A Travellerspoint blog

São João dos Angolares – Rolas Island

Rolas Island: The Middle of the World


View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

As we go for breakfast this morning, we are given a message from our agents that the rain has caused havoc with the roads, so they are going to be half an hour late picking us up this morning (Nino, the driver, and Agostinho, the guide, went back to São Tomé Town yesterday after lunch).

When we walk into the restaurant, we see two girls sleeping on futons in the bar. I can only assume that the hotel was full last night and they arrived late without a reservation.

Breakfast

This morning's breakfast consists of bread, home-made jam, cheese, chocolate cake, biscuits, star fruit, bananas, papaya and guava.

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As it turns out, Nino and Agostinho are only about 20 minutes late, by which time we are in reception with our bags, ready to go.

The road south from here is very bad in places, with large potholes and huge chunks of the road eroded away by the rain.

After a while we turn off the main road onto an unmarked, much smaller track, as we head for the jetty.

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The ferry to Rolas Island

We arrive at the jetty where the ferry is going to take us to Rolas Island in plenty of time for the boat. In fact, the boat is not even here yet. A small band of performers are waiting to greet tourists, and two young French girls also waiting.

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A small, open boat arrives, and all four of us are quite sure it is the one taking us across to the island. The girls are filled with trepidation. “I have known worse, much worse”, I reassure them, “at least it is not raining”. “You travel a lot?” one of the girls asks. “This is our 140th country” we explain. She is totally dumbstruck and keeps repeating incredulously “140 countries...?”, over and over again.

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When a large bus belonging to the Pestana Group (who own the hotel on the island) arrives, the musicians and singers burst into performance. This is a little too touristy for my liking.

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Soon afterwards, our boat arrives, and it is bigger and with roof cover.

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It seems the smaller, open boat is for staff transport.

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As soon as we have all piled on board, we are off. Some people, including the two French girls we spoke to earlier, are just going to the island for the day. Most people, however, are staying for a week, we are here for two nights.

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Rolas Island

The ferry ride is quite short, and soon we can see the jetty on Rolas Island. By the time we arrive, however, we are absolutely soaked: one of the problems of sitting at the back of the boat, being drenched in sea spray.

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As I said before, the whole operation is quite commercialised and touristic, and on arrival at the island we are giving a welcome drink while we wait to check in.

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We watch the 'staff boat' arrive with all the luggage on board, and hope they don't drop our bags over the edge as they unload.

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Our bags made it safely to dry land

Rolas island is a small islet, an ocean paradise with swaying palm tress and beautiful sandy beaches. Apart from this one hotel, there is not much else on the island.

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The rooms are all spread around the large grounds, with blocks of four rooms in each wooden cottage, offering plenty of privacy.

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We have a small covered balcony with a couple of lounging chairs.

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Complete with our very own lizard.

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The rooms are nice and big, all dark wood, with an efficient A/C unit, large wardrobe, a couple of chairs and some cosy mood lighting.

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The hotel pool is said to be the largest in West Africa, and it is certainly impressive.

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Several bridges connect the patios, grassy areas and the islands in the free form pool, with the two 'islands' representing the islands of São Tomé and Principe. The pool comes complete with a pool bar, with a swim up area featuring underwater bar stools.

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The restaurant and bar on the hill behind the pool

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The bar

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The bar

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The bar

Lunch

This being a resort hotel, lunch is buffet style, with the usual selection.

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Equator

There isn't much here outside the hotel. A path leads through the jungle-like interior to the biggest draw of the island – the Equator marker.

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This small island is the nearest landmass to the point where the Equator meats the Meridian – here we are 0° south and 6° west.

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Agostinho points out a blowhole and gets soaked in the process.

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There is some spectacular coastline too.

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Pool time

The beach is deserted, and as it doesn't look overly inviting with its rocky approach and underfoot in the ocean, we opt for an afternoon in and around the pool.

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Crabs on the beach

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Wine for Dinner

As the afternoon draws to a close and the rain starts to come down, we grab a bottle of wine and head for the terrace of our cabin, where we stay for the duration of the evening with another bottle of wine replacing the first one. We miss dinner completely, preferring to chill with a drink and snacks, watching the rain from our balcony.

And so ends another day in São Tomé, as perfectly arranged by Undiscovered Destinations. Thanks again guys, you rock!

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:04 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged rain coastline wine crabs chilling swimming_pool equator blowhole meridian roca são_joão_dos_angolares rolas_island west_africa's_largest_swimming_ swim_up_bar middle_of_the_world postana Comments (1)

Mucumbili - São João dos Angolares

A day full of variety

-50 °C
View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

We wake to the sound of the waves and the chirping birds this morning, and sit on the balcony for a while just taking it all in.

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Laughing Dove

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São Tomé Prinia

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Fishermen going out for the day's catch

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São Tomé Speirops

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An endemic subspecies of the Vitelline Masked Weaver

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Newton's Sunbird - another endemic

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Yellow Billed Kite

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Pin Tailed Whydah

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São Tomé Thrush - the endemics are out in force today, adding to my life list.

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Bronze Mannikin

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Bronze Mannikin

The leaves are still wet from the overnight rain and the birds are using the raindrops for bathing.

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Evidence from last night still sits on the balcony table

The fishermen are out in force now, and from our elevated lookout point, we can so easily see where the shoals of fish are congregating.

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Cattle Egret

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Southern Cordon Bleu

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Beautiful bougainvillea close to our balcony

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Odd looking flowers

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Some sort of a tomato?

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Vitelline masked Weaver - an endemic subspecies

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Yellow Fronted Canary

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Yellow Billed Kite

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I have no idea what they are, but they are pretty

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Southern Cordon Bleu

We reluctantly tear ourselves away from the birds to go and have some breakfast.

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Water melon

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Omelette

I would love to stay here for another couple of days and just sit on the balcony watching the birds and listening to the waves; but we have places to go and things to see.

Neves

Our first stop is in the small settlement of Neves, which is a town of two parts, one of which is known as 'beer central' as it is the location of the country's beer factory, Rosema.

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A collection of ramshackle but charming wooden houses make up this small town, and I make friends with a few children – and adults – as I walk through and 'talk' with them using sign language and a lot of smiles.

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Even the pigs are cute

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São Tomé Central Market

We are back in the capital much quicker than I expected, and it seems the market is in full swing today.

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Private car ownership is fairly rare, and bus service infrequent and unreliable, so most people will take a taxi – or a motorbike taxi – when coming in from the outskirts to do their shopping in town.

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The local bus service

We are not staying in town this time, but heading south along the east coast.

I am very amused by this improvised mud-guard.

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Santana

We stop in the small town of Santana, partly to stretch our legs, and partly to hear the story of the statue of St Ana, mother of mothers.

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In the 16th century, a statue of St Ana was discovered on this site, and a chapel was built on the spot to mark the discovery. For whatever reason, the statue was moved away at some point. As soon as the statue left, the rivers dried up and all the vegetation died. The people of the town all got together and demanded that the statue was brought back, after which everything came back to life again as normal: the river flowed freely and the vegetation flourished.

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The old Sisters' House is now being used as a school.

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Like most of the coastal villages, the people of Santana rely mainly on fishing.

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Laundry day

Every day is laundry day at Abade River, with both banks full of people who come to clean themselves, their clothes, linen, and even bicycles, in the river.

