Our visit to the Salmah Plateau

A few posts I talked about the logistics of visiting the Salmah Plateau, and this post is going to cover what we did and, of course, what went wrong.

We drove to the Salmah Plateau with our friends, who were driving their own 4WD vehicle, and we departed Muscat around 11:30. Once on the plateau, our first stop was  the Majlis Al Jinn cave, which we reached just before 1 pm. Majlis Al Jinn is the second largest known underground cave in the world (according to Wikipedia). Supposedly 5 jumbo jets can fit inside! It can only be accessed from above, and you have to go with a licensed tour operator. There are a number of access points for the cave, and when we threw a rock down one of the holes, it took nearly 10 seconds to hit the bottom. We made sure to stay very far away from the edge! Nate chatted with a Bangladeshi goat herder who was stunned by Nate’s Bengali abilities and showed us the different cave openings.

From here our plan was go drive to the beehive tombs and find a camping spot. We were using maps.me and at one point it had us turn right to drive down a washed-out road. If we’d stayed on the road we were on, it appeared that we would have gone pretty far out of the way and there was no easy way to get back to the tombs. We all stopped and compared routes, and this was also the route that Oman Off Road said to take. So we turned and followed the dubious-looking road down a steep hill, towards a dry wadi bed. There was a shepherdess with a large flock of goats in the middle of the road, and as we slowly approached the goats scattered and went literally running up the side of the wadi. The woman was super pissed off (who can blame her? I have no idea how or if she got her goats back) and picked up a large rock to throw at our car. Thankfully she didn’t actually hurl the rock at us, but we should have taken that as a sign to just turn around then and there.

Instead we proceeded towards the river bed, with high rock walls on either side. The “road” turned into deep gravel full of boulders, with steep sides and ditches that made the car swerve and sway like we were driving through thick sand. Eventually the road ahead was a field of boulders and we stopped, unable to go any further without probably breaking an axle. We were unable to turn around because the “drivable” path was so narrow, and Nate had to back out. We were travelling with friends in another vehicle, and they stopped before entering the wadi bed. Our friend, S, who grew up in Colorado, luckily had more experience navigating this kind of terrain than we did, and she kept a level head and guided Nate out. I stood on the side in the shade, holding M, hyperventilating and near tears. I was convinced we were either going to break an axle or hit the wadi rock-face, and that we’d need to get a ride out with our friends and abandon the car. Luckily it all went ok and with S’s guidance Nate was able to back out of the river bed. Our Jeep is “trail-rated,” which apparently means it can handle some serious shit and come out unscathed.

The sun sets early this time of year, around 5:30. By the time we got out of the wadi and back up the washed-out road it was nearly 3:30. We decided we’d keep driving for another hour towards the beehive tombs, at this point having no idea where to go since the route in Oman Off Road and in maps.me was impassable. Luckily, after driving for about 30 minutes, we found an awesome spot right by the beehive tombs, but in a somewhat sheltered area that wasn’t too windy. There was also a nice ravine that doubled as toilet facilities.

Before long we had our tents up and the campfire going. The kids ran around, playing nicely. There was surprisingly minimal rock throwing, given that the entire area was covered in them. We had popcorn, dried French sausage, steaks, vegetables, potatoes, and s’mores. And lots of adult beverages.

After the sun set it got cold fast. M insisted on wearing his short-sleeved pajamas (why I thought it was a good idea to give him that option, I don’t know) and around 6:30 am I woke up to find him lying in his pack-n-play, in fetal position, blue-lipped and shivering. Next time I’m only bringing the warm pajamas!

The next morning we were all chilly, but as soon as the sun crested the mountains, the temperature was much more comfortable. After we packed up camp, we spent about an hour exploring the plateau before starting the drive back down towards the coast. You can easily follow the route in Oman Off Road back down the mountain, and it took about two hours to go from the tombs to the beach, which included some stops to see the sites.

