Friday, 27 December 2013

So that was Jordan - Mosaics, Ruins and floating ON the Dead Sea

The Tree of Life at Madaba

Well late last night we flew back in from Jordan. We'd had a week there as a Christmas Break along with our son Robert (BJ) who we had flown over for the Festive season. He's still here and goes home to Australia in early January. then after that we have a constant flow of guests over the next three to four months. In the next couple of months our presence in Oman will have brought at least 20 people over for a visit.

What to say about Jordan? Fascinating. It really is a country of contrasts, desert in some parts, hills and snow elsewhere and bustling cities with historic sites in every direction. I joked to a Jordanian that the music of Jordan was the car horns, which are incessant as formal road rules seem to matter as much as road lanes, which while occasionally marked are universally ignored. A road has as may lanes as cars that can fit side by side across it. One of the things we did remark on was the smell, ever present and while not overwhelming it was a relief to get back to the clean air of Muscat.
The three travellers at the Citadel in Amman
Mind you the Jordanians we dealt with were nice, just always smoking and it seems always on the look out for ways to make money from you. When I checked the hire car in yesterday the rental company guy said "Yes Jordan is a nice place to visit, but you don't want to live here".

Jordan has been hit hard in the wake of the Arab spring. Apparently Saddam Hussein was providing free petrol to Jordan, meaning now they have to pay market price, and coming from Oman that was a rude shock. There have also been a range of other impacts meaning the cost of living has gone up markedly. At the same time the ongoing Syrian civil war is discouraging tourism across the whole country. And in Australia we think a few boat people are a problem (many from countries where our foreign policy has not necessarily helped). Well in Jordan there are UNHCR refugee camps scattered across the country housing Syrians and I guess also camps for Palestinians. In our travels we lost count of the number of camps, generally smallish, but I bet we only saw a fraction of the total.

Enough of that. If you like mosaics then Jordan is the place for you - in spades! There are so many old buildings and ruins to be found and many of the Roman and later ones have mosaic floors. In places like Jarash, (a wonderful Roman site which is only partly excavated and not fully see-able in one day) you can walk in ancient churches, on uncovered and partially uncovered mosaics. They have two museums in the site, one general (which we got to) the other a mosaic museum (which we didn't). The outside walls of the general museum have a succession of mosaics on them, all the way around the outside. We loved Jaresh and to do it justice would need to go back for a second visit. All around us were signs of the drop in tourism, the big dining room inside the site was empty and where we lunched it was just us and a few of the local hopeful taxi drivers.
Jaresh Roman column detail
The temple of Zeus at Jarash
So what is Jaresh? Well it was a Roman town and has a Hippodrome, multiple churches, Christian, Roman, Greek and so on. Villa's barracks, an amphitheatre and, and, and....... It is a work in progress which has been underway for decades and is probably not even half done.

From Jaresh we went to the Citadel in Amman - this had been occupied from Neolithic times up until after the second world war. So there is a temple to Hercules, Christian churches and mosques scattered around the hilltop in the centre of Amman (Jordan's capital). Oh and did I mention mosaics? It was an interesting place to visit and the views and contrast to Amman were fabulous.
How many years did you spend in the cells at Al Karak
We also visited the Crusader castle of Al Karak, on our way from Amman to Petra.  Al Karak is interesting, the Crusaders held it for a brief period after which it was taken by Sal a Din and since then has remained in Islamic hands. Mind you the site was originally a temple from around 850BC.  The castle is an impressive sight and has the most spectacular of views, affording us our first (semi) glimpses of the dead sea and beyond that Israel.  Unfortunately it remains largely un-restored and the only way to see it with more of an understanding of "Oh another empty room, I wonder what this was?" is to hire a local guide which we did and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

But that view.........................

From there we went on to Petra and our two nights in a Desert Camp. Can highly recommend the Seven Wonders Desert Camp. Mind you being winter there it was cold and blowy, made all the colder by the fact that we had just missed a 1.5 metre dump of snow and there was still  some snow on the surrounding hillsides, meaning the wind chill factor was pretty extreme.

That movie shot!
And then Petra. If you've seen Indianna Jones and the Last Crusade then you have seen the treasury at Petra. There is so much more than that to Petra. We went in the front gate and when confronted with the reality of a 3 km (or so walk) to the treasury sensibly hired horses and guides who took us up and across mountains, around the back where we could look down on the main sites of Petra, before walking down into the main areas. Petra was once a bustling trade hub and many of the buildings carved into the rocky canyon walls were related to that or impressive family tombs. There were few that could be entered and scatttered around the canyon walls were actual residences, once again carved into the rocky walls. The reason for all of this rocky building is that the rock is sandstone, in a bewildering array of colours, which the local artisans make use of by creating scenes in glass bottles, for us tourists to buy. Along with horses, donkeys and camels to ride. Oh and we finally saw the treasury on our way out, it made a fitting end piece to day one there.

