Monthly Archives: December 2012

So this is Christmas…

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He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree

“He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree”

Look what they’ve done…

What we did do was head off to the beach, thereby avoiding all the festive madness and obscene commercialism. Bah Humbug indeed!

Not too far away from home is a secluded beach, just past the village of As Sifah on the east coast Sea of Oman. Arriving on the eve of Christmas we set up camp and did little more than play in the surf, walk along the beach, collect sea-shells, watch the wildlife, marvel at the starlit night sky and sit around a roaring camp fire drinking tea and gazing upon the watery horizon.

holiday home

ho,ho, home

The crashing waves ensured we had a restless night and the breaking dawn woke us nice and early with bright sunlight. It was the big day and presents awaited those who had been good all year with bugger all for those who had not. Two of us belonged to the latter as one eager goody-two-shoes attacked some presents at the end of her sleeping-bag. We emerged from our tent to pose for the traditional, Christmas morning family photo.

The thing on my head is a Shemagh, ok??

The thing on my head is a Mussar, ok??

More idleness, exploring the coastline, bird-watching, gathering driftwood for another evening blaze and some preparations for our sumptuous, festive lunch. When it comes to traditional fare, you can’t beat a roasted big bird or a slab of red meat so, we took out from our cold-box my famous Mackerel pasties accompanied by a limp salad with a splosh of horseradish on the side. It was darn good and there’s no denying it! Foolishly, I had hoped against all hope that Santa would find me and I would be rewarded for my year’s goodness with a bottle of something alcoholic – a can of beer at the very least. So it was, we enjoyed our lunch with nothing more than some iced tea and fizzy pop. Who needs alcohol to enjoy themselves? Well, I do for one! Misery set in and the flies became intolerable, hornets flew in and out constantly, black beetle things buzzed our faces and red ants danced at our feet looking for scraps. To top it all, the mosquitoes had been taking their fill from our tender flesh throughout the night and the itching became our preoccupation as the day wore on. Of course, all of this would have gone unnoticed had we been anaesthetised by some Christmassy alcohol but none of that was forthcoming.

Determined to strip the entire beach of all its shells, we set off once again to expand our collection and further marvel at the flotsam and jetsam that the new tide had brought in. We left our tent and headed south.

Peace (and goodwill to all)

Peace (and goodwill to all)

The sun was strong and we underestimated its harmful rays. A little sunburn to add to our woes but we would not be downhearted for it was time to sit down for our Christmas supper of cheese, biscuits and…

More iced tea!

The sun began to go down and we relaxed to the sound of the tide coming in.

Sunset

Sunset

A raging bonfire warmed our disheartened souls and the mosquitoes flew in for a quick drink as we contemplated the Christmas of others; those with nothing to eat or drink, those with nowhere to live and those queueing at the pub waiting for the doors to open.

The Goat Tavern

The Goat Tavern

The sun finally set.

Finally

Finally

And as the embers of our camp fire glowed in the dark we retired to our tent, exhausted but thoroughly at peace with our lot.

Boxing Day – so called because we traditionally tip tradesmen on the first week after Christmas (one’s Christmas box from employers) – was set off at a leisurely pace for we had nowhere to be and no deadlines to meet. As if we didn’t have enough shells, we took a final stroll along the beach to scavenge for treasure – some sea-shells then – before packing up and setting off for home. Our journey back took us past an interesting Dhow were we stopped to investigate and stretch our legs.

dhow

Dhow

All in all, this was, without doubt, one of the most perfect Christmases that we have had, both jointly and separately, we decided. It was truly enjoyable and the only downside being not those petty things that were sent to try us but the absence of loved ones. We  thoroughly enjoy the festivities of our own making but sadly, we so missed the beautiful daughters we left behind (very first blog refers) and we resolved to make it different next year – insha’Allah.

