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So long, Farewell…

It’s been a few months since I moved back to the UK from Oman and a lot has changed. We moved back into our house, we’re now married and Christmas is slowly encroaching. It’s November – time for fireworks, hot spiced cider and making a fire in the evening. I can’t help but remember the evenings from Oman at this time of year with their cool breezes and temperate climate – a beautiful time of year to be in Oman.

I made some great friends and travel buddies whilst in Oman and will never forget the time we had together. The locals I met were wonderfully welcoming and the sweet rose water tea still lingers on my my tongue. I will never forget the night I woke whilst camping under the stars on the Salma Plateau; with no light pollution the Milky Way was as clear as the constellations. I could see the colours in the Milky Way and the definition of the clusters of stars – I don’t think I’ll ever see it quite the same way.

I remember the Omani man I stopped to ask for directions in the Western Hajars, who had four women chuckling in the back of his car at this lost white man. He was a lovely local who steered be back on track towards Snake Canyon. Another time, a family offered for me to join them for a picnic whilst I was on a walk – their hospitality was second to none and the food smelt wonderful.

It’s for these reasons why I will miss Oman so much; the Omani people are friendly, the winter climate is sublime, and the rocky deserted scenery has it’s own charm.

I hope to go back in the future to show others what I discovered and loved.

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What Lies Beneath… the Salma Plateau

Shadows on the old airfield as the sun set over the Salma Plateau

View back down to the sea from on top of the ridge of the Salma Plateau

One final adventure in Oman, and one that I'd backed out of a couple of times. The road up to the Salma Plateau was known to be a tough drive and steep. Since the rains recently, I'd not wanted to venture up the route on my own, so when The Guide Oman said they were going up with a troop of cars, I jumped on board with a couple of friends.

The view from atop the plateau was superb and we could see all the way down the beaches to our old faithful camping site. The route took us to the Majlis al Jinn, one of the biggest caverns in the world. Unfortunately, visitors can only peer down the hole into the black mass below and wonder how far down the hole goes. The cavern can house multiple jumbo jets and some of the photos on the internet are stunning.

The Majlis an Jinn; the 2nd largest cave chamber in the world! Who knows what lied beneath us...

Sunset over the old airfield on the Salma Plateau

No need for more than a rug, a cushion to sit on and a beer

After a few laps of the opening we moved on to our campsite for the evening on an abandoned air field. We had an amazing spread of food from The Guide Oman, and sat eating in the cooler climes up in the hills, under the stars. Sleeping out under the stars on only an air bed (a little bit of luxury!), I woke at 2am to see the Milky Way stretched across the sky with bright galaxies amongst it. This was one of the few occasions that I have had a huge grin on face to say, “my God, what a sight!”. I don't think I've ever seen the Milky Way so clear; it took me another half an hour to stop looking and fall back to sleep.

Looking south over the wadis of the plateau

Cheeky little praying mantis watching to see what I'll do next...

The next day, we made our way back down the other side of the plateau towards Ibra. On route, we passed the beehive tombs, standing 3 stories tall above us. Incredible to think that these tombs have been here since before the pyramids. The rest of the route through to the Ibra road back to Muscat was stunning in it's own right; deep wadis, steep descents into villages and a fast section over a final wadi bed. A truly eye opening trip across the plateau, and one I would have liked to have been around to explore more of. There are always other trips back to Oman in the future…

A smaller beehive tomb sat off the main track across the plateau

Standing tall, beehive tombs started popping up across the landscape

From inside the tallest beehive tomb on top of the Salma Plateau

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Muscat at Night

Fun fair rides at Riyam Park, Muscat

The dancing water fountains on the corniche

After the sun has gone down and the temperature begins to fall to a level most people can bear, the walkways and parks of Muscat come alive with families. Riyam Park near the Souk in Muttrah is a well visited getaway for after dark picnics, fun fair rides and strolls along the corniche.

Incense burner that keeps watch over Muscat and the Sultan Qaboos Port

The Al-Zawawi mosque along the Muscat highway always caught my eye

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Birkat al Mauz

Falaj Al-Khatmeen in Birkat al Mauz is a UNESCO World Heritage site

One of the remaining tall traditional Omani mud brick houses still stands strong

A quiet little place that is bypassed by many tourists in favour of the mountain road right next to the village, that leads up to Jebel Akhdar. The village is Birkat al Mauz, and it must next on the list outside Muscat for an intriguing history. The original village of Birkat stood on the side of a hill, overlooking the surrounding valley, topped by a watchtower. Today, the watchtower is in ruins and the houses of the village are deep in mud and the ceilings have long since collapsed. This dates back to the Jebel wars, when the village was bombed and the residents evacuated.

Old Arabic books lie forgotten on a shelf

Today, the village stands as a testament to the traditional style of Omani houses; two stories, small alleyways leading to neighbours houses. Stairways, twisting up narrow corridors. Palm leaves tied together and cemented with mud to create the ceilings. The fact that most of the houses still stand, to a certain degree, shows the workmanship in their construction. Many of the houses have the sun shining through their ceilings now, the odd wicker basket remains tucked into a corner of a room. Copies of torn arabic books and scripts play home to spider webs on a forgotten shelf in a house that still has it’s roof.