Looking down into Petra
The Royal Tombs
I don't really know what to say about Petra, it was stunning, but teeming with locals living off us tourists. I know the Jordanian Government tries to regulate things, but................ Petra is truly a place of wonder and well worth the visit. But be prepared to walk a long way - or PAY for the privilege of four legged transport.

Taxi anyone?
On the second day we trekked in through the back entrance to see the Monastery at the very top of  the Petra site. Once again wonderful and I was pleasantly surprised by how well Katrina dealt with the "trail" and its, at times sheer drop off's. We had a great time and will probably go back - just look at the pictures as I can't really describe it all.
The back way into Petra

From Petra we went and saw Little Petra, which put things into a much more human perspective. Same construct but not so grand and in a much, much smaller ravine. The locals there were much less interested in money and more than happy to explain things. A missing element from the main site.
First century roof murals in Little Petra
From there we went to Aqaba, on the Red Sea, which is the only place on our trip that we would not bother to visit again. If we were keen snorkel/scuba types it would be first on the list, but other than that it has little to offer.  Once again you can see signs of the downturn in tourism, with attractions closed and few people at the ones that are open. Aqaba borders Israel and across the Red Sea you can see Egypt.

Our Christmas Day drive paralleled the Israel borderline. For much of the drive we could see an Israeli highway mirroring the Jordanian one we were on and every few kilometers military observation posts on either side of the border. As we got closer to the Dead Sea the land became more and more fertile, with Desert giving way to farms - tomato, banana, olive, capsicum etc,

At Katrina's insistence we stopped at Lot's cave, where there was another church, with mosaics (as yet uncovered) and the cave - which we got to look into but not really enter. Lot's cave is on a hillside with a wonderful view out over the end of the Dead Sea and the flat lands stretching into the distance. There was no sign of Soddom or Gomorrah - but the hugest pile of salt I have ever seen. The original plan had been to get to the Dead Sea Resort by dark, but with 70 or so km to go we watched the sunset from Lot's plateau.

So Christmas Dinner 2013 for David, Katrina and BJ was at the Holiday In Dead Sea Resort, in a nice restaurant - 393 Below (that would be metres below Sea Level) with live lounge music and for once a no smoking zone!

And Boxing Day dawned with the obligatory dip in the Dead Sea. Interesting, you float on the water. If you swirl the water in the shallows you can see just how salt saturated it is. It looks rather like when you are cooking a syrup and the water is taking the sugar in - except in this case there is no heat involved. Rocks and the like on the shores are coated in salt. The water is so salty it stings the tongue and tastes incredibly bitter - not like salt at all!.

Swimming is interesting, floating on your back a good half of your body is out of the water. And as for swimming, well when doing the Australian Crawl you feel like you are skimming across the surface and it feels effortless to move at speed. Just one international swimming meet at the Dead Sea and there would be new records for all styles and distances - without the need for performance drugs. You are not so much dragging yourself through the water, rather propelling yourself across it.

Katrina and BJ tried an experiment. As BJ has almost no body fat, rocks were stacked on his chest and abdomen while he floated. Rock after rock was added to the piles, until there was room for no more, it made a most negligible difference to his flotation.
Swimming the Dead Sea
And all too soon it was time to pack and go to the airport. Although there was one last surprise in store for us. The GPS gave two routes, I chose Madaba. At first we thought this was a mistake as the tourist signs in Madaba were not very good, but we eventually found the Information Center and after much mucking about with stationary traffic and one way streets I managed to park there - which the center people said was the only sensible thing to do.

There were old churches and the John the Baptist beheading chapel (next time) but most importantly a mosaic museum. And boy were we in luck, on entry there was no-one at the ticket booth, so after a few minutes we went on in and started taking pictures. After a little while I saw there was an attendant in the booth, so I went back and paid our dues. He turned out to be quite a nice guy and after talking to a colleague he whisked us off for a guided tour, which included him spraying water on mosaics so that for the first time on our trip we got to see the true colours of the mosaics. He also ushered us through to the best viewing vantage points and took us through a small chapel to see the tree of life! Wonderful stuff.

But then it was time to go as the airport and Oman beckonned....
The Four Seasons in colour

Where we stayed:
Amman - Amman Pasha Hotel - its in the centre of old town Amman, almost directly opposite the Roman Amphitheatre. Rooms are ok and reflect the cheap price. Incredibly cheerful hotel and each night the staff sing and dance in the adjoining cafe - heaps of fun.
Petra - Seven Wonders Bedouin Desert Camp, located in Little Petra - about 10 minutes drive from the entrance to Petra. Shame it was mid winter as guest numbers were well down, but a lot of fun and personal attention from the staff.
Aqaba - Double Tree Hotel, by Hilton. Certainly up to international standards, just a pity that there was smoking allowed in all the public areas.
Dead Sea - Holiday Inn Resort Dead Sea. Really rather pleasant. Once again shame about all the smoking, but we did find a non-smoking restaurant.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

And there was a Flamingo

Can't remember how long since I last posted, but it has been a while, months even. So what to tell?