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Agua Ize

As we turn off the main road to take a much smaller track winding its way through the rickety but charismatic small town of Agua Ize, I practice some 'drive-by-shooting'. Strictly with my camera, of course, through the open window of the car.

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It looks like it is laundry day here too.

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The whole town we see today was once part of a large plantation and the buildings were staff housing.

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The plantations at the time were like complete communities, with schools, shops, doctors and two hospitals, a small one for the black slave workers and a much better and larger one for the white European management. Only newly qualified doctors and nurses would be employed in the smaller hospital, and as a result many people died due to inadequate treatment.

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The hospital now lies abandoned and has become an unlikely tourist attraction.

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While the building is no longer in use as a hospital, and is in a sad state of disrepair, it can not really be described as 'abandoned'. These days the former wards are homes to several families.

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I channel my inner Urbex* as we ascend the rickety steps to the upper levels.

* Urbex = an expression given to photographers who explore abandoned buildings, usually by breaking in and often illegally in the middle of the night. The abbreviation stands for 'Urban Explorer.

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Boca de Inferno

Boca de Inferno, or Hells mouth, is a natural phenomenon caused by waves finding their way into a small ravine that leads to a series of grottos in the rugged coastline. A narrow channel funnels the waves around an 'island platform' and under a bridge of basalt stones; later spewing the water out the other side roaring and spraying. Many people have been swept away to their deaths while trying to brave the elements down on the rocks.

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Ribiera Afonso

We pass by the small town of Ribiera Afonso, one of the poorer areas of São Tomé. This place is inhabited by the descendant of the very first settlers, mostly shipwrecked Angolans, who fiercely cling to their traditional ways. Agostinho explains that they have only recently started wearing clothes.

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He also recounts how these people live from hand to mouth, fishing to survive day by day and refusing to plan for the future or even the next day. The local women are said to sleep with the men 'for a fish', resulting in a number of unwanted pregnancies and questionable parentage.

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Roça São João dos Angolares

We make it to this beautifully restored colonial plantation house in time for lunch. And what a treat lunch is. Run by the famous TV chef João Carlos Silva, this restaurant is firmly on the tourist circuit, and quite rightly so.

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Let me take you on a gastronomic journey through Africa and Portugal with a fusion of Sãotoméan and contemporary cuisine plus elements borrowed from other parts of the world: all lovingly prepared by Carlos Silva himself and his small army of friendly staff.

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While waiting for it to be our turn to be called up to the counter where the amuse bouche (which is charmingly translated as “spark of tongue”) is being served, I watch the Portuguese guests (part of a large party) screw their noses up and spit out whatever it is they have eaten. I am now very intrigued.

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First of all we are given a cocoa seed complete with surrounding flesh, which we are to suck on to separate the sweet flesh from the seed. I know from past experience (at a cocoa farm in Ghana) that this is something I really enjoy.

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After spitting the seed out, we take a small spoonful of grated ginger, a square of locally produced chocolate (chocolate from São Tomé is said to be world class) and a couple of peppercorns. So that is what disgusted the previous diners. It's an interesting combination, and both David and I love it!

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A small glass of red wine completes the first of many courses.

The second amuse bouche (or is that the third or even fourth? I have lost count already) consists of a small sliver of fried breadfruit.

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First starter: banana with Misquito flower (no idea), coranto leaf (also no idea), fish, onion, Taiwanese lemon, mango, passion fruit.

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Second starter: green pepper, apple, coconut, courgette, sweetcorn, tuna fish, avocado, ginger, pepper, grated roasted popinki mushrooms

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A small dish of fish roe is served with this.

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I am impressed with how this well-oiled organisation works, even when people arrive late, the staff seem to know who has had what course and they are all attentive and polite, despite the mad rush to get everyone fed. It seems to run like clockwork.

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Third starter: sweet potato, orange ball coated with manioc flakes, pineapple with coconut, okra, 'egg of fish', aubergine, watercress, cucumber. No being a fan of aubergine, okra or cucumber, this is the only dish I find less than superb.

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Fourth starter: malanga root dough wrapped around bacon, marlin, mango sauce.

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It soon becomes obvious that Agostinho comes here regularly, as he knows what all the ingredients are in the various dishes being served, and if he is unsure, the waiter describes them in detail. I am glad we have an English speaking guide though, as the waiters only speak Portuguese and French. My Portuguese is non-existent, and my French only marginally better.

Fifth starter: roast banana stuffed with bacon and cheese, tied with lemongrass, peanut and manioc flakes dipped in pepper.

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Sixth starter: octopus in tomato sauce, green cocoyam leaves, brown bean pueée, rice and egg ball.

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Seventh starter: tomato with misquite flower (still no idea), cheese and bacon; omelette with fever bush leaves (which I think is the same as cassava leaves), crispy deep fried taro dipped in tomato sauce with chocolate.

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Eighth starter: Roasted pineapple with honey, chilli, salt; roasted guava

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Ninth starter: roasted mango with passion fruit. Roasting it has made the mango incredibly sweet; I must try this at home.

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Meanwhile, several of the staff gather at the railings and are looking out over the edge of the balcony – it turns out that someone has been having a crafty cigarette (I have only seen one person smoking in this restaurant, so no points for guessing who), and somehow dropping the cigarette down onto a ledge below, starting a fire! Doh!

So, we have finally come to the main course, which is served buffet style: fish and bean stew, sweet potato, rice, grated cassava, extremely strong pickled green peppers.

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First dessert: crystallised green papaya, passion fruit sauce, Portuguese cheese.

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Second dessert: banana with chocolate, cassava curl, honey sauce.

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Third dessert: selection of ice creams – avocado, isakinki (?), frozen yogurt, lemon; cake, mango sauce

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That finally signals the end of this amazing meal, consisting of 3 amuse bouce, nine starters, a main course and three desserts. SIXTEEN courses in total. That is certainly the most dishes I have ever had for a menú degustación meal.

We collapse into the narrow four-poster bed for a much needed siesta. The room is in a charming traditional colonial style, with no A/C, but a super-efficient ceiling fan.

Later in the afternoon we take a stroll around the plantation house and estate.

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The gardens are filled with eclectic sculptures, some of which are a little too 'weird' for me.

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I am not sure whether Roça São João dos Angolares is a gourmet restaurant with rooms or a hotel with a gourmet restaurant. It certainly has a completely different feel to it now that all the tourists have left and the balcony is almost deserted.

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The main building has six quaint rooms; with a further three in the old hospital building across the yard.

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The main building

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The old hospital

We sit on the balcony with a glass (OK, bottle) of wine, watching the rain.

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At dinner there are only three tables with guests and there is an air of serenity about the place that was most certainly not here earlier.

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The restaurant is no longer a hive of activity with hoards of staff milling around, although there is still an impressive display of fresh fruit and vegetables, many of which are completely alien to me.

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Mosquitoes are kept at bay by a whole host of water-filled plastic bags hanging from the rafters. We saw this in Haiti a couple of years ago too, the idea is that the reflection in the bags scares the insects.

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This evening's meal is buffet style, and we start with a fish soup.

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Marlin in a mango sauce with rice and 'shoo-shoo'.

