Sri Lanka: Udawalawe

Elephants at Udawalawe National Park

 

Our next stop was Udawalawe, where we had only one goal: to see some elephants!

The drive to Udawalawe from Amba was less than 2.5 hours, and within 10 minutes of checking into our hotel we saw a wild peacock, a 6-foot long snake and a hornbill. We were off to a good start!

We stayed at Eliyanth Udawalawe, which was the most expensive of all the hotels during our trip. It wasn’t particularly child-friendly, with lots of ledges with minimal barriers and other safety hazards. We generally let M run around and explore, but here we had to watch him like a hawk, and he wasn’t even allowed out on our balcony. The food also was overpriced and not particularly great.

The very pretty-but-not-kid-friendly balcony off our 2nd story hotel room

But, and this is a big “but,” the 3-hour safari that we booked with the hotel was incredible.

We had an entire vehicle just to ourselves, and the driver knew exactly where to go to see lots of elephants and other animals. We picked up a local volunteer animal-spotter at the visitor’s entrance to the park, and he was particularly good at finding animals we might not have seen otherwise.

No trombone playing either

All the safari vehicles at Udawalawe are open-air 6-seaters, basically exactly like this.

We saw loads of interesting birds, several herds of elephants, crocodiles, wild water buffalo, deer, jackals, and even a leopard!

Peacocks

Parrots, just like the ones we see flying all over Oman

This big guy was hanging out along the side of the road by himself

Crocodiles

Wild water buffalo and pelicans

Jackals

We were initially wary of how M would handle being strapped into a jeep for 3+ hours with no entertainment, but he was a champ. We put his carseat in the vehicle and he napped for about 45 minutes, and dutifully helped search for animals the rest of the time.

M happily watching the elephants from his car seat

In Udawalawe we also visited the Elephant Transit Home, or ETH. Unlike other elephant sanctuaries in Sri Lanka (which are not actually sanctuaries and chain up the elephants for profit), the ETH houses and cares for orphaned elephants and then works with the government to release them back into the wild once they are old enough to join a herd. In fact, when you go to the ETH you’ll see herds of fully grown elephants which previously lived at the ETH hanging around past the fence looking for food. The ETH is situated in the national park, and you can attend elephant feedings at 9 am, 12 noon, 3 pm and 6 pm. We went to the 6 pm feeding, figuring it would be less crowded because there wouldn’t be any large buses of tourists. I don’t know how many people are usually there, but this strategy paid off and there were only about 30 other tourists there.

A baby elephant gets his dinner at the Elephant Transit Home

Juvenile elephants having a snack

We really enjoyed visiting Udawalawe, but I think one night here is really all you need. Arrive in the afternoon, go to the ETH, and then wake up early the next morning for a game drive. In three hours we saw just about all the animals we were probably going to see without getting bored and being tired of taking pictures.

More elephants!

Our driver picked us up after we ate breakfast following the safari. Next stop: Colombo!

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Sri Lanka: around Ella

View of the valley around Ella from a hike to a near-by waterfall

We woke up bright and early and hit the road for Ella at 8:30 am. It was a long day in the car.

If you look at the Google Maps route from Sigiriya to Ella, it says it should take about 4.5 hours. It’s practically a straight shot east and then south. We suggested this route to our driver and he said the roads weren’t good, and that we should go through Kandy and Nuwara Elia, which would take 6-7 hours. Yuck.

But, we decided we should probably go with what he says, given that he is the paid professional driver and it is literally his job to know the best routes. We were wrong. Turns out those roads are in great shape, he just wasn’t familiar with them. Apparently this is a common problem among drivers because the roads are in a part of the country that the opposition formerly occupied. So most drivers simply don’t even know that the roads are there.

Anyhow, we stuck with the driver’s planned route since, at the time, we didn’t know any better. Plus, we  figured we could break it up with a few stops along the way.

Our first stop was Kandy, where we went to the Temple of the Tooth. One of Buddha’s teeth is in a shrine (which you can’t see) in the temple, so it’s a pretty big deal. I thought it was meh and I was glad we didn’t opt to spend more time in Kandy.

Inside the Temple of the Tooth complex. There are several other temples and some museums also.

The bottom level of the 3-story Temple of the Tooth. Buddha’s tooth is on the second floor.

After visiting the temple we went to a hole-in-the-wall for lunch and I was certain we were going to get food poisoning. Luckily we didn’t.