Well visitor season has started with Katrina's sister, soon to be followed by our son Beej for Christmas/New Year and then a steady flow of guests until about April. So we will not be lacking Australian company for the next little while.

5 ton rope meets an end
As expected work has been busy so weekend outings and the like have been rather limited, with work happening one or both days of most weekends. in between we did manage to fit in a second visit to Jabal Akhdar (the Green Mountain) - thanks Liz your visit was timely.

That trip involved a quick dash up Wadi Fanja before a drive to the mountains, aimed at maximising Liz's exposure to the different scenery that Oman offers. On the way up Wadi Fanja we stopped at a water hole to dangle our feet in the water and have them nibbled by little fish. While we were there I heard various cars passing up and down the Wadi and then a range of odd noises followed by animated conversation. Being a nosy sort I poked my head out and took a look.

Three young Omani guys in a Jeep had landed themselves in water up to the window line. Not good I thought, so being civic minded I wandered over and had a bit of a look. No probs got a 5 ton tow rope we'll have you out in a jiffy!  Ahhhh NO. 5 ton rope took up the slack then,...... my Chevy just kept on going, the Jeep never budged. Hmmm, that's really stuck!

Abandoned village
Luckily for them a party going the other way (towing a Hyundai SUV) stopped and lent me their much more substantial tow rope. Multiple full tilt pulls later the Jeep came free, leaving us free to wend our way up to the mountains. Ruined villages, canyons and terraces beckoned and were duly explored. Then all too soon we were back in Muscat and Liz was on her way home to Australia.
Sisters whooping it up

Mind you our adventures took it out of the poor old Chevy and it took almost two weeks to get the parts and everything back in order. Just in time for a long (four day) weekend. So we spent three of those days in the car doing STUFF.

Our first day involved driving to the desert and into it through Bidiya for about three hours before setting up the camp site and relaxing for the night. There were four cars, seven people and four nationalities in our little group - Herman - Dutch, Bob and Ali - Brits, Robby and Lucy - South African and us.

Desert in the morning
We found a dune with a view and camped there. At which point I became our only bogging of the weekend, by driving in last swinging off the line of the others and involuntarily parking in soft sand - axles here we come. Some digging and towing later all was good.

Camp was set up and we settled in to a round of relaxing ales, sunset watching, cooking and admiring the sunset over the rather green desert. It had recently rained and there were little green bushes everywhere. Once the sun had set there was silence, dead silence and one of the best night skies I have ever seen.  Bliss. And then someone discovered there was Internet access and of course Bob's phone rang!

But other than that the night in the desert was fabulous, low temperatures (high teens) so cold that long sleeves were indicated. And of course the obligatory camp fire and tall tales and true?
Over and down

Day two dawned with coffee and bacon rolls. Ahh noice. After which we struck camp and set off to find our way across and out to the beaches for the second night.

This was my first time driving over dunes. Interesting, drive up to what you can't see over and go over it! Trust that the car before you got it right and just go, there is that feeling of oooh aaaah when all you can see is sky as the car noses over and down, then things come into view and you control the descent with gears and throttle to ensure the bump at the bottom is not too hard! This part was okay for the two older cars in the group, but the rather new Pajero ended up with damage to soft panels, front and back. And later in the day the new Land Rover shed a few plastic panels.
How to make a Land Rover more reliable?

We were doing okay getting out of the Desert until by following the purple line on the off-road GPS we ended up in car breaking territory. By consensus we turned back. Thinking we were back where we came in we headed off down a track, but hang on where did that camel farm come from? The nice guys there gave us typical country directions, drive that way to the X, turn right, go about 40k's and.....  So we did and after a total of around 170kms of sand driving we popped out onto a main road, maybe 2km's from a service station. Ahhh refuel and pump the tyres up from sand pressure of about 12psi to 30+psi.

By then of course we were hopelessly behind time and our beach camp site suddenly became a place called Filim a full 100 or so k's earlier than originally planned. Setting up camp in full dark has limited attraction.

Not sure what to make of Filim. Not that we ever worked out exactly where Filim was. So we found an uninhabited beach that had fisherman's shacks made from date palm fronds, co-opted one of them as our kitchen and set up camp around it. Nowhere near as quiet as the desert and much windier, but still a pleasant enough camp.

Camp Filim
In the morning I got up and went for a walk along the beach. It was quite dispiriting as I found lots of dead turtles. Some looked like they'd had run in's with boat propellers and others had clearly been cooked and eaten. But at least there were signs of recent hatching's as well. And then as I walked the beach I saw a wading bird that rather stood out - a bit unusual, yep a Flamingo.

And all too soon it was road time just under 500k's to Muscat and work the next day. It's a great drive down the coast as the terrain changes every half hour or so. Gibber plain, high dune desert, sandy plains, beaches, rocky escarpments in many colours. I could go on and on, but I won't.

