The Duqm Rock Garden

Rocks. Yes, this is actually a tourist attraction.

Duqm, a coastal town in the middle of Oman, is an interesting place. And I mean interesting as in “Hmmm… that’s, uh, interesting….” Not “Wow, that’s so interesting!”

Oman is marketing Duqm as a “special economic zone,” and a bunch of fancy new (by which I mean expensive) hotels have been recently constructed there as they try to build up the shipping industry. I’ve been trying for a while to get a full picture of what exactly is the big deal with Duqm, and I guess the objective is to turn it into the port that everyone stops at on their way up towards the Strait of Hormuz or the Indian Ocean. Right now Dubai is the big hub, but Duqm is centrally located in a strategic position closer to shipping lanes.  That’s my understanding of it, anyways. I could be wrong.

We drove through Duqm on our way down to Salalah, and I’d read about the Duqm Rock Garden. It’s a huge space full of interesting rocks, and it seemed like a good place to stop and stretch our legs.

First, however, we had to figure out how to access it. It’s surrounded by a construction project, and finding our way to the parking lot involved driving through construction sites and turning where it looked like we probably shouldn’t.

Surprise! There is a real parking lot and even a sign.

Eventually we found our way to the parking lot, put M in his hiking pack, and walked into the park. At which point we discovered that the park has been overrun by aggressive feral dogs.

Nate and I are dog people, but these ones were scary. They started barking and running towards us, and we made a beeline for the car. You can drive into the park, so we decided we’d just drive around instead and enjoy the park from the safety of our vehicle.

We reached one particularly interesting area, and I decided to get out of the car for a few minutes to take a few pictures. I was maybe 100 meters from the car and I heard a dog barking, so I started hurrying back to the car. The barking got closer, and I started sprinting. I got to the car and could see I a dog perched on an outcropping, watching my every move.

The second of the two photos I took before I sprinted back to the car.

Between the mess that was figuring out how to access the Rock Garden and the potential mauling that one could get there, I’m going to say that a stop here is absolutely not worth it. But it makes for a good story.

Advertisements

Al Khaluf: The Sugar Dunes

The white Sugar Dunes of Al Khaluf

The white sand dunes of Al Khaluf, also called Ras Bin Tawt or, more aptly, the Sugar Dunes, is one of my new favorite spots in Oman. It is amazingly beautiful.

The Sugar Dunes and the coast on a cloudy overcast morning

We left Muscat around 10:15 am and arrived in Al Khaluf 3:45. The majority of the drive is painfully boring, and it took a lot longer than we thought it would. But once you turn off the main road for Al Khaluf, the scenery changes into rocky dunes and the drive is beautiful.

The rocky sandy dunes of Al Khaluf

After leaving the paved road, we let the air out of the tires down to 15 PSI. We used the route in Oman Off Road to reach the dunes, and even with the GPS coordinates, it would have been impossible without the maps.me app. Luckily I’d downloaded it months ago and when we were getting lost with Waze and Google Maps, maps.me came through for us.

First you’ll drive along the Al Khaluf beach, and then you’ll have to drive inland a little ways. Eventually you’ll hit the coast again, at which point you’ve reached the Sugar Dunes. We drove along the dunes until we reached a spot that looked nice, where we pulled over and started setting up camp. We tried to angle the car a little for wind protection, and we set up the tent as close to the vehicle as we could.

We tried to use the car as a wind breaker along the beach

Nate got started on the fire while I set up the beach tent and the sleeping tent. The beach tent came in particularly handy here as a wind shelter. We could eat meals and prepare food without getting sand blown into everything.

That night I slept like crap. We had to put the fly on the tent because we didn’t want the fine-grain sand getting into everything, which turned the inside of the tent into an un-ventilated oven. Plus, it was so windy, the tent was making tons of noise, and I felt like I kept hearing someone outside our tent. We woke up the next morning and there were little fox prints all over our campsite. Thank goodness we put all our trash and food back in the car overnight!

The sky shortly after sunrise. Luckily that storm never blew our way!

After packing up our campsite we explored the dunes a bit more and then headed out. Oman Off Road said there was a neat fish farm to check out at the end of the peninsula, but it looks like it’s now defunct. And if you get out of the car there you’ll be attacked by a pack of dogs. The dogs came running at our car and kept up with us at 25 mph for several minutes, barking their heads off. So, don’t get out of the car!

