Friday, 24 July 2015

I traveled again, must be time for a Blogg post......

A gratuitous photo of one of my favourite Omani birds, the Indian Roller - VERY colourful - No? 

An Omani Patriarch
I just had a look at my blog and noticed that the last post was in early February, just after we came back from Paris and Brussels. Well I have just traveled again, so it must be time for another post. Hmmm so what's been happening?

In May we had a visit from our friends Maia and Stanford. While they were visiting we went up Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountain, which I have posted about before. On Jebel Akhdar we went to the old abandoned village. While we were there I ran into three male generations of an Omani family. After exchanging greetings and taking photos of the young lads, who insisted on photos, the patriarch came up to me and insisted that I take his picture so that people could see what a real Omani looked like. So here he is a man who is proud of his heritage, nation and family:

The family inspecting Daylesford
Still inspecting Daylesford
Work is busy as we have just implemented. This meant that from January on I was effectively working 7 day weeks, with the occasional day off. Sigh, but then that's why I am here. In the end I could only get two weeks leave to return to Australia. This meant that I flew in on a Saturday, went straight to Canberra (home), where I spent six days, before we drove down to Ballarat and Daylesford (Mum and Dad) for two days, before hitting the road for Brisbane (the boys) and three and a half days. In all Katrina and I drove close to 2,500 km in a 5 day period. Katrina had it better than me as she went to Aus 4 weeks before I did and returned one week after.
Bush insects caught in the late afternoon sun

Mother and Child

It was good to catch up with people, particularly family and some unexpected people we hadn't seen since long before we left Australia for Oman. So all in all my two weeks away was a lot of fun, just wish there had been time to relax at some point. And in the whole two weeks I got to do one touristy thing, which was to visit Qld Zoo (No Not Bindiland!) with Katrina the boys and Georgie. I can highly recommend Qld Zoo, it may be small but the animal collection is interesting and the animals all seem so relaxed. Many of the native animals have relative freedom and the non-natives are in reasonable sized enclosures. The zoo itself is set in bushland immediately behind the Big Pineapple - which we somehow managed to successfully avoid.
Random Kangaroo

Anyway I returned to Oman for the last week of Ramadan, which translated into a 4 day week, because of the beginning of the Eid celebrations. The next week was even shorter at two days, because of Eid and Oman's Renaissance Day. Renaissance Day marks the anniversary of Sultan Qaboos coming to the throne of Oman. He replaced his father in an English backed, almost bloodless coup. His ascension to the throne sparked a modernization drive that took the country from a village based, agricultural country where donkey and camel were the only means of transport, to a modern developing/developed country. Quite the transition and the reason that Sultan Qaboos is revered across the country.

A mother and her sons
Well as Katrina returned mid-Eid we stayed at home in Muscat for the two days before I returned to work. Then yesterday morning (23 July - Renaissance Day) we looked at each other and said "well, will we go somewhere today?" to which of course the answer was "Why not"

I consulted friend Google and discovered that all on its lonesome was a fly speck on the map of Oman called Tool. Definitely within striking distance, Hmm I thought, intrigued by the name, can we find Tool and after finding Tool could we make our way through the Hajar mountains to the coast and back to Muscat? Only one way to find out..... By about 0830 we'd put some supplies in the Land Rover and hit the road.

After stopping at the mandatory petrol station in Bidbid we hit the road, heading inland behind the Hajar Mountains, in a Southerly direction. The built in GPS was not much use, as the map disc is from 2007, which in Omani road building terms is an eternity. Much of our trip was down Route 23 and we had to make our turn off onto route 25 - which according to the Land Rover does not exist! Yep too true once we turned off 23 we were on our own, except for the map that had pre-loaded in my phone.
Ripening dates
Throughout the day there was a lot of "which way do we go here?" followed by "I can't tell, the phone doesn't give me enough detail" then a decision and a couple of hundred metres later "Nope we went the wrong way" And this was before we'd even left the blacktop!

And leave the blacktop we did. As we were travelling solo there was no need to mind what anybody else wanted, so as opportunity presented we turned off onto secondary roads and wadi's. This made for a rather relaxed day at the wheel, but also a lot of extra distance offroad. So we stopped at various lookouts, ruins and the like. Sadly we never did find a swimming hole that wasn't already swarming with people.

Random ruins near Smut
We went where fancy took us, which meant that when we saw a sign for a Nature Park and a village called Smut - well we just had to go. And having gone, moved on.  Nothing to see, but we couldn't bypass an opportunity to visit Smut.

Eventually - probably almost two hours longer than planned we found Tool. It seems like a reasonable settlement, which is in the process of being completely bypassed by a dual lane road, running a long way into the Hajar mountains.

So having tooled around Tool we set off for the coast, by following the wadi on through. Every now and then we ran across roadworks - presumably that road bypassing Tool will go a long way into the Hajar mountains, possible even to the coast. As for memorable sights, well there was a bridge crossing the wadi, almost fully completed, mind you each end of the bridge was build right up to the rocky mountainside of the wadi. Yep if you could get onto the bridge, you could do endless circuits of the bridge, but that was all the road you would have to play on.