The last thing of note that happened was when our little convoy was flagged down by some Chinese guys in a rental Nissan 4wd.  Seems they'd discovered what happens when you ignore the "Caution Dunes Cross the Roads" sign and Police warning board placed before the tag end of the dune. In their words "There was a big bang and then the car would not stop bouncing". They ended up a good 100 plus metres off road, bogged to the axles and leaking radiator fluid. Lucky for them one of our party was a mechanic and able to diagnose the problem. A quick bypass of the heater later they were on the road again. Mind you given the number of zip locks holding the front together they were far from the first people to come to grief in that rental.

The rest of the drive home was uneventful, but it was a very tired David and Katrina heading off to work on Sunday.
And the Flamingo at dawn

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Roooned I tells ya, roooned....

No I'm not talking about English Football, rather the ruins that scatter Oman.

One of the things about work is that around the halls and offices there are pictures of things and places in Oman. One of the pictures I paid heed to this week was of a ruined castle/fort/keep. Where's that I asked - Oh that's in Bowshar I was told! Bowshar, that's a suburb in Muscat, no problems an easy day out for sure.

So when I got home from work I said to Katrina, "Did you know there's a fort in Bowshar?"
"No, but I got lost in Bowshar not long ago and found some really narrow streets with deserted traditional houses in them." She replied.
If I put the keystone back, will that save the fort?
After a bit of online research - not much found - two pictures that reasonably matched the office picture I'd seen, but taken in 2004/5, so reasonably recent, but with useless directions because so much has changed. Looking good the fort looked in reasonable shape and the photographers talked about being able to go up stairs inside it.  Promising!

Bowshar Fort Circa Nov 2005 - Photo courtesy of Panoramia and taken by Siddiq Balushi

Google maps weren't much help, so today we set off to have a look see. If we couldn't find the castle/fort/keep then we could just get lost in Bowshar and see the old houses. There was a plan to go further afield too, but that went west after two hours of poking around Bowshar. And given that it's still Ramadan, so no eating or drinking outdoors - at all - being seen risks a fine or worse!

So down the highway, turn at the Muscat Grand Mall, on past the Bowshar dune and towards the hills. On into parts of Bowshar that I did not know existed. Pretty soon we started to see the green of date palm tree-tops - a sure sign of the Falaj (ancient water distribution system) at work. Where there's date farms clustered around an old Falaj there's sure to be a stronghold of some type nearby! After all the Ministry of Heritage consistently quote that there are more than 500 Castles or Forts in Oman! (This all dates back to the recent past of a tribal based society, where you may not be safe from reasonably near neighbors.)

Following our noses - well driving towards the biggest green cluster, we started to explore side streets. Not encouraging all new "Mc Mansions" lining the streets. Keep going - hang on what was that, back up and sure enough in the near distance the remnants of a tower top plain to see. After about five more minutes we discovered that had we ignored the side turn and driven straight for another 50 metres the Bowshar fort and its entrance road were immediately visible to the left. Sigh!
Tower remnants

To say that the fort had deteriorated somewhat in less than ten years would be an understatement! We drove up to the fort and parked. The basic structure of the fort is still there, a square construct, around 30 meters a side, with round towers at diagonal corners. We poked around taking pictures and were rather stunned at how rapid the deterioration has been. Given how much has happened since 2005, it seems likely that it must have been in use through the seventies and possibly later.
Bowshar Fort in its "glory"
Omani fortifications (and traditional houses) are often/typically made of packed earth (mud - aggregate mix), with some stone mixed in and stony foundations. Means they're relatively easy to make and maintain, but when left to fend for themselves they rapidly deteriorate.  Sadly it seems this one is not on the list of forts to be restored as left alone it will soon be no more than a pile of mud and stone, sitting atop a small hill.

Still we had fun poking around the ruins, but being good boys and girls nothing came away with us.

Bait Al-Maqham
After the fort we headed off deeper into "old" Bowshar and found Bait Al-Maqham (House of the Maqham's) after Bowshar Fort we had no great hopes, but were pleasantly surprised. These two forts are no more than 3 kilometers apart and what a contrast. Sadly Bait Al-Maqham was not open and from the lack of signage it would seem to remain in private hands. Everything looks to be well maintained and the date palms in the grounds appear well kept.

Ruins ahoy!
From there we explored crumbling houses. Interestingly rooms appear to be much smaller than current buildings and the houses packed much closer together. Sharing walls in many cases, this is something we noted in Adam, Jebel Akhdar and other places with traditional homes. Once again the houses are the mud mix. Floorboards are made from split palm trunks laid side by wide, with palm fronds to provide the flooring. But sadly these houses too are in advanced states of disrepair and to enter many of the rooms would be to invite trouble.

Partly fallen/intact flooring
Home shelving traditional style.
So off we went, with a side-trip to the Bowshar dune, try as I might the sand was just too soft for me to get to the top. And I wasn't interested in letting the tyres down to sand pressures, so after traumatizing Katrina for a while I gave up and we headed off to refuel the bodies. Thank-you Radisson for keeping the bar and grill open. No sooner had we sat than I realized that television on the wall was playing the Brumbies, against some NZ team. Turned out to be the final - Ah well better luck next year Canberra.