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Chocolate torte to finish

A few bats are accompanying us this evening, darting around at lightning speed, way too fast to even attempt to photograph. What an amazing day it has been, with such a lovely relaxing finish. Thank you yet again to Undiscovered Destinations for organising this fabulous trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:47 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged birds beer fishing statue market village river school africa wine birding photography chef fishing_boats chapel teaching hospital laundry abandoned blowhole santana hell's_gate bird_watching central_market neves eco_lodge urban_exploring undiscovered_destinations sao_tome urbex abandoned_hospital mucumbili twitching rosema rosema_beer são_tomé mother_of_mothers pupils agua_ize abade_river drive_by_shooting boca_de_inferno basalt rocky_coastline ribiera_afonso angolan_shipwrecks roça_são_joão_dos_angolares joão_carlos_silva tv_chef famous_tv_chef menu_degustacion tasting_menu sixteen_course_lunch Comments (2)

São Tomé - Mucumbili

Sombre history and a west-coast hide-away paradise

-50 °C
View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

Memorial dos Heróis da Liberdade

Yesterday, at Trindade, we saw the memorial at the site of the Batepá Massacre where hundreds of natives were killed by Portuguese forces in 1953 during a rebellion, and Agostinho was telling us how they were “thrown in the sea, like animals”. Today we visit the spot, at Fernão Dias on the north coast, where those murdered were transported by the truckload and their bodies unceremoniously dumped in the sea off the now-defunct pier.

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A memorial has been erected here too, listing the names of all those killed in the fight for freedom.

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An abandoned ship lies off the coast as if to pay tribute to the fallen martyrs.

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Old Tree

We stop beside a tree, more than one hundred years old, for Agostinho to explain how they used to make canoes.

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I am more interested in playing with a young kid who is selling fruit at the side of the road.

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Agostinho Neto

Named after a benevolent Angolan doctor (late president of Angola) who fought fervently in the battle against Portuguese colonialism, the roça (plantation) and surrounding village is now mostly in ruins and lies partly abandoned.

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The abandoned hospital on the hill

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The old botanical gardens is now the governor's house

Many of the picturesque old buildings (these would have been for the managers) have survived and are now in use.

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Hospital

The old hospital, built as part of the roça (plantation), now lies abandoned, with a number of poorer families having moved into some of its many rooms.

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Unleashing my inner Urbex (Urban Explorer, a popular genre in photography), I wander around some of the abandoned halls and wards.

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Love the home made bicycle

Poverty

Categorised as a 'least developed country', São Tomé is mostly dependent on international aid, and is among the poorest in the world, with more than half of the population living below the poverty line, and 29% in extreme poverty.

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Pounding the corn is extremely hard work, and the locals find it very amusing that I would like to have a go.

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The population of São Tomé is relatively young, with children aged 0 to 14 years representing 44.4% of the population, yet only 38% attend secondary school.

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Blue Lagoon

This sheltered bay is popular with snorkellers as the pristine waters are teeming with fish.

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An ancient baobab stands on the beach – those of you who have followed my blog for a while will be aware of how fond I am of baobab trees.

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Picnic

At a small picnic area, we make a quick stop with coffee, juice, fruit and biscuits.

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This is the place where the Portuguese first arrived back in the 15th century.

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Star fruit. I explain to Agostinho that, although we buy these fruits in the UK, I have never seen one actually growing; and he promises to look out for a star fruit tree for me.

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Taiwanese guava, they taste a little like unripe pears.

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Agostinho calls these carozo nuts, but I believe we know them as 'tropical almonds' (Terminalia catappa). They taste very similar to regular almonds.

Here they are, growing on the tree:

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Dug-out canoes on the beach

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Tunnel

The road hugs the coast on the north-west of the island and at one stage it goes through São Tomé's only tunnel.

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It is a popular place to stop and take photos.

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The coastline here is rugged, with some interesting rock formations and crashing waves.

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As we head inland, we pass imposing old plantation houses and more modest wooden chalets.

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Roça Monte Forté

The old plantation buildings have now been turned into a guest house and restaurant, with a small craft centre and a garden bulging with fruit and vegetables.

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I love this place, it has so much character. The bedrooms look basic but more than adequate, with a bed, mosquito net and en suite bathroom.

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Basket weaving

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Cacao fruit

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Calabash fruit

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Cashew fruit - the nut is the curious dark thing hanging down below the fruit

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Lemon tree

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Love the modern TV screen on the rickety old veranda.

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David takes a pre-lunch snooze while I wander around taking photos.

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Bananas

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View from the balcony

This is the sort of place that we love staying in, but unfortunately it is not to be this time, as we are only stopping here for lunch.

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Grilled bonito fish with onions

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Pumpkin, carrots, cabbage and shoo-shoo (a type of courgette or marrow)

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Fried plantain

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Dessert: cashew fruit and papaya

Another first for the Howards: eating the fruit from the cashew nut tree. It is obviously not that common over here either, as Agostinho takes the rest home for his children, who have never tasted it, plus some seeds to grow his own tree in his garden.

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Mucumbili

After a leisurely lunch we make our way to Mucumbili, our fabulous eco-lodge for the night. We check in and are shown to our room, a rustic wooden cabin built on the edge of the wooded cliff, with a balcony on stilts overlooking the valley and ocean beyond.

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Each cabin has a name rather than a number and I am absolutely thrilled to find that ours is called 'Carambola', meaning star fruit.

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Not only that, we have a star fruit tree right outside!

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We spend the rest of the afternoon on the balcony with a bottle of chilled white wine, watching the birds and the fishermen.

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São Tomé Prinia, and endemic to this island

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São Tome Speirops, another endemic

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Southern Cordon Bleu

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São Tomé Sunbird - yet another endemic

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Bronze Mannikin - not a very good photo, but it is the only one I manage to capture as he is hiding behind long grasses

Above us circle a couple of Yellow Billed Kites, and butterflies and lizards abound.

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This is my idea of heaven: a gorgeous rustic lodge miles from the nearest habitation, lots of birds and other small critters to keep me amused, a glass of something enjoyable and the man I love with no other human sound (or sight) for hours.

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What we do hear, however, is a strange clicking sound. We spend a long time trying to work out what it is. After a while it becomes obvious that it is coming from a bird, but which one? Eventually we discover the answer: the small São Tomé Prinia is somehow flapping its wing in a manner to make a fairly loud clicking sound. How bizarre.

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The noisy little prinia

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Northern Cordon Bleu

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Sao Tomé Speirops

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Prinia

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Cordon Bleu

From our balcony we can see the fish jumping in the sea, causing small ripples on the surface of the water.

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The fishermen all make their way towards that area, but by the time many of them have reached the spot, the fish have moved on.

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Dinner

Dinner is taken in the open-sided restaurant, with each cabin having its own dedicated table.

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Vegetable soup

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Pasta with crab, cream and Parmesan cheese

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This is not quite what David was expecting when he ordered 'apple pie'.

After dinner we yet again sit on the balcony for a long while, taking in the sounds and sights of the jungle after dark. There is next to no llight pollution and the stars are out, but unfortunately so are the clouds for a lot of the time.