Watchtower near Tool
Eventually the wadi trail took us away and up into the Hajar mountains. Funnily enough along a road we had used to cross the Hajar mountains before. If you've seen the videos posted here ( ) then you've seen this road, which comes out at a place called Qalhat. This time around the road was much rougher, the last few months have not been kind to it, and in places it has deteriorated to what we Australians would call bulldust (loose dust with a consistency of talcum powder). In other patches rain has washed what little soil there is away exposing the underlying rocks. For quite a bit of the drive I had the suspension set to the highest ride height, something I hadn't had to do the previous time through. Anyway late in the afternoon we braved the switchback down into Qalhat.

Because of all the extra, mostly offroad, distance covered the car was very happy to receive the jerry can of fuel brought along for just such an occasion. Without that can we would have had to drive away from Muscat to the nearest petrol station.

So here we are, back safe in Oman.


Because they have the best mustaches!

Friday, 23 January 2015

Paris, Brussels and mixed emotions

Katrina's unexpected highlight, that's her at bottom left!
Well as highlighted in my last post it was time to come to Brussels again - more official meetings. This time Katrina told me in no uncertain terms that she was coming along for the ride, so I made the offer "How about we go via Paris". Well as neither of us had been to Paris this was met with rather rapid acceptance and some expressions of joy. Even though it is mid winter in Europe the prospect of Paris was, for some reason, just the ticket.

Add caption
When work finished on Thursday I went home, finished packing and at 1030 we flew out for Paris via Amsterdam.  Lo and behold around 8 we landed at Charles De Gaulle Airport, after a little mucking about we were on our way to Place de Liberte via Nord station. After losing each other in Nord we found our way to the right platform and the train duly arrived. So along with what seemed like half of Paris we boarded, amidst much jostling and shoving and set out on the last leg of our arrival in Paris. Just after we left Nord I discovered what all the pushing and shoving was about - my wallet had been lifted!  All my cards and some cash gone in an instant. GRUMBLE - welcome to Paris.

Gratuitous shot of  Notre Dame
We found the Gendarmes and began the lengthy process of reporting the theft. Which at this point amounted to no we can't take the report you have to go to the station at (wherever it was) and make your report. So we popped out onto the Place Liberte and were immediately confronted by the "je suis Charlie" memorials stacked on and around the statuary in the plaza. From there with the help of a local we found our way to the office of the Apartment rental company. They were lovely fed us coffee on arrival and passed me the office phone so I could call the bank and cancel my cards. While I was making that call my credit card was used - a test transaction methinks as the amount was 8 euro. Mind you the staff did tell us that guests arriving minus wallets, passports etc was almost a daily occurrence and that our losses were well to the low side. Luckily Katrina still has her cards and wallet. As an aside they recounted one guest who lost her passport turned up at the US embassy the following morning to request temporary travel documents, and found herself in a queue of about 40 people seeking the same service, for the same reason.

From there we went by taxi to our apartment (Museum View Apartments), which was across the road from the Natural History Museum, with views into the bone rooms of the Palaeontology building. The rest of the day was spent dealing with the police reporting, which resulted in a large wodge of papers for me to take home for use in helping get replacement cards. So that was day 1 in Paris - well except for the cycling up and down the Seine as we went about our business.

We got around Paris using the bicycle network. You pay a sum per day and get access to bikes from racks scattered across Paris. They abound around the main metro stations and tourist areas. All very convenient with cycle paths and lanes abounding. So you take a bike ride it and then leave it attached to the docking stations near your destination and provided individual "hires" are under half an hour you pay nothing above the daily fee. As an effective way of getting around Paris I can highly recommend this one, it has the added benefit of being much harder to have your pocket picked when cycling.

Yes it's a Dodo, at the natural history museum.
Bicycles have access to the transit lanes, so you generally only have to deal with taxis and buses, which show remarkable tolerance and patience for the poor bemused cycling tourist. I have to say that Paris abounds in alternate transport, cyclists, scooters (push and petrol powered) and roller bladers abound. The general motorised traffic moves fairly slowly because of the abundant traffic lights and narrowish streets. All of which makes for a much more pleasant cycling experience. Mind you Parisiens seem to have missed the EU notice that smoking is harmful to your health.

As close as we went to the tower.
So what did we see - Eiffel Tower - check, Cluny Museum (Lady and the unicorn tapestries) - check, Notre Dame - check, Military museum and Napolean's tomb - check, Museum of Natural History - Check and the Zoological gardens - check.

Being midwinter Paris came across as grey and brooding and given events of the previous week was on high alert, with heavily armed Police and Army deployed everywhere we went. They were usually in groups of three or more and looking rather serious. Everytime we entered a tourist venue it was off with the camera bag, so that security staff could look through it. This very quickly became part of a single process where I would present the bag for inspection and insert/remove winter woollies into the bag as necessary.

