A Travellerspoint blog

Muscat - Salalah

Leaving Muscat and the North of Oman behind and heading South


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We wake up to a delicately muted sunrise over suburban Muscat, as seen here from our balcony.

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Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

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As the largest Mosque in the Middle East, Sultan Qaboos' place of worship is a construction on a grand scale in every way and took six years to build, using materials from several different countries.

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20,000 tons of Indian sandstone was used, while the marble came from Oman.

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The Mosque has five minarets, with the tallest being 91.5 metres and the others measuring 61 metres. In addition to the minarets, there are ten domes. The Muezzin's call to prayer is always live, never recorded. The entire complex covers 40,000 m²

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In total, including the men's and women's prayer halls, the inner courtyards, paved ground and passageways, 20,000 people can pray here at the same time. Only on certain auspicious days is the mosque full, however; normally only between 100 and 500 faithfuls actually do attend.

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More men come to pray than women, as this picture shows the scale of the vast, cavernous men's prayer hall.

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70,000 tons of pure cotton was used for this carpet, and it took600 women (in Iran) two years to weave the 1,700 million knots. There are 28 different colours in this single piece of woven floor covering which weighs 70 tons.

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The prayer hall is adorned with a spectacular chandelier, some 14 metres tall and weighing 8.5 tons. Featuring 600,000 Swarovski crystal trimmings, 24-carat gold plated metalwork, this ceiling light has 1,122 halogen lamps operated through 36 switching circuits. The chandelier is truly of gigantic proportions with a diameter of 8 metres making it the size of an average 3 bedroom detached house but twice the height! For maintenance purposes there is a staircase inside the chandelier. Not surprisingly it is reputed to be the largest in the world.

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I love the way the chandelier reflects on the tiles of the mirhab (niche which faces towards Mecca and in the direction Muslims face when they pray), specifically illuminating the beautiful golden Arabic writing.

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I have always been captivated by Islamic architecture, and love looking at the pendentives (curved triangles at the intersection between the arch and the dome), the squinches (small corbelled arches) and muqarnas (the 'honeycomb' effect caused by the geometrical subdivision of a squinch) found in the mirhab and other niches throughout the mosque.

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There are a number of smaller chandeliers throughout the mosque. When I say "smaller"; they are still not exactly 'small' as you can see if you compare the size of the lights with the people below.

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Unobtrusive speakers are hidden in the pillars that support the roof and dome of the prayer hall.

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The detail and amount of design followed by craftsmanship that has gone into the construction of the mosque is staggering

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Under the colonnaded walkways outside are a number of niches, each with a bench underneath, each one boasting a different design, and each with a panel explaining the origin of the pattern. Inspiration for the various artistic design styles has come from all over the Islamic world.

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The Grand Mosque does not differentiate between the various denominations of Islam, and welcomes Sunni, Shia and Ibadi (the predominate sect in Oman) alike. It is also the only mosque in Oman to allow non-Muslims to visit.

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Shoes have to left outside and women have to cover their hair and arms.

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All Muslims have to undergo ablutions before prayer.

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Before we leave the mosque I visit what is the most disgusting toilet I have seen in Oman by a long way. Three cubicles, two of which are squat-style, filled with excrement, cigarette packets, toilet paper, nappies and other items that I do not want to study too closely. The one western toilet is even worse: blocked and overflowing with goodness knows what. If I wasn't so desperate, I would hold it.

Muttrah Souq

The 200 or so stalls in this traditional souk, the oldest in Muscat, are all somewhat similar, selling a curious mix of tourist tat, traditional clothing and colourful haberdashery amongst other things.

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The traders are not at all pushy, which makes a pleasant change.

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Muscat is a popular stop on the cruise ship circuit and today there is a ship visiting, something we see evidence of in the market.

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Entrance to the souk

Juice Bar

We take a break on the Corniche at a juice bar that serves fast food where David has chocolate milkshake, pizza and garlic bread. I pinch one of his garlic breads while I enjoy a lovely mango juice.

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We spend some time watching the traffic police issue tickets to motorists parked in a loading bay before we go back to the hotel to pick up our luggage from their storage area. On the way we drive past the Sultan's Palace (stopping not allowed), an extremely impressive place!

Al Falaj Hotel

We pick up the suitcases and make ourselves comfortable in the lobby as we have a couple of hours before we have to leave for the sunset cruise and on to the airport for our flight. The delightful receptionist approaches us and offers us the use of our old room until we are ready to leave. “Yes please!” Consequently we have a lovely siesta before getting ready for the next part of our adventure.

Sunset Cruise

We arrive at the marina in plenty of time before the boat departs, as the company has changed their sailing times to one hour later but forgot to inform the ticket holders. This gives us time to wander around and admire the beautiful yachts anchored here.

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Dhow

This evening we are sailing from the marina along the coast to Muttrah for sunset on a traditional Arabic wooden sailing ship known as a dhow.

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There is a free bar on board (soft drinks only) and the crew walk around with snacks at regular intervals, as well as a never-ending supply of coffee and dates.

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The cruise follows the ragged coastline, lined with small communities, luxury villas and fancy hotels.

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I love the way the mist obscures the hills in the distance, giving them a wonderful dreamy effect.

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The scenery itself can best be described as rugged, with lots of little islets and curiously shaped rock formations.

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The other passengers are an eclectic mix of nationalities, including the first British tourists we have seen on this trip, and an Iraqi-British family with their gorgeous teenage daughter. It turns out they live in Wembley, just a few miles from where David and I first met, many years ago.

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Said, on the other hand, takes the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

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The sun is getting lower on the horizon now, enveloping everything in its wake a in a golden hue.

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We are delighted to see a few birds along the shore too, one of which is a new one to us.

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Great Cormorant

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Grey Heron

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Sooty Gull

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Hundreds of cormorants make their way in murmuration style along the shoreline.

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They just keep on coming, it's an amazing sight.

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Al Jalali Fort

As we get nearer to Muttrah, we see the Al Jalali Fort, built in the 1580s by the Portuguese Empire to protect the harbour of Muscat following a couple of attacks by Ottoman forces.

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Al Mirani Fort

Close by is the 16th century Al Mirani Fort.

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More watchtowers follow as we get closer to the city

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Portuguese Cemetery

Sunset

By the time we reach Muttrah and the busy working harbour, the sky is alight with a glorious golden colour. The bay is full of ships, containers being unloaded, people walking on the Corniche and other evening life.

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All to often 'sunset cruises' disappoint in that the colours are uninspiring, but today the weather gods have given us exactly what we signed up for.

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The birds are back.

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Who would have thought that an industrial landscape could look so beautiful?

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The sun is almost at the horizon on its final journey for today.

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As the sun gets lower, the gorgeous golden sky fades and the sun turns into an orange ball.

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We hang around to watch the sun disappear behind the distant hills before making our way back to the marina where we started.

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Other pleasure cruisers are doing the same.

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The light is fading fast.

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By the time we return to the marina, it is pitch black.

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Flight to Salalah

From the marina we make our way to the airport for an evening flight to Salalah. It is always sad to say goodbye to a guide at the end of a tour and today is no exception. Said has been a trusted friend, an excellent driver and a very knowledgeable guide.

Airport formalities are super-easy this evening, and we go straight through to the gate, where a couple of young adults offer us their seats. Much as I appreciate the sentiment and am very glad of somewhere to sit for the two-hour wait before our flight, it does make me feel really old.

Passengers are transported to the plane by bus, where we are made to stand for 15 minutes before boarding as the cleaning and checking of the plane has not quite been completed by the time we arrive.

The seats on Oman Air domestic flight have to be the most cramped ever. Mind you, I still managed to catch a nap on the 2-hour flight.

Salalah

The driver who meets us a Salalah Airport has certainly not won any 'personality-of-the-year' competitions, and only just manages a groan of recognition as we make ourselves known to him.

Al Fanar Hotel Salalah

The hotel is approached along a long driveway, lined both sides with palm trees that are beautifully lit from below, making it a very warm welcome. I am very surprised at how lively the hotel is at half past midnight, but I remind myself that this is not our usual type of accommodation aimed at guests who are ttavelling around, this is a beach resort. I feel positively scruffy amongst the fashionistas dressed to the nines in their figure-hugging gold lamé dresses and impossibly high stiletto heels.

Ismalda, the receptionist, more than makes up for Mr Personalitiless Driver, especially as we are upgraded to a superior room with a seating area and a large balcony overlooking the pools and the beach beyond.

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As we slip into bed and switch the lights off, we notice the ceiling has twinkling stars that change colour from red to yellow, through green to blue. We can even control the sequence and pattern, have them flashing or just a single plain colour. This is definitely a first for us! Photographs can't really show it, and my video is rubbish.

