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