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Hills with Altitude

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We headed for Jabel Sham, the highest of Oman’s mountains, with one or two detours along the way. Jabreen Castle deserved a quick look before a picnic lunch under some trees outside. Castle, fort, stonghold – a bit like the souks really- seen one and you’ve seen them all! This particular castle is nicely preserved/restored however and comes top of our meagre list thus far. Well worth a visit if only to marvel at the usual lack of Health and Safety around the place.

Jabreen Castle

Jabreen Castle

Just one or two more photos to give you a flavour of what we saw there that day.

Jabreen Castle

Jabreen Castle

And one or two of the many antiquities that will satisfy the most tactile of visitors:

Very old bits and bobs

Very old bits and bobs

Lunch was hastily consumed and involuntarily shared with a multitude of blow-flies. If a hand wasn’t transporting food to your face, it was wafting away those most annoying of god’s little creatures. It was then onward to Al Hamra to see a ‘working’ Omani home and to experience life in a village built from mud, straw and anything else that was laying around at the time of construction.

glassware

glassware

At Bait Al Saffah, there was a little weaving, coffee bean roasting and bread baking to be seen and tried.

handicrafts or daily routine?

handicrafts or daily routine?

In fact, for bread making, the bread dough appeared to be just flour and water (we call it glue!) and this was lightly smeared onto a hot-plate to make a crispy type of pancake. Tasteless but filling, I am assured.

Baking bread

Making ‘bread’

Whilst exploring the village, now deserted by almost all Omanis but slowly being re-inhabited by Indians, an impromptu photograph revealed an eerie appendage upon ‘processing’…

???

???

It was then onto the mountain roads to climb 2225 metres (7,300 feet in old money) to our hotel where we would watch the sunset, marvel at the night sky and sit around a camp fire feeling slightly nauseas with altitude sickness. We anticipated a few things and thought we had prepared for all eventualities. As usual, we were unprepared and the cold air beat us mercilessly until we were punch drunk with the chill and ready to hibernate until spring. It was windy. It was cold! Someone said that it was showing 5 degrees C on their car thermometer but with the wind chill we calculated that it was at least very, very cold. Not as cold as our winters of yesteryear but far too cold for bodies now acclimatised to temperatures of 25 degrees C. or more. With little more than the thinnest of nylon sheets and a nylon bedspread on our beds, we froze to the magical lights of static electricity that sparked and crackled in the pitch darkness, giving our bedtime antics a whole new meaning to being electric!  The night was long and our toes froze, our noses ran and we vocalised our misery at every opportunity. On a more cheerful note, the portly chap in red did not disappoint and made a courtesy visit pre ‘the big day’ just to check on these particular good girls and boys.

Ho, ho, ho!

Ho, ho, ho!

After a hearty, festive meal of fish curry and tandoori chicken, we took the obligatory after dinner stroll to watch the sunset and reflect on the day – the last ever according to some predictions.

Sunset over Jabel Sham and the end of the world, apparently!

Sunset over Jabel Sham and the end of the world, apparently!

We gathered together for the last family photo of all time as we awaited the final curtain of  a Mayan prediction.

Smile for the end of the world…

Goodbye cruel world...

Goodbye cruel world…

Oh well, so much for another ‘END OF THE WORLD’  prediction.

The very next day we set off at sunrise to explore the Grand Canyon of Arabia. An impressive sight that equals that of the famous American landmark. A journey through a village that time had forgotten, down some treacherous dusty tracks and following some precarious switchback mountain roads, we came upon the natural phenomena of this giant fissure in the earth’s crust. All this was heralded by the usual trinket sellers and their woven wares.

Keyrings for all this festive season!

Key-rings for all this festive season!

Old faithful, the camera that is and not the wife – guffaw! – was slowly giving up the ghost and with no more than a breath of power left in the old girl, one last picture to prove we were there.

Gorge-eous

Gorge-eous

“DON’T YOU DARE BLOG THAT PICTURE OF ME WITH MY HAIR ALL OVER THE PLACE!”
“Of course not, dear…” LOL!