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Another fabulous day in Oman as arranged for us by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:27 Archived in Oman Tagged mosque sunset religion forts sunrise muslim balcony crystal dome oman tiles worship islam carpet marble muscat souk souq chandelier sandstone minaret swarovski sunset_cruise shia muezzin al_falaj_hotel muttrah grand_mosque squinch muqarna pendentive mirhab prayer_all sultan_qaboos_mosque sultan_qaboos_grand_mosque sunni largest_chandelier_in_the_world gold_plated ibadi ablutions muttrah_souk muttrah_souq juice_bar cormorants dalalah al_fanar_hotel oman_air domestic_flight Comments (1)

Jebel Shams - Misfah - Al Hamra - Wadi Bani Awf - Muscat

From 3000m to sea level, we travel full circle back to where we started


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Despite last night's shenanigans, I slept surprisingly well. I do feel like a wrung-out dish cloth this morning though, and therefore decide to miss breakfast. Said is very concerned when he hears I was sick last night; he says I should have woken him so he could have taken me to hospital. Really? Like they are going to want to know about a little vomiting.

We had been warned before we left home that the night time temperatures here in Jebel Shams can drop drastically and looking at the weather on-line a couple of weeks ago we saw that it had fallen below zero. We left our thermometer outside last night and when checking it this morning it said Minimum 5 °C. Quite cool, but not freezing.

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Weather forecast for Jebel Shams prior to leaving the UK

We take a different route down from Jebel Shams today, and the journey is, if at all possible, even more spectacular than driving up yesterday. I hang out of the window holding on to my camera for dear life, trying to get a decent shot. My success rate is very hit and miss.

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Look at this hairpin bend!

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Followed immediately by another.

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The impressive turns continue all the way down.

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Craggy peaks line the horizon.

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Goats seem to thrive in this hostile environment.

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Misfat Al A'briyeen

This 400 year old village is considered the most beautiful in Oman.

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Some of the houses are still occupied, mostly by farmers who grow dates, mango and papaya on the slopes below the village.

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Many of the older generation are reluctant to move from their family home, although some of them only use their houses in the village as a weekend retreat/holiday home, escaping the heat of Muscat in the summer months.

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A sign at the entrance to this village, a popular stop on the tourist route, asks visitors to show respect by covering their arms and legs before entering and always asking before taking pictures of people. I have deliberately learnt that one phrase in Arabic: “Mumkin sura, minfadlik” (May I take your photo please), and have not been refused yet, as people are usually so taken aback that I have spoken to them in their own language.

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The donkey doesn't seem to object to having his photo taken, although I have to admit I didn't ask. All transport within the village is by donkey or hand carts.

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It's a fascinating place, with narrow alleyways and steep, uneven stone steps. There is a lot of renovation work going on though, making it very difficult to take decent pictures.

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The village rises around 1000 meters above sea level and is named after the original inhabitants, the Al Abri family.

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There are no wells in the village, the only fresh water available is from a spring higher up in the 'Grand Canyon'.

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Al Hamra Village

This traditional village with its mud brick houses dating back some 200-400 years, is very reminiscent of many such places we saw in Yemen back in 2007.

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We wander along narrow passageways, with towering walls either side, trying to imagine what this place would have looked like when it was bustling with women in dark abayas, men in their flowing white dishdash kaftans, donkeys braying and goats roaming free.

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Today, the only people we see are construction workers.

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The village is otherwise hauntingly empty, with just the remnant echoes of bygone days and happier times.

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I am fascinated by the many ornate doors, some in better repair than others. “Who passed over these thresholds?” “What secrets lay behind them?” I mentally transport myself back 400 years and try to imagine the families who lived here.

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Wadi Bani Awf

From Al Hamra we continue downwards, through Wadi Bani Awf, the magnificent 'Snake Canyon', one of the most spectacular road trips we have ever taken. Not for the faint-hearted or those suffering from vertigo, the sheer escarpment of the Western Hajjar Mountains provides a breathtaking vista around every nerve-wracking hairpin bend.

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The drive is nerve-janglingly dramatic, with stupendous scenery and a rough, vertiginous track which challenges the skills of even experienced off-road drivers, and a 4WD is a must. Not to be attempted lightly, this journey is positively lethal during or after rain.

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As we swing around each and every bend, I try to get some photographs by either hanging out of the window or holding my arm up through the open window and over the roof of the car, neither of which are terribly successful (or safe).

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Very occasionally we see another car, but mostly we have the track to ourselves.

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Our road on the left, the village of Haat on the right, at the bottom of this canyon.

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Look at how this track snakes its way down the canyon - hence the name "Snake Canyon".

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This terrain is definitely best suited to goats.

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We see the occasional isolated village (this one is Haat again), but mostly it is just stark mountain after mountain as far as the eye can see. It is an austere but beautiful vista, although living here must be harsh.

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Around villages we find plantations, and even a beautiful oases in a narrow gorge cut into the mountain.

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The most incongruous sight of them all, however, is this football pitch; miles from any obvious human habitation and on the only flat ground around. A abrupt piece of civilisation in an otherwise forbidding and almost monochrome environment.

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What? No floodlights?

We travel ever downwards, past fascinating rock formations on tracks that at times throw up a lot of dust, making us shut the windows to keep it out of the car and our lungs.

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We come across a convoy of vehicles filled with tourists travelling the opposite direction. I am so glad we are going downhill as I am sure the view is better this way.

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I am overawed by the technical engineering logistic and sheer amount of work it must have taken to create this road in such a perilous location. How did they get machinery up here to cut into the declivitous rock face and construct a road in such an improbable place?

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It makes me feel somewhat (but not a lot) safer to know we are in a 4WD vehicle, and Said is an excellent, and very experienced, driver. Just look at that drop along the side of the road... “gulp”.

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Bait Bimah

At a flat area in the bottom of one of the gorges we stop in the shade of a tree. Intriguingly, there is a gate next to the tree. What on earth would you want a gate for in this remote and wild area? And what is behind the gate?

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We go through and find a gravel path leading past a building made from rocks. I look around as various parts of the surroundings come into view and I cannot believe my eyes: there is a veritable oases, with colourful bougainvillea adorning the perimeter fence, a restaurant, clean toilets, children's playground, sunbeds and outdoor seating areas. Unbelievable!

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To one side of the covered seating area a buffet is laid out with delicious looking curries and rice. After last night's vomiting my stomach is still very fragile so I daren't eat anything. There are no public toilets along this road, and with a steep mountain one side and a sheer drop the other, 'going behind a bush' isn't an option either.

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After lunch, we continue on our journey ever downwards, and the scenery doesn't exactly get any worse.

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A large group of German tourists are blocking the road as they have got out of their cars to take pictures of the view. Again I feel grateful for travelling on a private tour for just the two of us.

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We drive precariously near the crumbling edge to get past them.

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As the dirt track meanders in a zigzag fashion further down the valley, we see more goats and a traditional felaj (irrigation channel) running alongside the road.

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Irrigation channels a couple of metres up the rock face.

The felaj brings water to the plantations that start to appear.

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We both wish we had a geologist with us to explain the various types of rocks, and how the fascinating and varied strata are formed.

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Eventually the mountain track joins a main road and we are out of the canyon.

Nakhl Fort

At the imposing Nakhl Fort, built in the 16th century to protect Muscat from invading marauders coming across the mountains, we make a brief photo stop.

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From here, the 120 kilometres or so to Muscat is along a smooth, asphalt road, and I doze in the car all the way.

Al Falaj Hotel

We have now made a full circle and are back where we started. This time, we have been upgraded to a corner suite, with a dining table for four and a lovely seating area with a cosy sofa and armchairs.

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The bedroom itself is no bigger than a standard hotel room, but the living room is enormous!

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Muscat by Night

Said, being the kind gentleman he is, has agreed to take us down to Muttrah Corniche tonight, just as the lights are fading, so that I can photograph the city after dark.

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He goes off to the mosque to pray while I set up a tripod and admire the bright lights reflected in the harbour.

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Room Service

Once we return to the hotel, we consider what we are going to do about food this evening. Despite having dinner included tonight (buffet) we decide to treat ourselves and order room service instead. It seems a sin not to make the most of the facilities we have here in this suite, and as most of you know by now, we are not at all keen on buffets. I eat half a burger and three chips, which is the first thing I have eaten all day after my vomiting last night.

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And thus ends another fascinating day here in Oman, all thanks to Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:35 Archived in Oman Tagged road_trip view ruins panorama lunch deserted journey buffet vista muscat 4wd steep vertigo suite goats ruined corniche haat spectacular jebel_shams hairpin_bends al_falaj_hotel lunch_buffet muttrah hajjar_mountains al_hamra falaj precipitous specticular declivitous craggy_peaks misfat_al_a'briyeen narrow_alleyways deserted_village wadi_bano_awf snake_canyon nerve_jangling football_pitch bait_bimah muttrah_corniche muscat_by_night room_servce upgraded felaj irrigation_channels nakhl_fort wadi_bani_awf Comments (5)

Nizwa - Jabreen - Bahla - Jebel Shams

Souqs and Castle, Canyons and Stars


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

My tummy is feeling a little better this morning so I attempt some of the breakfast buffet. When we try to check out, we find that someone has charged some beers to our room – naughty naughty.

Nizwa

Today we are spending some time exploring Nizwa, the second biggest city in Oman.

