Saturday, 24 March 2018

Unemployed??

Marechal Ney, one of Napoleon's heroes
After 6 years I walked out of Oman Customs on 12 March, ending 35 years as a Customs Officer. The end! Well not quite, you see I had made it known that I would be finishing with Oman Customs and the Oman Government authority for logistics let me know that if I wanted to keep working......... In short we agreed to an 18 month extension, with me holding the title of lead Trade Facilitation. It's a whole of Government role that will keep me busy working with Government and trade. All good fun and challenging, with a change in focus.


It may not be gold, but I got a retirement watch
The certificate says thanks











Katrina and I left Oman on the 13th for a break in France, I return to Oman shortly to take up the new role and Katrina will be a little later because of visa requirements. Fortuitously or not I start my new role on 1 April!

Queen Mathilde in Jardin Luxembourg

When in Paris

It's been a busy little while since we landed in France. Normally we would opt for a night flight to arrive in the morning and catch the train to Normandy, but this time it was the day flight, meaning evening arrival, all too late for the trains - so a night in Paris. We booked into a lovely little hotel in Montparnasse for the night. The Hotel Villa Modigliani, it's tucked back from the street, with an arched entrance to a courtyard. Nice and isolated an oasis of peace and quiet.

Coffee with the Slushers in Paris
On the first day of "retirement" we went out for a morning walk around Montparnasse, including a wander through Jardin Luxembourg, before meeting up for coffee with one of my international colleagues (Randy Slusher and his wife Julene) who happened to be in Paris on holidays.  It was fortuitous to catch up with Randy as I hadn't been able to say my farewells to the Americans, because of their Government shutdown driven by their dis-functional government.

After that we caught the train to Normandy.
The Normandy Flag

Normandy in spring? Well kind of, it's been a long winter this year and in the first week there was even a day of snow! Fab, but it has been cold and most days have rained. Mind you trees are budding, primroses are blossoming everywhere and the farmers are disgorging huge tanks of watered winter manure on the fields - it's enough to make your eyes water as you pass through the miasma.


Snow through the eyes of a Kangoo (the rental)



See snow
















Since arriving it's been rather busy. We've bought a car (a silver Renault Kangoo), stripped out a toilet in preparation for replacement hot water service, tiling and toilet fittings. Today has included demolishing the end wall in the downstairs bedroom. What we uncovered reveals that this room was once the kitchen. Interesting colour scheme........... Won't be staying like that. In reality we could have left that wall alone, but there was a curiosity about what lay below. Now there's some repair work to be done, but nothing major, thankfully.  Or possibly some more excavation to uncover the rock wall as a feature wall for the master bedroom - possibilities.
That wall aint staying like that

Our Kangoo
The original plan for this visit had been to tile the floor in the master bedroom. To that end, we bought some second hand (old, old, style french tiles) which we collected on day two. This saved hundreds of euros, but comes with the downside of having to clean them off before they can be used.  Cleaning, then laying had been the plan. With everything else to do, apart from being stacked in the garage, they've not been touched.  Mind you the guy that runs the local dechetterie (rubbish and recycling depot) is getting to know me and seems amused or impressed by the amount and variety of stuff coming out the back of the little rental Kangoo.  Wood, plaster, tiles, foam insulation, carpet and underlay.... Sadly on my second trip today I got there to find the dechetterie was full and I had to take the Kangoo of stuff back with me.  Sigh.

Caricature anyone?
It's not all been work though. We did make a run across to Argentan for the Normandie Cultural Festival, which was a bit of fun. It was somewhat akin to an Australian agricultural show, except without the sideshows and in a much smaller space. The main focus was food! Artisanal food stuffs! Yummy foodstuffs....  We may, or may not have spent a bit of money. There were even some lace makers for Katrina to chat to.  Center stage was held down by a cartoonist, happily doing caricatures for all and sundry. Some of his works and books were on display, I'm guessing that he's locally famous.