One of the date palm roofs hangs on for dear life

The Main Street of old Birkat al Mauz

If there is one town in all of Oman that I have wanted to really get to know the locals and hear their stories, it would be Birkat al Mauz. Thankfully, the old falaj running through the village is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, allowing the village to remain protected.

Hopefully this little village will stand up to the elements and remain here for a long time to come; it’s amazing how well the mud brick houses last – they’re extremely well made!

Remarkably well preserved shelves and paintwork

A view atop the remnants of the watchtower

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Dhofar: the end of Oman

Wadi Darbat was where a good portion of the camels in Oman were hiding out!

For a brief moment, it crossed my mind to actually drive down to Salalah. With petrol being so cheap in Oman, it would be quite a road trip of 1000km from Muscat, travelling the length of the country. And I probably would have made the 10-hour drive, if I didn’t have to drive back! A one-way road trip would have been fun, but a 1½-hour flight spiked my attention a little bit more.

A young camel stays close to it's mother in a small spot of shade, Wadi Darbat

Salalah, the final frontier for me to explore during my time in Oman. I arrived in Oman just after the khareef in 2012 when the cooler air brings the rains and southern Oman looks astonishingly similar to a rainforest. Having missed it last time, we planned on visiting Dhofar in the driest season, but our final chance!

A friend had said Salalah was the land of camels, and she wasn’t wrong – they roam as freely and frequently as they please. Photo challenge was to get as many as possible into one photo – achieved 18, but missed the opportunity to snap around 30 at once whilst we were driving!

The Travertine Curtain signals the end of Wadi Darbat

We started our trip along the coast east of Salalah, visiting the Travertine Curtain, which is a wall or rock 150m high across the length of Wadi Darbat. It was as dry as a bone, but during the khareef, I’m assured that it is Oman’s answer to Niagara Falls. You wouldn’t see Niagara drying out like this. On top of the curtain were date palm plantations and masses of camels grazing on the few patches of grass hidden in the shaded groves.

Flamingoes grazed in Khawr Ruri; an inlet sealed off by a sand bank

A turtle quickly ducks back below the sea after surfacing for air

After a wander up Wadi Darbat, where camels ruled the lands, we went back to sea level and to Khawr Ruri, an inlet where flamingos grazed, turtles surfaced, and stingray jumped out of the waters. Could have stayed all day watching the calm seas from the top of the cliff. This was probably the most varied wildlife we’ve seen in Oman since arriving! The Khawr is also home to the 2000-year-old ancient settlement of Sumurham, once the home to the Queen of Sheba, apparently.

Eddie Lizzard - need more be said?

With the temperature climbing, we set off in the fridge-like car once again towards Mirbat and the Mausoleum of Bin Ali with an extensive graveyard of intricately carved Arabic tombstones. Soon after, we had a slow puncture, so spent half and hour at a friendly tyre garage near Mirbat drinking very sweet tea, whilst he jacked the car up and fixed the wheel. We sat in our fridge. Mirbat itself is a very small town of old mudbrick buildings and beautiful coastline snaking away to the north, but not much more.

Mausoleum of Bin Ali near Mirbat

Gravestones engraved with Arabic script

Back into the mountains, the winding road climbing the cliff face tested the car, but with a 4.0l engine, I don’t think we were in trouble. Over the top of the ridge lies a huge plateau with thousands of small wadis and canyons. A couple of the most impressive are Tayq Cave and Wadi Uyun. Tayq Cave is a gorge – don’t be fooled by the name; it’s an amazing sight in the late afternoon light where we did little more than admire it's scale. Nearby is the sinkhole at Tawi Atayr, known locally as the Well of Birds. It’s one of the largest sinkholes in the world and has birds nesting all around the rim. The birds create an incredible audible chirrup across the hole that echoes throughout. A great way to end the day.

Weaver bird at the tomb of the biblical prophet, Job.

We were pretty proud of our tour on the first day, had covered a lot of ground and now we had one more day to finish up around Salalah. This meant heading up and over to Frankincense land, further over the ridge and plateau rising high above Salalah, before backtracking to the coast and heading west towards Yemen. So, we weren’t quite going all the way the Yemen, just 25km or so from Salalah to Al Mughsayl where beaches stretch across the coastline.

Coast looking west from the blowholes shows the dramatic cliffs falling into the Arabian Sea

A flourish of colour from flowers in the gardens of Job's tomb

Just after Al Mughsayl are some blowholes in the rock where waves have eroded caverns under the rock and shoots of water rush up into the air. Not today. The sea was calm and a light breeze whipped the top of the waves, but nothing more. To really get these blowholes going, the waves need to be crashing against the coast. We could still hear the smaller waves underneath through the holes and the odd cloud of spray came up like a whale breathing on the surface of the sea. Still, an amazing part of the coastline stretched for miles towards Yemen, unlike any other in Oman.

After a quick dip in the crystal clear sea, I can happily say that the Dhofar region of Oman was well worth waiting for!

An ant, just an ant. For fun.

Tayq Cave; yes it's a gorge, not a cave.

