Tag Archives: Mountains

Day 10 – Caught in the wind, darling, and the reindeer

Thursday 8th July 2021. The Fosshotel Austfirðir continued to not particularly impress over breakfast. Slow replenishment of items on the buffet, and staff not seeming to be particularly keen on keeping the selection refreshed. I think this hotel is definitely suffering from the pandemic-induced shortage of trained staff in the hospitality industry – just like the UK, really. I’m sure things will improve in time (just like the UK, really); but it’s interesting that the Fosshotel in Myvatn managed to provide a decent service (despite clearly being short-staffed) whereas this one, well, didn’t. Anyway, nobody died and we got a decent breakfast, so we were well set up for the day.

Oh, I nearly forgot to provide the utterly essential comment on the weather outlook for the day. It was good. Sunny and warm. Better than at home, so yah boo.

Before we set off on the day’s travels, Jane and I decided to have a walk around Fáskrúðsfjörður, which is a small town, but not unattractive. The hotel itself is photogenic.

We came across an extraordinary hanging basket of flowers.

The pot was originally used a century ago to melt liver in the the local whale factory, and then for salting fish, just so you know.

Also intriguing were the street signs, which were all in both Icelandic and French.

Apparently the town was a centre for French sailors and fishermen, back in the Good Ol’ Herring Days, so this street-naming is a tribute to their history, and the hotel itself combines historic buildings previously made for French fishermen in the years between 1898-1907: the French hospital, the Doctor’s house, and the Chapel.

The town has a nice little church

and several other interestingly decorated buildings.

and I was able to get a decent reflection photo at the small harbour.

As with yesterday, churches would figure quite large in the day. The first town we passed through, Stöðvarfjörður, provided not one but two Interesting Churches for our collection. One is the old church, Kirkjubaer, now used as a guest house.

and from which you can see the new church,

which is quite a striking building.

Another feature of the town is “Petra’s Stone Collection“, which is a good example of how far short a name can fall in describing something. Petra Sveinsdottir collected stones and kept them in her house. You can go and see them. This is true, but doesn’t prepare you for the impact of the place.

There are literally tons of stone samples, from all over Iceland, which Petra personally collected over the many years of her life and which are now on display in the house – and the garden.

All of the outdoor stones have to be cleaned every year, which looks like it’s a massive task. As well, there are quirky items on show, such as this animal made from various odds and sods

It’s a magnificent tribute to a magnificent obsession – I commend her story to you. There are some very lovely things on display; Jane was very taken, for example, with this small but perfect piece.

Stone actually was a key factor at and en route to our next stop, just along the coast. Iceland provided some typically dramatic rocky scenery as we went.

We stopped along the side of Berufjörður to look at an unusual geological sight – “Green Rock” (the Google Maps description, not mine; I would have sought something a little less literal and a little more, well, intriguing).

Whatever the key mineral was – we never found out – there was plenty lying around on the beach.

The next stop was a waterfall. Well, it’s a while since I showed you a waterfall photo, so here you go:

This waterfall is set on the river Fossá, and is one of several along the river. I suppose that’s why the river is basically called “waterfall”. Anyway, it’s a nice sight, worth a few minutes to set up the long-exposure shot.

By this stage, the idea of lunch was beginning to appeal, so we stopped in Djúpivogur. Before we could eat, though, there was another Interesting Church to add to our collection.

as well as a very striking artwork along the edge of the harbour called “Eggin í Gleðivík” (“The Eggs of Merry Bay”).

This is an artwork by the popular Icelandic visual artist, Sigurður Guðmundsson. There are 34 eggs, each representing a local bird.

We had a nice lunch in Hotel Framtid (“Hotel Future”), in the dining room which seemed more like someone’s living room from the past – very homely and comforting.

The rest of the afternoon was spent staggering about in whistling gales around a kind of “East and West” matched pair of mountains, Eystrahorn

and Vestrahorn.

We spent a lot of time scrambling around and trying to keep our balance in the windy conditions to take several different views of Vestrahorn, but actually the first one I took, above, with the lupins, is the one I like most. Note the “Batman” rocks to the right of the picture:

Also on offer to the unwary tourist at Vestrahorn is a visit to a “Viking Village”. This was actually a film set for a film about Vikings to be directed by one Baltasar Kormákur, who is a recognised Hollywood director and was briefly related to our guide Dagur until his (allegedly frequent) philandering caused a marital split. Anyway, we trudged over towards it

only to find that the years of neglect (we don’t think it was ever used) have taken their toll and it’s rather dilapidated.

