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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)

Muscat - Sur - Ras el Jinz

Along the north coast


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

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

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

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

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

Fish market

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

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

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

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Tuna

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

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

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Vegetable Market

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

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

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

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Off-roading

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

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

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

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

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

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Hawiyat Najm Park, featuring Bimmah Sink Hole

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

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

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

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Kahwa and dates

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

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

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

Wadi Shab Oasis

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

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

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

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

Wadi Tiwi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ever-present falaj (irrigation system).

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Lunch

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

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

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Sur

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

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Said looking out over the estuary

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Turtle in the water

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

Dhow Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dhow Shipyard

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

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

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

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

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

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Ras al Jinz Hotel

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

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

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

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

Turtle Information Centre

There is only one reason for coming here: turtles.

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

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

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

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Dinner

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

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Turtle Watching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muscat

Half a day in the capital


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

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

Al Falaj Hotel

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

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Hotel entrance

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Lobby

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Self-playing piano in the lobby

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The outside dining area

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

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Lunch

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

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Mezze selection

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

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

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Fresh fruits and desserts

The chocolate mousse is even better than it looks!

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

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There are some nice decorative touches in the restaurant too.

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Old Muscat

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

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Bait Al Zubair Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kalbuh Bay Park

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

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

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David climbs the watchtower for a better view

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David's view

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

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

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On a hill above the park stands a giant frankincense burner

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

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

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Going, going, gone

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

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Kargeen Caffe

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

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

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Labneh plate and breads

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Traditional stuffed bread

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Main course of shuwa and chicken biriyani

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

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

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

Grand Comore Island Tour

A brief glimpse of life on this island


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a good night’s sleep, I feel ready to take on Comoros: today we have a tour around the main island, Grand Comore.

Breakfast

But first, time to fill our bellies.

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While I hate being presented with a buffet for dinner, I am rather partial to a breakfast buffet.

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David’s breakfast of fried egg, potatoes and beans.

The restaurant is full of sparrows nesting in the rafters and hanging around waiting for the opportunity to grab a few crumbs.

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They are really quite cheeky, swooping in on abandoned plates as diners leave the tables to refill their coffees or whatever.

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Island Tour

We make an anticlockwise tour of the northern part of the island; but first we travel a short distance south along the west coast.

Iconi Cliffs

It was here, in the 16th century, that a number of local women threw themselves off the cliffs rather than allow themselves to be captured by Malagasy pirates to be sold into slavery.

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Kavhiridjewo Palace

Strategically positioned on a rocky promontory, the 15th century Kavhiridjewo Palace was built entirely from lava blocks and still retains some of the walls and defence towers from the time of the last Sultan.

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The Sultan was captured by the French and taken to Madagascar, whereas the Prince is buried here (the larger, more elaborate tomb) alongside his mum (the smaller, simpler grave at the front).

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There are no rivers or other waterways on the whole island, and although there is one spring that feeds the capital, most people have to rely on digging wells such as this one in the Sultan's palace for their drinking water.

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Spider

There is a legend attached to the Guardian of the Palace, the ‘humble’ spider: when the enemy wanted to attack the Sultan, the spider created a web strong enough to protect him. From that day on the Sultan vowed not to kill spiders.

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My on-line searches suggest that this is a female Red Legged Golden Orb Spider, a rather large spider (it is a bit bigger than the palm of my hand) who weaves extremely strong webs.

Witchcraft Lake

In the old days, the people of Comoros strongly believed in witchcraft (many still do); and when the Sultan wanted to win the war, it was only natural that he consulted the local witch. The Sultan was told to kill his slaves and throw them in the lake for the spirits to drink their blood and the fish to eat their flesh, which he duly did (and he went on to win the war).

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It is said that for many years, screams could still be heard until the whole village got together to pray for the lost souls.

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Car Breakdown

As we go to drive away from the lake, the car won’t start. Again.

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The driver fiddles under the bonnet of the car, but still nothing. It fires, then dies. I use the time to wander over to the lake again to take some photos of the egrets in the trees on the far side.

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Still no joy with the car. The driver phones for a mechanic to come and have a look at it. We hang around, photographing more birds.

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Pied Crow

When, after half an hour there is still no mechanic, there is only one thing to do: we have to make a sacrifice!