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Oman's capital back in the 6th and 7th centuries, Nizwa wasn't always as friendly and welcoming as it is today. When Wilfred Thesiger did his epic journey in Arabia over half a century ago, his Bedouin companions thought the ferocious conservatives of the town would finish him off, so told him to avoid Nizwa. He would have been amazed to find that Nizwa is now the second-biggest tourist destination in Oman.

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Nizwa Souq

Although most famous for its Friday animal market, there is still plenty to see in the souq (market) on other days. Today we see large groups of tourists from cruise ships, mainly French, but manage to mostly avoid them.

The pottery for sale in the souq is not made here in Nizwa, but has been transported from nearby Bahla where the special red mud is found. The white clay for the paler objects is imported from the US and UK.

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The whole market has recently been rebuilt, but the souq itself is still traditional, with mainly just Omani men selling their wares; unlike the markets we have visited so far in Oman, where the stall holders were mostly Indians.

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Most of the fruit and vegetables have been imported to cater for the large immigrant population from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. After visiting the vegetable market, we go to learn about the ubiquitous dates, and their importance in Omani culture.

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There are over 40 different types of dates in Oman, some are for eating, some for making syrup, others for animal fodder.

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Loosely woven baskets allows for the date syrup to seep through.

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Date syrup for sale in large tubs in the market

Jam, and even 'datella' is also made from these fruits.

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As with most establishments we visit in Oman, there is a small seating area for enjoying complimentary Omani coffee and dates.

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Later we see how the halwa is made. Halwa is a sweet popular all over the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and each country has its own style and jealously guarded secret recipe.

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In Oman it is usually made of brown sugar, white sugar, cardamom, ghee and rosewater. Sometimes saffron (imported from Iran) and nuts are added.

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The ingredients are mixed together and are cooked in a big copper pot (called mirjnl) over a fire traditionally made with acacia wood, and requires constant stirring for 3-4 hours.

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The sticky sweet then needs to be cooled for around the same amount of time – this halwa was made early this morning and is still warm.

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Nizwa souq is also well known for its silver and copper work, usually sold by weight.

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The spice market is the only part that has not been restored and it carries a warm and traditional atmosphere.

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Spices are mostly imported from India, Tanzania, Zanzibar and other parts of Africa.

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Local products include chamomile, dried roses and lavender.

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Frankincense. This is the first time I have seen this mysterious stuff – I have to confess that I had no idea what it looks like, how it is created or what it is used for. All I knew about frankincense is that it was given to baby Jesus by one of the wise men. An explanation for all these questions will follow in a later blog entry, as we do get to see the origin of frankincense and hear how it is produced and its various uses in a few days' time.

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Nizwa Fort and Castle

In the 17th century, when the fort was built, it controlled the whole area, including the old walled city of Nizwa. It took twelve years to construct, using stone, clay, sarooj (ancient Persian lime mortar) and date syrup.

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Nizwa Fort is the biggest of several such defence outposts in the country.

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Renovations of the fort took place between 1985 and 1995, and while the work is very tastefully done, it almost makes it look too 'new' or 'clinical'; reminiscent of a recently constructed Disneyesque theme park.

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The actual fort itself was merely used for defence purposes; the living quarters and admin areas were inside the castle (which is also within the fortifications)

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A woman can be seen making the traditional Omani flat bread from brown flour and salt water, using her hands to distribute the mix on a flat pan.

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Making ghee / cream from milk agitated in animal skin.

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The narrow, winding staircase to the fighting platform is protected at numerous intervals by slots in the roof (known as 'murder holes'), through which a sticky mix of hot oil and honey was dropped on any enemies who were brave enough (or stupid enough) to try and to enter. A nasty and sickly sweet end.

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Inside the complex there are twelve wells, in addition to secret escape tunnels leading for 12 kms under the ground.

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The castle part of the fortifications dates back to the 9th century and is now a museum depicting Omani life as it was.

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Jabrin Castle

About an hour later, we arrive at our second castle of the day.

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Again the castle has been painstakingly restored (between 1980 and 1985), showing how it would have looked in its heyday.

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The 17th century Jabrin Castle was built as a palatial residence for the Imam and his family and was more of a centre for knowledge and education than a fortification for battle.

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The castle was later abandoned when the Imam's brother took over reign of the country in a bloody coup.

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On the ground floor the kitchen and stores are located, the first floor housed the admin staff, the second floor was the living quarters for the Imam, women and young boys and the third floor would have been the prayer and study rooms. Around one hundred people lived here during the Imam's time.

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One of the most unusual aspects of Jabrin Castle is the fact that the Imam had a room for his horse built on the upper storey near his personal quarters. The horse would have been led up a ramp in the curving passageway, in what is now a stairway for visitors. The animal was kept near in order to facilitate a quick escape as well as for sentimental reasons.

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David and Said look down on me from the very top

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The Imam's tomb

Bahla Fort

Today seems to be a day of historical forts and castle, as we proceed to a viewpoint over the old town of Bahla, with the new town in the background (on the far left) and the fort, a UNESCO Heritage Site, standing proud and prominent.

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The oldest parts of the fort are thought to date back to 500 BC, whereas the main building was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries. Like the other forts we have visited, Bahla has just finished a 15-year restoration project.

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The old town of Bahla is surrounded by some 12 km long adobe walls. The walls are said to have been designed 600 years ago by a woman.

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I am secretly relieved when Said suggests we merely photograph this fort from here, rather than traipse around it. I am feeling a little 'castled out' at the moment and rather hot and weary. I guess not having been eating much doesn't help.

Cemetery

I am fascinated by the old style traditional cemeteries in Oman, such as this one from 200 years ago. There are no headstones as such, and to the uninitiated it just looks like a random stony ground.

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Lunch

We make a brief stop in the new town of Bahla for lunch, consisting of a simple falafel sandwich. I love how they put fries in their sandwiches.

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Hajjar Mountains

From Bahla it is uphill all the way as we make our way to Oman's highest mountain, Jebel Shams, in the Hajjar Mountain range.

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Look at the amazing crevice opening up at the bottom of this picture

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We are amazed to see a couple of European motor homes; they are a long way from home. Here in Oman, you can camp anywhere you like, no permission required.

The journey into the mountains this afternoon starts off on a sealed road, but as we climb higher, the smooth road becomes a dirt track.

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The scenery is stark and barren, yet strangely varied, at least geologically.

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Jebel Shams

Finally we reach the summit and our destination: Jebel Shams, the highest mountain in the Arabian peninsula at just over 3,000 metres high. It is not the mountain itself that is the main attraction here, however, it is the deep gorge affectionately known as 'Oman's Grand Canyon'.

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Jebel Shams means 'Sun Mountains' in Arabic, and is so called because it is the first place to greet sunlight at dawn and the last to say farewell at dusk.

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As we reach the balcony overlooking the ravine in the late afternoon, the shadows are long, and the contrasts too great for any photo to do this incredible view justice.

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It is at this stage that my fear of heights takes over and I become irrationally paranoid with just a flimsy fence between me and the thousand metre drop below. I feel the chasm pulls me towards the edge, willing me to stumble and lose my footing. For a while I stand well back until I get my emotions under control and slow my heart beat down to something resembling normality.

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When I finally pluck up enough courage to venture back to the edge of the cliff, I have nothing but admiration for the farmers who once toiled the earth on these terraces half way down the precipitous escarpment. It is not a good photo as the bush gets in the way, but it is best I can do; there is no way I am going to hang out over the railings to get a better view.

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You can see the dizzying position of the terraces better on this photo. I would bet my bottom dollar that they didn't get danger money or use a safety harness.

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Here you can see the village in the wadi at the very bottom of the canyon.

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The area is popular with hikers, and as you can see where I have highlighted on the pictures below, there is a track that goes down into the canyon. There is absolutely zero chance that you would get me on that path, even if you paid me a million pounds.

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I hope the people staying in this tent tonight are not prone to sleep walking.

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Jebel Shams Resort

Thankfully we have a more solid accommodation for tonight, in an appropriately named 'Sunset Room'.

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The room is fairly basic, but quite comfortable. We have a sofa, a table and chairs and a small patio outside with a picnic table and fire pit.

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As we are miles from any habitation (and thus light pollution) here, I intend to wander out after dark to take some photos of the stars later tonight. I spot the picture on the wall, and vow to find that tree – or at least something similar – to ensure I have something of interest in the foreground for my photograph.

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We grab ourselves a glass of Duty Free rum and Coke and settle down on the terrace to wait for the sunset.

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The view from our terrace - which of these will be my tree for later?

The weather is considerably cooler up here in the mountains and makes a very pleasant change from the stifling lowlands. We get our thermometer out and notice it did get rather hot earlier today. No wonder I was feeling so washed out in Nizwa.

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Rock Cairns

While we are waiting for the sun to go through its nightly ritual, David picks up a number of different stones (there are plenty of them to choose from) to create a small rock cairn – partly as a joke because he knows how much our friend Ilona hates them!

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His success rate is so-so.

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Ilona was suitable impressed.

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Sunset

The sun slowly makes its way towards the horizon, painting the sky a beautiful yellow, with the misty mountains a darker shade of orange.