Just some of the detail in Notre Dame
We were blown away by the beauty of Notre Dame Cathedral and somewhat in awe of the ability to conduct a service with so many tourists swirling around. Many of them seemingly oblivious to the Mass being conducted and the worshippers. For a building verging on 1000 years (in parts) the grand old dame is holding up well, although the ravages of time are unmistakable. Katrina stayed at Notre Dame for a service and concert, which just happened to be given by a Sydney based choir. Very happy girl. Although she did forget the cap she'd knitted especially for Paris and left it on a pew.

Military order pouch, 100 years war, bearing the arms of
Marshall Bertrand Du Guesclin
Carving under the seat base of a choristers chair
Other highlights of Paris were the unicorn tapestries in the Cluny (next to the Sorbonne). They are truly spectacular and nothing quite prepares you for their size. They are BIG. Katrina was completely absorbed. I was quite taken by the old chorister seats lining the walls of a couple of rooms in the Cluny. Nice practical woodwork, but the underside of each seat displays a carving which would not be seen when the seat is lowered for use. The carvings are a mixture of trades, games and activities, a wonderful touch and I imagine if left to it the choristers would fight over who got which chair.
Some of the Armour that's not really on display
The Military museum was very good. Halls and galleries to be lost in. I spent most of my time in the Royal armour collection and the medieval/renaissance armour collection. I have never seen that much armour displayed in the one place and some of the pieces are simply stunning. By the time I got through them it was a quick walk through the WW1 and WW2 Galleries before visiting Napoleon's tomb. I ran out of time to see the relief maps and saw no sign of any Napoleonic gallery. Although that's not really an issue for me as the Brussels military museum has a more than adequate Napoleonic display, which I have been lucky enough to see more times than I can immediately recall.
The sleeves and Pants?

The Military museum is housed in the veteran military hospital grounds.A small portion of the grounds are still used for their original purpose of housing veterans and attending to their welfare. A rather interesting juxtaposition I thought.

Napoleon's tomb - it's massive!

The zoo although small was nice, having been inaugurated in 1794. The animal houses are quite decorative. And it had my favourite big cat - the Snow Leopard, which were quite animated possibly because of the cold and the females hormones.
"Well come on and play"

 So rather tired and footsore we set sail for Brussels by the Thalys express train, which fortunately for us was delayed meaning that turning up five minutes after check-in closed was overlooked in the bigger issue of the two hour delay.

So Paris despite the pickpocket, the weather and so on - the jury is still out. It didn't do a lot for me, but maybe I'm just jaded. Lots of things to see and do, but then again there are so many other places that the completeness of my life does not require or demand Paris.

And so now we are in Brussels, and after a week of meetings catching the plane home for Muscat in the wee small hours of Saturday morning.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Belated posts and New Years

Well hello 2015 and farewell 2014. Can't say what happened to the second half of 2014, other than I must be a bit slack. There is a bit to tell.

In August, at the end of Ramadan Katrina and I jumped a flight to Salalah. It's the Southern end of Oman and the climate is just a bit different. In general Salalah is much more tropical, coconuts not dates, bananas, mangoes etc, etc and there are roadside fruit stalls everywhere. Fancy a fresh coconut? some pawpaw? Luverley bananas......

When we went it was the Khareef season. That's when a low lying mist rolls in off the sea and turns everything in the region a wonderful lush green.  It's also a welcome relief from the summer heat. Mind you everything gets constantly damp and while its not raining the roads are constantly wet, the wipers forever on and apart from the green everything is greyed out. Sigh.  But we found Salalah to be ok and there was enough to see and do for the four or five days we were there. Ancient ruins, rugged scenery and coastlines, and its where frankincense originates from.
Camels and the water near Salalah

The Khareef effect

Frankincense tree

Police barracks at Mirbat - where the last rebellion faltered.

Fresh fruit in Salalah

Katrina and the ruins

After that the balance of the year was fairly quiet the only other things of note were that I had another Brussels adventure, which I coupled with a trip to Manchester and a visit to Meaghan, Jamie and the girls and we had a weekend away in Bahrain - our second visit there.

Our living area
Other than that our other big news is that we moved house!. Our little villa in Al Hail has been swapped for a not quite so little villa in Al Hail! We moved in the weekend before Christmas and then ended up hosting a bunch of people for Christmas day. Much fun was had by all, let me just say that a bunch of 50+ ish adults and table top wooden santa bols do not mix - much danger but much fun. And don't believe it when you buy the wash - outable, draw on - able tablecloth. It is not a kids toy! We adults (maybe the definition adult is a bit questionable) had a great time with it!.

Guest living area
Having been in the house for almost a month now it is mostly set-up. We have 6 bedrooms which comprise of one master bedroom, one master guest room, one (yet to be furnished) secondary guest room all on separate floors plus a dressing room, a hobby room and a storage room. We also have a study, dining room and two sitting areas, plus a balcony and smallish backyard/garden. The good news about the balcony - and the rest of the front of the house are the ocean views. The panorama from the roof is spectacular.
Katrina and the VIEW

So now its mid January and I have another Brussels adventure next week. So we are going to leave on Thursday night and have three days in Paris before cutting across to Brussels for a week of work. 

Soo see ya - can't promise the next blogg will be any more frequent!