Then we got back in the car to start the drive to Nuwara Elia. After we got out of Kandy and started driving up through the tea plantations, it was a stunning drive. The scenery was beautiful, with waterfalls and green tea fields stretching as far as the eye could see.

Sri Lanka hill country views during the drive to Nuwara Elia

We reached Nuwara Elia, and the driver asked if we wanted to get out. It was about 60 degrees outside, and Nate and Marlowe were in shorts, I was in capris, and we all had t-shirts on, so we said no. At this point we really just wanted to reach our final destination.

We booked a room inside a cottage at Amba Estate, a tea plantation and organic farm that offers farmstays in the mountains outside of Ella. The drive to Amba took us through some rural areas, up and down a mountain and through a valley. We finally reached Amba around 5:30 pm, and we were pleasantly surprised by our room, which had one of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. The room was spacious and tastefully decorated with a fantastic veranda and even the bathroom had a nice view.

Amba Estate, our favorite part of our trip to Sri Lanka!

Our room on the bottom floor of the Clove Tree Cottage at Amba

The view from our cottage balcony

Once M got out of his carseat the poor kid wouldn’t sit still for the rest of the evening. We tried to take a family photo and, in it, Nate and I are smiling happily while M is in the background running in the other direction.

This path down into the valley through the tea bushes was right outside our room

We loved staying at Amba. The food was vegetarian and absolutely phenomenal, and you can do tea tours and tastings. Also, and this is very rare for Sri Lanka, Amba serves amazing coffee. They grow their own beans on the farm, in addition to tea and all the fruits and vegetables used in the food that they serve.

Amazing curries, plus pasta with butter and cheese for the kids. M was thrilled! Meals are served family style with the other folks staying at Amba.

Coffee beans growing on the farm

They provide laminated cards with directions for a bunch of hikes originating from the estate, and we spent most of our time there out hiking around the valley.

Our first morning we hiked to the top of Rawana Waterfall, and then down a little further to the second level, where Nate went for a swim. I did not because I was too scared of falling over the side of the waterfall.

Green tea, black tea, white tea, and a lemongrass infusion, all grown on the farm

After that we did the tea tour and tasting and ate some lunch, and then around 2:15 we headed out for Ella Rock. The directions said it was a 2.5-3 hour hike; we took 4.5 hours. It was not an easy hikes, especially with a 35 pound pack and baby on your back. The bulk of the ascent was in the first 2/3 of the hike to Ella Rock, which was mostly climbing up overgrown jungle paths. After that there’s a nice stretch going gently up through a eucalyptus forest.

Hiking through the eucalyptus forest. I have no photos of the other part because I was too busy trying to keep breathing and not fall on my ass.

As you approach the top, right after the path forks (go right at the fork), there’s another small fork off to the right that leads down to a beautiful cave shrine with lovely views of the mountains and valley. From here it’s maybe 15 min more to Ella Rock.

A hidden cave shrine along the hike to Ella Rock. The views from this spot were incredible!

View of the valley from Ella Rock

Ella town is on the far side of the valley

The hike down is almost harder than the hike up because it’s so steep and the path is covered in loose rocks. But we made it back by dusk, even with M demanding to be out of his pack and hiking uphill the last kilometer by himself.

With the two hikes combined, we hiked over 10 miles and climbed the equivalent of over 100 stories. It was quite the day!

The next morning we set off to explore a nearby cave and some old ruined tea processing houses, and then we relaxed in a natural pool in the river. After lunch our driver came and picked us up for our next adventure. At that point we were all ready to sit in the car for a few hours and do nothing! My legs were grateful for the rest.

I’d highly recommend including Ella on your Sri Lanka itinerary. There are so many beautiful places to explore and the temperatures are a little cooler than other parts of the country!

Sri Lanka: Sigiriya

Lion Rock

We left Trinco at 9:30, and the drive to Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, was only about 2 hours. We checked into our hotel, changed our clothes, and headed straight for Lion Rock.

After you get your ticket, there’s a museum you can explore. We didn’t spend much time there because it wasn’t air-conditioned. The grounds are full of more ruins and interesting places to explore, and there are some vendors selling wooden trinkets and other souvenirs.

The ruins and archeological sites around Lion Rock

The guidebook suggested climbing Sigiriya first thing in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat, or later in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the tourist hordes. The thing is, the climate at Sigiriya was downright comfortable compared with Oman, so we ignored the advice. We arrived around 12:15 and started the climb up around 1 pm. The climb took about an hour, with frequent water stops. It’s about 50 stories up, and it’s basically a continuous climb up lots of stairs.

