Exploring the South

From the southern foothills of the Hajar we passed into the lowlands. Strategically located, with a view of the surrounding dusty plains, lies the fort of Jibrin. Over the years, this marvel of old-Omani architecture was restored to its former glory. The original structure expanded over the centuries, creating a maze-like fortress, with crenellated walls, watchtowers and dark dungeons. Beautiful wooden floors and ceilings adorn the banquet halls and living chambers, and secret passages behind hidden doors invite you to hours of exploration. Do not get lost…

On the way to our next destination, we celebrated Fiona’s birthday: she reached the glorious age of 300.000 kilometers! You go girl!

(Obviously, we did not drive 300.000 kilometers; we started at 279.519)

Wahiba Sands in a storm
Stephanie would travel with us for two weeks, and to make the most of her stay we re-visited some places. To make travelling the Wahiba Sands more adventurous we entered them from the west, to get to the center and then head south. The first part was easy going, and we passed many Bedouin settlements. Further east the going got tougher and tougher. The sand got softer, and the wind started to pick up, delivering us into a full-blown sandstorm by the end of the day. An incredibly beautiful sight, it left us unable to navigate though. Also, our air conditioner had stopped working. This left us in a funny dilemma: open the windows and have the car slowly fill up with sand, or leave the windows closed and drive around in a sweltering 45+ degrees centigrade. We opted to keep the windows closed, because the fine sand is truly difficult to get out of your nose, ears, etc. We spend a rough night camping, sheltering from the blowing sand behind a dune and trying desperately to keep it out of our food! It was an amazing experience, to feel the forces of nature this way and imagining how the Bedouins live with this on a regular basis.

The next morning, with visibility restored, Stephanie took the steering wheel and drove us through the sand dunes to the coast: she did so expertly, and loved it because it was the first time she ever drove on sand. With the slightly reduced wind we took a lot of great pictures of the marvelously formed dunes, and slowly proceeded to the coast again.

Wadi wonders
Strong winds made us decide to skip an excursion to magical Masirah Island, and through the woodlands we headed north again. Back in the mountains, we wondered at the colors of rock formations ranging from coppery green through dark red to pure black. Wadi Sayq, with her rough landscape, blew us away, and Wadi Bani Khalid, though a little touristy with the arrival of the weekly cruise-liner in Muscat harbor, offered wonderful vistas and beautiful palm plantations. Swimming in fresh-water streams, driving rough mountain roads and visiting quaint little villages: how perfect can a holiday destination be?

Back on the coast
With another stop to look at the Dhows at Ras al-Had and Sur, we slowly headed back north-west, but not until we had explored Wadi Shab and surroundings. This Wadi is famous for emerald-green pools and dramatic boulders providing ample swimming opportunities. There is a hidden pool to discover by holding your breath and swimming under-water for about two meters. You will emerge in a naturally lit cave with a waterfall inside. Once inside you can climb up the side of the waterfall and into the higher part of the Wadi. There are great trekking possibilities in the area, but lazy as we are we stuck to swimming.

Later that day we left more of Fiona’s tires behind, on possibly the steepest road we have ever driven. We ended up on top of the Salma Plateau, only about two kilometers from the coast as the crow flies, but also two kilometers above sea level. A campfire, thousands of stars in the sky and a drink in hand, we enjoyed each other’s company until the small hours of the night. Life is good.

Muscat area
Oman’s natural beauty extends below the sea. We took a day of diving in the blue-green Arabian Gulf. This was our first diving experience with Stephanie, and hopefully not the last. Being a Padi Dive-master she gave us some useful pointers, but most importantly, we had a lot of fun. We did not discover any species we had not seen before, but everything seemed bigger somehow: bigger lobsters, bigger cuttle-fish, bigger barracudas… really nice.

We camped on the beach that night, before visiting the Sultan’s Mosque with Claire Careil the next morning. This beautiful structure was recently finished, and serves as a center of learning besides being the only mosque foreigners can visit in Oman. It is not without serenity and harmony, and this grandiose structure has a main musalla (prayer hall) that holds up to 6.500 worshippers! Combined with the courtyards and passageways (water-cooled marble flooring, I kid you not) the total number of worshippers is a whopping 20.000 people! The finer artwork, religious decorations and incredible artisanship of workers hired from all over the Middle East make this a mosque worth visiting.

A visit to Muscat is not complete without a stroll through the Suq. The bustle of the Corniche area along the Mattrah bay, with its iconic Portuguese street fronts, hides behind it a labyrinth of small streets and alleyways, awash with the smells of exotic spices, frankincense and myrrh, all locally produced. The welcoming shopkeepers are hospitable and polite, and do not hassle you with incessant praising of their trinkets. What a relief after the pushy, irritating bazaars in Tunisia and Egypt.

Again we were welcomed into Claire Careil’s house. This allowed us a few relaxing nights in comfort while we spent our days at the Suq and the PDO club (Petroleum Development Oman). What a blast from the past. Steef, Melody and I all spent a few years of our childhood on the beaches and in the pool of this amazing location, swimming, snorkeling and sailing with our parents.