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And so ends another delightful day in paradise. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:27 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged children birds fish fishing memorial kite paradise tunnel lizard birding fishermen bananas poverty heaven stars hospital baobab cacao rustic abandoned plantations bonito massacre astro martyrs blue_lagoon bird_watching roca eco_lodge undiscovered_destinations calabash astrophotography batepa_massacre prinia endemic_birds vinho_verde fernão_dias memorial_dos_heróis_da_liberdad agostinho_neto urbex abandoned_hospital star_fruit tropical_almonds rugged_coastline roça_monte_forte basket_weaving lemon_tree cashew_nut cashew_fruit mucumbili carambola life_list white_wine cordon_bleu speirops after_dark apple_pie Comments (2)

São Tomé city tour and Monte Café

An easy day


View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

I set the alarm for 06:30 this morning for some bird watching in and around the hotel grounds before breakfast. I am not disappointed.

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Yellow-billed kite

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Village Weaver

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São Tomé Prinia

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Yellow Fronted Canary

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Yellow Billed Kite

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Village Weaver

Four 'lifers' (new species to us) before breakfast on the first day! I also spot a couple of cute little lizards.

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Breakfast

Forte de São Sebastião

The old San Sebastian Fort has now been turned into a museum.

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The square outside is home to statues depicting the first settlers in São Tomé and Principe.

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São Tomé & Principe were both uninhabited prior to colonisation by the Portuguese in 1470 who came in search of land to grow sugar and as a base for trade with mainland Africa. São Tomé, being right on the equator and more than wet enough, fitted the bill perfectly. Slaves were brought over as forced labourers from Congo and Angola on the African coast to work the plantations. The first successful settlement was established in 1493 by Álvaro Caminha, who received the land as a grant from the Portuguese crown and by the mid-16th century the islands were Africa's foremost exporter of sugar.

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Attracting settlers proved difficult, however, and most of the earliest inhabitants were 'undesirables' sent from Portugal, mostly Jews, a great number of whom soon died.

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By 1515, São Tomé and Príncipe had become slave depots for the coastal slave trade centred at Elmina in Ghana. The interesting little museum chronicles the history of the country, but unfortunately photography is not permitted inside most of the rooms in the fort, so you will just have to make do with some external shots from the courtyard.

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Sugar cultivation declined over the next 100 years as a result of competition from the West Indies, and São Tomé was now primarily a transit point for ships engaged in the slave trade between the West and continental Africa.

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In the early 19th century, two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced to São Tomé. Large plantations (known as roças), mostly owned by Portuguese companies, sprung up all over the islands. Soon São Tomé became the world's largest producer of cocoa, with 800 of these plantations, and although this is no longer the case (and so many of the roças lie in ruins), cocoa remains the country's most important crop.

The second room in the museum shows examples of the different types of cocoa beans (and there was I thinking a cocoa bean was a cocoa bean). The plant was originally brought from Portugal as an ornamental plant, and remained so until someone said: “You're wasting your money, this plant grows so well here you should start a plantation”. Experts were imported from other Portuguese colonies such as Mozambique and Angola, and the rest is history.

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Other rooms are devoted to Catholicism, the President, the Flag, dining room, culture room (including voodoo paraphernalia and mannequins in various traditional costumes) and a gallery of old pictures from the city.

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By far the most emotional and poignant of all the exhibitions, is the Massacre Room. I find most of the pictures too distressing to look at, yet again despairing at man's inhumanity to man.

By the time we get to the 'turtle room', my back is giving me a lot of pain. I had hoped the pain would be gone by this morning after a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed, but not so; it is getting worse and worse.

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São Tomé is home to five different species of turtles, and much education work is taking place to ensure their continuing conservation.

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I had no idea Leatherback Turtles could grow that big!

Climbing onto the roof is proving to be quite a task because of my painful back. It is worth it for the view though.

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The graves of some 'important people' of a bygone age.

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Catedral de São Tomé

The 16th century cathedral is the oldest on the island and is reputed to be the first Catholic church to be built in an African country.

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The original building was constructed from wood, but the church was rebuilt in a more durable material - concrete - in the 17th century.

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As a place of worship, it is popular, especially for Sunday mass, when the pews are full.

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Damaged by fire during a revolt in 1975, the church was repaired from donations.

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Beautiful relics from the Portuguese era.

Parliament Building

Photographing this building is not permitted, with armed guards posted outside. Despite my experience in 2011 when I was chased down the road by one such guard after taking a picture of a bank in Algiers, I risk a covert shot from a distance.

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Driving by the market and later past the popularly named 'Think Square' where Sãotoméans gather to work out a survival strategy when they have no money (unemployment sits at 70%), we head out of town and up into the hills. I am pleasantly surprised at the condition of the road: there is some sizeable areas of tarmac between the potholes. The first settlement of any size we reach is Trindade, the second biggest city in São Tomé, with 45,000 inhabitants. It was here that a rebellion took place in 1953, where hundreds of native Creoles were killed or captured and tortured to death (known as the Batepá massacre). Later their bodies were thrown in the sea, like animals. "Throw this shit into the sea to avoid troubles," the Portuguese governor was quoted as saying. A memorial has been built to mark the spot and its anniversary is officially observed by the government.

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Roça Monte Café

One of the largest coffee plantation on the island, Monte Café has now been turned into a museum offering a tour of the coffee production process.

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At 600m above sea level, the air is considerably cooler here than in town, and the climate is ideal for growing Arabica coffee.

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We are invited up the stairs of one of the old warehouses, to walk through the exhibitions with a Portuguese-speaking guide, and Agostinho as a translator. Here the men toiled the plantations while the women worked in the factory.

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I am in agony with my back now, and seek out a chair on the balcony after the first couple of rooms, especially as photography is not permitted inside the museum.

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Alei Coffe Shop

Despite taking a double dose of painkillers, my back is still going into spasms, unfortunately marring my enjoyment of the excellent lunch.

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Ceviche with marlin, passionfruit, onion and cucumber

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Red snapper with plantain, breadfruit and rice. The green stuff is described as a 'lusoa sauce' and is really quite nice. I have been unable to ascertain what it is in English - maybe the green tops of sweet potato.

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David tries the locally brewed beer, Rosema, which comes in unmarked bottles without a label.

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Passionfruit cheesecake

Passionfruit is grown in abundance here on São Tomé, and I am intrigued by the size of them. I had no idea there was more than one type of passionfruit.

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Miramar Hotel

With my back being so painful, we return to the hotel a little earlier than planned, where I have a short siesta and feel some better afterwards.

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Like last night, we wander onto the terrace for a drink outside before dinner. Tonight we choose some Portuguese Vinho Verde, which goes down very nicely.

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Dinner

I am assuming the hotel is not full this evening, as we are the only diners at 19:30. Tonight's special is chicken stroganoff, and we both choose that. It is very good.

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Coconut jelly on a biscuit base

The end of another interesting day in São Tomé, arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:45 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged turtles fish fort museum cathedral africa birding parliament coffee trindade pain slavery ceviche defence canary plantations weaver massacre demonstrations cocoa bird_watching roca red_snapper undiscovered_destinations sao_tome batepa_massacre miramar_hotel prinia endemic_birds forte_de_são_sebastião sugar_plantations roca_monte_café vinho_verde passionfruit back_pain Comments (2)

Lisbon - Accra - São Tomé

Finally getting to our destination

-50 °C
View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

Having spent the night at an apartment in Lisbon, we arranged for the owner of the accommodation to pick us up at 06:30 this morning to take us the short distance to the airport. Ana is prompt and the journey only takes a few minutes. With no queues for check-in or security, we soon find ourselves in the Food Court, ready to eat breakfast.