The one time I was able to actually look at and take a picture of the view during the climb up without my fear of heights getting the better of me

There’s lots to see on the climb up, including cave paintings, a thousand-year old wall of graffiti, huge lion paws carved into the rock (which is why it’s called Lion Rock), and beautiful views, if your fear of heights doesn’t get the best of you on the climb. Mine did, and I reached a point where I just kept my head down and kept going up, rather than enjoying the scenery.

The paws are the only part left of the lion for which Lion Rock is named

Once you reach the top, there’s a bunch of ruins and more even better views. It’s definitely worth the climb!

Ruins on the top of Sigiriya

Stunning views from the top

After Sigiriya we went to Dambulla to see the cave temples. It’s another 25 or so flights of stairs up to see the caves. The cave temples are incredible, and there’s so much to look at. Each cave has a huge resting Buddha in it, and most of them have a bunch of other statues and paintings also, mostly of more Buddhas.

Dambulla cave temples built into the side of the mountain

Lines of Buddhas inside the cave temples

Buddhas everywhere!

A note about clothing: since Sigiriya is archaeological ruins, shorts and tank tops are fine. For Dambulla, you should cover your shoulders and your knees. If you aren’t appropriately dressed for Dambulla, they have sarongs and wraps that you can rent.

We stayed at The Nature Park Villa, which was lovely and very inexpensive. M had a lot of fun running around the hotel grounds, and we all slept very soundly. The breakfast they provided the next morning was delicious and more than enough food!

The sunset through the jungle at our hotel

I would say that climbing Sigiriya is a definite must-do on any trip to Sri Lanka. You really only need to spend one night here, and if the temperatures are too high, go visit the cave temples (only about 20 minutes away) first and then go to Sigirya later in the day. Just make sure you bring plenty of water: you’ll get thirsty on the climb up!

Sri Lanka: Trincomalee

Trincomalee shoreline

Our next stop after Anuradhapura was Trincomalee. We chose to go to Trinco because we wanted to go diving, and supposedly in June the diving is better along the Eastern side of the island. Plus there’s some interesting stuff to do, and we never say “no” to spending time on the beach!

The drive from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee is about two and a half hours. If you explore the Sri Maha Bodi and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba before leaving Anuradhapura, you’ll be able to leave by 11 am, arriving by 1:30 or so. There’s a hot spring you can stop at on the drive over, just outside of Trinco, and it’s an interesting opportunity to stretch your legs.

Very different from the hot spring we have near Muscat, but interesting none-the-less

There were metal pails you could fill up with water. Some people dumped water all over themselves (we did not)

We spent two nights in Trinco. The first day, after we arrived, we tracked down some lunch and checked out the beach, and we visited the Kandasamy Kovil, a Hindu temple on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

The temple is scenic and beautiful, and the views of the ocean are stunning. The history of the area is also quite interesting, as are the tame spotted deer all over the peninsula. The cliff across from the temple is supposedly the best place in the world for whale-spotting, but we didn’t see any. If you are serious about seeing some whales, there are whale watching tours you can go on, or you could bring your binoculars and hope for the best. With a 2-year old in tow we didn’t really feel like doing either.

The temple facade

Vishnu was getting a facelift

Swami Rock, whale-watching central

The peninsula is loaded with tame spotted deer

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to go scuba diving. We used Taprobane Divers, and they were great. All our tanks had over 200 bar, the BCDs much nicer than I’m used to, and our dive guide, Rohan, was very cautious and safety-minded. The dive shop is located in Nilaveli, which is about 30 minutes from Trinco. We dove at Swami Rock, which is right below Kandasamy Kovil, and at Navy Island (not actually an island) which was right off the coast near our hotel. Neither spot was that great, frankly, but all the Hindu statues at the bottom of Swami Rock were pretty interesting. The visibility was so-so and we didn’t see anything particularly exciting, but it’s always cool to dive someplace new.

We spent the rest of the day playing on the beach (Nate and M) and napping (me). The beach is lovely, and the humans, stray dogs, and cows all seem to enjoy it.

Cows along the Trinco beach

We stayed at Dutch Bay Ocean Cottages, and it was… basic. It felt like a throw-back to our Peace Corps days. Granted it had air conditioning and a private bathroom, and luckily we didn’t get bedbugs or anything like that, but we pulled up and I was like “Oh boy.” Thankfully Nate focused on the nice view from the hotel veranda rather than the lack of amenities, and he stayed positive. The hotel provided a babysitter so we could go scuba diving, though, and she took good care of M while we were gone for 6+ hours. So that’s something.