We pulled off on a dirt track towards some houses and goats, where the view of the canyon was supposedly amazing. We didn’t feel comfortable basically driving through these peoples’ backyard, so Nate parked and I walked toward the canyon. As I walked back to the car, I saw Nate and M, hand-in-hand with young Omani girls, walking around getting a tour of the family’s farm. A young lady who spoke perfect English was pointing out all the baby goats and sheep and that just about made M’s day. Afterwards they invited us to their house for khawa (Omani coffee) and dates, so we sat on the floor with them and learned more about their family and life on the plateau. The young lady goes to the university in Sur, where she is studying public administration, and she came back to visit her family for the long holiday weekend. They gave M candy and apples, while they fawned over his white-blonde hair and tried to get them to sit by him.

From here we started our descent down the mountain, which, on my part, involved a lot of swearing and squealing. Nate kept telling me to just close my eyes, but I said that if I’m going to die, I want to see it coming. I much prefer ascents over descents and I’m glad I wasn’t driving.

We stopped at Fins beach once we reached the coast, and it was so full of vehicles, tents and people I was absolutely shocked. Usually when you stop by that beach there’s a vehicle every 500 meters or so, but this was like how you’d expect a beach in the US to look on a holiday weekend. It was really refreshing to see everyone out having fun and enjoying the lovely beach over the long weekend. We saw an RV with a huge water tank on top. You know those people were in it for the long-haul.

We really enjoyed the Salmah Plateau, and I finally got to cross it off my Oman bucket-list! There are so many amazing places in this country, and every time we are out adventuring I pinch myself, I can’t believe how lucky we are.

It’s all worth it for this view!

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Where I try to not think PCSing and it doesn’t work

Omani winters: what’s not to love?

We only have about seven months left in Oman. I try to not think about leaving, but it’s hard not to. People ask about our upcoming PCS frequently, and when I’m bored I google Namibia.

One thing that I’ve discovered through my Namibia google searches is the thing that is travel blogging. Like, quitting your job, doing a ton of sponsored posts, filling your blog with ads and affiliate links, and traveling the world with almost zero personal expenditures. And, dude, travel blogging is popular! I’m kind of on-the-fence about it. I thought travel blogging was, uh, traveling and then writing about it, but this is a whole new level of bonkers, the main goal of which appears to be giving everyone FOMO. On the other hand, some of them do actually have some useful information. But it’s funny how many blogs have the “Perfect 2-Week Namibia Itinerary!” and none of them are the same. How can travel be that fun when you have to monetize everything? I guess it is basically your job. But I am a creature of habit and I like having someplace to come home to, rather than being gone for months on end. I also enjoy not having an agenda or being beholden to anyone or anything when we travel.  While it’s fun to share our adventures to random places, this will definitely never be a “travel blog.” I’ll leave that to the bleach-blonde ladies with $300 sunhats and their handsome beaus.

Now that the weather is consistently good, we went camping at Fins Beach a few weeks ago. The spot we wanted was taken, so we picked a rocky area along the coast with no one nearby. In hindsight, we probably should have kept driving to find somewhere better. There was garbage everywhere, and both of us spent at least 30 minutes picking up trash and broken glass while Athena ran around eating everything she could get her mouth on. M chased after her yelling “Don’t eat that!” She did not listen (and then literally vomited sand and ash when we got home. Fun times). It was just kind of one of those camping trips where stuff kept going wrong: we forgot a cork screw, M kept falling on the rocks, Athena kept running off into the night chasing god-knows –what, etc.  Oh, and after putting M to bed I saw one of the biggest and ugliest spiders I’d ever seen, right next to our tent. Nate came over and threw a rock at the spider, killing it. We figured out that it was a camel spider, and then we spent  20 minutes googling camel spiders under the stars and comparing notes. The next morning, once we were in the car on our way back to Muscat, I was just relieved that no one stepped on glass, got sliced by the rocks, or bitten by a spider.