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One of the best things about Portugal is its Pastel de Nata, a delicious custard tart with a particularly crispy pastry casing.

Departure Gate

I begin to feel slightly concerned when the ground staff start walking around the passengers asking for hand luggage to be checked in. This is usually a sign of a full flight. I soon notice, however, some blatant racism going on: only when every single one of the black passengers have been approached, does the lady start asking white travellers. This is despite a few of the white passengers have considerably larger bags. The selection was so obviously not made on the size of the bags, but the colour of their skin. Disgusting! I vow never to fly TAP again.

TAP Long-Haul Flight

Thankfully the flight is not full as the aircraft is horrendously uncomfortable. The seats are very thin with little padding, absolutely no lumbar support and they don't recline. There is no head rest and no entertainment system. The legroom is ca. 2” shorter than my legs and with no padding on the back of the seats, I soon develop a bruised knee. These seats are no better than certain short haul European budget airlines. More reasons to avoid TAP in future.

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I still manage to sleep, and wake up when the food trolley comes around. There is a choice of “cow or pasta”. I choose the cow, and she is delicious: chunky pieces of beef in a rich, slightly spicy, gravy with peas, carrots and mashed potato. The usual starter salad of a few lettuce leaves and a thin slice of tomato, stale bread roll, jelly, and cheese and biscuits.

The flight is reasonably uneventful until we approach our landing in Accra, when we have some of the best turbulence we have experienced in a long time, sending passengers into panic with women screaming and children crying. The same people give the captain a round of applause on landing.

Layover in Accra

Quite a number of people get off in Accra, the capital of Ghana; probably around 75% of the passengers. This is more of a refuelling stop than a proper 'layover' so all passengers continuing on to São Tomé are requested to remain on the plane. The crew are tasked with identifying each and every carry-on item left in the aircraft, which turns out to be a monumental task. Many people have moved to another seat than their original allocation, or are milling around the plane; thus are nowhere near their bags. It really would have been so much easier to get everyone to exit the aircraft (even if only down onto the tarmac), taking their luggage with them. By now I am even more unimpressed by this airline, it is not only racist and uncomfortable, but also totally disorganised.

Only a handful of passengers get on the plane here in Accra, and we continue our journey for the 1hour 40 minute flight to São Tome.

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I am shocked to see the amount of pollution floating in the Atlantic.

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São Tomé from the air

São Tomé e Principe

It is dry, but very warm and humid when we land at the small airport of São Tomé on the island of the same name.

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Before being allowed to enter the terminal building, our passports are checked for visa status. He looks at several pages of David's passport, then checks that his picture matches his real-life face. The official takes my passport, looks at the outside, says “ah, Noruega” and waves me through without as much as a glance at my picture.

Inside, the queue for immigration is long and slow, and when we finally get to the front, the guy is very hard to understand. It is all very smooth and painless though, and we soon find ourselves outside, where a friendly-looking guy holds a board stating “Mrs Grete”. He introduces himself as Agostinho, who will be our guide for the duration, and leads us to a micro-bus and our driver Nino.

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No visa was necessary after all that palaver before we left home

Miramar Hotel

From the airport it is a short ten minute ride to our hotel, through the sleepy capital.

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As hotels go, the Miramar is very pleasant, quite up to usual international business hotel standards. The room overlooks the pool (which is full of water and very clean – some of you may remember the saga from Comoros last year), and the grounds are dotted with flowers, bushes and trees.

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There are even sunbeds (again referring to last year's accommodation in Anjouan, Comoros)

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The pool (bucket) shower

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We take a quick shower and change before making our way down to the bar for a drink before dinner. This is where the differences with Comoros stops.

“Do you have local beer?” “No” I see rum on the shelf and ask about Diet Coke. Despite being shown on the drinks menu, the answer is negative. We settle for a Portuguese beer and wander outside.

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Baron Restaurant

The menu is mostly in Portuguese, with some interesting translations. I order a steak with land snails, but they have run out of snails, so I choose a carpaccio of fish instead. David has vegetable soup, and we share a 'carbonara pizza', which is very garlicky.

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The fish is absolutely delicious, very refreshing with a sweet and sour dressing made from pineapple.

When David tries to order a beer with his dinner, he is informed that they have run out. Yet again, David has drank the hotel bar dry on our first night.

By the time I get half way through the meal, I am in agony with back pain, most probably from the lack of support on the plane. We decide to go for a walk before bed, and stroll along the promenade and through the deserted streets around the hotel. The only people we come across are lovers snuggled up on concrete benches and security guards with snarling dogs outside large metal gates. We sit for a while listening to the waves and watching men with torches search for food (snails? whelks?) on the rocky shoreline.

And so ends the first day of our São Tomé trip as arranged by Undiscovered Destinations. So far so good.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:12 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged beer hotel africa pool ghana lisbon portugal accra miramar tap carpaccio sao_tome tap_airways hotel_miramar carpaccio_of_fish Comments (2)

Bristol - London - Lisbon

A painful start

-50 °C
View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

“Where are you going?” I laugh at the question, not because it is stupid or even funny, but in anticipation of the reaction when I tell them “São Tomé & Principe” (pronounced something like sang tomere ee prisp, with the emphasis on the last syllable). As usual I receive a blank stare in response. “Where's that?”

It is a reaction we are familiar with, however, as we do tend to favour the path less trodden over the mass-tourism destinations, and have travelled to a good few 'unknown' places over the years. São Tomé & Principe is no exception.

A former Portuguese colony, the island nation of São Tomé and Principe can pretty much be described as being situated in the centre of the world: the closest landmass to the point where the Equator and the Meridian meet, some 200 km off the west African coast.

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As with most of these virtually unknown and little visited destinations, São Tomé is not an easy place to get to. We start our journey at Heathrow for a short flight to Lisbon.

Check in

As seems to be the norm these days, we are asked to print our own luggage tags using the automated machines at the airport. I explain to the chap directing the flow of passengers that we have tickets all the way to São Tomé, but would like to collect our bags in Lisbon as we are staying overnight there. “Go and see the man on the Help Desk”.

'Help Desk' is somewhat of a misnomer: as we approach the elderly gentleman barely looks up while spitting out a brusque “You need to check in on that machine”. I try to explain “We were told to come here...” Without enquiring why, or even letting me finish the sentence, he barks: “Check in there” while pointing at the nearest machine (which incidentally is out of order). Once again I start to explain and am interrupted, but eventually he has to concede and takes our passports without another word.

By this time Mr Officious is obviously stressed at the thought of having to do some work, and types away furiously on his keyboard. I have to repeat our destination several times. He flicks through every page in my passport before asking about visas. I show him my e-visa which I thankfully applied for after checking various websites and getting completely conflicting information (even the agents in STP did not know the definitive answer, the Foreign Office website said we didn't need one, whereas the Bradt travel guide said to ignore the FO site as they were out of date and to obtain a visa prior to travel). I guess that is one of the hazards of having a Norwegian passport, not many people from Norway travel to São Tomé via London. Now extremely flustered, Mr Officious stares at the piece of paper, which is mostly in Portuguese, trying to make out the dates. He then struggles to read the flight detail on the screen and I eventually have to lean across and point to the dates and assure him that “yes, we are only travelling for a week, and yes, the dates on the visa correspond with the dates of our travel”. Still not convinced, he goes off to check with the girl on the check-in desk. More furious typing ensues when he gets back, followed by an even more frazzled look. We go over the dates again.

