Monthly Archives: January 2013

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”

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Marhaba!

Another birthday gave us the opportunity to pack up our kit and once again head out to explore. The birthday belonged to the Holy Prophet Muhammed and a national day off was awarded to all and sundry in celebration of this occasion. Our three day weekend was to be enjoyed at the Salmah Plateau and if we had time, we would attempt Wadi Tiwi which, the guide book informed us, has some of the most steepest, narrowest and difficult off-road driving terrain in all of Oman. Small person strapped in, navigator looking bemused, driver at the ready and menacingly on edge; we all set off to see what we could see…

Salmah Plateau, given but a few words in our guide book, is one of the most exhilarating drives experienced thus far. It just about has everything with a steep, loose dirt ascent, tight corners, heavily rutted tracks, altitude, a dry wadi, isolation, a steep switchback descent, remote villages, donkeys, camels, goats and scenery to die for. Unfortunately, most of this was only committed to memory as the exciting drive did not allow for impromptu stops to take photographs. Suffice to say, we had immense fun in reaching the summit at some 1500 metres where we pitched our tent and took in the breathtaking views.

Salmah Plateau at 1500 metres, Camp #1

Salmah Plateau at 1500 metres, Camp #1

The thin air, the peaceful surroundings, the beautiful vista, all combined to refresh the soul and make that barbecue, with added dust and dirt kicked into it, a bit more tolerable. Sitting above the cloud base with no noise, no other visitors and refreshing, clean air to breathe, we decided to keep this place a secret, our secret, somewhere we would come back to again and again, a sanctuary from the madding crowd – Mum’s the word!

Visat

Beautiful vista

As with all outdoor activities, especially so in warmer climes, one needs to be careful where one treads or where one places fleshy parts when al fresco toileting!

Al fresco toileting has its dangers

Al fresco toileting has its dangers

We reckoned this was some sort of tarantula and a quick google search once home gave up a couple of other suggestions. The Whistling Spider or the Barking Spider – both of which lend themselves to some hilarious toilet humour, but not enough to dwell on. Very pretty in its black, velvety coat and probably venomous too!  It was about three of four centimetres long and appeared somewhat dopey, probably due to the early morning chill having seized its faculties.

Rule number one, don’t go lifting rocks or sticking your fingers under stones unless you are looking for such surprises!

A snapshot for the family album before  settling down for a peaceful night. A bright, three-quarter moon would obscure the anticipated starlit sky but not enough to prevent us from picking out some of the constellations that we knew and wondering, as always, at our own insignificance.

Family Photo

Family Photo

It was  a little chilly during darkness but then these seasoned explorers had the foresight to bring something warm to wear. A big bonfire toasted our shins and faces and warmed our spirits through. It was to be one of the very few times that would sleep inside our sleeping bags instead of on top of them.

Bright and early next morning we set off to explore the Salmah Plateau, taking an early wrong turn which proved a most worthwhile error. An ungraded track led us to the Majilis al Jinn Cave which, as you can see, is but a big hole in the ground. A VERY big hole!

Majilis al Jinn Cave Chamber Entrance

Majilis al Jinn Cave Chamber Entrance

Only when you realise what is under the rock that you are standing on (NOTHING!) that you fully appreciate this natural wonder. The cave below your feet is 340 metres long by 240 metres wide and 181 metres deep. It would accommodate 50 jumbo jets, apparently, just to give it some perspective. The only way to enter it is to abseil down, which takes about 10 to 15 minutes to descend. It is considered to be one of the largest cave chambers in the world. A picture of the interior helps with comprehension:

Spot the man circled at bottom of light shaft for scale!

Spot the man circled at the bottom of the light shaft for scale!

I have obviously reproduced this  photo-board for you as the piece of rope I had in the car was not long enough to abseil down to take photographs myself; I was forbidden from even attempting anything so stupid anyway! Though we only stood at the cave chamber entrance, starring down a deep, dark hole, it was enough to marvel at and have our personal awe inspired.

We moved on to some beautiful plateau scenery, stunning gorges and ravines, isolated homes and an uncharted dry wadi to navigate.

Wadi driving

Wadi driving – coming from…

going to...

going to…

At other times, this wadi would be gushing with water from rainfall  coming off of the plateau;  it’s vitally important to watch the weather as there are many deaths by drowning where the foolhardy have ignored meteorological warnings.

We continued on until some children caught our attention, we stopped to say hello and offer some food which was accepted with much excitement and skipping. The philanthropist in us came flooding out and we resolved to return bearing more gifts if we could only decide what it is that those who have absolutely nothing would most desperately need.

Meeting the locals

Meeting the locals

Having spent a day and a night atop the plateau, it was time to make the descent.

Salmah Plateau descent

Salmah Plateau descent

This small patch of concrete had been strategically laid where the road had previously fallen off the mountainside! Many a sheer drop awaited the unfortunate.

Just as exhilarating and no less scenic, we slipped and slid down the switchback roads toward the coastline.

