Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hajjar Mountains


Hajjar Mountains around and on Jebel Shams - The highest mountains in Oman and this region standing tall at just over 3000 meters above sea level. Wadis covered are Bani Awf and Sahtan.

Travel Month:

Dec 2009


Sultanate of Oman

Total Days:

5 Days


Complete Offroad Experience!! Far off villages, very steep dirt track driving, and mountains.

Total Distance Covered:

1200 Kilometers

Total No. of Vehicles:

5 with five families



Wadis in Hajjar Mountains were on the list this time around. Due to Eid holidays we were able to make a 5 days trip to cover. We planned to enter into Oman from the Hatta border and early in the morning to avoid the holiday rush that will be nasty to spend a few hours at the border checkpost, however God had other plans for us. We got to know that John forgot to bring passports when we where 40 minutes away from the border. After a long discussion we convinced him to go back to Abu Dhabi and bring the passports. We also fixed two meeting points just in case the cell phones wont work which turned out to be the best idea as the phone connections really played hide n seek with us and there were hardly any good stretch of time when the phones continuously worked.

It was not crowded at the border when we reached but right after we formed a queue the number of people flocked to the windows and we could see a long line behind us but we were lucky to be in the first five in the line. Visas were arranged without any hassle and the custom people just let us go without check as always.

After leaving our house at 5:30am to pickup some nice Aalu Naan for the afternoon and a few stops on the way, we were on the Muscat road at around 10am. We drove slowly to give ample time to John for a catch up. About a 100km away from Muscat and just before we had to turn towards the Hajjar Mountains we made a stop for John to reach and join us. Phones were not connecting after numerous numbers of tries so we had no choice but to enjoy the time. We played cricket by splitting all the members into two teams including all the women and children and really had a good time. Eventually we were also connected to John who was driving towards Al Ain to cross the border from there. As he was coming from another side so we decided to move on to reach our second agreed spot.

We took a turn towards Rustaq and small town at the foothills of Hajjar. It was about 60kms from the main highway, which was covered in no time. This town reminded us of our trip earlier in the year when we visited the area right after the floods and people didn’t suggest us entering the mountains due to the tracks been blown away with the floods and all the more we were just us – one family and they advised not to venture our alone. This time we were there to conquer the area, as we were five 4x4s equipped to do so. At Rustaq refueling was done and we drove towards Ibri road, we took off towards Wadi Sahtan after 9 kms on Ibri road. I was still worried for John and when the phone connected last time I gave him this location to stop and wait for us but there was no sign of him reaching here. Therefore we decided to go into Hajjar and find a spot to camp and then one car could come back and wait for John to join.

The road ended soon and became a rough dirt track. It went through a closed wadi right in the beginning and we missed the track only to back track and take the right path. It was an interesting track that was going up and down and through some water etc. We drove for 10 kms in the wadi and found a flat surface closer to one small village to camp. I quickly dropped everone with the tents to be erected and drove back to the road. Nabeel came along with me and we drove to Rustaq and asked around if someone has seen and weird looking Ford Sportrac but the answer was negative. Hence we stopped at the 9km mark to wait for John. The clouds were rising from Hajjar side and made us really nervous. The wait was very tiring and we had to sit patiently as there was nothing else we could do when the phones were not working either. It was quite dark already and we decided to call off our wait / search at about 8pm and will try to find him next morning. As we decided this we heard a sound stopped next to us and to our amazement that was he. One could imagine, in this world of technology and gadgets it is still possible to find each other without the phone, it also tells us how dependent we have become upon technology. We were very happy, as the whole day effort had paid off finally. We drove back to camp in no time and had a quick diner; the tents were already up so no further work but the enjoyment of campfire. It was very windy and chilly earlier but as we moved into 10ist and later the wind diminished and the weather settled down. The fire was on and everyone especially the kids loved it and enjoyed the first night in the bush.


Morning was crisp with sun peeking through the edges of the mountains. Some boys from the village came to visit us. A soccer match was arranged with them and our kids went to play a match with the local boys. Breakfast was good and tasty, tea was hot and soothing. After the match we packed up to move on. We had a target to visit two villages today, which are high up in the mountains only accessible by 4x4 vehicles through a very thin dirt track climbing high in the mountains.

Wijmah was the first to be visited. The track went through a couple of other villages which were on the flat track and after that the track starting going up and up. The vehicles were roaring at first gear with 4x4 engaged. The steep track was about 10 kms and finally we reached a small kind of parking outside the village. This village is in a small wadi way up in the mountains and is tucked in some kind of huge cave just beside the cliff. The walk through the village was a walk through time. The houses are just like old blocks stacked up, the small street through the village takes you to the small pond where the villagers gather their water supply and they were out of water from august this time as there have been fewer rains and less water coming from the spring. But despite their hardships the people were very happy and offered us tea. The village left and impression on us, and one must wonder how this village came in to being and why people live here, go wonder…

After spending some time in the village and a short walk we came back to the cars and drove off. We took a loop to join the main track below in the valley but after a mile or so the track got closed near the football ground. We turned around and joined the main track again to reach the base from where we started. We reached a village to take bathroom break and then decided to attempt for another village named as Yaseb. A person at the masjid told us that the track is really rough and a caution required while driving on it. He was absolutely right as when we saw the track from far it looked like a hike trail just going to the top of the mountain. We not only stopped here rather discussed whether to continue or to call it off for this village.