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Even the grasses in the foreground are reflecting the rays from the golden globe in the sky.

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We are hoping the sun is going to set in the valley between the two mountains.

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Almost, but not quite. I am not complaining though, it is a stunning sunset.

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It seems we are not the only ones who think so; a group of people appear right in my photo just as the sun disappears behind the mountain. I find I can use them as props for my photos rather than try to avoid them.

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And then it was gone. All we are left with is a blood orange sky for a while, then a short time later a tiny sliver of a moon appears.

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Dinner

This evening's meal is in the main building by reception and consists of a buffet. I still don't have much of an appetite, so I just have a spoonful of what looks like a cross between a cottage pie and a lasagne (minced meat with a cheese sauce topping), some coleslaw and tabbouleh; while David tries a little bit of everything (fish, rice, vegetables, potatoes, the minced meat concoction, sweet and sour chicken, vegetarian stir fry) minus the salads. It is all very nice, but we don't linger as we have things to do and stars to photograph.

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Star Gazing

We take a couple of chairs from the room with us and walk out across the plateau and find a tree to use as foreground for my star pictures. Once we reach a suitable specimen, I set up my tripod and take a few test shots.

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Much as the stars are rather impressive up here, the core of the Milky Way does not show this time of year. My plan for tonight is to take a number of shots in succession to create a star trail. Hence the chair, as this could be a time-consuming venture.

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The stars are amazingly bright and it is such a quiet area with very little light pollution. At least for a while. We've been sitting by the tree, chatting, watching the stars and letting the camera do its own thing for a while when the guests in the room next-door-but-one to us decide they are going to light a fire, play some (awful and very loud) music and get rather drunk. Hoping that I can rescue the bright red glow on my tree (from the fire) in Photoshop when I get home, I continue taking pictures for a while, until the party-goers turn the car headlights on to illuminate the whole plateau. Thanks guys. That is the end of my star trails.

I do mange to capture enough to make some sort of trails (153 images before the spot light is turned on), however I would have liked to do another hour's worth of photos at least. But it is not to be.

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Here you can see a speeded up time lapse of how those stars move across the sky during the1½ hours, and the moment our neighbours lit the fire, plus every time they stoked it and the flames went up:
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A little deflated I start to pack up my camera gear when I suddenly feel very nauseous. I have only walked a few yards towards to hotel before being violently sick. Throwing up several more times on my way to the room, I spend the next hour on the toilet with a bucket in my lap. Oh dear. I guess it was probably the salad, as that was the only thing I ate which David didn't, and he is right as rain.

Vomiting aside, it has been an absolutely amazing day, and I would like to thank Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this fabulous trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:33 Archived in Oman Tagged grand_canyon canyon fort market castle oman armoury spices pottery arabia wadi souk souq fortification steep vertigo dates bonfire sickness middle_east spice_market nausea vomiting hajar_mountains nizwa jebel_shams vegetable_market hajjar_mountains bahla halwa frankincense escape_tunnels sun_mountain jebel_shams_resort ravine jabreen jabrin hajar hajjar jabrin_castle bahla_fort oman's_grand_canyon precipitous fear_of_heights tabuleh tabbulehsunset fire_pit Comments (1)

Wahiba Sands - Ibra - Jebel Akhdar - Nizwa

Leaving the desert behind and heading for the mountains


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As we leave the desert this morning, we see more Bedouins with their camels making their way across the desert. Like we did on the way into the desert, we stop at the small town of Bidiyah, this time to increase the tyre pressure again. By this time I am desperate for the loo. I was hoping that my tummy troubles were over, but obviously not. We aim for a Public Toilet at the edge of the desert – this could be an 'interesting' experience.

Wow! I am totally overwhelmed by the modern facilities and absolute cleanliness of these loos; much better than the majority of public conveniences you find in the UK. Well done Oman! (You'll be glad to hear there are no pictures)

Ibra

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One of the oldest cities in Oman (it is said to predate the Prophet Muhammed's calling), Ibra was the centre of trade, religion, education and art, and enjoyed great prosperity during Oman’s colonial time.

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Many of the 400-year old houses have been painstakingly restored by their owners, others have been left to crumble. Here you can see the original and restored side by side.

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More crumbling mansions

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The houses were constructed 400 years ago using stone, clay and sarooj (traditional Iranian water-resistant mortar made from clay and limestone mixed with other materials such as fibres and egg) and have laid abandoned for around 45 years.

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These large mansion-style dwelling were not used by 'ordinary' people, rather they housed administrative heads of tribes.

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Wells were constructed inside the housing complex as it was difficult and dangerous for the inhabitants to venture outside to fetch water during times of war.

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The walls are deliberately kept thick to keep the houses cool during the hot summers.

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The tiny door has two purposes – enforcing people to bow as a sign of respect; and making it easier to catch any enemies trying to enter. In fact, Ibra is full of fascinating doors.

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And other details

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All around the village there is a 25km long wall, with watch towers every three kms.

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Mosques were/are not just for prayer, they also act as a place for learning the Koran.

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David looks up at the hole in the ceiling of the gate, which was used to drop hot honey or oil on enemies.

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Lookout holes come in two sizes, small for humans to survey the surroundings, and larger ones to point the canons at approaching enemies.

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Jebel Akhdar

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We are heading up in the mountains, some two hours drive away. So are hundreds of cyclists as today is Tour de Oman, a cycle race from Muscat to Jebel Akhdar. We see a lot of spectators along the way, and whole school classes supporting the riders with banners and flags. We want to make sure we get through to the road up before it is closed for the race, and judging by the number of police in the small town of Berkat al Mouze at the start of the climb, we only just make it.

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At the start of the dead-endy road leading up to the mountain-top, is a Police Check Point, making sure that only 4WD vehicles attempt the climb as there have been too many deaths from regular saloon cars not being able to negotiate the bends.

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As we continue up through the mountains, every bend offers a more magnificent vista than the previous. The name Jebel Akhdar means 'Green Mountain', but it is neither green, nor a single mountain, but an 1800 km² range, with several peaks reaching up over 3000 metres.

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The massif is also home to 58 villages and over 700 wadis.

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Near the top, we stop for lunch: dhal, sabzi, channa, roti, chapati, rice and salad. Just a small lunch then.

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Wadi Bani Habib

The old village of Wadi Bani Habib clings to the side of the canyon. It was deserted back in the 1950s as a result of the challenges faced by the villagers in terms of bringing supplies to their homes, which prior to the construction of the road were accessible only by a six-hour steep climb by foot or donkey.

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The people moved into nice modern houses on the top, while still keeping their plantations on the valley floor, watered by the ever-present felaj irrigation system.

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The trees we see today may mostly look dead, but after the rains, they will produce crops of almonds, pomegranate, figs, grapes, oranges, mandarins and peaches.

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Diana's Point

Named after the late, and much loved, Princess Diana, who arrived here by helicopter in 1986, this vantage point on the Saiq Plateau offers insane views over the canyon below.

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Close by, the recently built hotel Alila Jebal Akhdar has magnificent views from all its bedrooms and restaurant. With a price tag to match, of course. We are not staying there tonight.

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Wadi al Ayn

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The wadi (valley) of Al Ayn has the most amazing hillside terraces I think I have ever seen. This area is famous for its rose plantations, mainly used to produce rose syrup and rose water for cooking.

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Animal fodder is also grown here.

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Some of the terraces have been abandoned, while others are still in use today.

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Nizwa

As our budget does not extend to staying in either of the two posh hotels on the summit, we return to the lower levels to spend the night in the modern town of Nizwa.

The drive down is, if possible, even more spectacular, with better views out over the canyon (impossible to photograph though). This drive is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and every few hundred yards there are escape lanes for use if your breaks fail. Said explains that in the rainy season this road is perilous, with running water and gravel covering the surface.

As we get lower, all signs of the Tour of Oman have gone, we just see a pick-up loaded with bikes and a truck full of barriers.

Falaj Daris

Another hour's drive takes us to our hotel for the night, and unfortunately we arrive at the same time as a large bus-load of French tourists. As the hotel is fully booked, Said has to sleep elsewhere tonight.

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The hotel is quite modern and nondescript, but comfortable enough.

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We take a buffet dinner by the pool and go to bed soon after.

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Thank you yet again to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this fabulous private tour of Oman for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:09 Archived in Oman Tagged villages mosque view canyon mountain plateau doors road fruits terraces ancient cycling oman swimming_pool islam koran vista wadi 4wd trave abandoned plantations middle_east viewpoint bends nizwa undiscovered-destinations snaking jebel ibra reconstructions medresa madrasa sarooj crumbling_mansions jebel_akhdar green_mountain tour_de_oman tour_of_oman cycle_race police_check bendy_road wadi_bani_habib terrace_farming diana's_point saiq_plateau alila_jebel_akhdar jabal_akhdar wadi_al_ayn falaj_daris falaj_daris_hotel Comments (3)

Wahiba Sands

Lunch in a Bedouin camp, sunset over the dunes and the stars at night


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As soon as the sun rises at 06:15 this morning, the peace is broken . It is a case of “Gentlemen, start your engines”. Except these are no gentlemen: the sound we can hear is cars revving up to trash the dunes by young lads who have come out from town for the weekend. They make as much noise as possible, take unnecessary risks on the steep slopes and leave a lot of rubbish behind in the desert. They are about as popular as stag parties in the UK.

