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
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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!

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.

 

Vacationing, non-biolumnisecent algae, running, and other stuff

Oh, man. Winter is going by way too quickly. I feel like I blinked and January was over. Why is it that time always flies when you’re having fun? Never in my life have I been like, “Well that sucked. Thank god it was over quickly.”

Sunrise over paradise

Nate and I spent five days in the Maldives and it was the most vacationy vacation I’ve ever had. It was fantastic. In case you have questions about our trip, here are my responses to the most common queries:

  • Yes, it’s worth it.
  • We stayed at the Centara Grand Island Resort and Spa and we loved it.
  • Yes, it is a kid-friendly resort (but you’ll have more fun if you leave them behind unless they are amazing swimmers).

Our bungalow was the third one.

While we were away Athena stayed at Jebel K9 and she had a great time. It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere, about 45 minutes from Muscat, and the hours aren’t exactly work-friendly, but I think it’s the best boarding you’ll find in the area. I drove down the driveway to the main house and felt like I was entering Doggy Manor. The dogs are kenneled in a huge fancy house and then they have a bunch of dog runs outside in a humongous compound where the dogs play with handlers and with each other. She came home happy and tired, so I’ll take it.

M has started going to half-day daycare/preschool and it’s been great for him. He and one Korean girl are the only non-Arab children in the class, and he’s even getting Arabic lessons once a day (the school operates primarily in English).  The school focuses on developing children into responsible, helpful, and mindful citizens, so they’re learning about gardening, recycling, helping around the house, and community service. Recently he had a field trip and the school sent a text message telling all the parents they need to give a carseat for their child to use that day. In a country where you see children riding on the driver’s lap, hanging their heads out the window, this was great to see. Let me know if you need Muscat daycare/pre-school recommendations, because we’ve been very happy so far!

Not a bad view for a road race!

A few weeks ago I ran my first half marathon since October 2014. My training didn’t go perfectly and I didn’t PR, but I ran the whole thing and I finished. And my time was only 9 minutes slower than my last half. The race was through Al Mouj north of Muscat and I thought it was relatively well-run, no pun intended. They didn’t finalize the race course until like a week ahead of time, there was no race expo at packet pick-up, and parts of the course were through a construction site (after which I had to take my shoes off and dump out the pebbles and sand). But they had lots of water stations and they were handing out gels and bananas. Maybe I’ll do a separate post on the race since I think this is quickly getting boring for anyone who doesn’t care about running.

Moving on… We spent Christmas day at our favorite beach with some good friends. One of the upsides of having an artificial Christmas tree is that you can take it apart, so I pulled the top off and brought it to the beach, along with the star tree topper. We drank prosecco and grilled chicken and sausages while the kids played in the sand and chased crabs. It was a perfect way to spend the day and I didn’t miss the cold Wisconsin winter weather for even a minute.

Mother Nature tried to be festive and decorate for Christmas

However, one thing that was odd about the beach that day was the amount of algae. It was ridiculous. The water was bright green. We went back again a few weeks later thinking maybe it would be gone by then, but it wasn’t. One of my friends said she’d heard it was bioluminescent algae (which I can’t mention without thinking of the quote “Oh, I see what she’s done, she’s covered a barnacle in bioluminescent algae, as a diversion.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably don’t have kids.) so I even drove back to the beach late at night to try to get some cool photos. Turned out it wasn’t bioluminescent, or I wasn’t doing whatever needed to be done for it to be bioluminescent.

Not bioluminescent, just green and smelly.

We drove to see the beehive tombs at Bat and Al Ayn/Ain a few weeks ago. We couldn’t find the ones at Bat, but the Al Ayn (not to be confused with Al Ain in the UAE) tombs were visible from the main road. I may have shrieked when I first saw them. They are 5,000 year-old tombs that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they are pretty fricking cool. There are supposed to be more tombs at Bat, but the ones at Al Ain are spectacular because of the setting. They are perched on top of a hill in front of a huge mountain and they’re very well-preserved. Once we figure out how to get to the ones at Bat, I’ll write a separate post about that too.

Beehive tombs at Al Ayn

Alright, I have to go finish my book club book. I didn’t finish last month’s and I’m not failing two months in a row!

What’s here (beaches, restaurants, our car) and what’s not (our HHE)

We’ve been in Muscat for over two months now, and at this point it seems like the honeymoon phase will never end. Oman is incredible and we still have so much to see!

Our favorite way to spend the day

We set the goal of going to the beach at least once a week, and so far we’ve been hitting our target. We’ve explored several beaches within an hour drive from Muscat and there are some really amazing ones. Our beach tent/shelter thing just arrived in the mail, as did Marlowe’s camping chair which he is very excited about, and we are slowly getting fully outfitted for our beach days. I haven’t had this much beach time since I was a kid and it is a lot of fun.

Before arriving here we’d basically stopped going to restaurants because M isn’t patient enough to sit still for that long. Personally, if I go to a restaurant and I’m sitting there enjoying a nice meal, I get annoyed if a toddler is yelling a few tables away or a shrieking child goes running past. The last thing I want to do is subject other people to something that drives me absolutely nuts. But here, everyone likes kids. If M is running around a restaurant, everyone smiles at him and reaches out to touch his blond/white hair. So we’ve slowly started to explore local restaurants and there are some great ones. Lots of restaurants have water features and, if you go outside, stray cats which are obviously a huge hit with kids.

Our car, her name is Jasmine, arrived from the US last week, and today she got an inspection, new tires, and diplomatic plates! For the first week after she arrived she was essentially just an expensive car port ornament, since we had no plates and couldn’t drive her anywhere. They checked the window tint during the inspection and Jasmine’s rear-most windows are very lightly tinted, which thankfully wasn’t an issue. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. Then there was the tires… I remember when a tire blew on our SUV in Dhaka and it was an all-day fiasco. Our driver went to three different shops to get prices on tires, and we ended up spending an arm and a leg. Here I drove to a mechanic, they gave me a reasonable quote, and it was done in an hour.

Our Dhaka HHE is still not here. It’s really annoying. This is one of those things that I struggle with because we are so lucky to be getting a shipment at all on the government’s dime and what kind of spoiled brat complains about that. It is, after all, just stuff and at least it will get here eventually. I left Dhaka in July 2016 so I’ve been living without my Dhaka things for nearly a year and a half. Clearly it’s stuff that I can survive without. On the other hand, I really like most of the things I left in Dhaka and it would be great to put some pictures on the walls. It would also be nice to have more than 4 dinner plates (but why am I complaining about how many dinner plates we currently have? How awesome is it that the State Department provides a welcome kit with dinner plates and stuff to tide you over until your shipments arrive? I should be grateful we have any dinner plates at all.) Plus I want my mattress and blankets. And my Dutch oven, awesome toaster, cake pans, serving dishes and cutting boards.

While snorkeling I saw a turtle!

Rather than ending on a whiney note, I’ll leave you with this: I was on a snorkeling trip and one of the women on the boat asked if there were sharks. Our guide, an Omani, said, “You’re in the sea, of course there are sharks. But you’re in Oman, so they are very friendly.” I doubt that’s accurate, but I appreciate the sentiment!