After a few weeks of working every day it was nice to have time out!

This week is only three days and then Ramadan ends, followed by the Eid celebrations. So the office shuts down on Wednesday and the return to work is either Sunday or Tuesday, depending on when the astrological observation is made by the duly appointed observers...

So on Thursday we will be off to Masirah Island, where there's the prospect of camping, kayaking, ship wrecks, turtle hatching and goodness knows what else.  So after considerable time of not much............  

Weird televised sport 2 for the day - drag racing, up sand dunes!

More ruins, showing how close things were built.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Ramadan again

Lunch will be served, when?
Almost two weeks ago now the holy month of Ramadan started. This is a time of the year when Muslims fast from dawn to dark. Being summer here the long hours and heat are hard for people as the fast extends from around 0430 to roughly 7pm.  I think next year will be a little better as the Islamic calendar uses lunar months meaning that the month called Ramadan moves forward by around ten days each year.

During the fasting period it is illegal to eat or drink in public. Throughout Ramadan the sale of Alcohol is banned across the country. As a result many of the licensed bars, clubs and restaurants shut down, giving their expatriate staff an opportunity to go home. licensed restaurants even stop serving any dishes cooked in alcohol.

It's a little bit strange seeing all the coffee shops, restaurants and eateries closed through the peak lunch period. Makes the food courts seem almost worth going into - nobody's there so it's nice and quiet! And Mc Donalds are getting the amount of custom their "alleged" food deserves.

In many ways it is the Muslim equivalent of Christmas - at least in terms of public acknowledgement and celebrations that go on around Ramadan. Radio stations change their programming, and air introspective programs talking about religion, society and core values. Each morning 90.4FM - "The Nation Station" starts with a reading from the Koran in Arabic, then English and a discussion on the meaning of the passage. This is repeated with verses coming up to prayer times throughout the day.

Supermarket chains advertise Ramadan specials, there are lucky shopper giveaways and everybody competes to offer "specials" through the month. Ramadan deals on cars etc, buy this get that free, two for one chickens in the supermarket..................

Because of the fasting office hours are reduced for the private and public sector and nobody really expects a lot to be done through Ramadan. Although that's not the case for me and the project at work. the morning drive to work is fabulous, but afternoons coming home are another story entirely.......

Ramadan is meant to be a time of introspection and also one of family and strengthening family ties. So in the lead up to dusk Omani's head off from wherever they are to join a family Ifthar (breaking of the fast meal) this may be at a home, or it could be at any number of restaurants that put on Ifthar banquets. The Grand Mosque in Muscat holds free Ifthar banquets after the dusk prayers. These are for the workers and the less fortunate.

Many restaurants have set up extra areas for Ifthar diners. One near here has a set up which is close to the largest marquee I have ever seen, it fills two thirds of their large parking area. (Out 8*5 metre tent would hardly bother a corner) Restaurants offer special Ifthar meals - banquets or fixed menu meals at reduced prices.
The temporary ifthar hall

Once started the celebratory eating continues to the wee small hours and after a small sleep its time to get up for breakfast and prepare for the long day ahead. Because of this people are up and about at all hours. Shops close in the afternoon and open again by about 8, staying open until 1am or later. There are special activities in the evenings - the Muscat Motorsports club is running go-kart sessions at their track until 1. Movie sessions slip back, theaters open at 8 and sessions start as late as midnight.

Charity bins and giving places have sprung up in the malls as Ramadan is when Muslims are meant to honor their annual giving of excess wealth to those less fortunate. Of course the counter to this is you now see beggars on the street - something which the local Imams preach against. I have read articles decrying begging as against Islam. And to be honest throughout the rest of the year there are few beggars to be seen anywhere in Oman. If a Muslim is needy they should go to the mosque and seek aid there.

Throughout this month one of the most common questions I get asked is "Do you fast?" zyou should join us it is a wonderful experience, good for the body cleansing and the soul. My answer is always that I fast at work and in public and I never say that I would not fast. Maybe there will be a day or two in there somewhere.....


Ramadan Kareem

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Tomb raiders.

We did that without Lara Croft along for the ride!

Inside a tomb, looking up
Last weekend the Chevy got loaded up and we took off for two days in the Hajar Mountains. We'd booked into a 4wd tour, run by "The Guide Oman", cost 40Rial each ($100 a head) BYO 4wd, tent etc, food, drink (soft) and guidance supplied. We were rather surprised on arrival at the set-off point to discover that 40 odd other cars were also booked to go along, plus the guide team. So just us and about a hundred of of our nearest (read never met any of them before) friends.

Apparently there was at least one other Australian there, but we never caught up. Instead we fell in with some Brits, Dutch.... A real mixed bag, including more South Africans than I have seen in the one spot.