Campsite amongst the rocks and shrubs

But look at that view!

Athena looking sheepish after I found her eating something she shouldn’t

Athena surveying all the missed snacking opportunities

The coast and Athena after sunrise

We’ve taken a break from our weekend adventuring to go to holiday parties, host game nights, go to National Day celebrations, and a number of other events. December has been crazy busy so far, and it will get even busier shortly with a string of guests through the end of January. I’m also training for the 2019 Muscat half marathon, and my mornings are spent hitting the pavement before sunrise. Every time I go for a run and I’m tired and wishing I was still in bed, I look at the ocean and make myself relish the opportunity to run in such a beautiful place. In Windhoek, I don’t know where I’m going to run. It’s rated critical for crime and running outside isn’t advised. So I’m making extra effort to cherish my runs here in Muscat.

Muscat views during an early-morning run

I’m *really* going to miss this

We went to Salalah last week to escape the craziness, and we did absolutely nothing adventurous there. We ate ourselves silly every morning and then I went to the beach, pool, or gym, while M went to the Kid’s Club. At night we’d put M to bed and then go downstairs to sit by the pool and have cocktails. One evening we went to the souk, which was the most underwhelming souk experience I’ve ever had. Over half of the souk area has been torn down and the remaining booths all sell nothing but frankincense and incense burners. I came away empty-handed. We stayed at the Anatara (which offers per diem rates during the off-season) and one thing I was very surprised by was that their pastry chef was amazing. Usually baked goods in countries without a strong baking tradition range from mediocre to bad. But the pastries and baked goods at the Anatara were excellent. It took every ounce of my self-control to not eat the entire tray of cinnamon rolls each morning.

So fancy at the Anantara

Vacation ingredients: sunshine, sand and water

Salalah sunset

Literally every stall was selling “incense and perfumes”

M eyeing the frankincense

Life is good and easy right now. I’m relishing these moments while the weather is nice, things are calm and quiet, and it feels like Oman is our oyster. Soon we’ll be PCSing and life will be hectic, with a whirlwind 7 weeks in the US before arriving in Windhoek. Then who knows how long it’s going to take to feel settled. To find our favorite restaurants and stores, be able to drive around and not get lost, find easy weekend getaway spots, make friends (the real kind, that you can talk to about everything, not just what your kids are doing), get our stuff and put everything away, find the good dog-walking routes, etc. I’m dreading that shit. I was talking with a close friend about our PCS, and when I told her our departure date she stuck out her lower lip and gave me the saddest face. And it hit me: we are going to leave Oman and all our friends. And it’s really going to suck. I will probably be a sobbing mess.

See? There you go. I’m trying so hard to not thing about leaving, but it’s always there, in the background. Even when I try to avoid it, sometimes that’s what I turn to.

On that depressing note, we are about to head out on a family walk with M and Athena. It’s in the 70’s and maybe I’ll even wear a long sleeved shirt and make M put on some pants. Oman, we are not done with you yet!

How to host a holiday meal and not go crazy

2018 Thanksgiving dinner!

In November, as in many previous years, we hosted Thanksgiving. It might be too late, with Christmas being next week, but I feel like at this point I’ve accumulated a quite a bit of knowledge (mostly by making a lot of mistakes) that might be helpful to other people. I’m also going to share my stand-by recipes that I make just about every year.

Without further ado, here are my tips for hosting a holiday meal:

  • Make lots of lists. Make a guest list, a grocery list, a list of the serving dishes and place settings you’ll need, a list of who is bringing what, and a list for every day leading up to the holiday with amounts of time you’ll need for each component of each dish or facet of the meal. For example, set aside time to clean up or set the table. And set aside 15 minutes before the guests arrive to get ready yourself. Don’t forget to factor in time for keeping the kitchen under control, especially if you don’t have a dishwasher or a friend helping you with dishes.