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An hour passes. There is not much around here, and Yahaya suggests we have to call for another car and driver rather than wait for the mechanic. Of course, soon after the call has been made, the mechanic turns up! By this stage neither the driver nor the guide is anywhere to be seen.

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The mechanic spends less than a minute ‘tinkering’ with the engine and once the other two realise the car has been fixed, we make a move!

Parliament

Politics of the Union of the Comoros takes place in a framework of a federal presidential republic, whereby the President of the Comoros is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. There are 42 members of parliament, none of whom are women. There seems to be widespread corruption, with the president giving himself a huge pay-rise as soon as he came to power, and all the important jobs going to his mates.

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Friday Mosque

Today is Friday and we can hear the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

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Badjanani Mosque

Built in a unique Comorian architectural style, Badjanani Msoque (AKA Ancienne Mosquée du Vendredi – Old Friday Mosque) is a symbol of the rich cultural and historical heritage of the country. Originally constructed in 1427, it is the oldest mosque in the Medina in Moroni, although the minaret was added much later, in 1921.

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Plateau Diboini

We drive across the island from the west coast to the east, over the picturesque Diboini Plateau with its seven cones of extinct volcanoes.

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Mount Karthala

On a clear day (not today), you can see Mount Karthala from this point on the east coast. The highest point of the Comoros and at 2,361m, it is the largest active volcano in the world, as well as one of the most active. Over the years it has had a devastating impact on many parts of the country.

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Mount Karthala hiding behind the cloud

Like so many of these type of disasters, the eruption of Mount Karthala has a bit of a legend attached to it: a tired and thirsty holy man wandered from home to home in the village looking for water, but everyone turned him away, apart from one old lady who was generous enough to offer him a drink. Complaining about the bad people of the village, the holy man insisted on taking the kind woman and her family with him when he left. Cursing, he turned to the volcano and with that the lava erupted, flattening the village they had just left.

Heroumbili

During one of the many eruptions (there have been more than twenty since the 19th century, the last one in 2007), the lava from the volcano reached the sea here and created an extension of the coastline land in the village of Heroumbili.

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Reclaimed land on the coast

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The village kids come out in force to interact with us.

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We continue along the north-east coastal road.

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Turtle Island

This small island has been given a 'protected status' to stop locals rowing across and 'harvesting' the turtles who nest here, or their eggs.

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Kissing Rocks

In Comoros, strictly-followed tradition means that the first-born girl must be kept pure until her parents find a suitable husband for her. She is not allowed to have a boyfriend, unlike any subsequent daughters.

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Legend tells of one such first-born girl, who had gone against tradition and her family’s wishes by secretly dating a young man. Hearing of her father’s arranged marriage to a suitor she did not know, she feared what would happen in the morning after the wedding night when all the male members of both families traditionally meet to inspect the bed sheet for signs of blood. She was very much in love, and not wanting to cause shame and embarrassment to her father, she and her boyfriend chose to jump to their death from the cliff.

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As they kissed one final time, their bodies turned to stone. If you look carefully, you can still see them there now, kissing.

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From the top there is a great view of the coastline below to one side and the mountains on the other.

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The house where the daughter lived - now abandoned

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On the road again.

Lac Niamawi, AKA Lac Salé (Salt Lake)

In the 16th century, an eruption demolished the city of Niamawi. In its wake, it left a crater that has since filled with salt water.

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The lake changes colour throughout the day, from brown to blue to green and is said to have healing properties due to its high sulphur content. No one knows how deep the lake is. In 1977 a team of Belgian divers went down to investigate, but they were never seen again.

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Lunch

Near Mitsamiouli we stop at a small restaurant called Mi Amuse, where we have lunch.

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The food consists of barracuda served with sweet and ordinary potatoes, carrots, fried bananas and rice, with a side of pickled lemon and chilli sauce.

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The restaurant, which is also a hotel, has a bar serving alcohol and a nightclub with lively music and dancing of an evening.

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Baobab Prison

As baobab trees get older (this one is a few hundred years old for sure), they very often become hollow in the centre.