Our hotel didn’t have a kitchen, and we had to venture out a bit for our meals. We ate at a place called Beach Paradise, and the restaurant didn’t look like much, but the food was AMAZING. I had seafood with rice, and Nate had deviled prawns. It took a while to prepare, but it was worth the wait. Our other favorite restaurant was the Green Park Hotel, which is actually not a hotel. We literally ate there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At dinner they set up tables and chairs on the beach, and it’s really lovely.

The view from our hotel

I’m glad we went to Trinco and we enjoyed our time there, but I don’t think we’d come back simply because we’d rather explore new places. We saw all there was see, which was really neat and worth the trip, but there’s definitely no need to spend more than 2 nights here.

Next stop: Sigiriya, or Lion Rock!

Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura

Ruins and guard stones in the Abhayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura

We arrived in Colombo at 4:45 am, breezed through immigration and customs, met our driver, and we were on the road by 6:00 am. We stopped on the road to buy water and a quick bite to eat, and we checked into our hotel by 10:30 am. We were all pretty tired from the red-eye flight, so we took naps and arranged for the driver to pick us up at 2 pm.

Anuradhapura is known primarily for its ancient Buddhist temples and archeological ruins. Have your driver take you immediately to go buy your entrance ticket in order to make the most out of your $25. The museum is supposed to be pretty good, and after that go explore the ruins.

More Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

The moonstone in the Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

Cows roaming around the Abhayagiri Monastery

The following morning, before leaving for Trincomalee, go visit the Sri Maha Bodi, or the Bodhi tree temple, and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, neither of which are included in the $25 ticket. Our driver took us to before we bought the ticket, which gave us about 1.5 hours to explore the entire enormous area that the ticket gives you access to.

The ruins are really cool, and I was reminded a lot of the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. It’s definitely not as awe-inspring as Angkor (what is?) but the ruins in the forest with the monkeys, cows and Buddha statues are fun to explore.

When you’re in the Abhayagiri Monastery area, first explore the moonstone and guard stone ruins, then walk over to the Abhayagiri Dagoba. This will give you a chance to explore all the ruins in the wooded area, and it’s a fun spot to walk around. You’ll find the Elephant Pond (no actual elephants, sadly), lots of Buddhas, and some other neat ruins to poke around in.

Visiting the Thuparamaya Dagoba, one of the oldest Buddhist dagobas in Sri Lanka

The Sri Maha Bodi: this tree is had generations of caretakers for the last 2,000 years and is a major pilgrimage spot for buddhists.

One thing to note is that, for most temples and the grounds, you have to take your shoes off before entering. So if you’re wearing sandals, this means you’re walking around on hot rocks, sand, and bricks barefoot. I’d keep a pair of socks in your bag for these occasions. My feet were swollen and bright red after spending a few hours exploring the temples, and it was pretty unpleasant.

The Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Elephants lining the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Anuradhapura was a good first stop for our trip. Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka, I knew next to nothing about the country, and the history and ruins of the area where a good crash-course.  We were able to explore at our own pace, not feel too rushed, and our hotel had everything we needed.

We stayed at The Lakeside at Nuwarawewa. The room was basic, but the hotel grounds were lovely and the restaurant was amazing. I ordered vegetarian curry and rice for lunch and I got enough food for 2 people for $5.

The pool area at the Lakeside at Nuruwewa

Lunch!

Our trip to Sri Lanka

At the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba in Anuradhapura

We recently got back from a 9-day trip to Sri Lanka and it was incredible. Absolutely amazing. It’s a relatively small island, and there is so much to do: temples, archeological ruins, beaches, hiking, national parks, snorkeling and scuba diving, wildlife safaris, religious artifacts, you name it. Oh, and the food is amazing.

The view from our hotel in Trincomalee

Before having a child, our travel style was to hit the ground running, spending a night or two in most spots, trying to do as much as possible in the time available. We took trips, not vacations.

We altered our travel style a bit once M came along, lowering expectations for what we’d see and accomplish each day. We still took trips, but they were generally less intense and a little slower-paced than they used to be. But M has grown a lot and is pretty easy-going,  and he’s generally happy to do whatever we’re doing, napping in his hiking pack or stroller along the way. So with this trip (because it was definitely not a vacation) we reverted back to our former travel style.