We resolved to re-visit the area as we learned of a once hidden village at the base of the canyon. Recently discovered, it was only accessible by donkey or abseiling down a sheer side of the canyon. Upon discovery, the villagers quickly departed to spend their days elsewhere and the now abandoned village is of interest only to hikers and historians, tourists and the curious. Access involves a hike of some three to four hours to reach and return so it was impossible to make the trip on this occasion due to our little-legged traveller. The hike is dangerous; a crumbling mud path snakes its way along the side of the canyon wall and the return journey involves retracing those exact steps. Another time perhaps?

We headed for home and began to plan our festive adventure by the sea. Christmas day in a tent, by the sea, isolation, peace and quiet and a traditional Mackerel pasty for our lunch. I bet it doesn’t get any better than that? Or maybe…

And the rain, rain, rain came down, down, down…

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Who said it doesn’t rain in the desert? Well, this used to be the desert before the building program began some 40 years ago. Between the two major towns up here there was nothing but sand and we all know what that looks like. So, technically, it still is the desert.When it rains it pours and the excitement is just too much for some. Hanging out of windows and standing on rooftops is the only way to watch the water fall from the sky.

Nefarious!

Nefarious!

It rained with gusto, caused the usual flooding, dried up a bit, then rained again. Most of you will be thinking; pictures of the rain, are they mad? Well out here it’s what you do when it rains – apart from panic when you’re driving. It’s unusual, it’s exciting, it’s alien, it’s beautiful – IT’S RAIN! And take pictures of it is what we do, ok?

The wet stuff

The wet stuff

This weekend we are off again on our adventures. This time we are attempting to negotiate the mountains of Jabel Asar’h and Jabel Shams with a visit to a traditional Omani home, if we can find one. We want to see some locals grinding and roasting coffee beans, grinding wheat and some traditional bread making. Overnight we will be sat around the fire atop a mountain where the temperature is expected to dip below freezing and we hope to see a sprinkling of snow as we navigate our way through the stunning scenery. With winter woollies at the ready, we expect to be snug as bugs as we sip our hot apple drink and await the arrival of the portly chap dressed in red. Oh yes, Santa is coming  and I have been a particularly good boy this year.

As soon as we return, we shall post our ‘Happy Holidays’ blog (Christmas to you) and keep you upto date and fully informed of the magical time we are having here in this glorious country that is The Sultanate of Oman.

Stay warm wherever you are this winter.

Insha’Allah

We’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name…

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Marhaba,

“We’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name…” so goes the song (written by Dewey Bunnell, recorded by America, c.1972)

285  horses to be exact. All courtesy of our Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 3.8 litre V6. 285 bhp

This is it:

Jeep and cool driver

285 horses – Yeeha!

Orange is in this year – honestly!

We were riding horsey No. 2 on our epic journey across the great Sharqiyyah Desert, 400 kilometres of sand, sand dunes and more sand. The overall trip was expected to be in the region of 900 kilometres and our journey started from home, heading due south to the  meeting point, which was a camp at the start of the great desert.