I try to get down a little something at breakfast, but as I still have the runs, I also want to be careful with what I eat.

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As I wander around the restaurant area taking photographs after breakfast, I somehow manage to miss a step and splat flat on my face. Thankfully I am able to avoid my camera hitting the hard concrete floor. Phew. My knee doesn't fare as well, unfortunately. Before I have even had time to realise what has happened, four strong men are there to help me up. Thankfully there are no serious injuries, so I am able to continue with my day.

Bedouin Camp

Today we are seeking out a Bedouin settlement to learn about their way of life and have lunch with the family.

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We are visiting Salma and her extended family, with her two sons and a daughter living in the camp. The daughter and one of the sons are married, while the other son remains a bachelor as the family cannot afford the dowry (the going rate being around £14,000).

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Salma's daughter-in-law and her children

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Salma's daughter is expecting her ninth child; she already has two sets of twins.

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We have lunch in their dining tent: chicken, biriyani, 'desert fish', vegetables, rice and Omani bread.

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It is all very tasty, but I am still very conscious of my delicate tummy, so I just nibble a little of each dish. I hate for Salma to think I am being rude or fickle, so I ask Said to explain to her why I am not eating much.

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After lunch, the Bedouin women dress me up in their traditional face mask and I ask Salma's daughter-in-law to paint my hands with intricate and beautiful henna designs.

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We return to our camp in time for a pre-dinner drink in the 'Boat Bar'.

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When I say “drink”, I am not talking about an alcoholic beverage unfortunately, as this, like so many in Oman, is a dry hotel. Chocolate milkshake it is.

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We don't linger too long, as the place is swarming with pesky little flies.

Sunset

After a short snooze, we leave the camp once again in search of some suitable sand dunes for creating beautiful vistas as the sun goes down and the shadows become longer and darker. My favourite time of day.

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We are certainly not the only ones enjoying this evening's sunset.

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We leave before the actual sunset, as we saw the big red ball in the sky last night, and it is nowhere near as bright tonight. I am really only interested in photographing the shadow-sculpted dunes anyway.

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Entertainment

After dinner, a local Bedouin family entertain us with songs and dance.

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There is what appears to be a party of local lads and hearing all their cheering, clapping and whistling, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were watching a couple of strippers rather than this demure family-friendly display.

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The Stars at Night

When booking this trip, I paid special attention to the moon phase, to ensure we were going to be here in the Wahiba Desert where there is almost zero light pollution at the darkest time of the month.

So here we are. The stars this evening are fabulously bright and I try to take some photos with the tents in the foreground and then wander into the car park to get a different view of the camp.

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We get chatting to a couple of guys who had also been out taking pictures of the stars over the dunes, and when they complain that this is a dry hotel with no alcohol for sale, we invite them back to our room to share our rum and some great travel stories.
Sebastian and Kasper – if you are reading this – thanks for a fun evening!

Yet another fantastic day in Oman, thank you Undiscovered Destinations once again for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:24 Archived in Oman Tagged night desert sunset travel sand shadows dancing drums sand_dunes oman stars henna singing rum bedouin astro bedouin_camp burqa wahiba_sands night_shots night_photography astro_photography wahiba 1000_nights_camp henna_painting dowry face_mask burka long_shadows stars_at_night Comments (4)

Ras al Jinz - Wadi Bani Khalid - Wahiba Sands

From turtles on the beach to a gorgeous oasis and finally a fabulous desert.


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Bleary-eyed, we drag ourselves out of bed when the alarm goes off at 04:10 this morning in order to get down to the beach for the sunrise and hopefully see some more turtles.

Unlike last night, this morning's excursion is only available to hotel guests, so thankfully there are nowhere near as many people as there were last night. Today's walk is further than yesterday, however, as the one remaining turtle is further down the beach; and it is still dark when we reach the nesting site. The turtle is just finishing off covering her eggs with sand when we get there.

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The sunrise is a little disappointing (especially as this is the most easterly point on the Arabian peninsula I was expecting a little more), but the surreal rock formations along this stretch of the beach more than make up for it.

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As soon as it is light, the turtle makes an awkward dash back to sea, having deposited her eggs on the same beach she was born on many years ago.

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Back to the hotel for breakfast and then meet up with Said, our guide, for the today's journey. Having been up so early, we sleep most of the way, but wake up as Said takes a turning off the main road, into the mountains again.

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Our hotel seen from the track leading up from the beach.

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Said turns off the main road up this track

Wadi Bani Khalid

At the top of the hill, Said stops the car for the view over the bleak and desolate landscape. The scenery may be barren and harsh, but it has a stark and austere beauty to it that totally mesmerises me.

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Said beckons for us to walk to the edge of the cliff (my fear of heights has kept me well back so far), and tells us to look at the crack in the plateau. Our eyes follow the canyon down and then we see it. Wow! There, nestled on the valley floor, is the most picture-perfect oasis: Wadi Bani Khalid.

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After taking our photos from above, we drive back down to the oasis and walk from the car park along the felaj (ever-present irrigation channels) to reach the stunning pools of iridescent aquamarine water.

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The water is unbelievably clear and glistens in various shades of blue and green under the bright sunlight. Apparently this place is extremely popular on weekends, and I can see why.

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Said relaxes in one of the many pavilions that dot the area around the emerald-green pools.

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The pools are fed year-round by a stream making its way down through the crack we saw in the Hajar Mountains. This is known as Oman's most beautiful wadi, and for good reason.

Lunch

In the town of the same name, we stop at a small restaurant for lunch. As my stomach is still very much playing up, I just order a plate of hummous and some bread, while David chooses a schwarma. Said, of course, has his usual mountain of rice.

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And, no, this is not water from the oasis, but a refreshing minty drink.

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Back in the car, I doze until we reach the small town of Bidir, where we lower the tyre pressure on the car for the journey into the desert (plus pick up a tow rope, 'just in case').

Wahiba Sands

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Suddenly the tarmacked road ends, rather abruptly, and we continue on a reasonable track of compacted sand. “This used to be like a washboard” Said says, and explains that the camps come out occasionally with heavy machinery to create new 'roads' in the sand.

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This vast expanse of perfectly formed rolling sand dunes stretches 200 miles from North to South and is named after the local Wahiba tribe who still spend their winters in the desert tending to their camels before migrating to the coast in the heat of summer.

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Other than the tourists camps, there are no permanent settlements in this hauntingly empty swathe of sand, featuring towering dunes, reaching almost 100m in places, sculpted by the wind into delicately moulded crests and hollows.

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Every now and again Said makes a detour off the main track, shimmying up the soft dunes and back down again.

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1000 Nights Camp

Nestled comfortably on the valley floor, this is one of a handful of tourist camps in this area, surrounded by nothing but sand with high dunes either side.

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Just outside the gates, an old truck is partially buried in the sand.

The car park is almost full as we arrive (being a Thursday, it's the eve of the weekend here, with most locals having Friday and Saturday off), with almost every car being a self-drive 4x4.

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We are greeted with a refreshing wet towel in reception and after the usual formalities an electric golf buggy takes us and the cases to our room.

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The rooms are fashioned on the traditional goat wool Bedouin tents but with a touch of modern comfort.

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The camp is nicely spread out in amongst mature trees, with four levels of accommodation: basic Arabic tents with no bathroom facilities; the Sheikh tents that we are in with attached open-air bathroom; luxury glass-sided Ameer tents with A/C; and lastly, two-storey brick-built Sand Houses.

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Also on site is a large restaurant, a snack-bar on board a wooden boat and a swimming pool.

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Restaurant

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Traditional seating area

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The snack-bar

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Swimming pool

With no A/C, the temperature is almost the same inside the tent as it is outside: 32 °C.

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Sunset from the dunes

After a quick change, we leave the camp behind and head for a bit of fun on the dunes with Said. Seeing a group of lads just outside the gates, crowding around a wreck of a car that has obviously been 'rolled' doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. I check that my seatbelt is properly fastened before we tackle the off-roading.

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As we race up the steep-sided dunes, large amounts of sand gets thrown about, and the car slides around like a ballerina on ice. Great fun!
Here, on top of the dunes, the wind is quite ferocious, sandblasting everything in sight (including us and the cameras). No wonder these dunes are constantly on the move, shifting inland at a rate of 10m per year.

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There is a definite driving skill involved in scaling the soft dunes, and Said makes it effortlessly to the top every time, unlike these Germans in a self-drive car. The secret is to keep the speed high and the tyre pressure low.

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After trying unsuccessfully to free their car, which is stuck half way up the dune, the tourists walk back to camp to recruit a local expert to help them out. The local guy gets the car out of the pickle without too much trouble, then shows off as he reaches the crest of the dune: taking off and landing awkwardly, dislocating the bumper of the car. Oops. Having finally reached the top, the Germans join us to watch the sunset, and we have a good laugh with them. The ridge is in fact full of tourists waiting to see the sun go down over the desert.