We are definitely planning to back to the Sugar Dunes. Camping between the dunes and the ocean is an amazing experience, and the white dunes are just gorgeous. I kept running up the dunes to get more pictures as the light just got better and better. (Although now that I’m looking at the photos, I realize I still have some editing to do with the colors.) I’ve heard that the winter is less windy, and that seems like the perfect time for a return trip!

Sunset over the Sugar Dunes

The Great Salalah Road Trip of 2018

The Wadi Darbat waterfall near Salalah

When you go on a trip, it falls somewhere on the vacation-adventure spectrum. During a vacation, you have not a care in the world, and ideally you’re lying on a beach in the middle of nowhere with a good book in one hand and a drink in the other. When you’re on an adventure, you hit the ground running, and you don’t come up for air until the whole thing is over. Most trips are somewhere in the middle, especially when you have kids (because, let’s be honest, taking a proper vacation with small children is impossible).

We recently took a road trip down to Salalah, Oman’s largest town in the south, and it was 100% an adventure. We drove on beaches and off-road, camped in beautiful remote areas, hiked, lost part of our car on a windy mountain plateau, got chased by wild dogs and camels, explored ruins and waterfalls, got nearly blown over by wind, waded through parasite-laden streams, took thousands of photos, and had an awesome time.

Salalah during khareef: mountains, muddy roads, greenery, and clouds

Every year there is a monsoon season in the southern part of Oman, called the khareef, and it turns Salalah into a desert oasis. Plants spring out of the ground, streams and waterfalls with bright blue water appear out of nowhere, and the entire area becomes Oman’s #1 tourist destination.

So much greenery and turquoise water!

The khareef runs from June to August, and we were initially planning to visit over the long 4th of July weekend. But Nate went to Salalah for work in April, and the hotel receptionist told him that the best time to visit is actually September. It’s less rainy, the mountains are at their greenest, and there are less tourists. That receptionist was spot-on 100% correct: September was a perfect time to visit the region.

We took the coastal route to Salalah rather than the inland route, and we spent two nights camping on the way down, followed by 2 nights at a hotel in Salalah. Rather than drive back to Muscat, we opted to fly home and ship our car back with a vehicle transportation company. The total cost of shipping the car and plane tickets was less than $260, which was very much worth not having to drive 12-14 hours back.

Camping at the Sugar Dunes near Al Khaluf

I’ll write more about where we camped and what sites we saw on the way down, plus what we did and where we went in Salalah. For now, here’s a color-coded map of what we did, with the red pins marking camping spots and the blue pins indicating places of interest.


Here is our general itinerary:

Day 1: depart Muscat around 10 am, arrive at Al Khaluf at 3:45, reach campsite in the Sugar Dunes by 4:30

Day 2: depart campsite by 8:30 am; stop at Duqm Rock Garden, Ras Al Markaz beach, and the pink lagoon; reach Dhofar coast campsite by 4:45

Day 3: depart campsite by 8:30 am; stop in Hasik to see waterfall and ruins; stop numerous times along the route to take photos of the coastline; arrive at hotel around 5 pm

Day 4: visit Wadi Darbat: go to hillside viewing point for waterfall and travertine curtain; hike to waterfall; drive up to see ponds, streams and little waterfalls; hike to see travertine curtain from above; drive to see Tawi Ateer sink hole; drive to baobab tree forest; lunch in Mirbat; visit Ayn Tabruk and Ayn Athum

Day 5: visit Sumhuram ruins, Ayn Khor, Al Baleed archeological park and Land of Frankincense museum. Drop car off with vehicle transport guy at 5 pm and take taxi to airport

Also, if you’re planning to do this road trip, you may want to download the maps.me app. You can download the Oman map and it’ll still work well even when you have zero cellular service. Maps.me has all the tiny little tracks through dunes, mountains, and random fields that most people wouldn’t even consider to be roads. But when you want to go off the beaten track, even if you have GPS coordinates, it is very helpful.

Make sure you also have plenty of water, a towing cable, a tire deflator with a  gauge, a battery-powered tire pump, and a shovel. Also make sure you know where your jack and spare tire are. It’s always good to be prepared on a road trip to remote areas!