    My to-do list. Things got crossed out and moved around, but mostly I stuck to it.

  • Ask everyone to bring something. If you’re not in the US, your group of friends might have holiday traditions that differ from your own, and ask them to bring whatever their favorite dish for the holiday is. Or, if someone can’t/doesn’t cook, ask them to bring alcohol.

    Our Thanksgiving cohost is an amazing baker, and she offered to make nearly all of the desserts. We wound up with the Thanksgiving dessert selection of my dreams!

  • Ask about dietary restrictions. You don’t want to find out that someone is lactose intolerant or a vegetarian after you’ve planned your menu.
  • Do as much as you can in advance. Go grocery shopping the weekend before, recognizing that you’ll undoubtedly forget a few things and will also need to go to the store the day before. We make cranberry sauce and gravy ahead of time, and I’ll also prep the components for various dishes (i.e. make pie crust, boil the sweet potatoes, or chop the onions and celery for dressing) up to several days in advance. Set the table the day before, decide upon and clear off your serving space, and make labels if needed. This sounds really fiddly, but I’ve found that making a cute little sign to put by the punch bowl eliminates a lot of questions, especially when you have alcoholic and non-alcoholic options. This past Thanksgiving, I surprised even myself and I had several hours to snuggle on the couch with M and watch Netflix’s She-Rah revival on Thanksgiving Day. It was marvelous.
  • Do not turn down help. If someone offers to bring something extra, come over and help set up, or stay and wash dishes, your response should always be, “That would be awesome!”
  • Always serve appetizers and pre-meal drinks. People usually arrive hungry and it’s good to keep everyone busy (and sated) until the meal is served. Usually appetizers are one of the first things that I ask someone else to bring. If you need suggestions, baked brie, antipasta platters, veggie platters and buffalo chicken dip are always popular. This past year we made ginger liquor and served cranberry-ginger punch. It was very popular and tasty.
  • Spatchcock and grill your turkey. This frees up the oven for other things, in addition to giving the turkey amazing flavor, and by spatchcocking your turkey, you drastically reduce the cooking time. If you don’t have access to a grill, at least spatchcock your bird. Remember that the turkey needs to rest for at least 30 minutes and you shouldn’t serve it immediately after it’s done cooking.
  • If you know something is going to stress you out, don’t do it! The goal is to share a meal with people you love (or at least like) and to have fun. There’s no reason to do anything you don’t want to do!
  • Not related to hosting, but still important: If you’re not living in the US and you see an ingredient you know you’ll need for a holiday meal, buy it. I spent $15 on a huge bag of frozen cranberries in August and I stock-piled plain canned pumpkin when I saw it in May. The canned pumpkin came in especially handy when it was nowhere to be found in November and I was giving away cans to friends.

    This dressing/stuffing will change your life. I’m not joking. The recipe is below!

Here are our favorite recipes, including some new favorites and others that I’ve been making for nearly a decade:

Appetizers and cocktails

Cranberry ginger punch (made with ginger liqueur): This is our new favorite holiday cocktail. Easy and a good crowd-pleaser
Sweet potato bites with feta: roast the sweet potatoes ahead of time and make the feta filling separately. Then assemble day-of
Baked brie: There are many schools of thought on baked brie, but I think this one is the best. A good friend who is the ultimate host introduced me to it and it’s awesome. Roll the puff pastry very thinly so it bakes evenly and quickly. Make sure the slits don’t go too far down the sides or your cheese will leak out
Bacon-wrapped dates: Lightly cook bacon in the pan, so it’s about half-cooked. Slice the dates, remove the pits, and stuff them with blue cheese. Wrap each date with half a slice of bacon, securing it with a toothpick. Bake at 400 degrees F for 10-15 minutes, or until the bacon is crispy and the cheese is warm.
Buffalo chicken dip: An easy crowd-pleaser; serve with celery and sliced baguette