Carve some for me please
Some Lace
I have decided that this French country living and shopping is good stuff. Many of the villages have their weekly market day and you never know what you'll find. Tools, antiquities, fresh produce and artisanal foodstuffs. I am especially fond of the saucisse sandwiche, avec mouttarde - BBQ sausage, served in a chunk of baguette, with mustard, great stuff, now if I could find a nearby market for each day of the week......

Apart from that our only outing was a trip to Charleroi and back - on  a matter of principal! Recently the rules changed and you can't board an international train with a knife in your suitcase. I discovered that the hard way in January when the rail police in Brussels x-rayed my bag and took my knife away - "no, no sir, you can't have a belt knife wrapped up in your locked suitcase!" Sigh  "But you can have the carving knife and fork set wrapped up in your locked suitcase!" The belt knife blade is maybe 10cm, the carving knife a good 25cm, coming to a much sharper point. Anybody else detect some cognitive dissonance here? Anyway I have my knife back and the rail police feel satisfied that security theatre was upheld! I maintain that anybody who wants to work in security shouldn't be allowed to. Mind you I would have happily paid a small fee for railway staff to carry the knife for me to destination, like airlines do.

Pre-dinner drinks
We did at least get to have a very nice night out in Charleroi. For those that know us through the SCA you will understand the appropriateness of the Brasserie for pre-dinner drinks. After that we found a Brasserie La Manufacture Urbaine and had mirco-brew beers along with local and artisanal foods. Great stuff!  It was a very hispterish place, but we couldn't care and the price was actually quite reasonable. Not sure if it was for us, but a lot of the music played was 70's and 80's vintage rock. I was rather amused that all the blokes in the brasserie (bar me and one other) hung around the bar and the women sat at the tables, mostly out of view of the bar.

Hmmm, which one first?
And yesterday the Tour of Normandie came through the village. At 3:30 we duly traipsed off up the hill and stood around with the village residents, waiting for the race to come through, which it duly did, after what seemed every morotcycle Gendarme in Normandie. I've never been that close to a peloton before. And then they were gone, off towards the days stage finish at Bagnoles D'Orne - a rather picturesque spa/tourist town nearby. Only to be followed by another host of motorcycle Gendarmes.

Here comes the Peloton


















There goes the Peloton



Just a few Gendarmes





Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Marvelous Musandam

Dolphins of Khasab
Musandam Governorate is the Northernmost part of Oman and has been on our must see list almost from the time we arrived in the country and finally after almost 6 years we got there. Musandam borders the straits of Hormuz, which is the entrance to the Arabian gulf and so is one of the busiest waterways in the world. At their narrowest the straits are a bit over 30 kilometers wide, separating Oman and Iran. An awful lot of oil transits the straits, on its way to other parts of the world.

You can get to the capital of Musandam (Khasab) by road - through the UAE - or by ferry boat, at the more than reasonable cost of 64 Omani rials (About $200 Aus) for two return tickets, including the car.  The trip takes about 3 hours in a fast ferry. I believe the boats are Australian made as well, which was a bonus.

So last Thursday we hit the road and went to the small port town of Shinas, 250 odd kms north of Muscat. For some reason the ferry service to Musandam goes from there. We arrived and found the ferry port with plenty of time to spare. So I went and queued to check in, with my pre-booked and paid tickets. Got to the front of the queue, the attendant checked my ticket then asked me to go sit, as she couldn't process it just then. So I went and sat and waited, and waited, until eventually Katrina came in to find out what was taking so long, as we were one of only a few un-boarded cars left on the wharf. Turns out there'd been a systems failure and pre-paid tickets wouldn't process. Sigh. After much throwing of hands in the air, many phone calls and so on we were eventually checked in and for good measure upgraded to business class. Excellent. The car was loaded and one hour before scheduled departure the boat set off, on a three hour cruise.............

The view from Business class on the way home, we were headed for the gap.
The business cabin was pretty good, small with decent seats in pairs, a much better prospect than the rather noisy and crowded economy of our planned fate.  So we grabbed a pair of seats with a front row view and settled in for the trip. Much more relaxing than driving and having missed lunch we were quite pleased when a good sized plate of chicken and rice turned up, courtesy of the upgrade.