Hajar Mountains
Heading off-road into the hills was a foretaste of what was to come.  Slow, slow, slow apparently some of the drivers had never driven on dirt roads before. Average pace dropped to about 20k and even Katrina was complaining that it was too slow. Still that let her sit in the passenger seat and take pictures of cars, rocks, winding roads, goats, rocks, cars and dust.

Cars, rocks, windy road and dust.....
So where are the tombs? Well we're getting there...

After about 40 minutes we stopped at a cleared space on a ledge overlooking the coast on one side and the mountains on the other. Spectacular views all-round!  After a while the locals appeared and a more than adequate buffet magically appeared. Around an hour later we waddled off to our cars for the second leg which took us to the Salma Plain and the entrance to Majlis Al Jinns (Meeting place of the Genies) cave.

I won't bore you with details of the drive.  The cave entrance a was impressive, unfortunately no entrance - and no way to get safely in. From where we stood looking down into a black abyss it was 120++ meters to the bottom.  Yep that's right 120, with no safety fencing - just a reliance on common sense.  At its deepest the cave goes to 180 meters.  Apparently there are plans to make a glass gondola that can be lowered into the cave so that us mere mortals can look around, what must be a fabulous sight.
The entrance to Majlis A Jinns
That black abyss is 120m straight down!
There are three entrances and sunlight streams in lighting what is one of the largest single caves in the world - think Hall of the Mountain King from Lord of the Rings/Hobbit size. Big enough to stack all the jumbo jets owned by a few airlines.

Sadly all we could do was look and then drive away to camp for the night. Little clusters of 4wd's gathered at likely spots, tents appeared, beds were made and then magically Eskies (Cool boxes, Chilly bins - you know what I mean) appeared. Hot and tired as we were the new task was set to with a vigor across the camp ground.
Camp Hunt
Watered (?), fed, talked out and tired bed quickly became the preferred option. It helped that being so high up the temperature was a good 15 or so degrees cooler than in Muscat. Made for a very nice night of sleep.

Morning beckoned fresh and  for a change well below thirty. Breakfast came and went, as we were all entertained by the antics of local donkeys and camels.  Once the camels worked out that a) there was food and b) people soft enough to share, they were all through the camp. Thrusting their heads at anyone who looked like they might feed them and with those big baby eyes...... Fickle friends they turned out to be, what no more food, I'm off looks like that person has something vaguely food like..... And then one of them found the breakfast buffet table. Luckily there were enough people at hand to stare said camel down and send her packing.

Entertainment over and camels gone we packed cars and headed off further into the mountains, once again at 20kph........... Up hill down dale, round that hairpin, through that village and on.

Finally we rounded a bend and there were the beehive tombs on both sides of the road, just begging to be explored.  So explore we did with enthusiasm and camera. I have no clear idea of how many tombs there were, but it was well into the tens.  Two rose proudly up in their full glory, showing off to the world. Around them lay half intact or fully fallen tombs making piles of rock on that desolate hilltop.  I strongly suspect that the two intact tombs had been rebuilt, they were just too pristine for what surrounded them.

So what are they - well apparently they are up to 5000 years old, built as tombs. Beautiful they were - let the pictures speak.
Katrina leads the way out
By the time Katrina and I had finished looking we were almost alone at the tombs - when we went in there were a good 15 to 20 cars there, minuted later when we came out - three guys in a dodge and the sweep car were all that were left.  So for the final thirty or so kilometres to the lunch break wadi I got to drive at a much more reasonable pace - yay!

And then after a swim - or two - in the pools we had another buffet at Wadi Tayeen and then back to Muscat by the inland route. We had driven into the mountains at the coast near wadi Tiwi and finally found civilisation again at Ibra - on the inland side of the Hajar mountains.

Because we'd seen the beehive tombs in the mountains we did a bit of research and found there were others, much closer to hand. So this morning (Thursday - being the first day of a long weekend) we headed off with 10 year old instructions. We knew these would be problematic as road building goes ahead apace. Sure enough after a lot of mucking around we found the village of Halban and even more mucking around in Halban (new houses abound) we found them. Another twenty or so beehive tombs, once again in various states of disrepair. None of them rebuilt.
Tombs at Halban

So once again tombs raided we set off for home - all of about 30k's this time - and tomorrow for the rest of the weekend we are off to Jebel Shams - the highest mountain in the country which abuts Oman's Grand Canyon.

Reflections on a year in Oman

It seems somewhat strange that we have been living overseas for more than a year now. Coming to Oman was a great leap of faith on our parts, what with leaving our home of some 20 plus years, our children and after almost 30 years moving to a new employer.

For the first time in our married life we have a house to ourselves, well  most of the time.   Life is quite different and now that Katrina has the thesis off her back we will have some time to explore this rather stunning country. Mind you work is hitting overdrive and now that Katrina has finished study I have enrolled on line with the University of Canberra.

In March 2012 we got off a plane at Muscat airport, and walked into a noisy, crowded and seemingly chaotic place. All the locals  (apart from the ones in uniform) wore white (men) or predominantly black (women).  Within two days of arrival I was at work, having been prodded and poked by the doctors at the Police Hospital. And that two days says a lot, when Omani's want something to happen it HAPPENS VERY QUICKLY!