There’s evidence of the nice touches that were used, for example the authentic-looking carving around the doors.

so I guess it was worth the visit, but only just; it could really do with a lot of maintenance if they wish to charge the entry fee they do.

As we exited the Vestrahorn site, Jane suddenly asked Dagur, urgently, to stop. Her sharp eyes had spotted something that’s quite rare in Iceland these days – wild reindeer.

It was good to see these creatures just pottering about without being spooked by anyone and it was a nice end to the day’s relentless tourism. All that was left was to get to a nearby town called Höfn and check into our hotel, imaginatively called the Hotel Höfn. We had an agreeable evening meal, with good service from a waiter called Philip, from Prague, whom we learnt has spent the last five summers working in Iceland whilst he studies for his degree in International Relations. Whatever that entails (other than talking to foreigners…)

We are now in South-eastern Iceland, officially in the southern region, and distinguishing features of the area are mountains and glaciers. Tomorrow we are promised a ride on a Zodiac RIB and a glacial lake, which is either going to be fascinating and fun or freezing cold and wet. Tune in tomorrow to find out how it worked out, eh?

Oman Day 2 – The Cattle Market

Friday Feb 22. It was a chilly dawn; the wind that had whistled and moaned during the night had dwindled but not desisted, so our early (0600!) breakfast, while excellent, was taken quite hastily. Ironically, the tea we were offered by default was – you guessed it – Twinings Earl Grey, which made something of a mockery of our smugly eschewing packing it so that we could experience the mystery of the Arab world. However, the free supply of Earl Grey was always very welcome.

Very soon after breakfast we bundled ourselves into the relative warmth of the car to take us to our first item on the day’s agenda – a cattle market in Nizwa.

The sunrise, though cold, was pretty

and led to some lovely views over the mountains.

So, off we bumped (honestly, neck and core muscles get a thorough workout travelling these tracks; even with the expert driving of Rashid, I was still banging my head on the window pillar occasionally. I hereby apologise to Hud Hud Travels for the resultant damage to their motor).

We had to make an early start in order to get to the Nizwa cattle market (which happens every Friday, that being the start of the weekend in these here parts) whilst there was worthwhile action taking place. And action there was – a central platform around which sheep, goats and cattle were paraded with auction staff trying to conclude deals with the surrounding crowds. Here are a couple of photos, but to understand the dynamism and noise of what was going on, see the video below.

Nizwa Cattle Market Scene, Oman

Nizwa Cattle Market Scene, Oman

Nizwa Cattle Market Scene, Oman

A video gives a much better idea of the considerable bedlam quotient of the market.

Then Rashid took us around the souk which adjoins the cattle market site, which has many conventional types of market stall,

Nizwa Souq scenes, Oman

but also features racks of dates (of which there are some 38 varieties in Oman):

Buying Dates, Nizwa Souq, Oman

(and there’s a booth where visitors are offered coffee and dates);

Coffee and Dates, Nizwa Souq, Oman

a local sweet called halwa;

Buying Halwa, Nizwa Souq, Oman

which always contains saffron, alongside a selection of other sweet ingredients;

Halwa flavourings, Nizwa Souq, Oman

live birds and other animals (some for eating, some for pets);

Buying and Selling animals, Nizwa Souq, Oman

Buying and Selling animals, Nizwa Souq, Oman

even guns are for sale

Selling guns in Nizwa Souq, Oman

Buying and Selling Guns, Nizwa Souq, Oman

though one wonders, sometimes, if people have the right idea!

Buying and Selling Guns, Nizwa Souq, Oman

It’s not at all clear why the trade in guns is so brisk, since hunting is forbidden in Oman. Still, boys will be boys, eh?

There are plenty of stalls selling tourist fodder,

Nizwa Souq scene, Oman

and we spotted this group of old chaps sitting around and talking among themselves.

Nizwa Souq scene, Oman

All in all, Nizwa on a Friday morning is a busy and buzzy place.