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Musandam: Camping on the very tip of Oman

Glow of Khawr al Najd in the late afternoon kept our attention for a very long moment

The second leg of our road trip took us into the Musandam peninsula – a small Omani enclave to the north of the UAE looking out of the Straits of Hormuz and across to Iran. Although small, Musandam packs a punch with most of the land covered with a mountain range. The plan was simple, fit in as much as we could in only two days, before setting off back for Muscat.

After crossing the border back into Oman-owned Musandam, the scenery was already breathtaking – high cliffs lined the road along the coast, sometimes with barely enough land to make a road in the first place. In little coves were beaches filled with pristine white sands and turquoise waters. We ended up taking our time to get to Khasab, the main town in the peninsula – it was too stunning to bypass.

Local fishermen unloading a morning catch of Barracuda at Khasab

Goal of the day was to reach our camping spot before sunset and have a dip in the sea. We camped at Khawr an Najd, about an hour drive from Khasab. An Omani Khawr is akin to a Norwegian fjord, with high mountains diving straight into the sea, leaving nothing but beautiful blues in the waters. The view from the high pass into the Khawr was superb, and we were there late afternoon when the sun caught the yellows and oranges in the rock perfectly revealing a super saturated landscape, inviting us down.

The mountains at the head of Wadi Bih, which lead down to an uncrossable Oman border post

As we approached the top of the pass into the Khawr, a couple of Omani men had their heads buried under the bonnet of their Toyota Hilux. We stopped and after a quick game of charades, we figured out their radiator had run out of water, so we gave them some bottled water to get them going again. This came back to us later on in the evening when the same two men approached us in the dark, handling a huge barracuda they had caught that afternoon after we had helped them. This was their kind offer of thanks for us helping them. Unfortunately, it was a little late and we had already had a few skewers on the BBQ, so we graciously declined the offer, rather than wasting the fish, so hopefully it fed their families that evening.

What seemed an ideal camping idea at first (camp by the beach in glorious hot weather), turned into a very hot and sticky night where temperatures can’t have dropped below 35 degrees! Still, a beautiful spot in cooler weather, I’m sure of it.

Another tour dhow makes it's way back from Telegraph Island

The following day we set out on a dhow cruise, hosted by Musandam Sea Adventure. We had a dhow to ourselves after a few other tourists didn’t turn up for the day – so we had the run of the boat during dolphin watching and snorkelling around Telegraph Island amongst the Omani fjords.

Bottle nose dolphins played in the wake of our dhow

After the cruise, we headed back into the mountains to find a higher, cooler camping spot than the previous night! We found one marked in the Off-Road Explorer book on a grassy plateau at about 1400m. It was cool enough for jeans in the evening! Bliss – these are the camping temperatures I like!

Good roads on the route to our second camping spot were towered over by cliffs

The night sky from our camping spot

Viewpoint over the mountains of Musandam

Our final day was spent on the 8-hour trip back from Musandam, via the UAE and back down into Muscat. It was a long slog on the road, but a trip I wouldn’t like to have bypassed in favour of flying – not a chance!

The dhow's crew consisted of one to serve us food & drink, and one to steer, the rest of the boat was ours!

A very worn buoy floated in the marina in Khasab

Wadi Bih

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Flying High Above Dubai

Dubai rising above the rubble of a construction site

With a boot packed full of camping gear, food, camera equipment and the obligatory bottle of Morgan's Spiced Rum for good measure, I set off from Muscat to drive the 5 hours to Dubai. Should mention that the bottle of rum wasn't for the during the drive…

Dunes welcome visitors from the Oman-UAE border crossing

The drive up the coast of Oman wasn't the most inspiring of journeys, passing many a date palm plantation and half finished new road layouts destined to make the lives of Omanis crossing from one side of the highway to the other slightly safer. To be fair, it’s usually Indian and Pakistani men risking their lives running across three lanes of speeding cars – be ever vigilant!

After Sohar, it gets a little more interesting. The tail end of the mountains that span from the Western Hajar guides the road up to the UAE border crossing post. On the other side (assuming they let you through), the mountains soon peter out and give way to rolling sand dunes and camels roaming the highway. As the camels don’t care what traffic is oncoming, they are more dangerous than the people running across the highway in Oman!

The Address hotel directly in front of the fountains - as seen from the Burj Khalifa

Dubai itself is always kind of a pleasure to visit for a day or so at a time. Any longer and you realise it’s driven by business, but it is still rising from the dunes in every direction. We saw this from the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. On the 124th floor, we stood on the viewing deck overlooking Dubai’s road junctions and other (tiny-in-comparison) skyscrapers. The viewing deck is at 452m – only around halfway up the Burj! The tallest point is at 829m, way above where we were.

The Burj Khalifa - tallest building in the world at 829m

We had a great view of the Burj and the dancing water fountains the previous evening with a couple of drinks at the Neos bar at The Address. At “only” 63 floors up, it still felt like the top of the world. After a few drinks, we were broke enough to go home for the night and saddle up for our next road trip leg up to the Musandam peninsula.

View north from the Burj Khalifa viewing deck

Still another 377m above was the tip of the Burj Khalifa