for men only. This exercised Jane somewhat, unsurprisingly.)

Rashid also took us to a viewpoint which enabled us to see over the whole of Bahla, showing what a dominant landmark the fort is.

View over Bahla, Oman

A significant endeavour is the wall which runs right round Bahla. It’s of rudimentary mud brick construction, but stretches right round what you can see above. The authorities have also built a rather imposing gate over the main road into town.

Bahla Gate, Oman

On we motored, and the scenery changed dramatically to reflect the sort of landscape that covers a huge part of Oman – basically desert of various sorts. Plain sand

scrubby vegetation revealing the presence of some water

Mirage, Oman

and mirages of non-existent water; and the ever-present risk of bumping into a camel.

Road Sign, Oman

(this means itinerant camels, of course. We also saw another way that you could find camels on the highway:)

Moving camels in bulk, Oman style

This was the scenery that we had for our lunch break.

At about 3.15, we reached Muhut and linked up with the manager of our beach camp, a South African called Devon, who led us on a 50 minute drive over the salt flats to our site – a necessary step, since Rashid didn’t know where the camp was (each camp pretty much gets set up from scratch and the exact location will thus move), and you can get seriously lost when the landscape is nothing but flat sand and scrub. That said, there are markers which those in the know can use, such as this, which shows a fisherman’s track

(my caption for this photo is “The Crate Outdoors”. Thank you. Thank you for listening to my little joke).

Tyres are used to mark junctions.

Tyre as waymark, Coastal desert, Oman

None of this, however, matches good new-fashioned GPS as a navigation aid, which was what got us to our beachside camp at Barr al-Hikman. This was the same in principle as our mountain camp (majlis, bedroom tent, bathroom tent), but in a very different style:

and it was lovely and warm!

We went for a short stroll along the beach to see what was what. Behind the camp is a lagoon where there were actual flamingoes

There were crabs all over the place

and some mystery plants actually growing in the sand.

The rest of the day panned out pretty much along the lines of our previous, mountain, evenings, only without the shivering – so I was actually able to take a sorely-needed shave.

We ended the day with a splendid dinner on the beach in nice temperatures and with a breeze whose coolness was, for a change, welcome.

And we wound down after dinner shooting the breeze with Devon and making our way further down our supply of gin – a pleasant and relaxed end to a wonderfully relaxed day.

The night passed comfortably enough, but for one noisy distraction – a crab had dug and entered a hole below where our tent was sited, and this wasn’t noticed when the tent was pitched. So the poor thing was scratching to get out for much of the night, but was trapped under the ground sheet. Devon rigged up an escape tunnel in the morning, and it looked like the critter got out OK.

The beach camp is basically 90 minutes by 4×4 from anywhere, so it’s not a base for excursions. Our expectations therefore for Day 4 were of sloth. This turned out to be the case.

Sunday Feb 24 Breakfast was at a relaxed 9am

and we spent the day entirely at leisure. Jane took the occasional stroll to look along the beach, coming across a nice selection of objets trouvés

and I took the opportunity to document the holiday so far (these blogs don’t write themselves, you know). We had a lovely lunch and I tried to capture some photos of local wildlife, with distinctly mixed results. We saw sandpipers

curlews

a heron

and any number of the crabs as they burrowed in for the night (not, thankfully, under our tent this time).

Beach crab, Bar Al Hikman, Oman

and we whiled away the day in contented relaxation. Tomorrow we have to transfer to the desert, so the story will continue then – tune in again to find out how it went.