Camping at a random beach in norther Dhofar

An overnight at Ras Al Jinz

A mama turtle heading back to the sea, with a baby turtle following behind

About a month ago we visited Ras Al Jinz, a turtle nesting and research area on the eastern-most tip of Oman. Ras Al Jinz is a protected nature reserve, and it’s one of the few places in the world where green turtles nest year-round. Peak nesting season is June to August, and peak hatching season is September to November.

We departed Muscat at 10 am, and by noon we’d reached the white sandy beaches of Fins. After a nice lunch and swim, we got back on the road around 2:30. We arrived at the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve and research center around 4:30; after we checked in, we made our way up to our tent. If you do the drive straight through, without stopping, the  trip from Muscat to Ras Al Jinz takes about 3.5 hours.

Camels along the road en route to Ras Al Jinz

There are two lodging options: eco-tents and a hotel. I can’t speak for the hotel, but the tents are pretty great.  There are tents for 2 or 4 people, and whichever tent size you pick, they are surprisingly large. We got a tent for 2 people, and there was plenty of space for M’s travel cot, plus a table, chairs, an A/C unit, television, and a minifridge.

Our tent

One strange thing about the tents: there is a long paved walkway leading up to the tents (it’s a bit of a hike), and there are signs saying you’re not allowed to drive on the walkway. But then there’s a large parking area up by the tents. We off-roaded a bit to drive up the tents, keeping to the unfinished area next to the walkway. I don’t know if a low-clearance vehicle could do it, but we had no problem in our Jeep.

A view of the tents from a nearby hill. Note the lovely parking area!

There was some down-time between getting settled into the tents and dinner, but there was space for the kids to run around and play. After spending several hours in the car, M was happy to finally be free, and Nate and I were happy with the bottle of wine and snacks that we’d brought with us.

Dinner at the resort starts at 7:00, and the price is apparently negotiable. It was a decent spread, with Indian and continental options. Nothing particularly special, but not bad either.

When you’re staying at Ras Al Jinz, you have two opportunities to see turtles: once at night, around 9 pm, and again in the early morning, around 5 am. I’ll tell you now that I enjoyed the morning viewing a lot more;  it’s also the best one for taking pictures and kids will find it more interesting too. At night you basically just get to see the turtles laying eggs, and there are mobs of people because the tour is open to people who aren’t staying at the resort, whereas the morning tour is only for those staying at the resort.  In the morning you can see the turtles in nests laying eggs, and also making their way back to the sea.

The resort and buildings are set quite a ways back from the beach, and for either viewing, plan on walking at least half a mile out to the beach on a dirt road or in the sand, tromping around in deep sand once you get to the beach, and then walking half a mile back. It’s not strenuous or anything, but it might be difficult for anyone with mobility issues.

A mama turtle digging a pit in which to lay eggs

Around 8:45 pm we elbowed our way through crowds of people and made our way down to the beach with a tour guide. The guides would message each other with the turtle locations so that we could (ideally) quietly and slowly, in a single file line, walk along the beach and see the turtles laying eggs and flapping in their sandy pits. With that many people, you can’t keep everyone quiet and following directions. If I were one of those turtles, I would have been pretty annoyed. But it was a neat experience, and definitely something I’d never seen before!

Another mama turtle heading back to sea after laying eggs

The next morning we woke up at 4:15 am to make it down to the main building by 4:55 to head back out to the beach. Poor M did not want to wake up, and eventually I told him we were going to see turtles. He leapt up and practically jumped out of bed, wide awake and ready for action!

The sun was rising as we walked back down to the beach, and we spent about 90 minutes at the beach, watching the mama turtles make their way back to the ocean. Our guide also had two baby turtles in his dishdasha pocket, which he set free on the beach. Those little guys frantically made their way to the ocean as quickly as possible, and it was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

Another mama slowly making her way out of her sand pit towards the sea at 5 am

All the turtle tracks leading down to the beach

Our guides on the beach with another mama turtle emerging from her nest

After watching the turtles in the morning, we headed back to the main building for breakfast. It was a good spread, but the definite highlight was the espresso machine. I need a solid 8 hours of sleep to function, and 5 hours just won’t do it for me. Coffee with added espresso shots to the rescue!

The view down towards the beach from the main building. It’s maybe a half mile walk each way.