Salmah Plateau Switchback Road Descent

Salmah Plateau Switchback Road Descent

The road was very narrow and we believed that any mistakes would be fatal. The drops were sheer and totally unforgiving. It was low ratio gearing and tally-ho!

Fuelled by adrenalin we headed for Wadi Tiwi and the thrill of more off-road driving on the reported narrowest, steepest and most difficult tracks in all of Oman. It is renowned for its lush vegetation, its crystal clear water pools, palm trees and long grasses. We were not disappointed.

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Tiwi

A long, winding road of dirt and dust took us further and further into the gorge, to places where most tourists refuse any attempt at driving. Indeed, narrow roads and an even narrower village pass gave our driving skills a darn good testing.

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Tiwi

Often, there was only a few centimetres either side of our extra wide and extra long bus of a car. There were no passing places and any mistakes would be costly as, once again, there was nothing but a sheer drop awaiting any driving errors.

However, the pretty scenery could be enjoyed every now and then, especially so with the elation of having survived particularly difficult sections of the route.

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Tiwi

Crossing through the water and further into the gorge we headed where only the brave (or foolish) will venture, the reward being a remote village set into the mountain side. The village of Mirbam awaited our triumphant arrival.

Mibam Village, centre and centre left

Mibam Village, centre and centre left

A quick stroll around the village.

Mibam village

Mibam village

Not so remote that they don’t have electricity – and i-pads probably! It was however, nice to see and realise the achievement of our goal to complete this particular driving challenge. Now, just the return journey to deal with, back the way we came.

The scenery was spectacular and the drive was challenging  but we considered that  the Salmah Plateau was a much more challenging drive with a greater variety of stunning scenery.

We made our way to the coast, the alluring, azure Sea of Oman, the white, sandy beaches and sea-shells galore.

We pitched our tent amongst the dunes and watched the sun set over the Salmah Plateau that now provided our backdrop.

Camp #2 On the Beach

Camp #2 On the Beach

A swim in the ‘refreshing’ sea, a spot of sun worship and good night’s rest and it was soon time to head back home. Locals went about their daily business and we were grateful for the extra time that we had been given for this birthday occasion.

Beach camp view

Beach camp view

Not once did we sing ‘Happy Birthday’ though.

We were thankful nonetheless for this opportunity to get out and about and we planned to return on a new moon when stargazing would be at it’s most rewarding.

Insha’Allah

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Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

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It was inevitable. Sooner or later we would all get a cold – a good old common cold to bring us down and make us feel like crap. Still, could be worse – we could be sitting in the cold and damp with snotty noses. As it is, the warmth of the glorious sunshine even makes the sniffles and coughing bearable.

Due to circumstances beyond our control, the sniffles as previously mentioned, we opted for a relaxing weekend just hanging around the villa doing family stuff. Our chief entertainments officer decided that she would have us doing some arty type stuff so off we trudged to the local shop to buy some brightly coloured bits and bobs for our general fun and relaxation. Armed with a basket full of poster paints, coloured card, plasticine, modelling clay, skewers, glue, glitter, paint brushes and some sticky-backed plastic, for no more than the lose change in our pockets, we headed back home for tea and mutual sympathy.

Well, if you haven’t mucked about with arty stuff for a while then grab some glue and play – tremendous fun, er, hum, especially for the youngsters…

Art Attack!

Art Attack!

Honestly, I cannot remember the last time I had this much fun without something electrical in my hands! Not quite sure what everyone else was making but a mushroom grove was developing before my very eyes. Fly agaric or Amanita muscaria for the cleverest of you out there, should bring back memories of Alice and a certain Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll.

The sea shells that we had collected (see previous blog) needed some artwork to make them attractive. Ordinarily we abide by the rule of take nothing and leave nothing when we visit places however, what kid hasn’t sought out some shells from the shoreline to take back home as a keepsake? At least the shells we had were completely bleached white by the sun and most were in a state of fossilisation anyway. On their own they were not attractive and we only took what we needed. In fact, we have decided to return some shells now that they are in a better condition than when we found them – they’re colourful now! Just imagine another child finding these brightly coloured shells on their visit. We aim to please!

The end result was pretty much what we all expected – paint everywhere, a right mess to clear up, some lovely artwork to display (or return) and jolly good fun had by all – a sea shell butterfly amongst sea shell fungi.  Who needs TV or electrical goods to have fun? Good, old fashioned arts and craft win hands down any time – Right?

Shells, paint and some clay

Shells, paint and some clay

Suffice to say, we all chipped in to each other’s work so well done all round.

At this time, another soggy hankersniff glides its way through the air heading for the bin, but landing on the floor. As soon as we are all bright and perky again we’ll be off on yet another mad-cap adventure. Although another weekend of mucking about with paint and paper wouldn’t be too disastrous.

Until then,

Insha’Allah

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough

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Marhaba!

We are not in the habit of sitting around waiting for stuff to happen. The plan is, as always, ‘get out there and grab it’. This philosophy we willingly embrace and will continue to do so while we can and for as long as we can!