Eventually we decided we are going to do it no matter what. We drove up into the real difficult track and the track tool full toll on our vehicles and we remained in first gear for the rest of the journey that was about 17 kms. It was a difficult track for any vehicle and major part of it was repaired after a landslide and it was not very firm either. There was only room for one vehicle to go through and one would have to really careful on the switchbacks. The turns were very tight and at times I thought that the vehicle was giving up despite having a 4500cc engine in a Nissan Patrol, but still kept going. We stopped at a very high point to have a snack break and to provide rest to the vehicles.

By the way the vehicles in this trip were Nissan Patrol, Toyota Landcruiser, Mitsubishi Pajero, Toyota Landcruiser Prado and Ford Sportrac Truck.

We had some sandwitches and made fresh tea, courtesy Nabeel bhai’s wife. It was a quick but interesting lunch and a good break with spectacular views of the pass leading in the Wadi Bani Awf (a similar difficult track with several hairpin turns). We enjoyed the lunch and the view and continued our drive to find the lost village. After tiring several miles we saw some greenery far into the valley as we were just sliding down on a steep dirt surface newly surfaced after a landslide. We entered into Yaseb and stopped at an open place at the far end of the village. Some locals boys were playing some music, so we enjoyed with them for some time. We decided to find a good place here to camp rather than going back to the flat area through the same track in the evening. The road to Yaseb was a dramatic one with such steep track and so many curves in it that not all the vehicles or the drivers could make it. We only saw Toyota trucks carrying local people to and from here. However we were surprised to see the development being done here by the government, as there were a few buildings under construction including one for a school and one for a health centre. It was amazing to see such commitment.

I drove around with two local young fellows for find a place to camp for the night. Both of them volunteered to help us finding one. Though the spots they took me were either not flat or these were in the wadi, and we were not comfortable to camp in the wadi due to the flash floods hitting those places first if rains comes. So after a considerable amount of search, we decided to drive back down 20kms to find some suitable place. Although it was evening but we had to do that to find good place for the camp. This helped us eventually to avoid a cold night also as Yaseb was at quite a height and we could feel the cold going through our spines even in the early evening.

Driving back was dangerous as the as it was a very steep surface and we had to engage the vehicles in low 4x4 for engine braking and to reduce pressure on the brakes. Once we were down on the flat track and looked back on the track climbing high, it was hard to believe that we just came through that one. It was a real thrill and adrenaline had really kicked in for this drive.

While driving we saw a field where a few people were working so we stopped and found a nice gentleman named Khalik who could speak nice English as well. He drove us to a nice location for camp and also offered to bring a musician at night to have fun. We accepted the offer and 8’o clock was agreed to have a party.

We pitched our tent quickly and cooking started in two different groups. Sohail, Nabeel and fmly started cooking the meal and John and us started the fire for bbq. There was a lot on the menu tonight including the chicken bbq and steaks. Suddenly we saw clouds rising from the south and we were under heavy clouds in minutes and it started to rain heavily right after. The meat was on the tripod grill and the fire was going good and we were not ready to give up any one of those, except John and myself and the young boys everyone rushed either to their cars or to the tent. It was very windy and the rain was coming down hard but I was sure due to the wind and all the more as a mountain passing shower its gonna go away in some time. That’s exactly what happened the showers stopped after 40 minutes or so but had soaked us completely as we were giving shelter to our bbq. The fire was still on and the bbq on the track to cook in the next few minutes. The other dish was also ready in 15 minutes and the diner was served with sausages as a side dish. It was an incredible evening and a scrumptious dinner. Winds still continued and helped our cloths to dry quickly.

By the time we finished eating the music party joined in with one flute guys and one with a small Arabian kind of drum and a couple of people to give them company. The music started right after. It was good fun that continued for the next hour and a half. We enjoyed the music had a good dance around the fire and this really added colors to the outing and night became ordinary to glorious. We tried our best to give some money to the musicians but those guys were so nice and turned our offer down by saying that we were their guests. We had hugs and said good buy to our hosts for the night. Everyone settled either into their tents or into their cars as a few decided to sleep in their cars from this night. We few nuts sat out in the cold late into the night before crashing into our beds.


Day 3 started with a first look as Sohails punctured tire which had a sharp stone hit into it and it had become totally flat over night. I refilled air in it using the compressor and asked them to run back to the town some 25 kms away to get that fixed as we still had a few more days on the rough track. We would follow them and would meet up at the gas station. Two cars left along with the compressor just in case, but this only happened after a stomach full of good breakfast.

We wrapped up the stuff picked up all the garbage and drove back to one village where we had a break yesterday and there was a pump pulling water from the falaj. All the boys took nice and healthy shower here, the water was not cold and this bath was very energizing. Then we made a bathroom shelter out of tarp for the women to have shower. After an hour or so everyone in the group was nice and clean. We reached the town in the next 30-40 minutes and joined the rest.

We bought some more supplies from the super market and headed towards Wadi Bani Awf as that was the target today. We crossed Rustaq and on the Rustaq loop road and joined the track to wadi Bani Awf after 14 kms. We were heading towards a village named as Bald Sayt, passing through some other small villages. The first 10-15 kms were not hard and were on the plain dirt track and then it climbed into the mountains with endless loops and turns. We met a couple on VW toureg who stopped as they got scarred of the dangerous road and were turned back from here as they were not comfortable driving on such a track. Today we passed some other tourist vehicles also, most of them western travelers. The scenery kept changing from pretty ordinary to amazing to spectacular. We enjoyed every bit of it. I stopped where I wanted to and gave children a thrilling experience for the day.