Blue line to base camp, red line across the desert and green line home

Blue line to base camp, red line across the desert and green line home

When tarmac gave way to gravel, we knew we were close and saw Camp Al Raha to our left where we were to register and have dinner. True to form, we drove straight past it deciding instead to follow a well worn route taken by local ‘dune bashers’. We finally stopped at a sand dune of some 20 metres in height and considered our options; by a two to one majority we turned around and left the mocking dune in our rear view mirror. It was getting dark so a hasty return was made, dodging other off-roaders plus a camel or two along the way. What would the desert be without a camel or two? The daylight had all but gone and to the tuneful roar of more than a hundred 4×4 cars, quads and bikes we boldly swung into camp Al Raha to find no one expecting us, no directions or information and nothing to eat. We looked around and in the pitch black of the cloudy night sky cloaking a full moon, we saw hundreds of vehicle lights, torches, LEDs and camp fires flickering about the dunes either side of us, dancing back and forth like manic fireflies eager to be seen. As our eyes adjusted we saw before us what may only be described as a ‘Butlin’s holiday camp’, circa 1959, in the desert, catering for middle eastern families. Huts with no furniture, only shelves to form platforms for beds caressing sleeping children while adults sat outside  chatting and eating unidentifiable objects from tin-foil packages and smoking from shisha pipes. This is by no means a criticism, just what we saw and experienced. The kids appeared sound asleep and the adults were having a jolly old time. Somewhere in the distance a local band played and sang traditional songs. Living proof that you really do not need alcohol to have a good time! Eventually, after wandering aimlessly for a while, a recognisable vehicle made its way past us and from it came a white plastic patio table, a string of fairy lights and the figure of our host and guide to be. Being first in line we were offered the Number 2 position and windscreen sticker which we believed would put us immediately behind the lead vehicle, a position that would keep us out of the dust and away from the mayhem. How wrong we were!

After registration, fifty or so vehicles waited as their occupants sat down to eat from a plentiful buffet. Sadly, one of our number had brought along an unwanted guest who was intent at keeping his rear end perched upon the rim of the toilet for as long and as often as possible. So I sat there inhaling the wonderful aroma of middle-eastern cuisine as I drank my desalinated sea-water.

The briefest of briefings followed and there was an expectation that a certain amount of driving advice would be forthcoming, seeing how we were to head into the REAL desert to make camp. It was very, very dark, a lot of families with small children in tow, fifty plus cars and seemingly none of us experienced in sand driving. We were told to relax, enjoy the experience and not to stress. OK! Casually strapped into our bright orange Jeep, the lead driver/guide shot off at a blistering pace and we were left somewhat bewildered and choking on his dust and those that followed in his fat tyre tracks. There was a mad scramble not to be left behind in the dark and not wanting to drive the 70 kilometres to camp in the wake of someone else’s sandstorm, the pedal went to the metal and we were off. I do believe there were screams from my car that were not mechanical but I couldn’t be sure. It was crazy, cars everywhere, not one of them staying in any sort of line order, faster and more experienced drivers overtaking, kicking up dust, sand and stones, visibility was down to ZERO and we were topping 100 kmh! Just a tadge stressful then.

We survived this particular part of the journey, arriving at a sandy area where we were instructed to make camp and party, especially the Dads?!! I watched in awe as our chief tent erector and bed putter upper did her faithful duty and I climbed into my sleeping bag to snuggle down for a good nights kip. Unable to relax, I sat outside to partake of a cup of tea and to photograph my new best friend nibbling at a piece of biscuit I had dunked then missed my mouth. Wild he/she may be, but sitting up on my big old police boot he/she let me stroke his/her glossy coat, hair that was so incredibly soft and smooth. Our bodies now drained of adrenalin, we took to sleep as five hours later we needed to be ready to confront the great desert sand dunes.

My newest, bestest friend

My newest, bestest friend (a gerbil I think?)

We awoke to a glorious sunrise in an outstanding area of natural beauty and serenity. Apart from the fifty plus vehicles and the hundred or so people wandering around, we were isolated in the desert, an idyllic place to be, at one with nature and the elements.

Sunrise

Sunrise

Breakfast was devoured and then later regretted. Spicy beef sausages, onions, beans and egg were not the right foods to introduce to my tender and shrunken tum-tum. I soldiered on in silence. Like hell I did!

A briefing was held with some general advice about driving in the desert and on the sand. We deflated our tyres to 10psi and reminded ourselves that the desert never caused anyone to roll their vehicle. Apparently, it was always the driver who caused their vehicles to roll and not the terrain. I considered that if we rolled our vehicle, not only would I blame the desert, I would also lose my accident excess deposit.

