On the Road to Muscat and back
Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
13Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
The Road to Muscat and back
25 - 27 October 2007
In late October Kym was summoned to appear in Muscat, Oman, in support of an Aussie businessman and not only was it the weekend, but also his birthday. So we decided to make a trip of it by driving there together and having a bit of a look at Oman, which everyone here raves about. We could certainly see why.
We left in The Beast around 12md on Thursday (25th) and it was an easy hour's run to the border at Hatta. We had traveled this road with our friends on our 3rd day in the country, but it was good to re-visit the ever-changing desert scenery. Part of the latest round of development in Dubai is to build "cities" which are areas where particular businesses are clumped together - internet city, media city, knowledge city, health city, sport city etc
As we headed further into the desert the air became clearer, the sky a stark blue contrast to the pale orange sand dunes dotted with small green shrubs and the odd date palm plantation. There are camels in the area, camel crossing signs and a large camel fence to keep them off the road. Apparently there are no wild camels in the Arabian Peninsular - they all belong to someone. On our previous trip we had seen a ute with 4 camels sitting in the back watching the world go by - racing camels travelling in style - but although we kept a lookout for them the road was disappointingly camel free. You do see the occasional camel farm though which consist of a collection of date palms, a few fenced pens and tents or make-shift dwellings.
The road travels past a 4WD playground with tracks scarring the dunes and a place to hire dune buggies, both popular weekend and tourist activities. On into barren rocky country before it begins to pass through bare rugged mountains. The border crossing from UAE at Hatta was a breeze, then after a few more kilometers we had to stop at the crossing into Oman
The excellent 4 lane divided road continued all the way to Muscat, about 4hrs away. I drove most of the way while Kym slept and it was rather boring - the road runs all the way down the coast, so you know it is there from seeing the map but there is never even a glimpse of beach or water. Much greener than Dubai, almost lush, and endless towns. The speed limit is 120kms/hr so you need to concentrate as that is actually about the minimum speed people travel, roads constantly come in from either side, tailgaters and plenty of trucks - still, the drivers seemed less inclined to leave their safety completely in the hands of Allah than those we are used to round Dubai. Around Sohar, the bull-fighting capital of Oman (yes really!) there were lots of trucks carrying large Brahman bulls, I guess on their way to or from a bullfight......plus a few wandering donkeys here and there
We were keen to reach Muscat before dark but dusk was approaching as fast as we were, which made finding the hotel a little tricky. We managed it after a couple of wrong turns and were greeted at the Crowne Plaza hotel like royalty. Even the duty manager (Cedric, French) came rushing out to inform us we had been upgraded to the executive club and in our room was an enormous fruit basket, bottle of wine, chockie cake etc. I'm not sure who they thought we were, or if this was normal Omani hospitality, but bring on the fawning and boot-licking I say. The room was very pleasant with a balcony looking out over the hotel pool, beach and north along the coast.
We met up with Kym's business contact for a drink then had a nice meal in the Italian restaurant, finishing with a cleansing ale in the English-style pub downstairs - we were very surprised to walk in there and see Omani men in their dishdasha's and headgear drinking big schooners of beer, very refreshing. Ridiculously, when we first went onto the balcony to find a seat we were told that particular spot was an alcohol free area - so we were moved a couple of tables.........sometimes this stuff seems a little weird
Next day, 26th, was Kym's birthday and the early morning view from our window showed great promise - clear and sunny, beach edging a green coastal strip behind which rose steep, bare, rugged mountains and whitewashed houses in between. We met the businessman and his son for breakfast and they decided they didn't need Kym until 6pm - so suddenly we had the whole day to ourselves to go exploring. Happy Birthday.
We soon realized that as it was Friday nothing would be open so we had a bit of a drive around the city. It is a remarkable place. The Sultan (Sultan Qaboos, love the name) has maintained the integrity of the architecture - all buildings must have Islamic elements, nothing over 3-5 stories high - and all white. The geography consists of steep bare hills with wadis (dry river beds) running through and around them, and in the wadis are the buildings, all white washed. Very attractive and most unusual. The odd fort protecting the harbours add their charm too, and the city is covered in picturesque gardens and roadside plantings.
After watching the men make their way to the mosques and taking in a quick view of the Sultans Palace we headed south of the city to check out the coast which is very different too - once again the rugged, steep bare hills in ochres and creams heading straight into turquoise waters
We spent some time exploring - the infrastructure is stunning. When Sultan Qaboos came to power (bloodless coup, overthrew his father in 1970) there were only 10kms of sealed roads, no schools, no hospitals.
Apparently the Sultan goes camping through the country every year (I expect in a little more style than our version) so his subjects can ride their camels into the camp to have a bit of a chat about what they might need - electricity for the village, etc. A man of the people who is trying to juggle progress with tradition, and not doing too shabby a job from what we could see. Oman has very little oil money too.
The Omani's are mad keen on soccer and the soccer 'fields' are found in the most unlikely places - one we came across was cut into the side of a steep mountain and was completely gravel - we would have mistaken it for a car park if not for the goal posts at each end. In one of some repute part of the goal keepers brief is to keep out the in-coming tide, in another the grass is cropped by donkeys
I had read of a short road trip from Muscat into a wadi inland so we decided to give it a go and headed off to Wadi Mayh. The instructions in Muscat are charming - 'turn left at the Dolphin roundabout' - if you can find the right roundabout you are set. The city, in fact all of the country that we saw, has a love affair with roundabouts, and each one has something in the middle of it to identify it - golden coffee pots, Sinbad's treasure chest, leaping dolphins, a sailing ship on a fountain of water etc.