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Next our transit in Accra is questioned (he pronounces it “ack-rah”, with the emphasis on the 'ahh' at the end, making it sound more like 'Prague' as he mostly mutters under his breath by now). “Where is your visa?” Groan. We are only there for 45 minutes, I doubt if we will even be allowed to leave the plane. He looks at the flight details on the screen again and states “It's OK, you are only in transit”.

Finally satisfied that we are fit for travel, he prints our baggage tags. Or tries to. The printer jams and he has to start all over again from the beginning. On his forehead little beads of sweat are appearing. “Chug chug chug” says the machine, then silence. With shaking hands, and his face a dark shade of crimson, he pulls out the jammed labels and tears them up. His breathing is so laboured I fear he is going to have a heart attack. “Go to the desk” he grunts, pointing to the young girl who answered his questions earlier. With great relief, both for us and him, we leave Mr Personalityless behind and make our way to the baggage drop-off desk.

Smiling sweetly, she takes our bags, checks us in, gives us our baggage tags and boarding cards and wishes us a pleasant flight. If only everything in life could be as easy as that!

Apart from being pulled aside at Security and given a pat down and swabbed for explosives, the rest of our airport experience is uneventful.

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Fish and chips at the airport

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Milkshake served in a miniature milk bottle

Heathrow - Lisbon

The TAP Portugal flight leaves 1½ hour late, and is thankfully not full as the legroom is minimal and comfort non-existent. We have arranged for the owner of the apartment where we are staying tonight to pick us up from the aiport in Lisbon, which she duly does. A delightful girl, with excellent English, she drives us the short distance to an unassuming, dull-looking block of flats.

Lisbon Woods House

On the second floor, the apartment is small but delightful, and has everything we need for this very short stay. As we are required to be back at the airport in six hours' time, we go straight to bed, leg one of the journey completed.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:57 Archived in Portugal Tagged flight visa lisbon heathrow tap air_portugal sao_tome check_in Comments (3)

Salalah: Taqa, Derbat, Sumharum, Bin Ali's Tomb, Mirbat - UK

Last day in Oman


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

Taqa Open Air Museum

A small collection of replica dwellings shows how local people lived in the Dhofar mountains in the old days. The hut on the left would have housed the family, while the building on the right was for the animals.

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Taqa Castle

Built in the 19th century as a private residence for the Sheikh and his family, the castle was restored some 15 years ago.

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Barza – the vestibule where visitors would wait to see the governor.

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Issa shows us the type of bowl used when milking camels. Camels are majorly fidgety animals and have to be milked quickly as they won't stand still for long. Stones from the fire are then added to the bowl to 'sterilise' the milk.

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The responsibility for the camels is usually the men's domain, while the women look after the sheep and goats.

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This room was used as a store for household items and as a workroom for grinding wheat, pounding spices, churning milk, and grating coconut.

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Tannur Oven

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The prison

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They seem to have left behind a prisoner in the cell.

Wadi Dirbat

As we make our way towards Wadi Dirbat, we see a number of camels in the road; creating the quintessential Middle Eastern scene of my imagination.

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There are camels everywhere and they are all heading the same direction.

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This is what they have come for: the water. And this is what we have come for: to see them in the water.

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Sumhuram Archaeological Park

The ancient site of Sumhuram dates back to the 3rd century AD and is the most important pre-Islamic settlement in this area.

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Built near the harbour of Khor Rori, it was once a wealthy port situated on the trading route between the Mediterranean and Asia.

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The city gate of Sumhuram was an imposing defensive structure. The access was tortuous, steep and blocked by three successive wooden doors.

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The fort was protected on all sides and almost impregnable.

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Khor Rori Port - the approach to the fort from the sea - the walls on this side did not have any openings, thus making it very secure.

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Flamingos in the bay

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The fascinating and informative Audio Visual show in the Visitors' Centre brings the whole place to life.

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Bin Ali's Tomb

Originally from Tarim in Yemen, Bin Ali came to this region in the beginning of the 12th century to teach Islam and build schools. A mosque has been built over his tomb, which is still used for prayer and mourning and this is now one of the most important Islamic sites in the region, partly because Bin Ali is said to be a descendant of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

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The tomb and mosque are surrounded by a large traditional cemetery.

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Issa explains how the female graves have three headstones and those containing the remains of a man have two.

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Mirbat

Once the capital of Dhofar, Mirbat is now primarily a fishing village with many old decaying merchant houses.

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I find the crumbling old buildings quite charming despite some being in a badly dilapidated state.

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We take a little wander around the old town, and again I am drawn to the ornate doors and windows, some of which are in a better state of repair than others; but all of which could tell a story or two about the people who once lived and worked here.

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The Old Town is deserted, and the busy working port is not exactly bustling either.

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When we get back to the hotel, we are informed that our flight this afternoon has changed and is now 5½ hours later. We manage to secure a late check out and have a snooze followed by something to eat and then listening to piano music in the lobby before trying to check in on line for our flights. When we get an error message stating “Flight Cancelled” we panic ever so slightly, and email Undiscovered Destinations (who arranged our trip) to see if they can find out for us what the situation is. They quickly come back to us to confirm that the flight is indeed running, so we assume the error message is just a computer glitch.

Homeward Bound

Salalah Airport is a joy. There is no queue for check in, and I chat up the guy on the counter who gives us window and aisle seats and blocks out the middle seat so that we can spread out. Success.

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At Muscat Airport we have to collect our bags, but again there is no queue to check in. Just like we did on the way to Salalah, we are made to wait in the bus while they finish off getting the plane ready to board.

The flight back to the UK via Istanbul is uneventful and at Heathrow we get plenty of exercise walking from the gate to the main terminal building – I swear it is at least half a mile!

And so ends another successful tour with Undiscovered Destinations. If you are interested in travelling to some of the more little-known places off the beaten path, check them out. They can arrange group or private tours and have a huge selection of destinations to choose from.

As for Oman: we absolutely loved it! The country as a whole has moved directly into our Top Three list of favourite countries, with its friendly people, cleanliness (including a number of fabulous public toilets), good food, nice hotels, stunning scenery, and a host of interesting historical and cultural sites. Go now before everyone else discovers it.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:34 Archived in Oman Tagged history travel fort cemetery tomb museum port castle necropolis old deserted asia camels ancient mediterranean oman archaeology wadi trade middle_east frankincense salalah taqa taqa_castle camel_milk wadi_dirbat sumhuram sumharam_archaeological_park frankincense_trade impregnable khor_rori bin_ali mirbat dhofar Comments (1)

The Empty Quarter

Rub' Al Khali


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

It looks to be another nice day out there. No chance of rain.

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Today we are leaving civilisation behind and travelling out to the fabled Empty Quarter, or Rub' Al Khali, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world and one of the driest regions; virtually uninhabited, and largely unexplored. I have high expectations for today as we set off with a different guide, also called Issa, heading north.

Once we have climbed over the mountains surrounding Salalah, the road is straight and flat, with very little interest either side. This road carries on for 650kms to Nizwa, through vast expanses of nothing.