Once again, in the mistaken belief that we would head off in an orderly fashion, a Le Mans race start ensued and every driver jockeyed for position, overtaking and zig-zagging to get ahead, a battle to be at the front or at the very least, in front of us it would seem. Battling with the mental decisions of 4 wheel drive high ratio or low, we reluctantly took part in the wacky race to get ahead of someone, anyone, as long as we overtook someone else we would be happy. Several hours later the line was nicely strung out and there was enough distance between each vehicle to prevent bunching and rear-ending. Surprisingly however, it was still a necessity to keep checking the rear-view mirror as often, out of nowhere, a roaring off-roader would fly by with engine roaring and wheels whipping up the super-soft sand. The desert unfolded before us and if you haven’t seen it before, it isn’t flat at all!

Rolling dunes of the Sharqiyyah desert

Rolling dunes of the Sharqiyyah desert

The dunes rose and fell for as far as the eye could see, all the way to the ocean.

Some of the smaller dunes

Fortunately, the vehicles give some idea of how big these dunes really are. Unfortunately, the photos do not give you any idea of how BIG these dunes are!

LOOK IN THE CENTRE OF THE PICTURE - THE SMALL BLACK DOT IS A VEHICLE!

Look in the centre of the picture – the small black dot is the lead vehicle

It was a rip-roaring extravaganza of dune-bashing mayhem, roaring engines, slipping wheels and a chassis or two sliding sideways into a sand abyss. The secret was MOMENTUM, keep rolling and not to get stuck in the sand. If you did happen to stop, do NOT spin the wheels as this will only dig you in deeper. Select the correct, LOW ratio gear and gingerly negotiate your way out with plenty of steering-wheel waggle and forward/reverse manoeuvring. Well, just imagine how we laughed…

Oh Dear! Someone didn't listen to the driving advice.

Oh dear! Someone didn’t listen to the driving advice.

Isn’t that me in the passenger seat? No? I guess it was me that got us stuck then. Actually, it was not so bad as the dunes are notoriously unforgiving. Just about everyone had to be towed out at some time or other. Many had to undergo this embarrassment several times an hour. Even the guides, in their souped-up, hot-rodding off-roaders fell foul of the desert’s wrath. Don’t get me wrong here, it was exhilarating, exciting and darn good fun. It was the ride of our lives and the adrenalin was constantly pumping as we traversed impossible angles, climbed impossibly steep dunes and drove the Jeep ragged with spine-jarring, jaw-rattling, head-banging, body-aching, bone crunching skill and dexterity. Horrendous noises emanated from under the bonnet, under the car, in the car and in my head. It was a white-knuckle ride never, ever before experienced. A ride to surpass anything and everything else which has been sought and experienced on our ‘thrill-seeking’ adventures. A highly recommended experience for the brave and foolhardy. It is better than driving in mud, exceeds driving in water and is so far ahead of driving on snow, ice and slush it does not compare. Sand has everything to make your thrill-dreams come true. Don’t believe me? For those of you coming out to see us and have the stomach for it – you are in for a trip you’ll never, ever, ever forget (and some spinal injuries too, possibly!). Then, to top it all, the stunning scenery leaves you breathless in awe and wonder. Try it, you’ll like it!

HANG ON! Irresponsible parents I hear you cry. You took a child on this trip. Are you mad?

She loved it and as we squealed in vertebrae-crushing agony, she squealed with delight and never once hollered any objections, moans, groans or even the dreaded, “Are we there yet?”

Any objections from the back?

Any objections from the back?

An arduous morning gave way to a leisurely lunch break and we gathered in a dune depression to tell tales of derring-do, near accidents and the stupidity of some, but not us. We ate and rested in the shade, exhausted and alive with the spirit of adventure. We waited for the afternoon briefing, sipping water and eating oranges after our sumptuous curry and rice meal.

Lunch for all

Lunch for all

More of the same and we were off again.

