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

Last day in Oman


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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)

Nizwa - Jabreen - Bahla - Jebel Shams

Souqs and Castle, Canyons and Stars


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

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

Nizwa

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

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

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Nizwa Souq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Date syrup for sale in large tubs in the market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Local products include chamomile, dried roses and lavender.

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

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Nizwa Fort and Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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Making ghee / cream from milk agitated in animal skin.

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

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

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

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Jabrin Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David and Said look down on me from the very top

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The Imam's tomb

Bahla Fort

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

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

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

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

Cemetery

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

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Lunch

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

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Hajjar Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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Jebel Shams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jebel Shams Resort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rock Cairns

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

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His success rate is so-so.

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Ilona was suitable impressed.

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Sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dinner

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

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Star Gazing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wahiba Sands - Ibra - Jebel Akhdar - Nizwa

Leaving the desert behind and heading for the mountains


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

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

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

Ibra

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

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

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More crumbling mansions

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

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

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

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

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

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And other details

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

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

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

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

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Jebel Akhdar

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

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

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

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

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

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Wadi Bani Habib

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

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

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

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Diana's Point

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

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

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Wadi al Ayn

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

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Animal fodder is also grown here.

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

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Nizwa

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

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

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

Falaj Daris

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

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

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

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

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

Ras al Jinz - Wadi Bani Khalid - Wahiba Sands

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Said turns off the main road up this track

Wadi Bani Khalid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunch

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

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

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

Wahiba Sands

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

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

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

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

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1000 Nights Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Restaurant

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Traditional seating area

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The snack-bar

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Swimming pool

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

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Sunset from the dunes

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

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

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

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

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These people seem to have brought a picnic

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

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

Muscat - Sur - Ras el Jinz

Along the north coast


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

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

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

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

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

Fish market

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

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

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

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Tuna

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

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

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Vegetable Market

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

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

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

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Off-roading

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

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

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

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

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

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Hawiyat Najm Park, featuring Bimmah Sink Hole

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

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

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

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Kahwa and dates

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

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

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

Wadi Shab Oasis

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

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

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

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

Wadi Tiwi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ever-present falaj (irrigation system).

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Lunch

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

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

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Sur

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

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Said looking out over the estuary

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Turtle in the water

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

Dhow Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dhow Shipyard

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

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

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

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

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

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Ras al Jinz Hotel

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

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

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

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

Turtle Information Centre

There is only one reason for coming here: turtles.

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

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

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

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Dinner

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

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Turtle Watching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cairo - Sana'a - Seyun

Arabia Felix - Yemen December 2007


View Arabia Felix - Yemen 2007 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Emad is true to his promise and is waiting for us in the Arrivals Hall at Sana’a airport, whisking us off to the hotel for a quick shower and change before rushing us back to the airport for our short flight to Seyun. Despite being rather bewildered and disorientated from the long flight, I am delighted to see the UNESCO Heritage site of Shibam - a place I have dreamt of visiting for forty years - through the window as we pass by. I pinch myself: “as we pass by? Is this really us, just ‘passing by’ Shibam?”

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Seyun airport is absolute chaos. The conveyor belt is one small linear strip ending in an awkward corner. As everyone crowds around the belt waiting for the bags to arrive, pandemonium ensues. Trying to leave the airport is like an obstacle course, and a few toes get damaged in the process. Outside, three of the four Landcruisers are waiting for us. The fourth one is still making his way to Seyun, as Emad sent the driver back to Sana’a to wait for us with the car in case we missed the flight. There is not enough room for all of us in the three cars, so Emad rides on the running board.

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The hotel in Seyun is much more luxurious than I expected. From the outside it has a traditional look, but inside it is modern, with large rooms including a sitting area, and there is a central courtyard with a swimming pool. We collapse straight into bed after a 51 hour journey from Bristol, and sleep until lunch.

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Despite being classed as a four-star hotel, the services at the Samah Hotel are rather sketchy. They don’t actually keep any food in the restaurant, if you want to eat; you need to order a few hours in beforehand so that they can get the stuff in. Having requested a camel stew when we arrived in the morning, it duly appears at lunchtime. It is the first proper meal we have had since leaving Bristol, but I am not hungry and leave most of it.

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This afternoon is billed as ‘Free Time’, but Emad has arranged an excursion in the Landcruisers for us. I don’t think there is much of interest around this area other than what’s in the itinerary, and I get the impression they are scratching around to find attractions for us. We start off at a cemetery to Mr Alnabi Handala Asofiri. Between 1204 and 1323 this was the capital of Wadi Hadramawt, controlling all this area pre-Seyun. Now it is just the cemetery for the village.

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This is where we get our first introduction to Qat, the drug of choice in Yemen. The drivers have to have their fix every afternoon, and we stop most days to get some. It is said that most Yemeni spend at least 50% of their meagre salaries on Qat.