On the way to the village we stopped at the Snake Canyons and despite opposition I decided to take all the kids for a well-deserved hike into the canyons. It started to payoff right away when we found the first little pool right at the mouth of the track. Once we started everyone followed us reluctantly initially and then had loads of fun and appreciated the decision. This was outstanding scenery and the track was between two walls of rock and going like a snake hence names as Snake Canyons. We passed through huge pools and we had to climb on the sidewalls to pass them. The track was really not a track rather was a hike through boulders and rocks and had to make our own way. The hike pumped up everyone’s energies and adrenaline rushed through everyone’s spine. By the time we were back, everyone was extremely happy with this break.

The drive continued through some rough terrain and rocky surface. I forgot to mention the pick of the day was dust, dust and just dust everywhere, in our nostrils, in the boot, on the vehicles, in our ears and I mean every where. But the journey goes on.

There are two ways to reach Bald Sayt, one is to drive into the village and the other is to keep driving on the track and park cars in a valley like canyon and then walk for 20 minutes to reach the village through a canyon like the mountains gave way by some earth quake or something. We picked the later. The hike was ordinary mostly with some places to be careful at. We saw a group practicing rock climbing in the gorge.

Once we reached the village we couldn’t resist admiring the beauty of the place. It was a bowl shaped valley with vegetation done in the middle of the valley and the village spread around it. There was one old fort remains in the center on a hill also. What a fairytale village that was. I teamed up with the boys to stay here tonight rather than driving to Jebel Shams which we succeeded to achieve with the show of hands from all the children and 9 kids to be more precise. Therefore the drivers of the vehicle walked back through the canyons to the cars and drove for 4-5kms to come back to the village through some scenic dirt track. Here people work for the army as we found few people sitting and using their 3o3s and firing in the air just for fun, the sound was echoing in the valley for long after each round was fired. I also tried one of their .22 just for fun.

Nabeel bhai’s car had a flat as soon as we reached here and looked like not a repairable one as the rock had cut through the wall of the tire. The tire was changed in no time and we picked up a spot for the camp in the valley. The camps were setup and the food was being cooked. Weather was nice and so far we didn’t meat the extreme cold, which we were warned for, temperatures remained nice and cool but not cold. There was a Masjid near by with two bathrooms also and that helped us picking up a spot to camp. Kids were playing around and enjoying themselves. This was a comfortable place to camp and the village was definitely pretty, the people were nice and humble. After a filling dinner we sat around for some time before majority retiring to beds and we got some time to have a stroll under the stars. My wife and myself had a chat and a walk and finally gave up against our wish to stay awake for longer. The night was full of songs coming from the other side of the village where a wedding was in progress.

We also witnessed the arrival of the boy’s family for the wedding in the morning and they came with music and firing from guns. A party became visible far on the track leading into the village honking their horns to notify their arrival and a group of people walking behind the cars with their guns high in the air firing towards the sky. It was a scene to watch.


We prepared our breakfast and wrapped for our next destination that was Jebel Shams the highest mountain in the region over 3000 ft high. The drive started with a warning on the roadside to engage your low 4x4s and be careful on the very steep track filled with dust and rock. The clouds could be seen on the top of the mountains and slowly we drove towards it and finally almost reached into the clouds. It was a high point and was very chilly; we had a break to enjoy the views mile down into the valleys. This drive was one hell of it and definitely not the easier one. The clouds were just over our heads and we could feel the moisture in our nostrils. The scenery was great and this was the place to spend hours watching far down. But the journey goes on and we had to reach our next stop so we drove off and soon to find that the road from the Al Hamra city has been extended to this side and the road going down to Al Hamra some 20 kms away was all tarmac well carpeted. This was a next break where we had a little hike to the top in the middle, the boys climbed up and the women stayed down for a chat. Clouds were gone and now it was sunny but due to the height it was still no hot.

Driving to Al Hamra was uneventful with driving on the tarmac after three days without any dust flying around and shocking us. We bought some fruits at Al Hamra and continued towards Jebel Shams camp village that was about 40 kms from here. We reached the camping place just to know that they have become so expensive in just over a years time. When we visited them last time they charged us 5 Riyals for the camp and now they asked for 7 Riyals per person and ridiculously high price just to use their bathrooms. We drove to have a look down from the canyons before deciding where to camp as Nabeel and family were driving back this evening so we had to show them around the area first. A day back we were on the other side of Jebel Shams but there is no road that connects these two places so one has to drive around to reach where you could see from the other side just 7 kms of aerial distance. This part is known as the Grand Canyons of Oman and the Gulf. The sheer wall must be a 1000-meter high from the base. Jebel Shams top with an observatory on the top is visible from all around. After a short trip around the area we said goodbye to the leaving party and then drove to a nice location for the camp. It was a nice secluded place with some treed around. It was quite windy in the late afternoon early evening time and seemed to be a cold night ahead. We started the fire to warm up a bit. It was the 13 night of the moon and it was almost a full moon in full glory, but there were clouds trying to cover it again and again just before being pushed by the strong winds from the north, kind of helping us for a peaceful night. Winds were on our side this evening, though we had a very cold evening because of that but no rain at least. Everyone collected more and more wood from around and we were done with the wood we brought the day before. But we collected enough for the night and also for early morning. The sky was looking glorious with the backdrop of dry and rugged mountains. The wind gave up after couples of hours but by that time it had pushed the clouds far away from this path.