Another major tourist attraction in Nizwa is its fort. Many towns had forts to repel bands of maraudings Riffs (often, it seems, coming from Nizwa itself) but in most cases thes forts are disused and in a poor state. Many are being recontructed, and the one in Nizwa is a shining example – so much so that it was formally reopened by Oman’s ruler, the widely loved and respected Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said.

Castle courtyard outside Niwa Fort

The fort itself is the circular tower, and the building which encloses it is Nizwa Castle. The castle courtyard beside the entrance to the fort proper plays host to a variety of things – occasional displays of dancing and singing

an elegant display of the local air conditioning technology,

Aircon, Oman style, in Nizwa Fort

(porous flasks filled with water, which slowly seeps through and evaporates in the wind, cooling the remaining water in the flask – which has a cup in the neck to allow for drinking and to keep the flies out – and also the room inside);

and demonstrations of the making of Omani bread, which is wafer-thin. The making of it is very interesting – the sort of skill that years of practice makes look easy.

Inside the fort there are several exhibit rooms, including some interesting photos of before, during and after its reconstruction. If you’re not careful, you come across singers and dancers in the corridors.

At the entrance to the fort can be found four patches of light on the floor, like this one

Bottom of the defensive shaft

If you stand on one and look up, you see that there is a shaft going straight up to the top of the tower.

Looking up the defensive shaft

It turns out that these shafts guard every entrance to the fort and defenders can use them to pour boiling date syrup onto intruders. This is very nasty stuff which sticks to the skin as it burns it, so it’s a powerful deterrent.

If you go to the roof of the fort you can see the tops of the four shafts (as well as wells and access hatches to high security prison cells)

The roof of Nizwa Fort, shoing the four defensive shafts

The roof is an attractive scene

The roof of Nizwa Fort

and offers good views over Nizwa, including its Grand Mosque

Nizwa Grand Mosque

an idea of what cannon might have once fired on

Defensive emplacement

and a panorama across its huge date plantation.

Lunch was taken in Wadi Tanulf, which was (yet) another dramatic setting.

Along the sides of the wadi are some openings which have been used by people living there and tending goats – good choice of domicile, since it’s close to water, if there is any.

Wadi Tanulf Scene

There are also openings much higher up. Anyone who lived here must have been pretty fit!

The afternoon’s activity was a walk up Wadi Ghul, which we had looked across yesterday. Now we had the opportunity to walk along part of it. Rashid took us as far along as the car would go, and then sent us off to explore. As ever the geology was quite epic, with huge boulders litering the bed of the wadi

and impressive rock formations.

Wadi Tanulf Scene

Wadi Tanulf Scene

Wadi Tanulf Scene

For a country which is so dry, rain seems to cause a lot of problems. We came across this car, which (we know) is a rental car and (we think) must have been caught in a flash flood – it certainly wasn’t going any further!

It seems to be routine that after rainfall some tracks and roads are badly disrupted by rockfalls. The rainfall doesn’t even have to be torrential. Because the land is so dry, whatever rain falls just runs off immediately, hence creating a perpetual danger of flash floods. If you find a decent road surface, you can be sure that there’s a storm drain beside it to funnel the water away; and among the hills there is a lot of evidence of the erosion that shapes the landscape, even in this dry country.

After the walk, it was time to get back to our camp on Jabal Shams. The wind had died down a bit, but this was merely going from icy chain saw to freezing scalpel. I attempted to do some writing (these blogs don’t write themselves, you know) and Jane wandered off to look for – and found – some rock drawings that Patrick had mentioned (and some he hadn’t found, too!). These have presumably been done by the people living up in the mountains in times gone by, although it’s difficult to get any kind of detail.

A donkey? (above) and a camel (below)?

and a horse? (below)

But the cold drove us, after another excellent evening meal, to another early-night-with-hot-water-bottle. At least this time we weren’t having to get up at 5am, but in a more leisurely fashion so that we could depart for the next stage of our holiday – two days by the beach at Barr Al-Hikman. The promise was of warmth, which sounded great to frozen ears. Read the next gripping instalment to see how things went.