I knew it would either go well or be a temper-tantrum-filled disaster, and it went about as well as I could have expected. Aside from some trips in the car taking much longer than planned, everyone had a lot of fun, we saw and did tons of awesome stuff, and nothing went seriously wrong.

Sigiriya, or Lion Rock

I’ve talked to a number of people are interested in going to Sri Lanka, but planning an itinerary is kind of daunting because there are so many options. Some of folks have asked about our itinerary, and since the trip went well, here you go:

Day 1: Arrive in Colombo, drive to Anuradhapura
Day 2: Drive to Trincomalee
Day 4: Drive to Sigiriya
Day 5: Drive to Ella
Day 7: Drive to Udawalawe
Day 8: Drive to Colombo
Day 9: Depart from Colombo

Because it might make more sense in map-form, here’s this:


(Yes, I just embedded a map on my blog. I am pretty proud of myself, I gotta tell ya!)

I’m planning a blog post for each location with what we did, what worked, what didn’t, and anything else that might be helpful.

In the meantime, here are some pointers for planning a trip to Sri Lanka:

  • Take the monsoon season into account. There are different monsoon seasons for different parts of the island. Monsoon season is May to September in the west and south-west areas, while it’s in the east and northern regions from October to February. We largely avoided the west and south-west parts of the country on our trip.

Inside the Dambulla cave temples

  • Look into hiring a car and driver. I’m pretty sure you’re only allowed to drive in Sri Lanka if you have a Sri Lankan driver’s license, and frankly the roads and traffic are so crazy, there’s no reason to drive yourself if you can help it. Hiring a car and driver is surprisingly affordable, and you shouldn’t have to pay more than $60/day for all the costs associated with it.

At the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

  • If you’re traveling with little kids, particularly babies or toddlers, bring everything you think you might need with you. Don’t plan on trying to buy anything in Sri Lanka. Unless you’re staying in Colombo, chances are you won’t be able to find whatever you’re looking for very easily. We brought bags of snacks and fruit pouches, sunscreen, a thermometer, medicines (Tylenol and ibuprofen), a pack n play, child-safe bug spray and a metal-framed hiking pack. Oh, and a car seat. Definitely bring a car seat, especially if you’re hiring a car.

The view from Ella Rock

  • It’s cold in Nuwara Elia! Luckily we only drove through rather than stopping, because if we’d overnighted there I would have frozen my ass off.
  • Food and goods are very inexpensive, but the cost to enter most sites is pretty high. Sigiriya was $25, so was Anuradhapura, and Udawalawe National Park was $20. On the other hand, as long as you’re not in Colombo or ordering lots of alcohol, you’d have to try pretty hard to spend more than $15 per day on food. If you know Nate, then you know how he eats, so that’s saying something.

Elephants at Udawalawe National Park

  • You have to pay with cash just about everywhere. Out of the 5 hotels we stayed at, only 2 took cards. Outside of Colombo, it’s rare to find anywhere that will accept plastic.
  • Dengue is prevalent, so bring bug spray!

That’s about all I can think of for now, but if anything else comes to mind, I’ll add it to the list!

Guests, beaches, restaurants, rain, and Ramadan preparations

Life here has been cruising along and we are enjoying the lull between our winter guests and our summer travels.

We must have done a good job of selling Oman, even before we arrived, because a lot of people came and visited! I love having visitors because I think Oman is such an incredible place and it’s so much fun showing off the country. It’s also a great excuse to try new places, like the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, 1000 Nights Desert Camp, Wadi Dham, and Misfat Al Abriyeen. We would have eventually made it to those spots, but visitors pushed up the time line and I have zero regrets. At this point, though, after six trips to Wadi Shab I’m never going back there again.

We took advantage of having visitors on a free Sunday morning to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque complex

Each tiled wall portico is different and throughout the mosque complex the themes vary

Inside the main prayer hall. That chandelier is enormous.

The only place we’ve taken every single one of our visitors to is our favorite beach, Sifat Ash Sheikh. The snorkeling off the beach there is great, and it’s getting better as the temperature climbs. The other day Nate saw a turtle! A few weeks ago, though, the ocean and beach were full of golfball sized jellyfish. We hired a local fisherman to take us to a beach maybe a 10 minute boat ride away, were there were less jellyfish both in and out of the water. Luckily they didn’t sting, but they sure did smell bad drying out on the sand in the heat.