Dinner was being cooked on the stove and burgers were made on the grill. Everyone had a fun day with a magnificent end to the day at the base of Jebel Shams. Excellent views, company, surroundings, food, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and every bit of a thing. This was the best night of the travel.

We were sleeping when I heard some noise from outside as if someone was browsing through our stuff. I thought, might be one of us was out but called for who was there when the sound didn’t go away. There was no answer from outside. Called again but the sound only remained there but no answer. I got out of my warm sleeping bag and looked out through the window. It was a bright night due to almost full moon and I saw an animal going through our garbage that we forgot to put on top of the roof, and to my amazement that was Mr. donkey. No idea where this donkey came from, but with a lot of tries by me and Nabeel bhai to scare him away, nothing worked, therefore we both came out after putting on our jumpers. The night was not very cold but was cold enough to wear something. We had to chase him and throw some rocks before it finally ran away. We collected the garbage and stuffed it back into the garbage bag and hung it high on one of the trees. We were expecting more visitors in the shape of goats in the morning. And by the way it was around 1am when this episode took place.
The rest of the night passed without any worth mentioning thing.


We got up very early and it was still dark and the time of dawn. Mountains were looking like shadows but in a pretty manner. This campsite was for sure a scenic pick and the best of the nights. A big fire was put on for the cold morning and we all freshened up in the mean time. Morning was cool and crisp and was very enjoyable. The breakfast was served and everyone got ready to go for the W6 hiking trail that starts not too far from where we were. We parked our cars close to an old village and started the trail. It was a thin trail going at the centre of a vertical wall. We could see people standing at the top of the canyon having the grand canyons view. There were some eagles and vulture flying high in the canyons. This was a very scenic canyon trail; we were walking in different groups and were enjoying the day. After a few hours everyone was back at the campsite and we wrapped up and started our journey back at early afternoon.

First we reached Al Hamra then Ibri and then by sunset we entered into UAE at the Al Ain border. From here we were just two hours away from home which we made comfortably by 7:30 pm to finish our 5 days trip to Hajjar Mountains.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Canyoning in Oman

Area: This is one of the few hidden places that no other tourists probably know about. We discovered it last year in an exploration trip. The area is in Sultanate of Oman closer to Mahda city. It is some 200km away from Dubai, and the tarmac almost goes to the end.

Distance Covered: 450km

Offroad : Negligible

In our Vehicle: The whole family

Vehicle used: Honda MRV / Pilot

When: Eid's second day in Sep 2009


This is a hike up the stream through some very rugged terrain. It goes through few very narrow gorges full of water. Last time when we did there was a lot of water on this 5 hours hike but this time there were hardly any pools left due to a very hot summer and no rains. The hike consists of starting from a small abandoned village, and first we had to hike down into the gorge / dried river bed to climb upwards in the canyons, swimming through the pools, climbing the dried and some sticky water falls. This time we made sure that we had rope to pull people out of some tough pools from where there is only one way to climb up the water fall and the rope proved to be very handy. The other thing what we did was, took our camera to click some pictures. It was wrapped in two zip locks before going into my hunting jacket. Though it only survived half way and while climbing one water fall (as I had to climb these first to pull others) the zip lock gave way to water and the camera was toasted. I pulled out the batteries immediately to save the memory car, and I'm glad there are some pictures saved and I'll able to post them.

Overall it was a great day. We were 7 adults and 6 children. The oldest was my father who really did well to achieve this goal (I assure you that this is not for unfit people, especially where its not only a hike rather it has hiking, swimming, climbing, crawling and what not in this short hike), there was only one woman this time and that was my wife, and the youngest was my daughter Iman (7 yrs) who did it better than any one else in terms of stamina and enthusiasm. We had left one party at the camp to prepare the chicken and other cooking stuff at our return.

We completed the hike in about 5 hours or so and then we prepared the stove by the rocks collected from the area and then collected wood to burn as a fuel. So this time we didnt carry any stove or anything and used the natural stuff to cool our lunch. Trust me it was one of the best meals to kick off the camping season.

Here are some pictures from the trip........

Saturday, August 8, 2009

EU trip (Scotland), Days 24-31

Touch the Northern Tip of UK

DAY 24
It was a relaxing day, as the visit to the Peak District does not require a long drive. We contemplated where to go and the choices discussed were Liverpool, Blackpool, North Wales etc. but we settled with the closest option to Manchester and that was The Peak District.
With a fascinating historical and cultural heritage, this unique and diverse region is home to some of the country's finest stately homes, enchanting market towns and picturesque villages. (Courtesy http://www.visitpeakdistrict.com/)

Early morning Atif and myself went to drop off the rented car at the airport and as we would be driving Mrs. Atif’s car for the next few days and that was very generous of her. We dropped off the car at Manchester International Airport and then came back to have a breakfast before leaving for our day trip.
We were following Atif’s car so now in his shape we had a running gps and a guide with us. We drove through some nice scenic lush green areas and passed some water streams. Then had a stop at a hiking trail to give children some fun and enjoyment. Weather was really good and the track was covered with forest trees. This was an old train track filled up and converted into a trail. We reached a picturesque stream with a road crossing through a very high bridge over the stream, and to our amazement there was a group practicing rope-climbing up/down from this bridge. It was a good experience to see for the kids. This place was quite damp as it was in the middle of forest with a flowing stream gushing through the rocks. The whole of UK has some medieval kind of a feeling; there are old bridges, old buildings, and thin roads as the horse carriages used them several years ago. A ghostly place, we also saw a mine that has now been closed and is hiding behind the trees and vegetation making it more mysterious. The trek back was quite interesting with a passing quick shower sprinkled us. We reached our car and started towards another direction.