Oman, Day 1 – starting off on the wrong boot

Wednesday Feb 20 – Thursday Feb 21. So, at last! The day of our departure for our Oman adventure, under the aegis of a company engagingly called Hud Hud Travels*, had arrived! Our itinerary took us around northern Oman, taking in mountains, beach and desert before a final few days in Muscat, the capital city of Oman. Jane was excited; I was apprehensive, since the first three locations were in camping sites. OK, special, luxurious, private camping sites, but nonetheless…..

*Hud Hud is the Arabic word for a bird, the Hoopoe

Our flight to Oman was not until the evening – 1945, to be precise. One might be forgiven for thinking “what a luxury – the whole day to pack and get everything just right before a smooth departure for the airport in a taxi”.

That was the theory, and it worked in almost every respect. We ended up with lots of time on our hands and so we relaxed with a final cup of tea (for we had decided to revolutionise our holiday experience by not taking tea bags with us in order to experience the full mystique of the Arab way of life, don’cha know?). Then suddenly the taxi was there and so we piled in, and negotiated a curious route to the airport in order to avoid the inevitable rush-hour congestion on the M25. It was only when walking towards security at Heathrow that I realised I had forgotten to change into the walking boots I had carefully set aside for the trip as we had been told that there would be some hiking involved. In the great scheme of things, this doesn’t count as a disaster, but I wasted a certain amount of champagne drinking time cursing my own stupidity.

There are no shops in Heathrow Terminal 5 which will sell you walking boots.

Anyway, the rest of the travel went very well. We had lashed out on Premium Economy, the aeroplane was a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and so we had a comfortable, if somewhat sleep-deprived, flight.

We were met in Muscat by our guide, Rashid, whose English was fluent if uniquely quirky, grammatically speaking, but who proved himself to be an excellent, thoughtful and knowledgeable guide. I’d been expecting a chance to sit down, have a coffee and get a briefing on what to expect for the day. But off we drove straight away, and before I knew it, there we were in the midst of our first Omani market, the fish market in Barka, a town neighbouring Muscat. I confess to being on the back (unsuitably shod) foot, so I didn’t get photos and videos that I feel really captured it. Like other markets we visited, it was crowded and noisy, with all the buying and selling being done by men

Barka Fish Market
with many counters selling fish that had been caught that day

(above, Rashid poses beside one of the counters).

Outside the fish market area there was also a thriving trade in non-fish items. Across the road was the area where the fish are brought in, by fishermen on small boats. Sadly there was no action to photograph, but Rashid explained a little bit of the way the system works. People on the quay buy the catch off incoming fishermen and then sell it on to other people who operate in the market. Sometimes these people sell the fish direct, but often they split the catch and sell different parts either to different traders, or to people who further prepare (e.g. fillet or salt-preserve) the fish before selling it on. Complex and multi-level, but lots of opportunities for individuals to make their cut. I couldn’t make head or tail of it and couldn’t see money changing hands; but it clearly works.

Fish market duly visited, we were off again towards the next destination. We considered the idea of buying me some trainers or some such, but then decided that the shoes I was wearing (M&S finest Nubuck) would probably be OK. All that self-cursing was wasted emotional energy. Like it almost always is.

As we left the Muscat area, the terrain changed quite abruptly, and it was clear that we were heading towards the mountains.

So, via a stop to buy some snacks, we headed towards our next destination, en route to which we got our first initiation into what many of the roads in Oman are like.

Oman Mountain Road

Rashid parked up some way along the track at the start of something he called “Snake Gorge” (heaven knows what it is in Arabic), and we got out to take a look.

Snake Gorge, Oman

This was, had I known it, the first test of my footwear choice. I thought we had merely stopped for a photo opportunity, but no, this was going to be a bit of a hike, including wading through shin-deep water. So, while I think I would have been happier leaping from rock to rock in boots, I would still have gone barefoot for the wading bit.

I’m not quite sure how to describe Omani mountain scenery. It demands to be photographed, but it’s a bit stark to be what I’d call “picturesque”. Here are some snaps from our hike.

Snake Gorge, Oman

The water, Rashid told us, was from rain which had fallen a couple of weeks earlier. So it was somewhat surprising to see small fish in the pools left after the bulk of the rainwater had cleared, and even toads, who were making the most of their time together.