The coastal scenery in Oman is pretty amazing stuff! And then all too soon it was night and the second half of the trip was completed in the dark. So we missed "the first sight" of Khasab and instead had to make do with the sparkling lights of night time Khasab around the harbour as we came into dock. Pleasingly our hotel (the Atana Khasab) was about 1km along from the port. Sited nicely behind a rocky outcrop, providing the illusion of isolation, with stunning mountain and sea views.

One of the guys at work had given me a contact to call on arrival. So we did and in short order the rather accommodating Tariq showed up at the hotel to sort our itinerary out. Quite simple really, we wanted to do a dhow cruise, see the fort and buy a Musandam style walking cane from the local souq.  No problem one phone call later, we're organised to go on a cruise with his friend Jasim.

At 9 the following morning Jasim came to our hotel, guided us to the dhow port and left us in the hands of his capable crew. The dhow was a fair size, one of many almost identical boats servicing the tourist industry.  We settled in along with one Indian family and two French families intent on enjoying a day of nautical adventure.

The crew quickly got us underway and we joined a stream of boats making their way from the harbour into an adjacent fjord/sound/... (don't know the right word). Beautiful clear day, with vibrant blue skies, fresh air in abundance and temps in the low twenties! Bliss.  All the more so for me as about two weeks ago I had tripped over a pouf in the dark and while trying to retain my balance kicked the coffee table with my bare foot - ouch, no rather *&#@# OUCH! (repeated many times). I'm pretty sure my little toe is broken. So a day of enforced (relative) inactivity is just what the doctor would order - if I went to see him.

First business of the outing was dolphin hunting. Luckily the crew knew just where to go and pretty soon we were floating around off a small cove, along with 4 or 5 other boats, looking and waiting for dolphins to put in an appearance. Didn't take very long before we were haring off in hot pursuit and then two dolphins came alongside our boat and spent the next minute or so surfing the bow wave and switching from side to side. You could almost have reached out and touched them. After a while, and many photo's, we cruised on down the water ways, only to return about 6 hours later on the way back to port for an encore performance.
The Captain and Katrina

I suspect the dolphins and the tour boat operators have a pretty firm agreement about this whole dolphin watching thing. You see there's this little cove and if the tour boats go there the dolphins oblige with a bit of a show. Tourists get to see dolphins, dolphins get to have fun showing off for the tourists, playing hide and seek and surfing bow waves. Works well for both sides, tour operators can pretty much guarantee dolphin sightings and the dolphins get unmolested run of 99% of the waters. When the dolphins don't want to be seen they are awfully inconspicuous. One moment nothing, the next - look over there as the dolphins entice boats into high speed (bow wave creating) chases.  I've got a photo with what seems to be about 10 dolphins breaching the surface at the same time, mostly you saw just 2 or 3 together.

A gaggle of dolphin watchers
The balance of the day was spent chugging around the inlet/sound/fjord/... marveling at the amazing scenery. Massive rock formations seemingly growing out of the waters, with all sorts of geological formations, leaving you in awe of the sheer power of nature. Most of the formations arise almost vertically from the water, meaning the separation from land to sea is a bit like a knife cut. Occasionally there is a gentle slope leading back from the water to a hillside and in these places inevitably there is a small village. However rather than cars the villagers had boats, there were no roads, nor was there any real prospect of roads, making cars redundant. And as there was no evidence of farming, these small villages would be reliant on fishing the bay/inlet/sound/fjord/...

A couple of times we dropped anchor and the French families jumped in for a quick dip. The Indians like us were clearly first timers and had not come wearing swimsuits - ah well next time........... Some time after 4 we made it back to the harbour and retreated to the hotel for a relaxation break, from relaxing on the estuary/bay/inlet/sound/fjord/....

A variety of scenery
Out captain abandoning somebody else's ship
After dark we headed out to explore Khasab and find a souq. We looked here and there, cruised up down and around Khasab all to no avail. There was no sign of a traditional souq area, nor any shops catering to the tourist market - well we did see one, but as it wasn't open we eventually retreated to the hotel and an early night for Katrina. There were too many young children getting into the Christmas spirit around the poolside terrace area, so rather than braving that I went and had a first try at astral photography - and failed, wrong settings, wrong lens, too much light pollution........ Another day (well night really).

