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
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

Thursday, 22 December 2016

2016 a final update

Happy Christmas

 I’ve never tried to do a family and friends Christmas/New Years message before, so here goes nothing. A lot of people we know consider 2016 to have been somewhat of an “Annus Horibilis” and when you look at Brexit, Trump, the limping black comedy that is the Australian Government and the deaths of loved celebrities there is some point to this. But for us 2016 has had far more positives than negatives.

Newly minted Doctor
Newly married

  • Katrina fulfilled her long held wish, completing her PhD thesis and achieving the accolade of Doctor! There is a Doctor in the house!!!!
  • Rufus and Georgie finally got around to tying the knot. Yay well done, at last ! At a celebration that had a bit of something for everyone.
    Something else

even more Something 
With added furniture
With added lion
  • BJ had a good year with changes on the work front and so-on.
  • David got to walk with Lions – yep real honest to goodness LIONS! and
  • We finally own the house in France! Now with furniture and all………………………..
Family portrait

Dinner with friends in Australia

 On the down side, Katrina’s knee has become rapidly worse and will have to be replaced in March, we lost a good friend in Michelle Dean and we become increasingly detached from Australia and our former life there. Our trips back to Australia are bittersweet in that we don’t get to see everyone we want to and each year we come away having seen at least one person for the last time.
The whirlwind tour of 2016 was Oman, Australia, UK, France, Belgium, UAE, Senegal and Ethiopia. There was a contract renewal back in March, which at its end will mean 6 years in Oman. And that will be that. Barring unforseen circumstances David will retire in early 2018, so if you want to come and visit us in Oman you have just over a year.

Oman continues to endear itself to us, with its friendly people, stunning scenery and that you never know what is around the next corner. We are looking forward to seeing more of Oman in 2017.

Friendly Omani's
More of "that" scenery
Some of "that" scenery
For us 2016 was a year of too much travel, a lot of work with some successes along the way. We are looking forward to see what 2017 brings and it already looks promising. So, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, may the future be good for you. and

Bye for now

A Bientot

You never quite know what you will see next!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Home Sweet FRANCE?

Keys and an appropriately named champagne to celebrate.
If you've been following along in other social media, you'll know by now that we bought a house in France.  Sept-Forges, a tiny little village (286 people) in Basse Normandie (that's Lower Normandy to you). From offer to us taking possession took about 10 months. It's not meant to be that way, but there were some issues with French inheritance law. You see, two of the heirs of the seller (Madame Martell) were in state care and required judges to make the call for them. Unfortunately one of the judges sat on the papers, and then sat on them some more, before sitting on them again and finally approving the sale. Sigh!

6 months of garden neglect
So after making an offer in October last year, settlement happened on 18 August and we came to France on 8 September to collect the keys and take possession. Finally the marathon was run, time to start another - getting the house to the state we want it in!

A few days of maintenance later
At Charles De Gaulle Airport we rented a Citroen Jumpy 9 seater. As soon as we got to the house two rows of seats came out and went into the garage. Much better, as we now had what looked like ACRES OF SPACE, possibly even hectares, to put stuff in as, apart from a couple of dodgy built-ins, the house came with no furniture. Our first few nights were spent at a bed and breakfast in nearby Lassay Le Chateau, while we ran around during the day and got stuff, lots of stuff! Until finally we could move in on Monday, although it took until Wednesday for the water to be turned back on. And miracle of miracles, after Orange telling us the internet would take 2 weeks, it ended up being two days!

Fortunately for us, our arrival coincided with a big sale day at the Emmaus charitable mission in nearby Alencon. This meant we got an extendable dining table with 6 chairs, two small dressers, crockery (nice french porcelain), enamel cooking ware, and so on for around 200 euro. We went back again and got an armoire and the worlds heaviest coffee table. I was intrigued by the granite top, which I assumed was "wafer thin" sheets, nope, they must have used blocks!!! At least the coffee demitasses (or wine glasses) won't suffer when anyone walks into it. I'm guessing it'd be a close run thing between budging the coffee table and breaking a leg.

Katrina testing out the worlds heaviest coffee table.
We were both taken by the armoire on our first visit, but knew that even with acres of haulage room it wouldn't fit in the Jumpy, with all the other stuff, hence the second visit. The carved decorations took our fancy, and we know that it's missing bits and pieces and doesn't really fit into the available space, but at 40 euro and a free coffee table (courtesy of my little brother).......................

I mentioned that Emmaus is a charitable organization, apparently the men who live and work there all have "troubles". We dealt with a very jovial young Senegali, who was over the moon to be dealing with Australians and then ecstatic when I told him that I had been to Senegal, and not just Dakar. He started calling me his big brother and was quite excited to see us a second time. I am hoping that by the time a third visit is needed he will have sorted his troubles and moved on.

Madame Martel moved out of the house in March, in expectation of a quick finalization, so from then to October nothing was done to the garden. There were creeper tendrils making a bid for sole occupancy! We soon put a stop to that, but then there was the path, the yards and the fence to deal with. After six days of hard slog I still haven't touched the garden beside the steps from the church, or the main garden plot. There are cubic metres of green waste in the garden lean to, waiting on collection and removal. Although I don't know what that's going to cost us, or when it will happen.

Speaking of which we seem to have landed on our feet with our neighbours. Directly across the street form us are a French couple, Stefan and Manu, and in the next house along at the end of the street is Josepha, a New Caledonian.  Around the corner is Allan an Englishman who pops over regularly while his wife is mostly in the UK.  Steffan, Manu and Josepha are permanent residents and Allan has been in and out for 14 years, owning the house and a small farm just outside the village. They have all been very welcoming and Steffan even forgave me when I laughed that his dog Earnest had "broken out" and gone on the run again. He is a very friendly dog that loves people, cows and rolling in cow pats; of which there are plenty, of course, as Sept-Forges is in the middle of Camembert country.  Sad really.
The church above the house

As an added bonus, there is a "Sauf Riverains" sign at the end of the street. This means that if you don't have actual business here don't enter. So, in the morning and late afternoon, there is little traffic and otherwise blissful silence. Once the church bells stop ringing the hours in the evening there is absolute stillness, even quieter than Venice at night! Lovely - and a great view to wake to.

Proof positive that the kitchen works
So for now we have functional kitchen, living room, bedroom and a fold-out bed/chaisse in the living room. The showers both work, there's gas in the kitchen

Did I mention that the Emmaus furniture was all antique? May be in need of TLC and missing bits, but there's time.

As for now, we're back to Paris Friday afternoon before a flight back to Muscat and reality. Boy, will we be tired!

The view from the bedroom window - Note that the ascending wall was invisible a few days ago.