The river in Wadi Mayh had very little water in it, but as we progressed we realized that the broken old road hadn't been abandoned in favour of the new one we were traveling - it had been totally trashed by a flood in the wadi. Quite sobering to see the result of the power of water in a confined space. What had been a 6 lane highway was now a jumble of broken ashphalt, concrete blocks, light poles and twisted armco railing. A cyclone hit Oman in June and this was some of the evidence. A serious reminder that you don't want to be caught in a wadi if there is any rain in the area. Those of you who have read Salmon Fishing in Yemen will know what I mean.
Having turned left at the roundabout with the golden eagle we found our way to the wadi and thoroughly enjoyed our first and much anticipated 'wadi bashing'
We arrived back in Muscat around 4pm in time for Kym do don his glad rags and strut his stuff with some of the Sultans' senior ministers and the Aussie businessmen. It all seemed to go pretty well. There was a large chocolate Happy Birthday cake waiting in the room for him on our return.....
Next morning after check out we went to the older part of town around the harbour, very pretty with old forts on each headland. The Souq (market) was open so we strolled there for a while, admiring the lovely wooden ceiling, stained glass lanterns and many shops selling this and that. We picked up some frankinsence, and I bought an Omani silver pendant. Oman is famous for its silver jewellery but most of the old and real stuff it is long gone I fear
No time to look at the other attractions so we called it quits knowing we had a long drive back to Dubai. Plenty of reasons to return later. The highlight of the highway drive was passing a small truck full of camels, their long necks and heads sticking up out of the back, gazing serenely around. I was slow to get my camera into action so Kym stopped the car and we let it pass, then caught up to it again and traveled with it for a while - a delightful sight. I suppose there must be someone in the world who gets as excited about seeing a truckload of pigs, sheep, cows or horses. At least we managed to amuse the truck driver and cars around us with our antics, although they did seem somewhat perplexed.
We also made a small diversion down a side road to get a look at the coast - unimpressive, dark grey beaches crowded with villages and rubbish, almost no access to the water except for fishermen - reminiscent of Malaysia in some places, where the beaches are a means of access to the sea for fishing, rather than to be enjoyed on their own - an interesting diversion.
The lowlight of the trip was crossing the border back into the UAE. For quite some time they wouldn't let us back in. It seemed our residence permit was supposed to have come through 2 days before but hadn't, and although we were on a 60 day tourist visa they seemed happy for the Consul General and his Mrs to languish on the border indefinitely
They seemed to miss the point that we weren't responsible for their lack of action on the residence permit and we were well within our 60 days.
Eventually, we were taken off to a hut to speak with a man with a lot more braid and bigger hat and finally there was much stamping and we were on our way, an exercise in patience. However this was not to be the end of the saga. 2 weeks later when our admin fellow went to collect our residence permits he was told that we couldn't have them as we weren't in the country.........at first they wanted us to drive back to the border crossing and persuade the border guards to stamp more than their blotters, but Afaq managed to convince them they should sort it out and he arrived back eventually with the permits - so we are in the country after all. Relief all round I'm sure.
We chose to drive back from Muscat on a slightly longer route through the border at Al Ain, further to the south, for a bit of variety. We were sad to leave Oman behind, but know we will return as often as possible - the lasting impression we have is that it actually feels like being in the Middle East, wich is rather nice. The people were very friendly and the pace of life quiet and relaxed.
The drive was spectacular, mountains of all varieties of coloured rock, large and looming. Almost no traffic and a pretty good road. Al Ain itself is a large oasis city of about 450,000 people and almost as many roundabouts. The run back into Dubai was fine except for the idiots for whom120 is way too slow
As you can probably tell there are a few frustrations creeping into life here, which is not surprising I guess. Dubai on the surface is full of glamour and glitz, the biggest and best of everything either here or on its way, but underneath, and especially govt. red tape, it resembles third world processes and certainly makes China look super efficient. Most places in the world try hard to make things easier for diplomats, but the opposite appears to be true here and Kym is gradually compiling a list.........But the weather is very pleasant now - days of 30 degrees with cool nights of 20. There is supposed to be some rain between now and the end of January - not much sign of it so far but I keep looking.
We were treated to a day at the Rugby 7's by Emirates airlines last weekend and it was quite fun. I had never seen the 7's before and you certainly need to be fit to play, a good game. The ground was quite small (but in true Dubai style it will become a housing estate soon and a new, bigger and better one will be built somewhere else, Sport city I guess) which was nice, a real fun atmosphere and plenty of games. We didn't stay to see the finals as the prospect of thousands of drunken poms wasn't all that appealing, and that seemed to be where it was heading, helped along by a smattering of Aussies I expect.
We have been for dinner on a boat on The Creek which was very pleasant, although the food was pretty awful, and we were guests at the Oil Baron's Ball - along with 2,400 others, which was pretty awesome if you like things on such a scale
We have bought a 1 year old Prado which is pretty exciting as now I am mobile and independent and we can drive on sand at last!
From early January Kym will be spending 2 weeks of every 4 in Amman, Jordan for about 3 months and I am hoping to go with him when I can. Jordan has some fantastic things to see, including Petra so I am making plans......
Our girls are coming for Christmas and we are taking them to the Musandam Peninsula in Oman - Straits of Hormuz territory - where there is meant to be spectacular scenery, good snorkeling and dolphins. They call it the Norway of the Middle East (who is 'they' I always wonder??) as the sheer rock mountains plunge into the water fijord-like. Will let you know.
Have a wonderful Christmas and all the best for the new year.