Khasab Castle entrance
In the morning we checked out early and visited the grandly named Khasab castle. It's a little different from others in Oman and on the small side, having a square outer-wall, with rounded towers at each corner and a circular keep in the center of the courtyard. The courtyard is much larger in comparison to other similar forts and castles I have seen. Most of the space in each of the towers was taken up with living quarters, which had been made over to static display areas prepared by the women's society, showing elements of Omani history and tradition. Apart from the keep the courtyard also hosts a small collection of traditional fishing boats - made from date palm components and summer and winter houses.
Study time

Inside the summer house
The summer house is made from palm stems, atop stone pillars, with lattice walls and palm frond floor and roof. All designed to let air flow through to counter summer heat. The winter house is called a lock house, it has stone walls and roof and is dug down into the ground. Lock houses are designed to be closed up and left with storage jars of supplies awaiting the residents return. In order to make it difficult for people to steal supplies, the underground part is dug and the jars are then put in place before the walls and roof are built. The storage jars are bigger than the door frame, meaning it is impossible to remove them without first dismantling the house.  Clever.

The winter, lock house
Inside the lock house
Usefully the fort has a small shop, selling a variety of tourist goods. It didn't look open, but as the door was unlocked I went on in anyway and a few minutes later an attendant magically appeared, so I ended up with a Musandam style walking stick. One of the accouterments of an Omani man's traditional garb is a walking stick. In most of the country they are made of light cane, with a crook at one end, useful for holding, or reversing to catch up a lead rope. Musandam sticks are made from heavier wood and the top end is a small decorated axe head. While they're not particularly comfortable as a walking cane I can see the utility.

As there were a couple of hours to go before boarding time, a last drive around Khasab was in order. On the off chance we went past the sole tourist shop and lo and behold there were two  young Omani men in there. So we stopped and went in. They were setting up shop and not yet open for business, but as we were there they let us peruse their goods and purchase (another) walking stick (much nicer quality) and an open weave palm frond basket for Katrina. Fair chance we were their first ever customers.
Head of the (nicer) Musandam style cane


And then just like that it was time to go and board the ferry for the return trip. Thankfully Thursday's upgrade also covered the return leg, and as it was daytime we had three hours of spectacular coastal views to look forward to. A little after 4 we disembarked at Shinas and just after 7 were back home in Muscat after a fairly easy drive back.

So Musandam, a weekend well spent. A second visit would include another dhow trip and an extra day to explore the surrounds and try out the winding coastal/mountain roads.

(p.s. the only photo that was doctored in any way is the one of the dolphins, which I cropped and brightened a little. The rest are exactly as they came out of the camera)

A last look at some of the coastal scenery




Tuesday, 5 December 2017

National Day and the Prophets birthday

Jabreen Castle



























This weekend just gone was a 5 day weekend, two days for National Day celebrations (which was the 18th) and one day for the prophets birthday. Given that we are coming to the end of our time in Oman we decided to stay in-country and do some touring.  Over the weekend we spent a lot of time looking up!



Qu'ran reader at the castle
Assorted pots






After having Friday as a down day and preparing things we packed early Saturday morning and hit the road. First stop was Jabreen, a place we'd been meaning to visit but never quite got to. We would plan to combine it with a visit to Bahla, but every time we went to Bahla there was the fort, the souq and the potters - meaning that by the time we'd finished in Bahla it was too late to go to Jabreen.

And this time we hadn't actually planned to go there, took a wrong turn at Nizwa, saw a castle just off the highway and.................  Lovely place Jabreen castle, a bit different from other one's we have seen, but like many in this part of Oman the chief was the local Imam. Jabreen ran to 3 levels with a fourth on top that hasn't been fully restored. It is well worth a visit as the ceiling decorations are quite stunning and some of the things scattered through the castle are quite interesting.