Now our destination was another dam and a lake full of ducks. It was another 30 minutes away and we didn’t even notice the time passing as the road was through nice scenery. It was a small park with a stream passing by deep through the gorge. There were several types of ducks here and great entertainment for the kids as they had been missing their own ducks back home for the last so many days. They fed them and played around with them. Then we walked across the park on a trail that led us to an old dam. It was a serene place and quite open and wide greenery filled landscape. Atif and myself continued for some hike further up in the hills before returning back where everyone else was just enjoying the environment and the fresh air.

Driving back to Manchester took us and hour or so and our chat session started again that continued later into the night before we crashed. Another exciting day was over with loads of memories left with us.
I didn’t mention any names of the places in Peak District as I don’t remember the names of the villages and the places we stopped at.
DAY 25
Atif excused for this day and we were at our own for the whole day. We decided to visit the historic town of Chester close to the North Wales. We reached Chester before noon and visited the whole town on foot. We walked on the walls around the city and through the old market place.
While we were on the wall of the city we saw a number of people going towards one side. Upon inquiry we got to know that there was a famous horse race taking place at Chester that day. So we also followed the crowd and saw some interesting races there. It was a carnival there and so many people visiting from all different areas. It was very lively environment. It was evening when we left Chester after doing some shopping there to reach Manchester in the dark.
DAY 26
The next few days were planned in Scotland and we left Manchester as per our plan early in the morning. The road went through the same hills closer to Lake District before entering into UK’s Switzerland (Scotland) as I would call it. The prettiness mesmerizes in Scotland. We were two vehicles. In one, it was our family and in the other one Atif and his wife. We passed very close to the Windermere Lake and Grasmeere where we were a couple of days back and continued our journey towards Scotland through the green hills. There was a forecast of rain but so far the skies were fine. We entered Scotland and a different feeling hit us as the scenery was hilly but there was some sort of difference that one would be able to experience only once you cross the border into Scotland. We had to cross through Glasgow but as soon as we headed towards the jungles of Scotland the rain started very heavily. It was raining cats and dogs though we continued our journey on a slower pace now. We had left the main highway and were going through the smaller roads to enjoy the trip and the rain even reduced our pace. But as we all love rain and unlike the UK people we were enjoying the rain and the drive.

Atif had a cottage booked in a small village called Cannich, close to Inverness, and that was still far. The drive continued and we crossed through Glasgow, it was a nice city. We drove across and clicked some pictures. The drive continued in a heavy rain on a very small road with Lockness on one side of the road and hills and jungle on the other side. The progress remained slow owing to the bad weather but it was fun. We had passed Fort Augustus where we planned to come in the next day or so to climb Ben Nevis – The tallest mountain in the UK. The weather started to open up soon and gave us a window to click some nice snaps with outstanding scenery of Scotland. It was towards the evening when we reached our last turn towards Cannich about 18 miles away. The cottages were right on the riverbank and these were just like mobile homes in the States but finished with wood from the outside. The three-bedroom cottage with one sitting and dining and a spacious and equipped kitchen was a real treat in this area. There was still moisture in the air and the evening brought a bit of chill with it. We off-loaded the cars and placed the cooking stuff in the refrigerator. We brought food to cook for the next 4 days as in remote areas it was difficult to find Halal meat and then we would have to live on Veges so we stocked enough for these few days. The dinner was served and it was a real treat followed by some excellent Pakistani mangos. We had an evening walk along the river before we sat in the sitting area inside our cottage for a long chat. We slept late to finish the lovely day.

DAY 27

The morning was a bit chilly but the sun was out so it looked like it was going to be a good day. We were going to climb Ben Nevis – the highest peak in the whole of UK. For reaching the base camp we had to drive back to Fort Augustus and then we reached a spot from where there were flying chairs going up and many cyclists were taking their bikes for mountain biking. We soon found out that this was not the Ben Nevis base camp rather it was further up a few kilometers, so we drove off to reach the Ben Nevis base camp in the next 10 minutes. We parked our cars in the big parking lot and set off to climb Ben Nevis. It was a fairly simple trek through the fields for the first 20 minutes and then it really started to climb high. At one stage half of the party returned back and myself, Atif, Sajeel and Iman continued our trek up the mountain. As we progressed we really got tired and cold as the temperature kept dropping and we were not properly equipped for the hike. We forgot to carry enough water and supplies to finish the hike. But we still continued our hike for a couple of hours before stopping and heading back, by then we had climbed well over half the distance and there was not much distance left to complete but due to short of supplies we returned. Before we headed back we clicked some nice shots of the surrounding landscape. It was a beautiful view, but the weather changed so rapidly and it started to rain making it more difficult for us to trek.
The drizzle continued for a while but we still pushed on to reach lower altitude to avoid freezing. By now there were a number of hikers on the trek and we passed all sorts of people, some hiking, some running, some tired and taking rest etc. It was a very nice hike and we all enjoyed it thoroughly. It took us a while to reach back the parking lot, where we laid down our lunch on a table and had a well deserved meal. It was already late afternoon; so after the lunch we visited the tourist shop and left for Fort Augustus high street.