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At the edge of the desert Issa lowers the tyre pressure to cope with the soft sand. The vehicle has been specially modified with roll over bars fitted for safety. I am hoping for some exhilarating 'dune bashing' today.

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Camel Farm

Our first stop of the day is a camel farm to see the rare, and much sought-after black camels who are only found here, Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. Another first for us.

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The baby is only two or three days old

The place is swarming with flies.

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Rub Al Khali

We are now entering the Empty Quarter and soon the gravel road turns to sand and we start to see some dunes.

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I am surprised at how many small shrubs grow in the sand dunes. So far it doesn't have a particularly 'empty' feel to it.

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Despite a number of strategically placed rubbish bins along the side of the track, trash gets caught on vegetation as it blows around in the wind.

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The scenery is dominated by long, linear dunes running parallel to the prevailing winds. Between these are crescent-shaped barchan dunes, and large, firm salt flats called sabkahs, which is what we are driving on.

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The dunes are getting slightly higher now as we drive deeper into the wilderness.

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Issa takes a couple of attempts to drive up a steep-sided sand dune and then swings around and follows the ridge before heading directly back down again. After a couple more swirls on the dunes, he stops the car so that we can get out and stretch our legs. Walking in the soft sand is hard going though.

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We are only just touching on the very edge of this enormous desert, the world's largest erg (sand sea) at 583,000 km². That's about the size of France. To me it is totally incomprehensible to imagine an area the size of France covered in sand.

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Just like Wahiba Sands, Rub' Al Khali is popular with young lads and families on the weekend, coming out here to have a BBQ and maybe try their hand at some serious desert driving. You can see several failed attempts at driving up this sand dune.

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As we make our way back to civilisation, I am left with a feeling of “Is that it?” The dunes are all very nice, but I don't feel any of the mystery and romance that I expected. It all feels like it is just a 'tourist day trip into the desert', which of course, is exactly what it is.

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The ever-present tyre tracks don't help, and neither do the several other tourist vehicles we meet.

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Wubar Archeaological Site

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At the edge of the desert, near Wadi Thumrait and a small settlement of the same name, is the UNESCO Heritage Site of Wubar (AKA Shisr), believed to be the remains of the Lost City of Ubar, often referred to as the Atlantis of the Desert.

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Wubar was the 'door to the desert' in the heyday of the frankincense trade, a prosperous and wealthy caravan oasis; until the desert once more swallowed it up and it remained hidden for centuries.

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A 180° Audio Vision display in the newly built visitor centre shows the fascinating and moralistic story of how man's greed once again ruined the environment by overuse of water.

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The site, however, is way older than that, and evidence found here suggests it dates back to 5000 BC.

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Thumrait Palace Restaurant

We stop for lunch near the site, and enjoy some chicken nuggets, chicken fried rice, vegetables in a sauce, bread and salad along with some delicious fresh mint juice. It makes a nice change not to have the typical Indian fare for once.

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Wadi Dokah

On the way back to Salalah, we swing by Wadi Dokah to see the frankincense plantations. This national park is a stony semi-desert valley and a perfect habitat for the 1,257 frankincense trees found here.

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Issa shows us the proper tool for shaving the tree to get the sap flowing, although we don't actually use it, of course.

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As we make our way over the Dhofar Mountains and on to Salalah, I can but notice that Issa has a most unusual driving position, with his left leg tucked under his body.

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Pool / Beach time

We dump our stuff in the room and head for the beach. As we make our way through the reception, a young man appears from one side, making a beeline for me with his arms outstretched. “Baby, hello, I love you, you are beautiful...” Reaching out towards me he gently caresses my camera. We get chatting and it turns out he is the in-house photographer and does indeed have camera-envy.

We leave the photographer behind and spend the rest of the afternoon / evening walking along the beach, around the pool and in the little café.

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The hotel has a beautiful private beach that stretches around the bay in a crescent shape, with plenty of activities laid on if you are into that sort of thing. We're not.

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At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I have to admit that this five-star luxury and fabulous mini-suite is all well and good; but give me a small, rustic hotel or lodge any day. This place is much too big for my liking, there are too many people, and I hate buffets with a passion. I prefer a small privately-owned place, where maybe the owner is the chef and you eat what they have that day. Something more personal where you get to know the staff and there are just a handful of guests. I don't need luxury, I want authenticity. In a large fancy hotel like this you could be anywhere in the world.

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It is not really a complaint though, just a personal preference. I understand that there are no such hotels in this region, the middle market is sadly lacking accommodation. The rest of this trip has been fault-less, and I yet again Undiscovered Destinations have done us proud. Thank you for organising this trip (and several more in the past and in the future).

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:13 Archived in Oman Tagged desert beach hotel sunrise sand pool unesco luxury camels dunes national_park sand_dunes erg unesco_heritage_site frankincense salalah camel_farm empty_quarter rub_al_khali wadi_dawkah thumrait deser archaeological_park anicent_city wubar ubar shisr al-fanar five_star Comments (2)

Mosque, Museum, Souk, Ayoub's Tomb, Mughsail blowhole

A busy, varied and interesting day


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

Wandering bleary-eyed onto the balcony at 07:30 this morning, we are amazed to see that all the sunbeds around the pool are still free. There is not a single 'reserved towel' to be seen. How very refreshing.

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We also discover that we have a much larger balcony than most of the other rooms. I really like the design of the hotel, with lots of angles and variety of architecture, rather than just a square block. Our balcony is covered, but it seems not all of them are. So far we are very impressed with this hotel, despite not being keen on large resorts.

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Breakfast

Breakfast is an elaborate affair, with an enormous choice of dishes: cereal, breads and conserves, salads, fruits, Middle Eastern and Continental selections, Indian cuisine, waffle machine, sandwich toaster and a number of chefs on hand to cook eggs how you like them or fry pancakes amongst other things.

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The hotel has 308 rooms and caters to guests of all nationalities. We hear English, German, French, Italian, Czech, Russian, Swedish, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, American and Icelandic spoken during our stay. Package tours are available directly from Prague and a couple of different German airports; I guess the rest are independent travellers like us.

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Salalah

We have no time to enjoy the many facilities of the hotel this morning, however, as we are off to explore Salalah and the surrounding area. We meet with Issa, our local guide, in the reception at 08:30.

On the way we see a huge herd of camels just ambling along the side of the road. As they do.

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Sultan Qaboos Mosque

This is the baby sister of the Grand Mosque in Muscat, constructed in 2008 using the Sultan's own money.

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The mosque is not on the same grand scale as the its big brother, but still very impressive, with a capacity of 3200 men and 800 women.

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Having studied photography in Melbourne, Issa is very keen that I should get some good pictures and not only does he suggest the best positions to be in, he also poses willingly for photographs. I like him already.

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Ablutions room

Having been told yesterday that the Grand Mosque is the only one in Oman to allow non-Muslins inside, we are pleasantly surprised to go inside this one today. But first, shoes must come off.

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The chandelier is a poor cousin of the glorious one we saw yesterday. It is still impressive though, or at least would have been if we had visited this mosque first.

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The carpet, although just one single piece, is not hand made like the one in Muscat.

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Renovations are taking place, with the ceiling being painted using an elaborate hoist.

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Most of the time we have the place to ourselves, but just as we are leaving a large tour bus arrives. I am so glad we are on a private tour.