Our favorite beach: Sifat Ash Sheikh

A passable substitute for when the normal beach is full of jellyfish

We’ve been taking Athena to the beach during the week to swim and play fetch in the waves. For some reason she will play fetch for hours in the water, but for only 5 minutes maximum on land. She’d much rather play tug. But when she’s in the water she’ll happily run back and forth, and even drop her toy when you tell her to. We took her to a cove a few weeks ago and as soon as we got there she made a bee-line for the water, spun around a few times, and plopped down. She loves the water, and it’s nice to see that she’s having as much fun here as we are.

Athena in her happy place

Lately we’ve gotten more adventurous with trying new restaurants. It’s easier here where everyone loves kids and no one glares at you when your toddler wants to get down and run around. We’ve started going regularly to a south Indian vegetarian restaurant called Saravan Bhavan, and there is a cluster of 4 booths that all share a wall. The kids stand in the booths and peer over the sides at the other kids and they keep each other entertained. Then when things go to hell we just pull out the Kindle with downloaded movies. You gotta do what you gotta do.

The best tacos in Muscat at TacoMan

Fantastic Japanese food at Tokyo Taro

Speaking of new restaurants, we’ve been hearing about the Turkish House restaurant since we arrived in August and a few weeks ago we finally decided to give it a try. Imagine our surprise when we pulled up to the location provided by Waze and we found not one, but no less than three, Turkish Houses. We decided to go to the one with blue lettering, slightly set back from the others. The food was spectacular, especially the fish. Unfortunately I have zero photos, I was so busy eating. It turned out we’d gone to the correct Turkish House. Some people have said that each restaurant is a separate Turkish House, and others have said that they all share the same main kitchen. So I have no idea what the situation is. But, if you want good Turkish food, excellent seafood, and freshly baked bread go to the blue Turkish House.

One thing here that I will never get used to is how dirty the rain is. I associate rain with fresh air and greenery, but here after it rains it looks like Mother Nature took a dump. Everything is covered in mud. The air is so dusty that when it rains, it just carries the dust and dirt down onto whatever happens to be in its path. It rained while we were driving a few weeks ago, and our car was remarkably dirty afterwards. Normally, who cares if your car is clean or not, but here it is against the law and you can get a ticket if your car is dirty. Nate had some first-hand experienced with this the other day when he got pulled over at a police checkpoint and was asked why his car wasn’t clean. He responded that he was on his way to the carwash, which given the circumstances indeed he was, and narrowly avoided getting a ticket. I think the sting over getting a ticket for a dirty car hurts more than the actual fine, which is around $25 from what I’ve heard.

That’s about it for now. We are preparing for our first Ramadan here, which I’ve heard is an interesting experience. Nate has ordered some long light-weight pants since he won’t be able to wear shorts, and some long sleeved shirts to cover up his tattoos. I’ve ordered a few more light-weight cardigans because apparently I won’t be able to have bare arms. The word on the street is that you can get a ticket if you so much as drink water in your car, even if you aren’t Muslim. So, like I said, it should indeed be an interesting month.

 

Petroglyphs at Hasat Bin Salt

Can you spot all four people?

On our way to Misfat Al Abriyeen we made a quick detour to look at the Hasat Bin Salt petroglyphs. Oman Off Road sets your expectations low with the following language: “The most impressive petroglyphs of Hasat Bin Salt have mainly disappeared from the surface of this ancient rock, or been vandalized. This is particularly sad given that when they were found, the clear drawings of people and animals were said to be the most significant found in Arabia.” Whomp, whomp.

We followed the book’s instructions and turned off to the right when we were supposed to (right after the brown arrow pointing right saying “Hasat Bin Salt”), bumping down a dirt road. There were no GPS coordinates or specific instructions for how exactly to find the petroglyphs, however. We found ourselves crossing a dry wadi bed, wondering exactly where we were going. But we couldn’t stop because then we probably wouldn’t have been able to get back out of the six-inch deep lose gravel! Once we crossed the wadi, we stuck our heads out the windows to try to get an idea of where to go. Our friend spotted a rock maybe 100 yards away that was encircled with metal rebar sticking straight up into the air. Bingo!

If it weren’t for the rebar, this would have looked like just another rock.

We go closer to the rock and all we saw was lots of graffiti. I looked up a little higher on the rock, past the reach of the more recent artists that had been leaving their marks, and, much to my surprise, there were human forms carved into the rock. We were expecting gazelle etchings or something like that, not legit rock carvings. So that was pretty cool.