We had a walk through the high street and did some window-shopping, clicked some pictures and drove off. The drive back was fun but we arrived back at our destination at night. We had planned a BBQ for that night so as soon as we arrived we started to prepare for the BBQ. The portable grills that we bought, back at Chester, didn’t work well so we had to half cook the meat before we used the gas oven inside the cottage to cook our meal properly. It definitely took a while for us to cook the meal that day but it was worth the effort as it turned out to be a very delicious meal. Of course, sweat mangoes followed it as a desert. It was a long day after that tiring hike so we hit the hay early as we had another long day ahead of us.

DAY 28
This was the day that we would be touching the northern most tip of the UK i.e. John O’Groats. We got up very early to get ready for the long drive to John O’Groats and loop around the northern tip to come back from the other side. We drove through some nice forested roads and bypassed Inverness to cross a long bridge to reach the northern country. Here the far away feeling was getting prominent as we continued our drive. The waterways came closer to the roads at times and at other times we drove far from the water. We made it to the last house on John O’Groats by afternoon; this was a small hut that has been converted into a pretty little souvenir shop. We had a small walk along the sea and just got to know in time that there was a cruise ride that was leaving in the next one minute. We had such frenzy at this stage requesting the counter to radio the cruise, not to leave us behind. The old lady really helped us and did a lot just to get us on this ride. Finally we managed to get on to the ship. Atif and his wife opted to stay behind, as they were not too keen for this cruise ride.

As soon as we stepped on the ship it left the dock, as it was already a few minutes late for its trip. We climbed up to the deck where soon a gentleman came to us for the tickets, since we didn’t have the tickets we bought them while on the ship. This ride goes around a large and abandoned, old island. This was an amazing ride as it went through many fascinating whirlpools that we had never seen before.  In these two hours on the ship we saw some really nice sceneries and wild life including several types of birds, seals, fish etc. Before, whenever we have done some short cruise trips we always got bored after an hour but this one was the first one in which we enjoyed the whole time. The kids loved it because of the nature and sceneries. We even saw some baby seagulls. It remained a very windy day.

Once we were back, we had a nice little lunch of the chicken tikkas, which we brought with us, on a picnic table right by the sea, but the winds kept blowing at high speeds and making it difficult for us to eat.

After lunch we headed to the Castle of Mey for the loop drive back to Inverness. It was already late afternoon and we still had a long drive back to our cottage beyond Inverness.

We were on the road back to Inverness by early evening. The road was long and the drive was tiring and boring on the way back. We made progress slowly and at night we reached back to our cottage. On the way we also saw a bag piper’s band while driving through Inverness, kids really liked it live. This was our last night in Scotland and we were heading back to Manchester and eventually to Milton Keynes the next morning. So we had a very long drive followed by a train ride the next day. We enjoyed our last evening in Scotland to the max before we slept that night. We had another walk along the river just behind our cottage. This was our way to say goodbye to this beautiful area. We slept tight to get up fresh for the drive back to Manchester the next day.

DAY 29
The drive was a pleasure for the first phase of 200 kms but then it turned back into a regular drive on the highway. We stopped at a few places on the way to click pictures but continued our journey, as we had to catch an evening train back to Milton Keynes. Atif booked tickets for us before we left for Scotland and he didn’t even took the payment from us. His hospitality definitely needs appreciation.

We made it back to Manchester well in time and still had a couple of hours to kill so we took this advantage and had a nice late lunch. This was a very hearty meal and then we went out to a park to kill the rest of the time. Kids got another chance for chasing ducks and birds, they don’t get tired do they?
Mr. and Mrs. Atif had been wonderful hosts and we could not thank them enough for their time and love they extended to us and our children in those few days we stayed with them. Hats off to this wonderful couple, you remain in our prayers.
We reached the train station in time to collect our tickets that were booked online. While Atif collected the tickets we tried figuring out which platform was our train coming at. This was our first intercity travel on train in the UK therefore the kids were really excited despite that they were very tired from the long journey. We were into the 29th day of our trip already. The train journey was fun and it just took us a couple of hours before we reached our destinations where Waseem was already there to pick us up from the station.

DAY 30 -31

We spent most of the time during our last two days in the UK shopping as we were traveling on the 31st back to the U.A.E. We visited a number of malls and areas. The packing was really crucial as 3 of our main suitcases were filled with the camping stuff that we brought with us. And now we had a number of things to fit in the other three bags. We spent hours packing our stuff and finally the time came to go to the airport that was Gatwick this time around. We left very early in the morning but still couldn’t beat the traffic and got stuck on the famous London highways. We hardly made it to the airport in time for us to catch the plane. We all came into the terminal running with our entire luggage in the fear of missing our flight but finally made it to the plane just in time. The flight back home was all right despite the airhostess made Hassan angry by not giving him the kiddy pack despite several requests. I had to complain with Emirates Air after reaching back and they sent us a cheap teddy bear by post without any apology. This was unlike Emirates Air, which is generally good at service during the flight. Otherwise the flight was on time and we made it home by evening not without a traffic ticket while my cousine driving us home from the airport and did speeding in excitement so add another 100 dollars to the expense. Cheers!

Monday, August 3, 2009

EU trip (Milton Keynes - Manchester), Days 23

DAY – 23 Heading North

We had to reach Manchester by the night; a rental car was booked last night for the travel today. It was 7:30am when we all packed our luggage in Wasim’s van to get dropped off at the car rental office. When we reached the rental company and found out that the car we booked was not available and they finally gave us a smaller car with a difference of two pounds only. It could hardly take the entire luggage we had for the next one-week. I was driving a manual transmission vehicle after several years. It took me a few minutes to get used to the car but we were already on the highway by then.