Dinner

Bacon-shallot gravy: I’m not a gravy person and I could literally drink this
The best stuffing ever: DO NOT skip the sausage
Brined turkey: I’ve tried a number of brine recipes and this is by far the best. You can actually taste the flavor of the brine in the turkey. If I’m spatchcocking the turkey, I leave it in the brine for 24 hours. If I break down the turkey, then I do 12-15 hours. I’ve never done the whole herbed butter thing
Goat cheese mashed potatoes: I don’t know who actually has time to use a food mill.  Not me. Regardless, this goes well with turkey and also beef and lamb

Dessert

Black-bottom oatmeal pie: Like pecan pie, but better, frankly
Pumpkin pie: This recipe is my favorite for pumpkin pie, hands-down

There are other tips/tricks and recipes that I’m probably forgetting, so please consider this to be a “living” blog post, and feel free to share your own suggestions!

Tips for visiting the Salmah Plateau

The setting sun behind the Salmah Plateau, from Fins Beach

There’s a lot to do between Muscat and Sur: Wadi Shab, Bimmah Sinkhole, Wadi al Arbaeen,  and Fins Beach, just to name a few favorites. The Salmah Plateau is  easily over-looked for those low-lying and easily accessible attractions, but everywhere you look, there it is, in the distance. It’s a beautiful, desolate area in the Eastern Hajar mountains, with barren vistas spanning for miles. The plateau is dotted with beehive tombs and herds of camels, and you will come across some small villages and goat herders, but that’s pretty much it.

The Salmah Plateau in the setting sun

I can see for miles and miles…

We recently had a five-day holiday weekend, and we wanted to go camping and escape the crowds. With the sheer size of the plateau and its relative inaccessibility (compared to someplace like Fins Beach), we decided to spend the night amongst the beehive tombs at 1,500 meters above sea level.

The view of the sunset from our campsite

It was an incredible journey and something I’d highly recommend for anyone who wants to truly venture off the beaten path and experience Oman at its best. It’s also a surprisingly short drive: only about 90 minutes to the first turn-off to go up the plateau and then another 1-2 hours to the tombs, depending on how much you stop.

Dirt roads, sunshine and mountains

While planning your trip to the Salmah Plateau, here are some things to think about:

  • Only 4WD vehicles can make the trip. On our way up we passed a vehicle coming the other direction, and they stopped and told us their rented little AWD Mazda was unable to make the ascent. You need a vehicle with some power (and good brakes).
  • It gets cold at night. I think it probably got down to 15C while we were there, if not colder.
  • Bring snacks and water for the people who live on the plateau. We passed an old shepherd who asked for food, not to mention countless children and other villagers. Next time we’ll keep water bottles, a bag of dates, candy, and snack packs of Oman chips in the car.
  • Download a map that you can use on the plateau ahead of time. There is no cell reception on the plateau. I recommend maps.me but with some serious reservations (more on that in my next post).
  • Fill up on gas by Bimmah Sinkhole. There are no gas stations on the plateau.
  • Bring a buddy in another vehicle and walkie-talkies. We joked about needing walkie-talkies, but it turns out they actually would have been really helpful. It’s also good to have people in another vehicle in case something happens to one of the cars.
  • Take road at the Fins exit on the Muscat-Sur highway to go up the mountain. There is another exit a few miles down the highway that also goes up to the plateau, but it is paved and incredibly steep which makes it less-than-idea for the ascent.

Because any real Oman adventure has to include camels

It would be possible to take a day-trip up to the Salmah Plateau, but I would recommend camping and staying the night. Watching the sunset up there is a magical experience, and you do not want to drive down from the plateau at night. We lucked out and found an amazing camping spot that already had some cleared areas for our tents and a fire pit. You will need to make sure you bring all your own firewood, food, and water, plus cots or thick mats for your sleeping bags.

Next up: what we did, what we saw, and what went wrong!