In our year here we have never felt threatened or unsafe. It is a remarkably friendly, tolerant and safe place to be. Mind you we did learn that crime is not unknown as we left the house unlocked - and the inevitible happened.

So what to say about Oman. Hmmm. Different, spectacular, beautiful and forbidding at the same time. Chaotic and frantic, but also quiet with an overriding tolerance and politeness. I guess that’s probably well illustrated by the reaction here to the American movie that derided Islam last year. The Omani’s could not understand how or why someone would choose to make a movie like that, there was a sense of bemusement. And being a very devout Muslim country Omani’s felt the need to protest. A group of I believe about 150 went to the American embassy and paraded outside for a couple of hours, some with placards, to register their discontent. And then they came back the next day and did it again – point made. How different to the rest of the world.

The reaction to the footage of the Australian counter protest, where the Australian racist nutbags  were charged and beaten by the police made somewhat of a stir at work. But then that may only have been mentioned because I am Australian.

For much of the year it's hot!  Winter gets down to the mid twenties and is absolutely beautiful, fabulous outdoor weather. It's then that people go into the desert. Still hot but bearable. The wadi's have running water and the stark rocky mountains sprout patches of green as small trees and grasses spring into life.

Over the next few months these will die back and although still present most of them won't be noticeable from any distance away.

In the last few weeks summer has signalled its intent. Daily highs are hitting 40+ with growing regularity, in another month or so it will be 40+ everyday. You do start to get used to it, but right now even the locals are not happy. And now its Ramadan - long hot days with short nights and public fasting during daylight hours.

Life is a bit different here, work starts and finishes early, then its off home in the early afternoon to escape the heat. So consequently there's no formal lunch break at work, even when its not Ramadan. You get up early, go to work and come home for a late lunch. Followed by a lie down. And then after 4 things start to come back to life, shops re-open and people start to hit the streets and beaches.

We are relatively lucky, living in Al Hail close to the Al Seeb beach. A nice long sandy stretch, which the locals flock to in late afternoon. Games of soccer are played up and down the beach, often with their goals almost back to back. People like me walk up and down the waters edge, dodging the occasional soccer ball or even charging players. Every now and then the "lads" hit the beach in their Jeeps and tear up and down at speed. All adding to the mix.

The lady at our corner store always gets excited when I drop in to buy a case of soda water. She unfailingly asks after "Madam" and chats about life the universe and anything! We recently had to promise to go to the shop so she couldgive Katrina some of her food. And very nice it was too, think there may be some Katrina cooking ahead for the shop lady... And now there's henna to show added to the mix.

It's interesting living in a functioning monarchy. The Sultan has a Government and houses of Parliament under him, but laws are Royal Decrees and the local news is full of the doings of the Sultan, such as his diplomatic missions and the almost daily cables dispatched around the world, to celebrate national days, offer condolences or congratulations for things like election wins.

The Sultan is well loved and his picture is everywhere. And nobody seems to mind when streets get shut down for a convoy of VIP's going to or from the airport, often out past our place to the Royal Palace. When that happens the main highway gets closed down, as well as all the under and over passes along the way. People pull up and wait patiently, almost to the last person the Omani's then pull out a smartphone and start tapping away.

It's funny to think that forty years ago the main forms of transport for Omani's were donkeys and camels. They've come a long way in a short time and are keen on making Oman a great nation once again. It wasn't too long ago that the Omani empire stretched all the way down to Tanzania.

There are modernisation projects underway across the country, and the Government is following a process of Omanization. That is to say certain jobs are reserved for Omani's and major projects must have strategies in place to train Omani's into high skilled jobs. Unlike other parts of the region Omani's remain grounded and expect to work. The Sultan fully intends for Oman to stand on its own two feet, without needing oil or gas to maintain the economy.

Also unlike Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other parts of the region, Oman has maintained an incredibly strong sense of self. buildings retain traditional design principles and there are no sky scrapers. Traditional dress is the norm and while they have adopted the car with alacrity people walk the streets of their neighborhoods and are quite friendly, it's a rare day when I walk down the street and don't get greeted by most men/children walking by.

As we move about Oman we see quite a range of sights. The mountains are stunning, with seams of minerals protruding through the surface, giving the rock strata very obvious and rapidly changing colours. Red, green, bluish grey, off whites and a stunning array of browns. Everywhere you look it seems there's another seam of mineral.

When you dive off the beaches small reefs are easily found and the fish are fairly happy to tolerate your presence, just look mind you. Those fish come in all colours and sizes, and occasionally a turtle comes by. There are sharks around, but they aren't so close inshore as we swim and tend to be further to the South.