We left early to have a visit to the Lake District area before heading back to Manchester. M1 was not that crowded as we expected so we covered a good distance quickly. At Birmingham we took the toll road to save some more time. When we bypassed Manchester the scenery became hillier with green pastures and sheep dotted all over grazing over the grass.

Our first stop was Lake Windermere and we were already on M6 going towards it. We reached Windermere after a pleasure drive of 3-4 hours and visited the tourist information center for some brochures. I love the Lake District not only for its greenery and mountains but also for the outdoor shops it has in abundance. You would find a number of hiking, camping things that you don’t find otherwise at other outdoor stores. We had a drive along the lake and parked at one point to have a good walk in the town. Due to summer vacations it was quite busy and we found parking with great difficulty. This lake had several types of birds including the great Swans, Geese, and Ducks etc. Our kids went crazy after these animals especially as these birds are quite domesticated because of so many tourists visiting this place and feeding them with all sorts of stuff. Kids were able to touch the birds and this was the most fun for them and they were not ready to go anywhere else now. Finally they were convinced to have a walk in the town with a promise of stopping here on the way back. This was a very nice little town with streets going up and down with tourist related and other shops. We found some nice things, which are hard to find otherwise so we picked them up immediately. This shopping took a long time to finish and then we came back to the lake. It’s a very nice lake having a cruise service that goes to Amble side and to another stop as well. Lake is about 10 km long and deep enough to transport heavy stuff via small ships. There are mansions of wealthy people of one side and small towns on the other.

We bought fish n chips as snacks and came back to the lake. However children could not eat their fish n chips as a swan attached their food and then all those birds just ate the stuff with pleasure, we all watched them from around. After the fish n chips break, we hopped into our car and started our drive towards Ambleside, which is another small town on the lake with a number of outdoor shops. The drive was on a small road along the lake. It didn’t take us long to reach there and after parking we peeped into different shops and enjoyed the town.

Although there has been a settlement since pre-Roman times, Ambleside is largely Victorian. A fort beside Borrans Park - named Galava - was built in Ambleside by the Romans, housing some 500 soldiers. It was built to defend the lower fells of South Lakeland from invasion by the Picts and Scots, and to guard the road to the Roman Port at Ravenglass via Hard Knott Pass.”
Coutesy http://www.visitcumbria.com/amb/amble.htm

In England all the towns seem to look alike due to their similar architecture. I don’t think so that there were any great architects born in this part of the world. But despite this all the towns look pretty and the old buildings are really preserved well. Another interesting thing we noticed was the parking ticket. One had to get a parking card from any of the shops and set it at the arrival time on it before putting it on the dashboard. The parking’s are usually for half an hour so the policeman may give you a parking ticket, had he found the time of arrival been more than 30 minutes earlier. It was interesting way of putting parking tickets. The tickets were just like the clocks that we usually use to teach children read time.

By the time we were done roaming around here it was late afternoon and we had one more place to visit in our today’s agenda and that was Grasmere. Its small town on one of the lakes but lush green and very pretty. It was 30 minutes drive away and we enjoyed this drive more than the town itself. It was a short stop in the town before we drove back towards Manchester and had to go through the same route to Ambleside and Windermere to catch the highway. The return drive to Manchester was boring comparatively as it was always on return journeys. We were sleepy and tired.
We had put Atif’s address in the GPS, which was very close to the Manchester Airport so we were cruising towards their place. We reached there without any glitch and knocked at the door to find our friends waiting for us, they couldn’t reach us earlier as our cell phone battery died in the afternoon. After we settled down an amazing dinner was ready and it was the best end to a long day. The night was long with chatting between old friends; there was so much to catch up.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

EU trip (England), Days 19-22

DAYS 19 – 22

We did not plan much during these few days and just relaxed and enjoyed around the area. First of all we called our friends Rehman and Samha who happily came to Milton Keynes to spend a couple of days with us. We had a seekh kababs session one evening and ate as much as our stomachs could fill up. Kababs were really delicious specially when we had such kababs after so many days and made them ourselves to our liking.

We visited the malls close by to do some shopping. We also visited the outlet mall Bister Village that offers nice outlet stores selling things at a bit cheaper prices than the regular mall stores.

One day we planned the whole day out to the Woburn Animal Safari. Our kids have grown a tremendous love for animals specially since they started keeping several pets at home therefore this safari tour was a real treat for them. We left early with Waseem to drop him off at his office. After leaving his office we went to the super market to get some stuff for children and some picnic for the day. The day was cloudy and rain was expected today but we had only this day before leaving for Manchester tomorrow so we just went ahead to Woburn and got in the line before its opening. There were about 15 cars ahead of us at the opening of the safari park.

We drove in at the opening time and started our car safari right away. We saw some nice and healthy animals. Giraffes, Zebras, Lions, Tigers, Monkeys to name some. We did the safari really slow as the kids wanted to spend time at each animal enclosure. The beauty of safari is that you are face to face with the animals without having any barrier or cage between you and the nature. The animals really got closer to our car and we all had good time here. Once we completed this round on the car in about 1.5 hours we parked our car to have the foot safari in which we went through tracks going through lush gardens with different kind of animals. As close to the natural habitat has been provided to the White Kangaroos, Squirrel Monkeys and many more. It was real fun when the kids found three squirrel monkeys outside sitting next to the track and they were able to touch them. These were tiny monkey of the size of a hand – very pretty.