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These people seem to have brought a picnic

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Strangely enough, as soon as the sun goes down, the wind drops. We head back to camp, driving straight down the dune in front of us. Eeek!
What a fantastic way to finish another eventful and exciting day! Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for organising this fabulous Oman trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:01 Archived in Oman Tagged mountains turtles oasis desert sunset beach travel scenery sunrise valley sand camp camping dunes sand_dunes wadi glamping bedouin middle_east hajar_mountains wahiba_sands ras_al_jinz wadi_bani_khalid hajjar_mountains natural_pools wahiba sunset_over_the_dunes off-roading dune_bashing 1000_nights_camp desert_camp Comments (2)

Muscat - Sur - Ras el Jinz

Along the north coast


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The breakfast buffet this morning is huge, with choices of various breads, Indian, English, American and Middle Eastern dishes, plus Continental cold meats / cheese and cereals.

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The whole place seems in a bit of a muddle this morning though, as there are no cups by the coffee machine, so people take them off the tables; there are no spoons in the cinnamon nor syrup, they run out of waffles as well as orange juice, no teaspoons are available so David has to stir his coffee with a dessert spoon.

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I managed to get a couple of waffles before the ran out

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David had to 'make do' with a fry-up.

Fish market

Our first stop on today's journey is at the fish market in Muscat, housed in a nice new modern building, a mere four months old.

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The long thin fish on the left are barracuda, while the big yellow ones with spots are the famed kingfish.

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The market is all very clean and the produce looks of high quality.

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Tuna

Most of the workers in the market are 'middle men' rather than the fishermen themselves, often ex-boatmen who maybe now find the all-night fishing a bit too much.

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Totally in awe of his skill and speed, we watch this man de-bone and fillet a large fish in next to no time.

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.

Vegetable Market

Next to the fish market is the equally new and modern vegetable market.

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Most of the produce is imported, and among the more familiar items, we see a lot of typical Indian vegetables, obviously to appease the immigrant population.

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The dates, however, are local and a must to accompany kahwa, the traditional Omani coffee.

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Off-roading

Said asks if we would prefer to take the main road between Muscat and the coast, or a short-cut which would mean 20km of off-roading.
Without hesitation, we both answer in unison: “off-roading please”

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The road is way smoother than either of us anticipate, but the geological formations alongside it are fascinating: bleak, ragged, crumbly hills more akin to man-made slag heaps than anything nature has created.

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I desperately try to take pictures through the car windows at every turn in the road, most of which don't turn out at all.

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The only other car we see on the 20km journey.

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Eventually, we stop on a ridge to tale photos out over the surreal landscape at Wadi Al Hawh. Is this really Planet Earth, or did we travel to the moon by mistake?

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Hawiyat Najm Park, featuring Bimmah Sink Hole

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Fresh water is mixed with sea water in this sink hole, making for a beautiful iridescent aquamarine colour, some 50m x 70m large and 20m deep.

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Despite the Arabic name Hawiyat Najm, which literally means 'the falling star', this depression was not caused by a meteorite as suggested by local folklore, but rather as a result of limestone erosion. Said suggests it was a fairly recent occurrence, maybe 25 years ago.

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The area around the sink hole has been turned into a leisure park, with decent toilets, shaded picnic areas and steps leading down to the water for locals and tourists to swim. Apparently it is a very popular place with families on the weekend. I can see why as there is a nice cooling breeze coming in from the sea.

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Kahwa and dates

Before we leave, we are invited for kahwa by Said's friend who is the gatekeeper guardian of the park.

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Kahwa is more than just a 'mere coffee' to the Omanis, it's a ritual that occupies a special place in their society. Friends and guests will always be served coffee and dates, usually in small, handle-less cups.

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By handing back the cup without any further ado, you indicate that you would like some more. If you have finished, you should shake the cup as you give it back.

Wadi Shab Oasis

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What an odd place. The initial access to the oasis is underneath a highway flyover, with the pillars supporting the road sitting on an island in the wadi.

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Having read all about this place before we left home, I had already decided I was going to give it a miss. Hearing that after the initial boat trip across the river we have to walk for an hour or more along a small rugged ledge and scramble over huge boulders just to get to the initial pools; then if we want to see the main attraction, we need to swim and wade across three pools; and in order to enter the cave, we actually have to swim through a hole between the mountains then climb up using a rope to reach the waterfall.

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I think we'll leave this place to the adrenalin-seeking youngsters we once were.

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Apparently, the 2012 Red Bull Cliff Diving final was held here in Wadi Shab.

Wadi Tiwi

To make up for not fully exploring Wadi Shab, Said suggests that we drive up the road through the five villages of Wadi Tiwi. Sounds like a fair exchange to me.

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My, oh my, what a drive! This really has to be one of the most amazing roads ever. Initially the road runs along the valley floor, between date and banana plantations and rock pools with boulders so large we discuss how they could possibly come to have rested in such a place.

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Known as the 'Wadi of Nine Villages', the road snakes its way between towering canyon walls in amongst old, traditional settlements (where Said seems to know everyone), criss-crossed by a network of aflaj (the traditional Omani irrigation channels).

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I am fascinated by the huge, upright boulder in the middle of this village. Real or mad-made I wonder...

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Said expertly handles the car around huge boulders and rocky outcrops in some impressive bends.

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Trying to grab photos of passing scenery is proving quite a challenge, with me hanging out of the window holding on to the camera for dear life.

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Eventually Said does stop the car so that we can take a proper look at the views.

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If driving up was impressive, travelling down is mind-blowing, with impossibly sharp bends, large rocks jutting out into the track, crumbling plantation walls and local houses seemingly blocking our way.

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During the rainy season this road becomes completely impassable for a few days as flood water gushes down the valley.

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The ever-present falaj (irrigation system).

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Lunch

At the bottom of the valley, we stop at a small road-side restaurant in the village of Tiwi.

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We order traditional Omani kingfish which is lovely and fresh and comes in a tasty coating. We also have a dish with vegetables, a spicy sauce, a salad and roti; and no self-respecting Omani would have lunch or dinner without a mountain of biriyani rice.

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Sur

With the appearance of a sleepy little seaside town, it is surprising to learn that Sur is the fourth largest city in Oman (after Muscat, Nizwa and Salalah) with nearly 70,000 inhabitants.

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Said looking out over the estuary

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Turtle in the water

During the 1500s, Sur was the region’s most important port, importing and exporting goods from India and Africa, including slaves.

Dhow Museum

It's for the construction of dhows, the traditional Arab sailing vessels, that Sur is famous today, however.

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Sur established itself as Oman’s most important ship-building centre around the 16th century, a trade which continued until the beginning of the 20th century and is barely kept alive today.

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The word 'dhow' is generally used to describe all traditional wooden-hulled Arabian boats, although locals will either refer to them as safena or suh-fin which both basically mean just ‘ships'; or they will use the more specific names such as boom, sambuq, ghanjah – which for all intents and purposes are different styles of dhow.

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Houri Al safeena – a small sailing boat used to send a rescue team to stranded boats.

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Launch samak – diesel boat from 1983 used for fishing with cast nets.

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Al Mashouh – a light canoe with a square shaped stern used for ferrying sailors to their ship and back.

Dhow Shipyard

The traditional Arab sailing vessels known as dhows are still being produced here at this shipyard in Sur, the only remaining of its kind in Oman.

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This dhow has been a 'work in progress' for over two years now, and will cost somewhere in the region of 200,000-300,000 Rial (ca £400,000-600,000).

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Traditionally, dhows were constructed of teak planks sewn together using coir rope and powered by enormous triangular lateen sails. These days iroko wood is mostly used.

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Many people work on the construction, with each person having a specific task, such as this woodcarver. Traditionally all the work was carried out by locals, but these days many immigrant workers, mostly from India, have taken over the jobs.

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I decline the invitation to climb on board the partially finished ship as health and safety is non-existent.

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Ras al Jinz Hotel

We continue to our hotel for the night, and as soon as we have checked in, we go to our room and await the porter bringing our bags.

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He arrives fairly promptly, but once he has left, we can't find the key to our door. We search everywhere. No sign of it. Eventually we give up and ask Housekeeping for a spare, so that we can actually lock the door when we leave the room.

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As it will be a late night tonight and an early start tomorrow, we try to have a bit of a nap, but struggle to get to sleep on the very hard bed.

Some two hours later, a very sheepish porter turns up with the key that was in his pocket all along. Doh.

Turtle Information Centre

There is only one reason for coming here: turtles.

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One of the main tourist destinations in Oman, Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve was set up in 1996 to protect the rare and endangered green turtle which returns every year to lay its eggs on the same beach where it was born decades ago.

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The well laid out visitor centre showcases the lifecycle of the green turtle as well as the archaeological findings from this area through museographical displays – whatever that means!

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There are interactive displays and a short film showing the life of a turtle and the work carried out here.

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Dinner

Having a bit of an upset tummy, I am not feeling up to much food this evening. The buffet is mostly Indian, with the odd international dish thrown in. I stick to potatoes with a yogurt-type dressing.