The GPS coordinates for the rock are 23.074553, 57.282935. You can easily see four human forms; from left to right there is a medium sized figure, probably a man, next to him there is another medium figure wearing a hat or something, possibly a woman, then a figure seemingly flexing his muscles (it seems men haven’t changed much over the past 5,0000 years), and finally smaller figure on the corner below the muscle man, probably a child. Apparently there are other human forms on the rock also, but they aren’t as easy to find; I think you’d probably have to really search. We mostly focused on the four obvious ones and didn’t find the others with a cursory initial glace.

From left to right: man, woman, and the Muscle Man

You can barely see the woman to the left of the Muscle Man and the child is carved onto the corner of the rock

Further research after the fact revealed that this rock is also called Coleman’s Rock, named after Robert Coleman, who apparently made its presence known in the 1970s. I hesitate to write that he discovered it, since the local people probably knew that it was there well before that. The petroglyphs are estimated to be over 5,000 years old! Yet there’s hardly any information available about them, and definitely no signage other than the initial arrow pointing in its general direction off the main road. It’s nice to see that someone tried to protect the area with rebar, but you can easily walk through and get close to the rock; we certainly did. Thankfully the petroglyphs are just high enough that you can’t touch them.

This is one of my favorite things about Oman: if it weren’t for the rebar, we would have felt like the first people to have ever seen that rock. It takes effort here to find things, which can be maddening, but it also keeps the casual tourists away. Oman is a do-it-yourself place where you really have to try to find what you’re looking for, but once you finally find it, it’s almost always better than you could have possibly imagined.

Abseil trip to 7th Hole

I’m all about trying to conquer my fears, but I’m not quite ready to do that with my fear of heights. A few weeks ago, when Nate decided to hook himself to a rope and jump into a cave on top of a plateau in the Hajar mountains, I said “F*** no” and stayed behind. So I’m letting him take over to write about it:

When the Embassy fun coordinator (she has an official title, but that is a significant part of her duties) announced that there was going to be an abseiling trip into a 120 meter deep cavern, I first looked up what abseiling was, and then I enthusiastically volunteered. I also asked Kathryn if she wanted to come, but she did not seem super interested in hanging mid-air attached to a rope.

We had heard a lot of good things about the company that was guiding the tour, Twenty 3 Extreme, so I was fairly certain it would be a safe, competently led expedition. Our friend had used them for a trip a month or so back, and said all of their equipment was top of the line and in really good shape, which is what you want to hear when you’re going to be dangling over an abyss in short order.

I also liked that they required nine hours of training over the course of three sessions at a local climbing facility. If I need to use a lot of new equipment to do something, I want to get a lot of opportunities to use it in as safe an environment as possible.

We were given a helmet, a harness, an ASAP (a safety device with metal teeth that attaches to a rope running alongside your descent / ascent rope), an ascending device attached to our chest (a piece of equipment with metal teeth that keeps you attached to the climbing rope, but also allows you to move up it), a Jumar ascending device (a device with a foot loop attached to it that allows you to climb a rope essentially by standing up repeatedly), a descender device, and several cables attached to carabiners that could be used as safety devices when attached to anchors.  Most of these devices rely on weight and friction, and if you take your weight off them you can detach them from the rope you’re on. This became necessary when we were transferring from rope to rope mid-climb.

It took a little while to get used to all these pieces of equipment: I still can’t really describe the process of what I was doing as much as I can say it became much easier as I continuously did it. Pretty soon everyone was going up and down ropes with ease, and using the descender to more rapidly go down. The last part of the training was adding an additional 15 kilos of weight to the bottom of the rope we were using to see if we could still feed it through the descender device. This was to simulate having 200 feet of rope hanging underneath us, which we might need to manipulate at some point.

Getting the ropes ready to abseil into the cave (Photo by Stephen K.)

After the final training we packed up our camping gear and headed to the Hajar mountains, overlooking the town of Fins and some very deep canyons. The mountain road was extremely twisty and steep, and our Mitsubishi Pajero overheated twice before we made it to the hole we planned on abseiling into. We set up camp maybe ten meters away from the hole, and our guides Joe and Justin set up the ropes we’d be using the next day. We got a grill set up and cooked chicken and steak under the stars. The view of the sky was amazing. Joe and Justin regaled us with tales of their cave exploring throughout the world. One of their many interesting stories was Justin’s tale of cannibals threatening his life and the life of a BBC film crew while trying to explore a cave in Papua New Guinea.

