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07 April 2015

First Gear, Full Speed!

All stocked up on biscuits and water (it was a running joke, my insistence on making sure everyone hydrated regularly!), we headed towards the first destination in our Oman road trip - the Bimmah Sinkhole. 

I want to mention that, despite the roads in Oman being practically pristine, some of their sign posts are not the most reliable. I had read about the Bimmah sinkhole online but when we got closer, the signs all signaled to "Hawiyat Nijm Park". So, just for reference, that is the correct name. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about a sinkhole. I have a weird fear of depths where I do prefer to know where the bottom of whatever it is I'm in is. The sinkhole was indeed breathtaking, the water was so blue you wondered how all those other blues in your life could be labelled as such. There were tiny (and not so tiny) fish swimming around, and if you stayed still for even 10 seconds they'd come and say hello with their little mouths. I only managed to go in less than half way - as soon as I saw the colour of the water changing from the depth I decided it was enough for me. There were some incredibly brave people who decided to dive from pretty much the top of the sink hole (more than 10 metres high). But that just tells you how deep the hole is! It was truly an experience and it's basically on the highway so no excuse not to stop by and have a dip =]

We continued driving for a few hours until we reached Ras Al Hadd. Ras Al Jinz, which is only about 15 km from Ras Al Hadd, is where the green turtle reserve is located. We decided to stay at the Turtle Beach Resort at Ras Al Hadd because it was cheaper than the resort at Ras Al Jinz. The resort itself was really lovely. We were given a small straw hut with two beds and a couple of towels. The beds were so comfortable and the most impressive factor - there was an AC unit! I slept so well that night! We had shared bathrooms but they were clean and had hot water around the clock. I even managed to shower twice during our one night stay! We were given dinner and breakfast with our nightly rate and the food was nice. The setting was beautiful, along a quiet strip of beach without any noise. 

To see the green sea turtles we could either go to the 9pm or 5am "viewings". The lady at our resort said that we're more likely to see turtles at the 9pm viewing and gave us a map to Ras Al Jinz where the reserve is located. We set off around 8:20pm and reached Ras Al Jinz with plenty of time. We each had to pay 3 Omani Rials (approx 5 GBP) for the viewing and we were placed in a group. We then were driven out in a bus to the beach and told that we couldn't use any cameras (boo) or make too much noise. It always amazes me how dark the night is when there are no artificial lights. The stars were out of this world. Millions and millions of stars. It was quite difficult concentrating on walking when all you wanted to do was look up at the sky.

We were incredibly lucky with our viewing. Considering it was off-season, we watched more than one turtle lay eggs, saw a turtle covering her nest, a turtle returning to the sea, one emerging from the sea and the cherry that topped it off? A baby turtle was somehow found in all that darkness and our guide held the little guy up for us to see it.  Oh my God, I was THISCLOSE to taking that baby turtle home. Who knows if that poor little fella was able to make it to the ocean - there were crabs dotted around the sea line, waiting to pick up a baby turtle or two. And I also got a bit worried that I could potentially step on a baby turtle without knowing.  But what an experience. It did feel unusual seeing the turtles lay their eggs, because it's such an intimate event and you feel as though you're violating their privacy, but it was incredibly humbling. The guides were very knowledgeable and we learnt so many new things about these amazing creatures. I almost wished we'd also gone for the 5am viewing so that I could take some photos. Maybe some other time somewhere else in the world!

The next day we had a lie in and relaxed on the beach before heading off to Al Sahra'a Al Sharqiah (Eastern Desert), also known as Wahiba Sands. We booked to stay at Al Areesh Camp (25 Omani Rials per person, not the cheapest). We'd also spoken to the camp and arranged to have a guide give us a desert safari. Thankfully, we'd wisened up to the fact that we were no desert drivers and would probably end up dying if we attempted an independent desert drive. 

We arrived to the camp late in the afternoon. The camp is located sort of on top of a very small hill, but it means you have to drive up the sand to get to the entrance. Of course, we got stuck as soon as we hit the slope. Revving the car did nothing. Abdullah (our guide), meandered over in his white Land Cruiser V6 and just stared at us like "these foreigners, when will they learn". He gave Louis some instructions on how to reverse the car and we were back on normal ground. He then looked at Louis very seriously and said "first gear, full speed".