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Turtle Watching

Turtles are big business here, and I have to admit to finding the whole organisation rather too big and commercialised with far too many people.

This is considered the low season as far as turtles go, so we are told to gather in the lobby at 20:15 for news on whether any turtles have been spotted on the beach this evening. The area is very crowded, with nowhere near enough seats for everyone. We are lucky, as we arrive early to find a spare sofa.

We wait. And wait. And wait. No news.

Finally, at 21:15 we rush off in seven different groups. As hotel residents, we have priority and are in group # 1.

We exit through the rear of the hotel, each group being led by a local naturalist with a torch. Initially there is a smoothish gravel path, but soon the ground becomes like slippery mud, then slightly looser sand. As we get near to the water, the sand is deep and soft, making walking rather hard work.

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This photo, taken the next morning, shows the gravel path leading out from the hotel

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Here you can see the 'slippery mud' (the shiny bit reflecting the sun) and just how far away the sea is.

With just a small torch, it is hard to see what is going on, but eventually we come across the one and only female who is on this beach today. She has finished laying her eggs and is now covering them with sand, ready for her to leave them to their own devises as she returns to sea. Flash photography is strictly forbidden, as is individual torches, making for very dark conditions for getting any sort of photograph of the turtle. (For my photography friends: these images were taken on ISO 32,000)

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After digging a hole by scooping out clouds of sand with her flippers, the turtle deposits up to 100 eggs, before carefully covering them again and returning to sea, exhausted.

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The eggs take around 60 days to hatch, and the tiny creatures then have to not just burrow their way to the surface of the sand; they have to make it safely to the ocean, avoiding any predators on the way.

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AS there is only one turtle on the beach tonight, each group is only given five minutes at the nesting site, before moving on to make room for the next group.

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Sitting on a rock at the water's edge I become aware of something luminous in the water, being washed up on the beach with each wave: bioluminescent algae or glow-in-the-dark plankton. Never having seen this phenomenon before, I am absolutely mesmerised. Trying to take photos proves impossible, so I just sit there enjoying the spectacle, which coupled with the bright starry sky above, makes this a totally magical moment.

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As we leave to return to the hotel, the turtle has finished her duty and sets off to sea. Confused by all the people crowding around her, she leaves the nesting site in the wrong direction, and it saddens me that maybe we have caused her some unnecessary stress by our presence here tonight. Or at least the sheer numbers of us – there must be between 70 and 80 tourists here this evening.

Returning to the hotel we are offered a ride in the pick-up truck, which we gladly accept.

What a perfect ending to an amazing day! Thank you Undiscovered Destination for this fabulous trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:05 Archived in Oman Tagged mountains boats turtles fish oasis park canyon scenery breakfast valley sur ships sinkhole coffee oman stars buffet muscat wadi dhow dates shipyard fish_market ragged starry_night short-cut outer_worldly bimmah bimmah_sinkhole sink_hole hawiyat_najm_park kahwa wadi_shab ras_al_jinz bioluminescent glow_in_the_dark_plankton plankton egg_laying tiwi wadi_tiwi Comments (2)

Muscat

Half a day in the capital


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Having arrived at the hotel at 03:30 this morning, we miss breakfast totally and sleep through until we are woken by Housekeeping at 11:00. I am sure this is a sign of getting old: some 30 years ago we would have been up at 07:00 to make the most of our time here in Muscat; today we thoroughly enjoy the lie-in and leisurely start.

Al Falaj Hotel

Named after the traditional irrigation channels that Oman are famous for, the hotel is in a residential suburb of Muscat, with very little around in the way of amenities. The hotel itself, however, is very pleasant, with super-friendly staff, a nice pool and comfortable rooms.

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Hotel entrance

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Lobby

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Self-playing piano in the lobby

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The outside dining area

Interestingly, it has a Sri Lankan Tea Shop off the lobby and a Japanese Restaurant on the top floor.

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Lunch

While not being at all keen on a buffet lunch, there really isn't much choice here. The mezze starter selection is nice, and I enjoy the tabbouleh and hummus in particular.

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Mezze selection

The chicken is a little too dry and I am intrigued by the 'bacon', which looks and tastes exactly like regular bacon. As Oman is a strict Muslim country, pork is banned, so it is probably turkey, but it is certainly a very good imitation.

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Thinking this is labneh in oil, I am very disappointed to find it is in fact pickled Brussels sprouts. I guess it was meant to be for decorative purposes only...

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Fresh fruits and desserts

The chocolate mousse is even better than it looks!

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Aslam, the restaurant manager, comes over to chat with us. Like most of the staff, he comes from Sri Lanka. That could explain why all the main course dishes are Indian-style.

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There are some nice decorative touches in the restaurant too.

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Old Muscat

At 15:00 Said, our guide for the next eight days, picks us up for a short tour. First he stops for a view over Old Muscat, with the City Gate, Forts and Palace clearly visible.

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Bait Al Zubair Museum

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Photography is not allowed inside the museum unfortunately, which is a great shame as there are some amazing displays: clothing and jewellery, including the khanjar, the ornamental dagger worn on a belt. Mannequins show the traditional costumes from various parts of Oman, much of which seems to be inspired by Indian outfits. The Omani wedding displays are my favourite.

Scaled models show the four main forts of Oman: Nizwa, Quriyat, Jabrin and Al Hazm.

The section dedicated to guns is of less interest to me than the kitchen utensils and cooking implements. I am particularly taken with the Al Dallah, the coffee pots that look like they are taken straight out of an Arabian fairytale.

The second part of the museum, housed in a different building, shows old photograph from Oman before the Renaissance of 1970, when the current Sultan turned the country around from a poverty-stricken backwater with just three schools and one hospital in the entire country; to the modern progressive nation we see today.

There is also a wonderful exhibition with winners from a recent photographic competition. Absolutely breathtaking photographs!

Rooms are set out as they would have appeared in the living quarters of the late Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali (founder of this museum) in the 1940s and 50s. It is interesting to note that most of the furniture came from England and India.

Amongst the exhibits are two items that make me feel particularly old – my very first camera (Kodak 66) and a desk caddy very, very similar to the one I inherited from my grandmother.

The grounds of the museum are nicely laid out, with further exhibits and a miniature village scene.

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There are also a number of these sponsored painted goats dotted around the grounds.

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Kalbuh Bay Park

After a refreshing juice stop, we continue to the Muttrah Corniche from where we will watch the sun set over Muscat.

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The park is a lovely little haven, with fountains and pavilions; and is popular with locals and tourists alike.

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David climbs the watchtower for a better view

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David's view

I love the way the low sun makes the hills disappear into misty oblivion, with paler colours on the further away peaks.

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Off shore is the Sultan's private yacht – better looking than any cruise ship!

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On a hill above the park stands a giant frankincense burner

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Tourists are ferried around the harbour in dhows, the traditional ships historically plying these waters.

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As the sun gets lower, the colour of the sky intensifies.

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Going, going, gone

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We stay for a while after the artificial lights come on along the promenade and on the giant frankincense burner.

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Kargeen Caffe

Tonight is the only night where food is not included, so we wanted to make the most of it by choosing a restaurant very carefully. Usually included hotel dinners tend to be international buffets, and I wanted to try some traditional Omani food. I spent a fair amount of time on the internet searching for somewhere not too touristy, but not so traditional that we have to sit on the floor. This is what I came up with, and we certainly aren't disappointed as we walk in: the place oozes atmosphere. The clientele is a mixture of ex-pats, tourists, families and trendy young Omanis.

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I am not sure how I feel about being watched by a couple of sheep while I eat...

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Labneh plate and breads

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Traditional stuffed bread

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Main course of shuwa and chicken biriyani

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Shuwa - tender lamb traditionally cooked for 24-48 hours in an underground oven.

What a lovely way to end our first day in Oman. Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:38 Archived in Oman Tagged sunset sheep museum oman buffet muscat dhow corniche mutrah undiscovered_destinations al_falaj_hotel old_muscat lunch_buffet bait_al_zubair muttrach_corniche muttrah kalbuh_park kargeen_caffe shuwa labneh Comments (3)

Bristol - London - Istanbul - Muscat

Let the adventure begin


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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Sunday 11th February 2018

Premier Inn, Heathrow

Our second attempt at travelling to Oman (being hospitalised with pneumonia saw us cancelling this same trip last year) starts with an overnight stay in a Premier Inn at Heathrow. We do enjoy getting our holidays off to a leisurely start, especially when we have an early morning flight the following day.

At the Thyme restaurant, we enjoy a nice dinner, a few drinks and in my case, a bit of eye candy in the form of the cute Spanish waiter, Pedro.

Grete: “I am enjoying the view”
David: “You are old enough to be his grandmother”

Oh well, a girl can dream...

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A nice fruity cider

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David prefers the regular apple flavour

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Firecracker noodles with chicken - delicious

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David's chicken escalope with sweet potato fries

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David looks lovingly at his liqueur coffee

Monday 12th February 2018

For some reason I never sleep well the first night away on any trip, and this one is no exception.