We have often heard of a sink hole, some 100 feet deep and probably the same wide. We had to see it for ourselves so, we embarked on our well worn route south to an open area next to the beach surrounded by mountains. It was here that we discovered, well, a big hole in the ground really.

Bimmah Sinkhole

Bimmah Sinkhole

It is ideal for swimming, crystal clear and very cool waters but we decided against it as we saw the tourist buses begin to roll in. In all the guide books, we expected that we would not be alone for very long. We know we are a little extrovert but it’s not enough to want to display our wares to all and sundry on a day trip from their hotel. Nevertheless, we made our way down to the water where we hoped to dip our toes at the very least. For the very brave (foolhardy) there are various rocks to jump off and risk life and limb. We searched around for a number of cave entrances that we had read about, these required submersion before entering into hidden caverns. We looked, with no other intention.

"And you can't put hole where a hole don't belong"

“And you can’t put hole where a hole don’t belong”

At the end of the day, it was a big hole in the ground with some clear water at the bottom. An underground cave system was supposed to be somewhere and swimming, though acceptable, just wasn’t the thing to do as tourists looked on. We headed off for a picnic close by and pondered how we should amuse ourselves for the rest of the day. Family portrait before exit right…

One for the album

One for the album

As a quick aside, I hope you can appreciate the quality of my new Nikon Coolpix which is, I am assured, waterproof, dustproof and shockproof. I owe it to you all – no more shoddy pictures with foreign bodies on the inside of the lens. I did it for you people!

The town of Sur was close by, a couple of hundred kilometres away (which is considered close by Oman standards) and we had heard of a boatyard that was open to the public. Apparently, it was a Dhow building yard where magnificent Dhows where built from tree trunks, with only basic machinery, no plans and no health and safety whatsoever. We immediately set off as I, for one, will never cease to be amazed by the lack of Health and Safety that is clearly apparent wherever we go.

A number of tourists (German) had beaten us to it but we wandered into the boatyard ahead of the pack to marvel at a genuine, working boatyard with three traditional Dhows in various stages of construction.

No plans, basic tools and no H&S!

No plans, just basic tools and no H&S!

The quality of craftsmanship was without question and beautifully displayed wherever we looked. The most amazing thing is, this boatyard is open to the general public. It is not a tourist attraction per se, it is a working yard that allows anyone to wander in and look around. So we did just that. We immediately saw an ancient and hostile band-saw attacking a large chunk of tree, teak shipped in from  Malaysia we were told, and we were free to stand right next to the operator and stick our noses in if we so desired the risk. An angle grinder, again of ancient origin, re-cut teeth as it lay flat upon a bench being operated by a master craftsman  Sparks flew up as we wandered by. If wandering about someone’s private workplace is not enough to satisfy your nosey-parker want, then jump up on his work and wander about that too. It’s fine, the worker will move aside to let you pass or stop to answer questions on what he is doing or how much it all costs (chiselling decoration rails and 120,000 Omani Rials were the answers to that). We climbed aboard.

"what you doing?"

“what you doing mate?”

Believe me, up on deck was a dangerous place to be as large holes in the decking went straight down into the bilge. There was nothing to break your fall should you happen to slip or trip into the darkness . The rickety plank to alight the boat was a challenge in itself, enough to wipe the smile off any kid’s face.

Steady as she goes!

Steady as she goes!

All in all, the place was a delight, traditional craftsmen going about their daily business with no concessions for the visitor. We struggled to understand why the owners would let the public in as there were no admission charges, no gratuities and not much to buy. Having said that, there was a small room with some delightful, hand-carved items for sale. Mostly models of dhows in various sizes for the cost of a little loose change really. They certainly wasn’t making any money  from us because we bought nothing. Although a model dhow would have looked splendid atop our sideboard, or maybe one of the ornate treasure chests to put at the end of the bed? It seemed likely that these items were produced by the apprentices, if not the craftsmen themselves. Such highly detailed models, in the finest and most rare of hardwoods, deserved a new home but then, we would be contributing to the demise of a natural hardwood forest somewhere in the the world. We had our morals to consider. We went home empty handed.

Rare wood as scrap

Rare wood as scrap

This Dhow building yard is truly a gem and well worth a visit if you’re ever out this way. The Dhows are a work of art. Access is allowed for the simple reason that they are proud of their work, their craftsmanship, and they like to show it off.

Beautiful wood at the expense of the rainforest

Beautiful wood at the expense of the rainforest, true craftsmanship nonetheless

The journey home was interrupted by the inevitable stop and search for sea-shells on a beach somewhere on the East coast. At the end of the day, we came home with sand in our toes, a haul of shells that needed washing and sorting, a head full of memories and a memory card full of photos.

Next time…

We have heard of a journey, up Wadi Tiwi, that takes you to an abandoned village. It is reported to be the drive of your life. Unbelievably steep,  ridiculously narrow, dangerously wet, a drive through a plantation, some hairy, hairpin bends with rocks and boulders to negotiate and then, it just gets worse. The gauntlet is down!

Insha’ Allah