We were very quiet for a moment. We knew we couldn't question his recommendation, what did we know. But at the same time, it sounded like madness! Doing the polite British thing, Louis put the car in first gear and sped. And sped. And sped. And ended up on top of the sand dune! Whadya know. Abdullah proved to be an incredible guide. Crazy, but incredible. The next morning we went on our "desert safari" which was basically sand dune bashing that I had tried to avoid for the life of me. It is not for the fainthearted. Ok, I'm a wimp, seriously, but it was CRAZY. I asked Abdullah, as any confident back seat driver would, "hey Abdullah, have you ever overturned the car?" and he answers "no, it's practically impossible" and I'm like "oh so no one has ever overturned a car?" and he says (honestly, this guy is a legend) "only an idiot would".

That baby camel was 5 days old!

Time to deflate dem tyres.

Incredible Abdullah.

Abdullah was beyond skilled and I have no idea how he kept his eyes open during some of the crazy (seriously guys, not sure how else to describe it) manoeuvers. I'm really glad we did the sand dune bashing, though I'm not going to be tempted to do it anytime soon. 

After our sand dune safari we got into our own car and headed to Wadi Bani Khaled. The drive into the wadi was a bit confusing - those Omani road sign again - but once you find it, you'll be so glad you persevered. I never quite understood the term "oasis", I guess I thought such places were found in mythological books. But this was a real life oasis. Turquoise pools surrounded by palm trees. It was picturesque. We didn't have enough time to hike to see the cave, but we took a lovely dip in the cool water. It's times like this when I write about my experiences that I am thankful for the luck and privilege I have in my life. Swimming in an oasis would have never, ever crossed my mind as something I would have done ever, and yet the opportunity presented itself and I was fortunate enough to experience it. There are several amazing oases (or Wadis as they're known) in Oman but we only managed to do the one. 


Call NatGeo.
We then decided that we had enough supplies and energy to make the long drive from Wadi Bani Khaled to Nizwa, the next and final stop on our road trip. We booked an apartment at Nizwa Hotel Apartments. I would highly recommend staying there. The rooms are spacious and clean, there's a small kitchen and the manager is super friendly. I believe it was relatively new when we stayed there because they had some teething issues (fridge wasn't cold for the first few hours kind of thing) but it's a great place to stay. 

In the morning we made our way to Jibreen Castle, which was described as being artistic. It was a gorgeous little castle and was indeed artistic. Most ceilings had paintings and there were intricate decorations all around. The Omani hospitality was present as ever and we were given some saffron coffee before leaving. 

My Grandparents had a window like that in Sana'a.

We didn't want to spend too much time in the other castles in Nizwa but felt it necessary to drive past Bahla Fort, a UNESCO world heritage site that had recently been renovated. It was huge! To have a proper look around it would have meant losing most of our day, and we were keen to get to the top of Jebel Akhdar before sunset.

Bahla Fort.

Nizwa Fort.

The Omani authorities are very strict about the types of cars allowed to drive up Jebel Akhdar, and rightly so. Although the roads are impeccable (don't forget, I am Yemeni so have seen my share of unsafe mountain roads), they are steep and the drive down takes its toll on the gearbox / brakes. Jebel is mountain in Arabic but Jebel Akhdar is misleading, since it's actually a very large area that holds several villages.

The manager at the apartments had suggested we drive up to Sahab Hotel, park the car and do the short hike around the villages. There is a well marked trail if you have the time and we saw several hikers enjoying the magnificent scenery while we were on our walk.

Helpful markers.

On the mountain side.

We drank coffee as the sun set and then leisurely made our way down back to Nizwa.

I have very fond memories of Oman. The country is spectacular, and reminds me so much of Yemen. The Omani peoples' disposition is so calm and polite, it has an air of spirituality to it. We felt a lot more relaxed while we were in Oman, time seemed to stand still. There was always time for a coffee, for a walk along the beautiful shore line. I do wonder if one day I'll live near the sea. If you ever get a chance to visit Oman, then grab it with both hands. A beautiful country with beautiful people, you'll leave feeling refreshed and wanting to go back again.


**if you want a guide - ahem ahem Abdullah - he's details are: Abdullah Waheebi - +96892255988 - (living legend)
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