We trekked back to the tent, packed up, and hit the road by 8:30 am. On the drive back we stopped at Ras Al Hadd, the ancient city of Qalhat, and Wadi Tiwi. Other options could be stopping at Sur, Wadi Shab or Bimmah Sinkhole, or even checking out more of the beaches around Fins. There’s so much to do in that area!

If you wanted to make a whole weekend out of it, you could go to Bimmah and then camp at Fins one night, go to Wadi Shab and Sur on your way to Ras Al Jinz the next day, overnight at Ras Al Jinz, and then do Wadi Tiwi on your way home.

I’d highly recommend Ras Al Jinz, especially to those with children. In fact, we’re planning to go back again later in the year!

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.

Our tour here is 1/3 done :(

What post about the awesomeness of Oman is complete without the requisite Wadi Shab photo?

Yes, I feel so strongly about that I needed to put an emoticon in the subject line.

Folks, the past eight months have flown by. Like, I feel like we got here maybe 2 months ago. I’ve counted it off on my fingers several times just to make sure we are actually at the 8-month mark. (And I just did it again.)

Classic Oman: sand and camels in the Wahiba Sands

One thing I’ve learned in life is that things can go to shit real fast. Keeping that in mind, with every week that goes by, I remind myself how lucky I am. Oman is a truly incredible place, and we are very fortunate to be here. That might seem like a crazy thing to say, given the fact that we are in the Middle East, bordering Yemen, with Iran just across the Straight of Hormuz, but Oman is such a special place.

The beautiful Dayminiat Islands

Don’t get me wrong, there are things about Oman, or at least Muscat, that annoy me. Like the driving. The other day we were sitting at an intersection, and the light had just turned red. We watched a car turn right and head in the opposite direction from us, and then inexplicably do a 3-point turn and turn around, going in the wrong direction. He then proceeded to plow over the 8-inch tall median (in a sedan, nonetheless, so he must have really been keeping his foot on the gas) and t-bone a car waiting for the light to turn going in the opposite direction from us. It was nothing short of ridiculous. Nate was worried the driver had had a heart attack because why else would you drive like that, but then the driver got out the car and started pointing at the dude he’d just t-boned like he’d something wrong.  It was mind-boggling. I am convinced that if it weren’t for the red light cameras, all hell would break loose.

Deep under water, where crazy drivers aren’t a problem. We saw turtles, along with electric rays, moray eels, and loads of fish while scuba diving off Jissah Point.

But, for the most part, I feel like we have things figured out and we’re able to spend our weekends exploring and having fun. There are a few things that we brought with us or purchased since arriving here that have helped us to maximize our fun, or at least made life a little easier.

Bimmah Sinkhole

Here, in no particular order, are a few things that I would recommend you have when in Oman:

  • A large, durable water bladder.  We keep one of these MSR bags in our car all the time. It’s perfect for rinsing off after the beach and doubles as an emergency water supply if necessary.
  • A beach tent/shelter. The tent we had previously would blow away like a sail with every strong gust of wind, and I got tired of chasing it down the beach. This tent is anchored with sandbags and an attached floor that you weigh down with all your stuff. It’s stayed put through several strong wind gusts that would have certainly uprooted the other tent. This tent is also amazingly easy to put up and take down; I can do it by myself in less than 5 minutes.
  • For the ladies, I give you the perfect pants for hot climates. They are also great for traveling and hiking, and if you have to wade into the water at the beach fully clothed these pants will dry in less than half an hour. I got my first pair at 40% off, and given that summer and Ramadan are coming I recently bought a second pair at full price. At $79 these pants are an investment, but totally and completely worth it.
  • Oman Off-Road is the best guide for exploring Oman, and definitely worth the $50 price tag. You an buy it at any Borders book store (yes, those still exist here) and at some grocery stores. It is full of helpful info and you can do some of the routes in a sedan. I just wish it was spiral bound because it is so big that when I open it in the car the sides hang off my lap.
  • Shoes you can wear in and out of the water. We use Chacos, but Tevas or Keens would also work.