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Popping a few green leaves in my mouth and starting to chew, it is hard to understand why. The first impression is that of chewing a privet hedge. It tastes like, well, leaves. I spit it out in frustration. My second attempt some days later is more successful and I experience the slight euphoria associated with the Qat chewing. I can’t say I think it looks good or that it gives me enough of a high to spend 50% of my income on it.

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There is an ancient well on the site too and we drop a stone into it to see how deep it is. It’s deep. We wander about the ruins for a while before heading back to the cars.

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The drivers have turned up the Yemeni music on their car stereos to full blast and three of them are dancing around by the cars, waving their Jambiyas (ceremonial daggers) in the air. This is the Yemeni equivalent of male bonding, and something we would see a lot of during our journey through Yemen.

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Jo is a good sport and joins in, borrowing a Jambiya for authenticity. She certainly looks the part.

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Yemen is still very much a tribal culture, and nearly every man and young lad we see, carries a Jambiya in his belt. The sheath is usually made from either silver or copper, or as here, in a colourful material, and the handle can be crafted from a variety of sources, including ivory, Rhino horn, leather, wood or animal bone. They come in different sizes and colour and are a man’s pride and joy.

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All around us the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. The wadi (seasonal riverbed) is huge, with a flat fertile area surrounded by towering cliffs reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. The view is exactly how I imagined it and hoped for. Wadi Hadramawt is the largest wadi in the Arabian Peninsula and runs for 160kms west to east. Over 200,000 people eke a living from this fertile land, whose wheat is said to be the best!

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Even today, the vast majority of the buildings in the area are made from mud bricks in a style unchanged for centuries. The tower houses are the invention of the Hadhramis, and all over the area you can find similar constructions.

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Winter is their dry season and the local builders take advantage of this and everywhere you can see the making of mud bricks. Wet mud is mixed with some straw for added strength and then spread out on the ground to harden.

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A wooden frame with a long handle is used to shape the bricks. The bricks will dry fairly quickly in the sun and different thickness of bricks are used for the different storeys of the building – thicker ones on the ground floor and thinner ones near the top.

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We visit a local project where they are hoping to turn an old building into a museum for tourists. Many men are working on the development, but our photos are spoilt by a truck in front of the building. Emad asks the builders to move the vehicle, and they oblige.

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Who needs Photoshop!

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Al Hawta Palace Hotel is the only first class hotel in the world to be built entirely of mud and clay, and its origins date back 150 years. As Yemen’s only Heritage Hotel, it is the best in the area and very expensive.

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The grounds are superb, like a little oasis in the desert, with the only lawns we saw in Yemen, trees, palms, beautiful flowering bougainvillea and a swimming pool. Oh to stay here.

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Back in Seyun we discover the delights of Yemen’s alcohol-free cocktail. Made from Mango juice, milk and a thick, red syrup called Vimto, it is substantial and smoothie-like.

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Photographing the Vimto bottle

One is not enough!

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As dusk falls, we take a walk around Seyun. Our walk coincides with the call to prayer, and we watch the people stream into the mosque after having performed their ablutions.

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I love this time of day when the light begins to fade and the artificial lights start to appear. I am particularly taken with the colours of this mausoleum, the Tomb of Habshi. This respected holy man died at the beginning of the 20th century, and his death is still celebrated by pilgrimages lasting ten days every year.

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Attached to the mausoleum is a Muslim graveyard, where non-Muslims are forbidden to enter.

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The imposing Sultan’s Palace dominates the skyline of Seyun day and night, but is most impressive at dusk. The present shape of the buildings dates from the 1920s, with the outer wall added in the late 1980s.

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Many of the stores are open way into the evening, including this jeweller’s shop, barber and store selling Vimto! Yemen is a lot more touristy than I expected it to be; don’t get me wrong, it is by no means overrun with tourists, but I have seen more foreigners than I anticipated. Being the height of the season, we are likely to see more than at any other time of year I suppose, but I was not prepared for the number of touts selling souvenirs and other trinkets. Honey is very popular here in Yemen, but not something either of us like. Some of our party visit a shop where they are able to taste the different types of honey.

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Whilst the rest of the group goes off for a meal, we make our way back to the hotel to try and catch up on some much needed sleep. I notice the moon is very big and bright on the horizon, almost eerie. I take in the scene for a while before collapsing into a deep, peaceful sleep, to be woken up by Emad who has brought us back some takeaway fuul. What a kind man. We devour the bread and beans, having regained our appetite.

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While we were asleep earlier this evening, staff have decorated the central courtyard of the hotel for Christmas.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:09 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Tagged mosque travel cemetery tourists yemen souvenirs wadi hadramawt barber seyun shibam camel_stew qat call-to-prayer fuul samah_hotel Comments (0)

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