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.