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Hollowed-out baobabs have been utilised for a number of different things all over Africa, including as here, a prison

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In the old days, wrongdoers were put inside this ‘organic’ prison for three days, with the added night time punishment of the only light being the moonlight shining down through the gap above.

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Galawa Hotel

“Once upon a time…” Isn’t that how all fairy tales start? Unfortunately this story does not have a happy ending.

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Back in the 1980s and 1990s, this part of Comoros was a really ‘happening’ place, with a luxury hotel that employed 750 people and saw 350 visitors arrive twice a week on charter flights from South Africa.

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Yahaya proudly tells us he worked here for ten years, and Omar was his boss then, as he is now.

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At least the frangipani still flowers

After going into decline following neglect by the Comorian government, the hotel was razed to the ground by the French some fifteen years ago. Promises of renewed interest and investment from Dubai have not materialised and all hopes were dashed by the financial crash of 2008.

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One of Galawa's three beaches, there was a popular beach bar here

Today locals enjoy the warm waters of the Indian Ocean at this site

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They are even enjoying a little song and dance routine as they bathe.

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The only evidence of the former leisure hub is the tiled fountain and a redundant gate (the gate doesn't actually do anything, as we can drive around the side)

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Yahaya also points out the spot where the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed in 1996.

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Mtswamwindza Mosque

It was here that Islam was first introduced to Comoros in the 7th century. Mtswamwindza, whose real name is Mhassi Fessima embarked on a journey to Medina where he converted to Islam and then returned to his city, Ntsaoueni, and converted the people to the new religion.

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It was only the second mosque to be built in Africa, and Mtswamwindza is buried here.

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Rain

On our way back down the west coast, the heavens open and throw bucket-loads of water on us. Thankfully we are dry inside the car, albeit a little warm once we close the windows. The roads are horribly potholed from the frequent torrential showers.

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Along the coast we see beautiful sandy beaches, mangroves and lava flows reaching the sea.

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Note the abandoned hull of a car - the whole island is littered with such wrecks, just left where they lost their will to live.

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Road side grocery store

Bad News

Later Omar meets us in the reception of the hotel to tell us the arrangements for our flight to Anjouan tomorrow. There has been a change of plan... Really? That seems to be the theme of this trip.

The domestic airline Int’Air Iles has two planes: one 28-year old Airbus and a small 9-seater Cessna. The government has taken the larger plane to Kenya. We believe (hope?) it is for servicing; as I understand both Réunion and Madagascar have recently banned the airline citing safety issues.

What this means for us, is that we will have to take a ferry (hopefully) to Anjouan Island tomorrow instead of flying; but we will not be able to visit Mohéli Island as planned because there are no ferries connecting the island. The former is not a big deal, but the latter is a great shame, as our stay on Mohéli was to be the main part of our trip and the highlight: that is where we were going to go whale and dolphin watching, see turtles lay their eggs on the beach at night and see the rare Livingstone bats as well a the maki lemurs.

Oh well, there is not much we can do about it, we will just have to make the most of our time on Anjouan. Omar has arranged for us to come back to Grand Comore one day earlier than planned, so that we can easily connect with the new departure date from Comoros, also one day earlier than planned. That means four nights on Anjouan instead of the planned two.

Dinner

The restaurant has run out of lobster (I was hoping to try the local speciality of lobster in vanilla sauce) as well as fries, so it is rice or vegetables tonight (we can't have both).

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Chicken with mushroom sauce and vegetables

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Beef in mushroom sauce and rice

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations, specialists in adventure travel to unusual destinations (such as Comoros), for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:46 Archived in Comoros Tagged rain mosque travel volcano hotel lake kids island breakfast crow africa prison spider muslim lunch parliament buffet islam sultan slavery baobab egrets sparrows sacrifice legend breakfast_buffet comoros barracuda undiscovered_destinations moroni grand_comore sultan's_palace karthala_volcano karthala iconi inconi_cliffs malagasy_pirates kavhiridjewo_palace witchcraft car_mechanic car_breakdown pied_crow friday_mosque badjanani badjanani_mosque plateau_diboini mount_karthala heroumbili turtle_island kissing_rocks ivoini mitsamiouli mi_amuse baobab_prison galawa_hotel galawa mtswamwindza mtswamwindza_mosque int'air_iles Comments (2)

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