The next day we woke up at the crack of dawn, ate some breakfast, and started dropping into the hole. I went second so that I wouldn’t psych myself out, though I don’t think I needed to worry. Joe was at the top, and was extremely reassuring, even though I was literally backing myself off the edge of a cliff. I did not look down very much, enjoying the views of the cave and the cliff above me. When I did look down, I mistook the mouth of the cavern for the ground, so I thought I was halfway down when I was actually about a quarter of the way there.  It took about 17 minutes to make it all the way down.

When we got to the bottom we took some group photos, signed the Twenty 3 Extreme cave guestbook they had hidden there, and hiked a short distance through a dark tunnel. We came out on the other side, rappelled down a ten – fifteen meter drop and then climbed up what was variously described as a 40, 50, or possibly 60 meter rock wall. Another short hike found us climbing a final 30-meter high rock wall. As we climbed we saw two huge lizards fighting it out for dominance of the cave by trying to grab each other by the tails and fling each other off the wall.

Climbing through the aforementioned dark tunnel (Photo by Stephen K.)

Climbing out of the 7th Hole (Photo by Stephen K.)

Another view climbing out of the cave (Photo by Stephen K.)

The cave itself was beautiful, deep, and cool. A nearby wadi feeds into it, and you can see where torrents of water have created a series of deep cauldrons. Apparently it goes another 160 meters down, though exploring that part is another expedition. The initial descent alone is worth the trip. I strongly suggest trying it out, and using Twenty 3 Extreme; their guides are excellent, and will make you a successful abseiler no matter how scared of heights you are.

Misfat Al Abriyeen

Abandoned houses in Misfat

I’d heard that the mountainside farming village of Misfat Al Abriyeen is one of the lushest, prettiest areas of Oman. With summer and its repressively hot temperatures encroaching quickly, we decided to make the drive to Misfat Al Abriyeen a few weeks ago before it got too hot.

I’ll tell you right now that it did not disappoint. There were hiking trails along the mountains, and also paths you could take through partially abandoned neighborhoods and down into terraced farmlands.

Falajs are used for irrigation

To access Misfat, you can either turn right by the playground after you go up the hill with all the switchback turns, or you can go straight. If you go straight the road curves right and you’ll find yourself in a parking lot. We followed two SUVs full of tourists up the mountain and they turned right, so we went straight. As we were unloading the car and getting ready for our hike, the SUVs came lumbering past. By going straight I think you access the hiking trails more easily.

HOLY SHIT! A map!

Yellow, white, and red flags mark trails throughout Oman, the W9 trail in this case.

Near the parking area is a tourist center with a map of the area! I was shocked; this is the first of its kind that I’ve seen in Oman. Note that the map encompasses a very small area. From the “you are here” star indicator to the mosque in the opposite corner, it’s maybe a 10 minute walk and that’s only if you stop and take lots of photos. Otherwise it’s about 5 minutes. You can easily explore the entire hillside in an afternoon and still have time for a rest break at one of the cute guest house cafes perched on the mountainside.

Beautiful scenery along the W9

Oman has a fairly well-developed network of trails, and one of them, the W9, starts in Misfat. It heads into the canyon away from Misfat and it looks to be a lovely walk as long as it’s not summer. We walked along it for maybe 20 minutes, although it felt like an hour it was so hot. There’s not a lot of shade and the sun reflects off the mountains and hits you full-force. Eventually we turned around an headed back towards Misfat, hoping to find a more shaded area to explore.

We heard this guy well before we saw him, whistling while walking his donkey along the trail

Walking on the shady breezy trails along the falajs, taking in the view and smelling the fruit trees, was exactly what I’d been hoping for. This was also when M decided he was “stuck” in his hiking pack and demanded to be turned loose. From here he did the rest of the hiking on his own, holding our hands on the stairs and trying to say “careful.”

Ruins in Misfat

A note for tourists: knees and shoulders, for both men and women, need to be coveredto enter the village. Those SUVs full of tourists I mentioned earlier? We saw them walking about with sarongs tied around their waists and scarves over their shoulders. You’re not going to be doing much hiking, or be very comfortable, dressed like that. Also, don’t pick the fruit. This community’s livelihood is farming.

Baby pomegranates

Oman never fails to impress. I have yet to go someplace and think, “Well that sucked.” Hopefully I didn’t just jinx myself.