Just one of the spectacular cielings
Footwear
So after around 2 hours we drove straight on through Bahla, out the other side and up into the Western Hajar Mountains. We were looking for a small village called Qiyut where there are some walks in to the Ras Al Mikhaybiyah (kind of a grand canyon). By the time we got to the end of the road, a little past Qiyut, lunch time (but not lunch) had well and truly come and gone. SO first things first we pulled up and lunched overlooking a deserted village and the canyon. Excellent views and absolute solitude. Must admit I was buzzing a little as the drive up was on some fabulous roads. Dirt roads, with climbs, dips and interesting corners. I had a hoot, Katrina may have been creating new indentations in the passenger side grab handle on the odd occasion.

Anyway after lunch we realised it was all too late for walking, so the next order of business was to find a camping spot. Hmm where to choose? Spoilt for choice really, we ended up finding an isolated place where we couldn't be seen from the road, but had a marvelous vista. Didn't take long to set the camp site up and get dinner barbequing.

Lunch in the mountains
Abandoned village
Panorama of a panoramic campsite
It was a Super Moon!
The honey shop complete with hives
The view from the tea shop
Looking up at some ruins in Abriyyin
Day 2 started slowly, coz well, those views. Anyway we packed and headed off to the village of Misfat Al Abriyyin. This little village is built into the side of the mountains, the main village is at least 400 years old and there is a 1500 year old Persian fort on the hilltop above the village. Rogan castle. Talk about picturesque! First stop there was the honey stall, overlooking the wadi, along which the village is built. All the farming is done on terraces built up and leveled out over centuries. All of this is fed by falaj's. We had a great time wandering the old village and exploring up the wadi. Unfortunately we were a bit too leg weary to make it to the castle ruins. By the time we'd finished in the village the choice was stop for lunch or get the skates on and head into the mountains again as we were heading towards Wadi Bani Awf.

Part of the village
The Falaj at work delivering water
Camp 2 
More great driving was en-train - Took a while to get to the jump off point. We've done this road before, just in the opposite direction. The start is an incredibly steep descent, which I did mostly in first gear. It took us around 2 hours to do the 12 kilometers to find a camp site. A few hundred meters into the descent a local Omani flagged us down and begged a lift. As the car was full of camping gear he was happy to jump on the running board. So he rode along for about a K as we followed some guy in an absolutely packed to the gills Hyundai Sportage. He had no business being there and he had to ride the brakes full time. The Omani guy had parked his ute on the first flatspot, so the guy in the Hyundai stopped there to let his brakes cool off.
The morning after the night of rain


























We kept going and eventually found a campsite in the wadi adjoining the entrance to Snake Gully. As the entire afternoon had been accompanied by grey clouds all afternoon we camped on an abandoned farming terrace, with a 360 degree backdrop of magnificent mountains and immediately behind the campsite, was another abandoned village. Setting up camp took a little while, so it was getting close to dusk by the time things were set and dinner was on cooking.  And then our "friend" in the Hyundai came through with a toot and a wave.
Entrance to snake gully

Snake Gully

No sooner had we set up than the clouds delivered  - rain! The first we'd seen in Oman this year! It rained on and off throughout the night. But the morning dawned clear and dry and again slow. No rush, so what the hey.

After breakfast I wandered off and went into the start of Snake Gully. Being alone I went in for about 10 minutes and retreated before the going got tough. But wow, almost vertical rock walls, absolutely stunning.

Then it was time to pack down and head back to Muscat. We were home early afternoon having had a great time exploring more of Oman. The rest of Monday was spent dealing with the camping gear and then an early night. Old legs crap out a bit earlier than young ones!

Today (Tuesday) was the last day of the weekend, spent around the house with chores and shopping. But the weekend was rounded out with a dusk walk along the beach.  Time for one last surprise as 5 wadi dogs decided that Katrina needed an escort along the beach. So they kept us company for a couple of kilometers. They were quite gentle and friendly, gambolling around with each other, racing off to check out this and that, splashing in the waves and coming back to check up on us and sniff hands, feet and legs. One by one they dropped away and in the end one last dog walked us to the gate. 

An escort of Wadi Dogs