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Fruit Stall

The streets around Al Haffa are lined with roadside stalls selling fresh fruit. Oman being predominately desert and mountains, fresh tropical fruits such as bananas and coconut are mostly imported. Only here in the Dhofar region is fruit grown commercially, and the area is famous for its fresh produce.

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Pomegranates

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Papaya

There are a number of different types of bananas in Oman – green ones for cooking, finger-bananas for milk and the sweet yellow ones for eating.

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The main reason for stopping here, however, is to have a refreshing coconut drink. The Dhofar region is the only place on the Arabian peninsula where coconuts are grown, so they are a bit of a celebrity here.

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The hairy variety are used for cooking and making oil, whereas the smooth-skinned coconuts are the ones that produce the water for drinking.

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Once we have finished the lovely juice inside, the stallholder cuts the coconut open for us and scoops out the flesh.

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I love coconut milk, but the jelly-like texture of the flesh makes my stomach turn.

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Khawr Ad Dahariz

We make a short detour down to a little lagoon known for its birding. As soon as he was given our names for guiding us for the couple of days we are here, Issa googled us to see what he could find. Being the only Grete Howard in the world with that specific spelling, combined with the fact that I have a very high presence on the internet (Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Twitter, 500px, Pinterest, and of course this blog amongst others), I was easy to find. His results revealed that I am interested in bird photography so he even brought along a gorgeous bird book for me to peruse.

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Large flocks (AKA stands or flamboyances) of flamingos are often seen in the shallow waters here, but today there are only a few and they are a considerable distance away.

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The flamingos may be a disappointment, but this Water Pipit more than makes up for it. A new species to us, it takes our life list ever-nearer to the magic 1000 mark (now standing at 927).

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Museum of the Frankincense Land

Sadly, this wonderful museum does not allow photography inside. I will try and describe some of the displays without sounding like a guide book.

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A topographic map of the Dhofar region (the area around Salalah) shows the the low-lying coastal area, mountains that surround the city and the desert that stretches over large parts of the Arabian peninsula. There is also a selction of samples of the various coloured sands found in this area.

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Frankincense trees in the grounds of the museum.

The growth of human habitation in the area is shown in a chronological display from early stone age to present time, including examples of coins and jewellery.

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The courtyard of the museum

Trade between Oman and the rest of the world is described including replicas of ships used and maps detailing the routes taken.

The museum is quite small but very well laid out and extremely interesting. There is much more to it than I explained above, but those are the exhibits that caught my imagination the most.

Al Haffa Beach

From the museum we drive along the pristine white sands of Al Haffa beach.

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Al Husn Souk

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Ever since we arrived in Oman I have been intrigued by the frankincense. A completely new experience to us, which is not surprising as it only grows in a very few areas of the world: Oman, Yemen, Somalia and parts of Ethiopia. It still amazes me though, that we can have new experiences every trip, even after all the travel we have done over the years.

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Frankincense comes in three different grades as you can see here.

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Their uses including burning on special incense burners, something we have seen all over Oman; making perfume; a drink can be made leaving three of the best 'stones' in water for 24 hours; sweets and so on.

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When we leave the market, a group of older men shout out friendly greetings from the outdoor café. As I squeeze by their table, the nearest man grabs my arm, then my waist and his hand rapidly makes its way across my tummy and further south. I shout out “la” several times (Arabic for “no”), remove his hand and walk on. The other men at the table are terribly apologetic. No real harm done, it was just another one of those 'Trump Moments' (“grab 'em by the *****”) #metoo

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Prophet Ayoub's Tomb

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There is a wonderful story attached to this place, and I do love a good legend: Ayoub (Job) was very ill and was suffering from a worm infestation that repulsed everyone who knew him. Because of this, he was driven from his home in Syria, having to leave everything behind: his wealth, his 12 children and one of his wives. Only his second wife stood by him.

Despite all his hardship, Ayoub never lost his faith and every day he would pray. He and his wife walked for many days and many nights until they arrived in Dhofar where we are now. Life was still hard and his wife cut off all her hair to sell so they could buy food. He still prayed like a good faithful servant. Eventually, fearful of yet again being rejected by everyone around him and feeling very tired with his illness – after all, he was 250 years old at this stage – he prayed to god for some relief.

Impressed that he had stayed faithful all through his troubles, god told him to go outside and kick the ground in a specific place. When Ayoub did so, a spring appeared from the ground and he was instructed to drink from it. His illness was immediately cured and his health restored to that of an 18-year old. He also regained his wealth and went on to have two more children.

Outside the mosque we can still see his footprint in the ground where he kicked up water, preserved by a simple stone enclosure.
Judging by the size of the footprint (some 18” or more long) and the casket in the tomb, he was a giant of a man.

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In the courtyard is a mirhab facing towards Mecca, and also a prayer wall in the direction of Jerusalem.

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Lunch

Back in civilisation again we stop for lunch in a curry house appropriately known as The Curry, where we have a private 'family room' (where families can eat together as women are not permitted to eat in the same room as men you are related to them).

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Their butter chicken is absolutely scrumptious, and there is also fish and vegetables, vegetable korma and biriyani. This really is one of the best meals so far in Oman, absolutely superb.

Frankincense

As I said earlier, this tree and its products is totally new to us, and I am really excited to learn all about it this afternoon.

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The Boswellia sacra trees are well known for their ability to grow in unforgiving climates and soil and have been traded on the Arabian peninsula for over 1000 years.

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To extract the resin, the bark of this scraggy tree is shaved, letting the juices run free and left to dry on the branch. 15 days later it is shaved again, and this is repeated once more. The third shave produces the best quality of frankincense.

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Providing the tree is properly managed and not over-exploited, it should last around 100 years.

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Each tree can produce between three and five kilo of resin per season. Harvesting generally starts after the khareef (rainy season). After harvesting, the resin is spread out on the ground to dry.

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Mughsail Beach

We stop for a photo on this pretty little beach.

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Marneef Cave

As per Wikipedia, the definition of a cave is “A cave or cavern is a hollow place in the ground, especially a natural underground space large enough for a human to enter”. By that description, Marneef is not a cave in the true sense of the word, or at least not these days. Who knows what the cave was like thousands of years ago, when the hollow in the soft limestone was first carved out of the sea.

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I am certainly glad of the numerous benches that offer shade from the fierce afternoon sun.

Mughsail Blow Hole

This area is famous for three things: the beach, cave and blow holes. This time of year they are not too active, but I hang around in the shade of the cave and am eventually rewarded with a performance.

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The 'tourist fountain' is created when waves hit the roof of an underwater cave and squirt through a hole in the roof of the cave. The coastline here is rocky and craggy, offering some wonderful views.

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From Mughsail it is time to return to Salalah and our hotel. Arriving so late last night, we didn't get a lot of sleep, so we just have a quick drink and a few snacks in the room followed by a very early night.

Yet again our thanks go to Undiscovered Destinations who have arranged this fabulous trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:30 Archived in Oman Tagged beach religion cave job camels islam souk souq blowhole frankincense sultan_qaboos_mosque al_fanar_hotel salalah ayoub's_tomb prophet_ayoub ayoub prophet_job al_husn_souk al_husn haffa haffa_beach mughsail blow_holes marneef_cave mughsayl mushgail_beach mughsayl_beach tombmosque Comments (3)

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 (3)

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)

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