We spend the evenings with Claire and Haitham, either barbecuing (great meat Haitham!) or having traditional Omani food: amazing! It was a great ending for our two weeks with Stephanie. With pain in our hearts and tears in our eyes, we said goodbye at the airport. Thank you Stephanie, it was a blast!

Further south
We headed further south again, this time on the inland roads, skirting the Rub’ al-Khali, also known as the Empty Quarters, one of the largest sand deserts in the world. As we were with only one car, we did not want to take any risks and stayed on the periphery. The high dunes (250 meters!) in the distance whispered to us, but after our Libya-Algeria mishap, we took the safe approach. We were on our way to Salalah after all and really wanted to get there safely.

The Dhofar region, bordering on Yemen, is mountainous and dry 9 months per year. The other three however, something amazing happens: the Khareef. This Southeastern monsoon brings enough precipitation to turn the whole area into a lush green landscape. We arrived too early in the year, but still the contrast between the Empty Quarters and Dhofar impressed us. It was great to be camping between real trees again, with cows and camels sharing rich pastures nearby.

Upon reaching the coast at Salalah, we followed it as far south as the Yemeni border. At Muqsayl, we saw dolphins playing in the breakwater. The next nights we camped at a place we will from now on refer to as ‘little paradise’. White beaches and azure waters along a cliff-wall. No one in sight, bar the occasional troupe of camels. Enough food and cold drinks to last a few days… we loved it!

Dangerous camping
On the way back from the Yemeni border, in the mountains, we found our most adventurous camping spot yet: a small track that led around the corner of a cliff-face, until it stopped abruptly. Over the edge a straight kilometer-deep drop to the coastal plain, with the sea in the distance… we were above the clouds! What a location, but my fear of heights grew exponentially. Slightly nervous I positioned the car a little away from the edge and chocked the wheels, so I would be able to sleep that night. Only a few hours later a closer inspection of the track revealed we had driven 3-ton Fiona over a natural stone bridge, as beneath the track there was a huge cave! We would have to cross it again the next morning… I did not get much sleep after all, but what a view the next morning at sunrise!

Stocked up in Salalah, with only the southern coastline up to the Wahiba Sands unexplored, our next route was obvious. On our way we passed the oil-fields of Marmul where our fathers must have spent many a sweaty workday 30 years ago. We headed back out into the wilder areas with the intention of surviving about a week on our water and food supplies. We even took enough water for an occasional shower. We had a great time, exploring amazing Wadi Shuwaymia and surroundings, the famous black cliffs and white beaches of Ras Madrakah, and a lot more. We hardly saw anybody, let alone speak to them. A week was enough though, so when we got close to Barr al Hikman we could not resist and picked a little guesthouse for a real shower and bed.

The Barr al Hikman area is a large coastal wetland, and hosts mostly migrant birds on their way between Siberia and Africa (yes, I looked it up on Wikipedia). The mudflats are un-inspiring, but once you reach the coastline, a marvelous view awaits you. White sandy dunes and little inland pools await you for the perfect camping location. A pair of binoculars and you will be set for the day. However when we visited it was much too windy, so instead of pitching the tent we took the ferry to Masirah Island.

Masirah Island
This hilly, rough strip of land has incredible potential. Just find a spot to camp for the night, preferably on the beach, turn of your lights, and wait. There are bound to be turtles around. Take a walk at midnight, but be careful not to scare off the females as they try to find a safe place to lay their eggs. Also, do not use any lights when you get back to your camp. Your torchlight will be stronger than the natural iridescence of the sea, and hatching baby turtles might crawl towards you instead of the safe ocean.

Claire joined us on Masirah, checking out hotels on the island for her employer, a travel agency. She camped and went turtle spotting with us, and on the last night on the island took us to check out the Swiss-Belhotel Resort. To our surprise and happiness, we were offered one of the chalets for the night. A swimming pool, great restaurant and excellent night sleep provided for an amazing ending to our great exploration of the Omani South.

Last time in Muscat
I really need to wrap up this story, but here are a couple of highlights I still have to share. We spend Queens Night at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel, invited by the Dutch Embassy (well… not really, we gate crashed, though accompanied by Claire and Haitham who were invited). Ah, the joys of ‘bitterballen’, Dutch cheese, prosecco and Heineken!
At this point a Dutch couple, David and Karienke, approached us and said they recognized us from the Muscat Daily newspaper! Last time in Muscat this local paper had interviewed us, courtesy of Haitham’s suggestion, and printed an article about our travels. They wanted to see our car and know the tricks of our way of travelling, so we happily agreed to spend a day with them at the PDO club. We had a great time our last days in Muscat.

The time had arrived to leave again, but that is the travelers curse. With pain in our heart we said goodbye to Claire and Haitham, to Muscat, to the incredible sights of Oman, to her lovely people, and to a lot of childhood memories revisited. But we will go back, whatever we do…

My next story will be about Iran, land of a million mysteries… and nearly as many cups of tea!