Onwards - Sideways

Onwards

Expecting bigger dunes and hairier tracks, we were not disappointed. Beautiful scenery passed us by as we nose-dived the Jeep into endless sand ditches, wrenching the chassis up and over dune crests, gingerly balancing upon the ridges, we drove on to the next and the next and the next…

endless dunes, endless fun

endless dunes, endless fun

As the evening announced its arrival with a fading light, concern began to set in as the file of vehicles became more and more strung out. Hold ups for those buried in the sand who awaited for rescue as well as those stuck in the queue behind them. We managed to lose sight of everyone and became acutely aware that we were now all alone and it was getting dark. We managed to follow a Bedouin trail that led us nowhere, we lost sight of all trails and debated our fate. A hasty decision to backtrack allowed us to pick up with some other stragglers and we followed some distant lights into our second camp just as the moon peeped above the cloudy horizon. Up with the tent and a brew before dinner. The evenings entertainment consisted of games and cinema for the kids, grown up films for the adults, sleep for the weary and partying for the young bucks. We attached ourselves to a pleasant family who had had the foresight to bring copious amounts of alcohol on their trip, so we helped them consume it as we watched the very late arrivals being brought in by search parties who had been despatched to find the lost. Some vehicles had body work missing. All vehicles had occupants who looked tired and in a mild state of shock.

Second camp in the middle of nowhere

Second camp in the middle of nowhere

Oops!

Oops!

The early briefing was held over breakfast and as we discovered our flat tyre, the rest of the group was listening to the forewarning of 50+ metre sand dunes which would require skill and bravery to negotiate. We had lost our tyre bead seal and air was leaking out. Our options were to replace the tyre and lose a place in the drive out or continue on with a slow puncture. Quickly treating the tyre for this type of problem (after advice given, of course), there was the usual mad dash to claim a place in the line of traffic but we soon settled down to watch the forerunners falter on massive dunes, slip of crests and fail miserably at almost every obstacle. Unbelievable angles of approach, ridiculous gradients that twisted and turned as they rose and fell. We took our chance and blew the lid right off of our particular adrenalin levels.

Bigger and bigger they came

Bigger and bigger they came,more and more they failed

After a few hours of sheer excitement we sighted the coast and the long run for home. But, just when we thought it could not get any better, the final descent from high upon the immense carpet of rolling dunes was a mind numbing, totally insane, descent down an unfeasibly acute slope of powder soft sand, landing nose first upon the flat, sandy prelude to the tarmac road ahead and the tiny village that awaited our arrival and our money. We were greeted by a mass of children who begged for our sweets and fizzy drinks, they then sold them on to the cars behind. Industrious and imaginative. No social handouts for the idle here! Children of no more than three or four years of age selling bracelets and knick-knacks to earn their keep and, possibly, to prevent a beating when they got home. We partook of this ritual and pondered our journey.

The awaiting 'village'

The awaiting ‘village’

Give me, give me!

Give me, give me!

The final destination was of little consequence. It really was the journey that counted. Quickly re-inflating our tyres, we headed for the nearest petrol station. Running on fumes and a prayer we set off for the five hour journey back home.

What can we say about this particular adventure…

It was thrilling, sometimes painful (bones and muscle), a great social event, adventurous and downright AWESOME. It was not a tour. We were merely doing the same thing as others, at that time, in that same place. If we wanted to make our own tracks there was nothing to stop us. We chose where we camped and how and where we drove. At the end of the day, the guides were there in case we needed them. Other than that, we did this on our own.

If you do nothing else in your life, make sure you try this as one of the ‘things to do before you die’. It is immense fun, challenging with breathtaking, beautiful scenery. Highly recommended by us but then, what do we know…?

As always Insha’Allah

PS Sadly, the ever faithful Samsung SL310w did not survive the trip. All pictures now contain a strange batch of bacteria!!

Farewell old friend

Farewell old friend

Fatal?

Fatal?

Now, all I need from Nikon is a little sponsorship….

PS Take a look at the many photos from my dear old Samsung at http://www.imageximage.wordpress.com/