FlyDrive Meet and Greet

The car is covered in frost as we make our way from the hotel to the terminal building at Heathrow. We have booked a Valet Parking service, but struggle to find the right entrance to the parking area. As we pull off the main road, there are three gates leading to the car park, but only the one barrier on the far right leads to the floor we need to be on, something we realise too late. After the expensive mistake (£4 charge to get out after driving around the 2nd and 3rd floor realising we are in the wrong place), we drive around the block twice before finally locating the right entrance. Third time lucky.

The car parking people were supposed to have called us half an hour before our expected arrival time, but they didn't; and when we try to phone them, the line just goes dead. To add insult to injury, when we do finally find the attendants on the 4th floor, they have no record of our booking. This does not bode well.

Heathrow Terminal 2

We leave the car with them and check in for our flight, then head for some breakfast.

While taking my order, the chatty young waiter asks if I want to add some “beans, bacon, massage..”?

“Massage? Ooh, yes please!”

“Sausage madam, sausage”

Oh dear, you can't take me anywhere.

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Scrambled egg and smoked salmon. Not a sausage (or massage) in sight

London - Istanbul

The plane carrying us on the second leg of our journey from Heathrow to Istanbul appears to have been built for midgets, as I don't even have room to put my legs straight, they have to go either side of the backrest in front.

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Istanbul Airport

At the Security check in Istanbul, the guard asks me where I am going.
“Muscat”
“Where is that?”
“Oman”
“You are going to Oman? On holiday?”

Istanbul airport consists of long, seemingly endless, corridors, with no information boards to indicate which gate we should be heading for to catch our connecting flight. We finally reach the food court, and as we have plenty of time here (we deliberately caught an earlier flight from London as we have missed connections a few times in the past), we grab a bite to eat and drink at the amusingly named Tickerdaze Restaurant.

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Chicken fajita at the front, David's mixed fajita at the back. Very nice they are too

Istanbul - Muscat

We strike lucky on the flight from Istanbul to Oman, snagging a complete row to ourselves, meaning we can spread out with a spare seat in the middle. There is also a bit more legroom on this plane, making for a much more enjoyable flight.

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Muscat Airport

First we join a long queue to purchase our visa, then for immigration. At least the line is shorter than the one for the 'pre-arranged visas', which consists mainly of migrant workers, predominantly from the Indian subcontinent. Apparently, 800,000 of the 4 million inhabitants in Oman are Indians, something that has influenced the Omani culture (especially food) much more than I realised. More about that in future blog entries.

Surprisingly, there are no questions about "how long", "where", "why" etc. when we get to the immigration counter; we sail straight through to the baggage reclaim area where our luggage is already waiting for us. It is all very civilised, and once we're through the X-ray, our driver is waiting to take us to our hotel in Muscat.

Al Falaj Hotel, Muscat

The hotel is expecting us and once we've completed the form and they've copied our passports, the porter shows us to our room. It is now 03:30, but as we are both wide awake, we break open the Duty Free rum and raid the minibar for Coke and Pringles.

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Welcome to Oman.

Apologies for the poor quality photographs, all taken with my mobile phone.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:58 Archived in Oman Tagged flights oman heathrow muscat duty_free london_heathrow undiscovered_destinations turkish_airways premier_inn istanbul_airport flydrive valet_parking al_falaj_hotel captain_morgan Comments (2)

Tadoba National Park - Part IV

Great afternoon birding


View Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright - India 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

On the way to the park gate this afternoon, we stop to see the cotton fields and women collecting grass for their cattle.

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Black Shouldered Kite

This afternoon it has been decided that for a bit of variety, we will enter a different part of Tadoba Tiger Reserve, the Agarzari Buffer Zone.

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Seeing leopard paw prints just inside the gate, gets us off to a promising start.

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We see lots of beautiful and colourful butterflies around a particular meadow, but they are so hard to photograph when they are on the move.

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Purple heron

We head for some wetlands and spend most of the rest of the afternoon in and around this area.

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There are lots of birds around, but mammals are sadly lacking.

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Purple heron

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Little Cormorant

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Black Ibis

The fickle Asian Open-Billed Stork

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I'm coming in to land... get off my perch!

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Ooh! Changed my mind... I think I will find somewhere else to sit.

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Nah, you can keep your rock.

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Well.... actually, I think I prefer it over this side anyway.

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Perhaps this wasn't such a bad place after all.

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Intermediate Egret

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Black Headed Ibis

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Lesser Adjutant

The first mammal we see this afternoon is this sambar hiding in the tall grass.

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Oriental Magpie Robin

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White Fronted Water Hen

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White Fronted Water Hen

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Asian Open Billed Stork

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Little Cormorant spreading his wings to dry them out

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Our fickle Openbill is back, with a snail in her beak.

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Sunset over the marshland.

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The light is fading really fast now, as we make our way back to the park gate.

We see one more animal on our way out, in the near darkness.

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Gaur

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He is eyeing us suspiciously from behind the grass.

And that brings a very abrupt end to my blog from our 2017 India trip. For some reason I did not take any photos after this. To be fair, I had an upset tummy in the evening and the next day for our long journey home (Tadoba - Jabalpur-Delhi-London-Bristol (including a stop in Delhi during their awful smog problem when schools and offices were closed).

For my birding friends: We ended up with a trip count of 71, 31 of which were lifers. That is what I consider a successful birding trip! And, of course, we did see FIVE tigers, so all in all it was a very good safari.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:46 Archived in India Tagged sunset india kite safari birding butterfly cotton wetlands heron egret stork ibis cormorant gaur tadoba sambar bird_watching tiger_park adjutant buffer_zone agarzari_zone openbill open_bill magpie_robin water_hen Comments (2)

Tadoba National Park - Part III

No tigers this morning


View Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright - India 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Black Ibis
Considering it was only yesterday that we saw our very first Black Ibis, today the first thing we see is a whole flock of them flying.

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Another first: Muntjack AKA Barking Deer

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Gaur

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Black Headed Ibis

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Lesser Adjutant - another new one for my list.

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Crested Serpent Eagle

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Green Bee Eater

The park is looking really pretty this morning, with rising mist and rays from the emerging sun seeping through the trees.

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Sambar in the sunrise

Wild Boar

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Sambar

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Vehicle Check
We are most surprised to find ourselves being stopped by the traffic cops in the middle of the park. Do they get danger money for being surrounded by wild animals at work?

Black Drongo

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Rose Ringed Parakeets

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Red Wattled Lapwing

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Green Bee Eater

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White Throated Kingfisher

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Gaur

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We turn off the main road onto a smaller lane, and the next three cars coming the other way flash their lights at us. With high hopes for a tiger sighting, we set off at great speed!

Down by the waterhole there is a large gathering of Gypsy safari vehicles, all waiting for the tigress and her cubs to re-appear from the woods where they were spotted earlier.

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We sit around for ages, some 45 minutes or so, with no sighting of even a stripy tail!

A couple of birds appear to help us pass the time.

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Green Bee Eater

All too soon it is time to make our way out of the park and back to the lodge for lunch.

On the way we spot a gorgeous Indian Roller sitting on the telephone wire.

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And a couple of women carrying her stuff for the day in a bowl on their heads.

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Back at the lodge I discover just how dirty this game driving lark is, after wiping my face on a white cloth.

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Time for a rest and some food before this afternoon's safari – the last one of our trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:37 Archived in India Tagged animals birds travel india sunrise safari eagle birding travelling roller ibis parakeet kingfisher gaur barking_deer tadoba sambar drongo bird_watching lapwing indian_bison adjutant bee_eater muntjack sambar_deer Comments (3)

Tadoba National Park - Part II

A disappointing afternoon


View Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright - India 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After this morning's exciting tiger sighting, we head into the park with great expectations.

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Getting tickets at the park gate

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Mongoose
We do see a Ruddy Mongoose as it disappears behind the trees.

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Down at the lake a gathering of Gypsies (Maruti Gypsy, the safari vehicle of choice in India) are waiting (and hoping) for a sighting. It doesn't happen and we all gradually move on.

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When we see a few Gypsies bunch up, we hope for the best: maybe another tiger sighting?

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No such luck: it's a Hoopoe. Much as I like Hoopoes, they cannot compare to tigers.

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Some beautiful reflections in a pond

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Sambar

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Black Ibis

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Why did the chicken cross the road? Indian Junglefowl

Mongoose
On our way out of the park, we see another mongoose crossing the road. I try to take a picture of it while the vehicles is in motion, but again it is not very successful.

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It has not been a very successful afternoon as far as animal spotting goes. Apart from the Black Ibis, which is a new species to us, the highlight is the red moon that appears soon after sundown.

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We continue to the lodge and have a quick shower and change before dinner. Again it is served buffet style – which I am not too keen on – but I have to say the food is superb. In fact, we all agree that the Vegetable Manchurian (crispy balls in a spicy sauce) is the best dish we have had so far on the trip. I am so excited by it that I even forget to take photos!

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:16 Archived in India Tagged animals birds india safari moon tadoba bird_watching mangoose red_moon Comments (5)

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