So all in all, do we regret coming to Oman - No. It's been a fabulous experience and we are looking forward to see what's next here.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Back to Oman and the Desert beckons

Must be almost a month since the last post - another two weeks in Australia and now about three weeks home.  An awful lot has happened in that time, both work wise and personally.
Nothing but sand as far as the eye can see......
I spent the second half of my time in Australia hanging around Canberra like a bad smell.  Being a tourist in my home town and just being there if Katrina needed me. Not too taxing!  I did get to see Government House and did a Parliament House tour as well as Tidbinbilla and the Canberra Zoo, all with a dash of National Arboretum.  As a tourist town Canberra is not too shabby.

(The Arboretum has hundreds of clumps of trees spread over many acres - or hectares to you young uns! - fabulous views and when fully grown will be something quite spectacular. Its one of those vision things, and thankfully once every generation or two you get a politician with a sense of vision.)

My Australian sojourn finished with a trip through Sydney to the closing day at the Rowany Festival.  I was there for the Fighter Auction Tourney and had the opportunity to catch up with many people. That was really rather pleasant. Then the following day I farewelled Katrina and set off for Oman and work again.

When I got back home after unpacking and sleeping, it seemed the first thing to do was collect Rufus and Georgie from the airport. The snow in Canada had melted enough for them to be released from their lakeside isolation. First thing they did was jump a plane to Muscat.  So in less than a month I got to see most of my family and also most of Katrina's as her parents were also on the visiting agenda.
Ray and Isobel (Katrina's parents) relaxing at the beach.
I guess the big thing on the agenda was the weekend just gone when Rufus, Georgie, Katrina and I joined a small "adventure tour" into the desert at Wahiba sands.  An 8 am start on the first day of the weekend after a work week that included two consecutive post midnight finishes - hmmm could have planned that better!!
First duty in the sand is to get bogged! the only bogging of the trip though.
I had found the tour through an online group called Internations. Seems we aren't the only expats to have been here for a while without making it into the Desert. So ten of us (7, plus two drivers and one organiser) piled into two well packed 4wd's and set off for desert.

Nothing much to say for a few hours then we hit the desert. After a few hours of seriously abusing dunes in 4wd's we stopped for the night and set up camp. Along the way we saw some stunning scenery and learnt a lot about how far you can push a 4wd on sand and how close to horizontal they get without thinking of rolling.
The dune was that high

And then of course as dusk approached the wind sprang up and well with the wind came migratory sand. It got into everything.  Even the bags that were zipped up.  Sitting on a chair watching the sun go down while being sandblasted was an interesting experience.  Not keen to repeat the sandblasting  bit of the trip. And then after all that wind the ridges of the sand dunes are left as sharp as an ironed crease.
Rufus and Katrina in for some sandblasting.
After the day of traipsing around we settled into an evening of esky emptying!. By this time the whole group had gelled and the evening was spent in a session of rather loud hilarity. And as it was too hot to sleep most of us stayed up well beyond our bedtimes. I am told that when bed eventually won out Katrina and my snoring was a sound to behold!
Most of the group...well half anyway.

The morning brought a new and bleary day, but also a lot of surprises. As I walked around the camp in the early morning light there was spectacular scenery to behold. But the truly amazing thing was the sheer quantity and variety of tracks in the sand. Around and through our camp were dung beetle, Gerbil and Lizard tracks. Not too far away were snake, fox and sand fish. All mixed up with assorted bird tracks as well.
Signs of Desert death - and life ....
For such an inhospitable and forbidding place the variety and volume of life is impressive. We did of course also see Camels and goats - the two immutables of the Omani animal world. As we drove the 50+ kilometres out of the desert we also saw lizards and sand fish to go with the beetles and flies.

Georgie and our hostess
At deserts' edge we stopped at a Bedou (that's Bedouin to you) house, which now operates as a tourist stop off point. It's operated by an elderly woman who lived there when all the desert dwellers lived in such houses. The buildings were entirely made from palm tree wood and fronds. The floors were covered by carpets directly onto the sand and one side of the Majlis (meeting room) we sat in was open. Despite the open wall it was significantly cooler in the Majlis than outside. We bought various home made trinkets, drank coffee and ate dates.

Our final stop on the trip was Wadi Bani Khalid on the way back to Muscat. This wadi has a permanent watercourse and wonderful swimming holes fed by underground springs from the mountains.  Ahh glory, nice cool water and all (well a big proportion) of that sand washed away. Glorious surroundings and crystal clear water. So good in-fact that it unclogged two of the press buttons on my watch - they'd been clogged up for well over a year.
Wadi Bani Khalid
Swimming was fun, the unexpected was that when you sat still in the water little fish magically appeared and started to nibble the dead skin off your feet. Gave me a bit of a surprise when they started nibbling, but it wasn't too bad. The longer you sat the more fish gathered on your feet. Ahh exfoliation, apparently people pay for this treatment.

But then it was back to Muscat and work for me,
      Muscat then Tanzania for Rufus and Georgie and
            Muscat and the post thesis brain search for Katrina. Sadly the brain search has really only been a partial success (a small part at that) so far.
Katrina's foot meets fish