It’s not clear how they got there – perhaps washed down from further up in the mountains? We also saw a rather striking red dragonfly

Red dragonfly on rock

whose pose also gave a chance for a close-up of the striated rock prevalent on our route.

The rest of the day was spent travelling towards our camp, which was near the top of a mountain called Jabal Shams (“Sun Mountain”). We stopped off for some opportunities to see the stunning views that can be found in the Omani mountains:

Balad Sayt Plantation, Oman

Al Hajir

(above is a view of a village called Al Hajir. I hereby apologise to the residents if I have the spelling wrong.)

Hajar Mountain Scenery

Hajar Mountain Road, Oman

In the photo above, if you look carefully you can see a tiny patch of green by the road going down the middle of the shot. This turns out to be a small but perfectly-formed artificial grass football pitch, called “Peter’s Pitch”.

"Peter's Pitch" - Audi Football Field

It was apparently set up there for a film shoot and was left there afterwards. Peter, Rashid told us, was an itinerant occidental who provided funds so that the pitch could be kept there for the locals to use.

The mountain scenery during our journey was remarkable. Here’s a typical panorama:

And even our lunch stop, at a place called Al Sharaf, had a pretty nifty view.

After lunch we stopped in a village called Al-Hamra. Yes, it’s the same derivation as that of the famous palace complex in Spain. Hamra means red, and that comes from the distinctive colour of the mud used in the original buildings, seen here from across the valley. It dries to the shade of brown you see here.

Al Hamra, Oman, seen from across its plantation

In the foreground is the town’s plantation of date palms. Date palms are incredibly important to the Omanis. Not only do they provide dates (duh!), but the trunks, sawn lengthwise, can be used for roof beams; the leaves can be used in buildings as shade for the upper floors. The leaves are fibrous and can be dried to provide all sorts of fencing and screening; leaf fibres woven into mats and baskets; and the central stalks of the leaves are strong enough to be used in roofing (see later for our short visit to a bedouin home).

The old village itself has plenty of original buildings

Al Hamra, Oman

and the town, in common with many in the area, has a watch tower

Al Hamra's Watch Tower. Oman

which in days gone by provided a vantage point to watch for invaders from nearby Nizwa, which was wont to send out raiding parties for food and females when they ran short themselves.

We also stopped to take a look at parts of a river called Wadi Ghul and the now-abandoned village on its banks

Wadi Ghul, Oman, abandoned village

You can see the sweep of the original from the ruins of the fort on the hill to the left, to the village buildings on the right. Notice that the date palm plantation and other irrigated plantations, are still intact, and maintained by the modern day village from which this photo was taken. Oman is a very dry country and considerable care and ingenuity goes into preserving what rain falls and using it for irrigation (desalination plants are also an important part of providing water to the Oman population).

Then, as we were heading towards sunset, we approached our camp. It was first visible from across the valley

It’s there, honest – towards the top of the hill on the right…

yes, there…

…ah, there it is. We bumped our way along a very rudimentary track and caught sight of it again.

Our tents are in the background; this side of them are the tents for the crew who would support us for our two-day stay. We were greeted by Patrick, the camp manager, who then showed us round our facilities: our bedroom tent

with its bathroom tent behind and to the left; and the majlis tent, where we could relax.

It was getting quite late by that stage, so there was nothing for it but to crack open the gin (bought at Oman Airport duty free) and make the most of what sunshine there was before the temperature dropped.

Which it did, like a stone, with the chill exacerbated by a pretty stiff breeze. This weather somewhat informed my initial assessment of the practice of camping (I have put my thoughts about camping on a separate medium as I try to keep the langage on this blog fairly moderate).

Before long we were eating a superb dinner lit by fire- and candlelight, sitting in front of the majlis.

but gradually becoming colder and colder, despite the fire. So we retired as soon as decently possible to a very comfortable bed, made even more welcoming by the presence of a hot water botttle for each of us. We did eventually get warm, but sleep was rendered elusive by (a) the wind, which was very noisy, both in itself and by making the tent creak and flap and (b) the knowledge that we had to get up at 5am to wring the most out of our experiences the next day. I thought this was supposed to be a bloody holiday!

Anyway, warmth and sleep eventually arrived and so we passed the night in reasonable comfort. To find out what happpened on day 2, you’ll have to read the next entry, won’t you? See you there!