Water/hiking shoes an absolute must if you want to explore Wadi Al Arbaeen

  • A CamelBak or some other on-the-go hydration system. When we go hiking, Nate carries M in the metal-framed hiking pack and we use a 2-liter Platypus in our day hiking pack, which I carry. Everyone, including M, drinks out of the Platypus.
  • A high-clearance vehicle with four wheel drive, if you really want to explore and go on adventures. You can rent one, but most of them have a 200 kilometer per day milage limit (we learned this the hard way). Our CR-V is great for day-to-day driving, but she can’t handle anything more than light off-roading.

    You need 4WD to get past the police checkpoint if you want to explore Jebel Akhdar

  • An unlocked cell phone. The two main cellular companies here, Omantel and Oredoo, have shops in the airport and you can easily get a SIM card as soon as you arrive. They just need a photocopy of your passport. The cellular network here is pretty good, although I think Omantel is stronger than Oredoo. You can use Waze for turn-by-turn directions (not Google Maps) to get just about anywhere.

I’m glad we have 16 more months to explore Oman. There’s still so much we haven’t done: Jebel Shams, Salalah, Masirah Island, Musandam, the Sugar Dunes, Wadi Tiwi, the list goes on.

Al Thorwah Hot Springs, near Nakhal Fort

Also, if I do say so myself, if these photos don’t convince you to come visit Oman, you are immune to fun and adventure!

Wadi Dhum

Wadi Dhum

While we were visiting the Bat and Al Ayn tombs, we also checked out Wadi Dhum. It was totally worth the long drive out. The water is beautiful with lots of spots to jump in, the canyon itself is lovely and the rocks are surprisingly very interesting.

One of the best things about the hike to the end of the wadi is that it’s actually a pretty quick hike. I’d say 45 minutes maximum, and that included jumping into some pools along the way. It’s also more of a true wadi hike because you do have to scramble over some rocks and look for a relatively-unobstructed path. The only downfall is that it’s a 3 hour drive from Muscat.

On this wadi hike, make sure you bring a dry bag you can stash all your stuff into and shoes that you can wear both in and out of water. Also, as usual, bring plenty of water, snacks, and sunscreen!

The view out of the wadi towards the carpark shortly after starting the hike

Oman Off Road has good advice for how to reach the end of the wadi, but I’ll go through what we did and what we’d do differently next time. First, if you have a high-clearance vehicle, you basically drive down the wadi bed until you can’t go any further. Park to the left under the rock ledge by the falaj if you want your car to stay shaded. If you’re driving a sedan, you might want to pull off the road where you can and park there because the closer you get to the parking lot, the more big rocks there are jutting out that could scrape the bottom of your car.

After you’ve parked, head up the wadi towards the dam. It’s maybe a 5 minute walk, and you could walk along the falaj or on the wadi bed. Cross the dam on the right side, and stay on that side for an easy walk to the a small waterfall with a massive boulder on the left side. Or, after crossing the dam go over to the left and jump into the first crystal blue inviting pool that you see to cool off. Then scramble over some slippery rocks to get to the right side with the trail to get to the waterfall. To the left of the enormous boulder by the waterfall you’ll notice a rope going up a rock into a cave-like rock formation. To proceed, either climb up the rocks by the waterfall (which I think would be possible if the rocks aren’t too slippery) or use the rope and climb up. If you take the waterfall route, bring a drybag for your stuff because you’ll have to swim to the rocks.

The rope is to the left of the large boulder, where the guys are standing.

The view along the hike through Wadi Dhum

From here we kept to the ledge on the right side of the wadi, which eventually spat us out a good bit above the final pool. The wadi eventually makes a 90 degree angle to the left and ends with a cave full of bats. Right before the wadi turns left you’ll find the last few pools. Getting down to the pools involved leaping over a big gap between two rocks and then clambering down while being careful to not touch the black rocks, which by 2 pm were burning hot. Then you go down through an opening in the rocks to climb down into the pools.

In the beautiful final wadi pool

Next time we’d stay on the right side of the wadi, but stay closer to the water rather than going up. Leaving the wadi, we climbed and swam through the water until there were easy ledges on either side. This route is definitely easier than the one we took coming in. You’re on the same side of the wadi as before, but there’s less climbing, scrambling and leaping over rock gaps.

