Friday, May 4, 2012

Oman trip: Wahiba Sands, Day Five

As we planned our trip, we knew that we wanted to go beyond Muscat and see other parts of Oman, but we weren't sure how we wanted to do that. For awhile, we toyed with the idea of renting a car -- a 4WD would have been about $100 a day but the gas incredibly cheap -- but were a little nervous about getting around and actually finding the things we wanted to see, especially the wadis. (My Lonely Planet Arabian Peninsula guidebook is from 2004 and has directions like, "Turn right at the small roundabout by the block factory at the end of the village" and "Don't leave the track: mirages of water can lead you into the shallow-crusted sabkha [salt plain].")

So upon the advice of our friends, we decided to take a tour instead, a private, guided tour with Zahara Tours. We did the overnight 1001 Nights Package, which added in a couple of other locations before and after the main event, the Wahiba Sands. It was pretty expensive, and I was quite shocked when I heard the price -- but later, we realized it was a reasonable price in Oman, it's just that with the exchange rate of 1 Omani Rial to $2.6, EVERYTHING seem expensive.

Our driver, Qais, picked us up at 8am at the house and off we went, up and over the mountains, to the first stop, the fishing village of Quriyat. There had been a sand storm in the region a couple of days before we arrived, so while it was sunny, the sky had this greyish-brownish pallor almost the entire time we were there. When we got to Quriyat, it was particularly heavy, which made it seem pretty blah as a destination. There weren't any flamingos or eagles in the inland stream, so the highlight there was the fish market, where we were the only patrons/visitors. They had a bin of small dead sharks, unfortunately, which I found especially interesting as the owner of the dive shop had told us the day before he'd gotten the market in Muscat to stop selling them (for awhile anyway; apparently they'd lapsed).

After that, we got off the main road and bumped our way along a rocky, dry track up and along the hills until we reached the amazing Wadi Arabayeen. In thinking about traveling to Oman, I'd been a little up in the air -- would it be as great as I imagined? -- but then a photo I saw in National Geographic Traveler a couple months ago of Wadi Bani Khalid sealed the deal, so I was pretty excited to actually see our first wadi, which is really just a flat stream bed cutting through the mountains. We initially stopped at one of the pools, where a couple of teenagers were enjoying the turquiose waters, but then after that, we just drove through it, along the track, with the mountains reaching up on either side. At some points, we saw goats, a couple of kids (who may have been tending the goats)... I wish we'd stayed longer at the water there -- compared to the dry, deserty environment all around us, the pools just looked so inviting.

We then went to the Bimah Sinkhole, followed by the mausoleum of Bibi Miriam. Both were interesting, but not the most exciting...though perhaps that was because of the heat and the fact that we were still pre-lunch. :) The sinkhole is basically one big pool, which was created by seawater eroding the limestone underneath the ground, until it collapsed -- the water there, too, is a lovely green-blue color, and a mix, I believe, of salt water and fresh water (and home to those tickly little fish that like to eat the dead skin off your feet). Interestingly, I saw a Nike-sponsored video less than a week after we got back where two guys pack in like 10 countries in 10 days that features the sinkhole (around minute 2:50, where the guy's jumping into the water). Anyway, we went about halfway into the water, mostly because it was a little too cold to go in all the way. Bibi Miriam, in contrast, is a 2nd-century AD ruin that Marco Polo visited at one point; apparently, it used to be reputed as the site of the Virgin Mary's tomb. The only thing you can do there is walk around the perimeter of the building (and according to a sign out front, it seems like you're not even supposed to do that).

We had lunch in the town of Sur and then made a quick stop at a dhow (boat) factory in town, which was surprisingly interesting, as they had multiple boats in progress, at different stages, so you could really see how these handmade wooden boats come together.

After Sur, we headed for the Wahiba Sands. The landscape at this point was pretty flat and aside from the occasional camel at the side of the road, there wasn't much. But then, probably about 45 minutes before we reached the sands, we started to see them in the distance -- and for a long time, it really just looked like hills. And then you get there, and it's amazing, this red-sand desert. It was actually sort of formed like the wadis -- hills (here made of sand) on both sides with a flat track running down the middle, making it driveable.

But pretty much right off the bat, Qais asked us if we wanted to go dune driving, and then proceeded to drive like a crazy man up and around on the actual sand dunes. We were sliding from side to side and going up and down these dunes (made of nothing but sand!) and I was pretty terrified we were going to flip was like riding a rollercoaster. Thankfully, it only lasted about 10 minutes, until we reached this Bedouin home we were to visit, which was more or less right where the sands started (which is to say, it didn't strike me that they were out in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking). The "home" visit was a little weird, for a number of reasons. I'm pretty sure we just went into an entry room that had been built for visitors, and we sat on the blankets and had tea and dates. Some of the family was there, but they were only little kids and teenagers, and were mostly fooling around amongst themselves. So I don't feel like we really got a glimpse into the "Bedouin life" or anything like that. Having said that, one of the boys was a little rascal and pretty funny. They had a scorpion trapped in a water bottle, which they'd attached to a pole -- when we were looking at it, the kid snuck up behind me and pounced on my leg, hoping to scare me (which he did, quite successfully!). Then, when we went outside, he decided to start "playing" with one of the camels -- he got on it and started swatting it until it stood up, at which point he started doing gymnastics on its back. :)

After that visit, we drove about 45 minutes into the sands to reach the 1,001 Night Camp, which was set in the middle of nowhere and where we stayed overnight, in our own fixed tent. It was incredibly nice, and while I'm not sure what you'd do with yourself during the day, I don't feel like we were there long enough to have really, truly enjoyed it. As I said, we had our own tent, which had two beds and a bathroom (open to the sky), and there was a swimming pool and a open-air dining area.

Qais offered to take us up to the top of the sand dunes for sunset, so we only had about 30 minutes to chill out before we were off again on another roller-coaster ride. :)  The Wahiba Sands are just amazing -- the sand is a vivid burnt-orange color and it just goes on and on and on. So Cagatay and I sat up there at the top and we were just enjoying the expansive view until...HE PROPOSED! I was pretty surprised, to say the least.

We spent the rest of the evening at the camp. After a buffet dinner that was mostly Indian food (over the two-day tour, every meal we had was Indian food...I assume because of the amount of Indian workers in the country...and because I love Indian cuisine, it was pretty awesome), we went back to our tent, pulled the chairs out and sat under the stars for a couple of hours...

As usual, the slideshow comes next:

Created with flickr slideshow.
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1 comment:

  1. I've been having trouble commenting, but...

    Congrats! That is really exciting!


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