We reached the point where you’d have to use the rope to go back down the slippery rocks and we figured out how to avoid that entirely. Keep to the left side of the wadi, and you’ll notice a path that goes up past the waterfall on the left side. You’ll have to scramble up a dicey area full of loose rocks and thorny shrubs, but if you just keep looking where you’re going, you’ll be fine. Note that this particular stretch of the hike is why I would not recommend taking this route entering the wadi. If you slip and fall going down, there is nothing stopping you from basically falling down a steep incline and off the side of a cliff. But going up it isn’t bad. After the dicey part you come to a nice wide path along a ledge in the wadi and you just follow that until you’re near the car park. It’s easy enough to walk down the hill and climb over a few rocks from there back to the car.

View out of the wadi towards the carpark as you leave. Keep to the left on the rock ledge, and then scramble up when the ledge stops. I promise there’s a trail up there.

Alright, so I reread my directions and they’re a bit confusing. If you plan on going and have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me personally!

Race review: Muscat Marathon 2018 half marathon

Running along the sea during the Muscat Marathon 2018 half marathon

Last month I ran the Muscat Marathon half-marathon, mentioned here, and it was a fun race. I like to write race reviews mostly for my own benefit; they’re fun to go back and read later, but, who knows, I might actually be helping someone that’s considering running the race. If you don’t give a shit about running (and who can blame you) you might not want to waste your time reading this.

The race was run on January 19, 2018 and race registration closed on December 1, 2017. I thought that was a little odd, as it’s almost a two month gap, which is more than enough time to train for a 10 k or, if you’ve got a good running base, a half marathon. The half cost about $65, so is was pricey but nothing too crazy if you’re used to US prices.

The race date was Friday morning (the workweek here is Sunday to Thursday) and packet pick-up was Monday-Wednesday before the race. There was no morning-of packet pick-up. I wish I’d taken a picture of the packet pick-up. It was a huge tent full of tables and volunteers, but hardly any runners were there. I don’t know when people picked up their packets, but it definitely wasn’t 6:30 pm on Wednesday. The guy who gave me my race bib and stuff told me my shirt was in the bag, but I got home and discovered he’d left it on the table. The race was at Al Mouj (formerly The Wave) which is half an hour away, and I wasn’t going to go back and get my shirt. I don’t need another race shirt that badly.

The race was initially going to start at 7 am, but the week before they changed it to 6 am. We left home around 4:30 to make sure we made it in time, and let’s just say we made it with plenty of time to spare. I milled around for over an hour before getting to my starting corral. I couldn’t find the port-a-pots so I used the toilets in the mall, which are really nice (although as we got closer to the race start they ran out of TP and paper towels).

The race started around 6:20 and the first few miles were on brick pavers, then we ran through a sandy construction area for maybe a mile, then it was back onto the brick pavers as we ran through the Al Mouj golf course. Then there was another half mile or so in the construction area, during which I had to stop and dump the sand and pebbles out of my shoes. Next we had another 2 miles on brick pavers before finally hitting asphalt. The brick pavers are no fun because they are particularly hard, whereas asphalt has a little give. There were probably 6 miles on the asphalt, 5 on the brick, and 2 on packed sand.

Sunrise over the mountains while running through the Al Mouj golf course

There were regular hydration and fuel stations, although at the hydration stations they were literally handing out full-sized plastic water bottles. It was so wasteful. I felt like a terrible person for taking a few swigs of water and then throwing a 2/3s full water bottle onto the ground (there were no garbage cans, or recycling, for that matter). There were a few stations with gels and at least one station with bananas.

There wasn’t tons of crowd support, and the course wasn’t particularly scenic, but I still enjoyed it. You run along the sea for a good chunk of it, and the part through the golf course is pretty. Running through the neighborhoods is fun; people are out in the bathrobes with their coffees, kids, and dogs, giving out high-fives.

The end of the race was kind of a mess. I ended as the 5k and 10k races were getting ready to start and the finishing area was jam-packed with people.

The morning of the race was unseasonably warm. I was expecting to be cold standing there in shorts and a tank top at 5:30 am, but I was sadly comfortable. I knew that meant I’d get hot quickly during the race, which unfortunately proved to be true. Thank god for those aid stations with water bottles; I also drank all the water in my hydration belt. When I finished I had crusty salt in my eyebrows.

In summary, the race was disorganized, but it was fun and you could tell the race organizers were trying really hard to make it as good as possible. I think in the years to come it will only get better!