After finishing the foot safari we saw a bird show followed by a paddleboat ride in the small lake with ducks and swans around us. There were few very small ducklings with their moms. Rain had started by now; we were lucky to have lunch break during the bird show without rain. After the boat we got in line for the train ride around the park and that’s when the real showers started and lasted until evening. We got off at a station closer to the parking and drove off for another round of the safari to enjoy and see the animals in rain. After completing the circuit we stopped at the big birds show. Although it was raining and we were the only spectators, the lady was nice to display some birds including a falcon and a big owl. As we were the only ones there she let the kids to hold the animals on their hands. One could imagine their joy at this point. It was 5pm and that was the time to pick up Waseem from his office so we said bye to the animals and drove off. One more fun filled exciting day was over once we reached home after picking up Waseem. This day ended with the famous fish n chips from Milton Keynes.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

EU trip (Holland & Belgium), Days 18

DAY 18

By today evening we would be in Milton Keynes England from where we started our first leg of the trip. The car was loaded up with all the stuff including our sleeping mats and sleeping bags those we used in our stay in Holland. It was around 8’o clock when we left from our host’s place after very warm good byes.

We came out of the city in no time as it was Saturday and most people were still sleeping. And it was hard to distinguish when we entered Belgium from Holland. Our next stop was Brussels that we planned to stop only for a few hours. Drive to Brussels was about two hours and that we completed without anything important and just watched the scenery around the highways.

First of all after reaching Brussels we stopped at the Mini Europe, which is a major attraction in this city. Mini Europe and Atomium are the two attractions next to each other. Mini EU consisted of all-important buildings of Europe build at miniature size. There was a fee to enter this park. I would rate it as an ordinary place to see, may be I was so tired of this EU trip that I didn’t really got excited about this place and all the more this trip of ours had been more of outdoors and nature dominant and this place was definitely not one fitting into the trip discription.
The Atomium was a large metallic structure that was built for the World Fair in the 1950's. This was made to celebrate the discovery of a certain atom by scientists. These were huge nine metallic balls joined with each other in the shape of an Atom. It was accessible via lifts for viewing of the city from inside the balls.
We spent a couple of hours at these two attractions and then rode towards the main squares of the city. I didn’t hear or read much about this city until I saw it but found this to be very impressive city indeed. The roads were not crowded due to weekend so we found parking very close to the main area in the city. Then off course it was all walk if you would like to see the city including the Grand Place (the main square). There were many small streets leading to the Grand Place. All these streets were full of small shops full of tourist items, eatables, clothing etc. This area was really busy with tourists from all over. We enjoyed this part of the city. In the main square there were several ancient buildings attached to each other. We also had a walk in other areas of the main city.

We had to catch a 6’o clock ferry to Dover from Calais so had to leave early as we were still 1.5 hours from Calais. So we came back to the car and drove in few more areas of the city before catching the highway towards France. The drive was straightforward and we were parked in the line to enter the Ferry with in 1.5 hours. But the Ferry was late and we had to wait for an extra hour for that.

After parking our car in the ship we went up to the deck to enjoy and then settled at one place where they had some children activities. Therefore this time was passed quite nicely as kids got their faces painted with their favorite characters and remained busy with their painting and stuff. We came out at Dover in the evening but still had a good couple of hours drive to Wasim’s place. Roads were familiar so Wasim drove happily and reached his place fairly quickly. We picked up a food order that he placed over the phone on the way. Unloading the car was done after dinner and everyone relaxed after that and was happy to finish the first leg of the trip successfully and collected memories for life.

Friday, July 24, 2009

EU trip (Holland), Days 16-17

DAY 16 and 17 - A Country of Windmills and Canals

Despite we slept almost closer to the morning light, we got up fairly early to explore Amsterdam and around. We were staying in Zaandam area and had no idea at nighttime where it was. Later we found out that it was the main place to see the famous windmills.

Once ready we drove to the city center of Zaandam, which was on the river. It was a nice walk there however we couldn’t find any information center to get some maps and stuff. One travel agent gave us some information but also sent us to the main station Amsterdam for further info. The drive was about 15 minutes through some under construction roads and a lot of zig zags. When we reached our destination it was hard to find the parking but finally we managed to find one but it was quite an expensive one.

We walked to the station for info and received all necessary advise from the young lady along with the direction maps. We decided to go to the fishing and picturesque villages before exploring the main city. Therefore after walking back to the car we drove off to the first place right on the shores of Sea named as Volendam. This was a very beautiful old village sitting right on the shores; the walk in the tourist village was very interesting. There were several shops and restaurants dotted on the Oceanside some having the sea view, selling either eateries or things for the tourists. The arrangements in the stores were very pretty and village like. The stuff that they sell were mostly different types of windmills, famous Dutch shoes models, models of cows etc. The birds here were very friendly and we all played with the little sparrows, seagulls etc. for a long time. There were small houses in the whole village joined together like artificial Lego houses. The designs did not look different from each other but pretty colors used for the finish gave them a unique look. There were canals everywhere in Holland including these small villages on the sea. Boats looked like a major mean of transport here or at least was one of the major means of transport earlier. We really like Volendam and this few hour’s trips was a memorable one.

We left Volendam and drove towards Edam another beautiful village through the smaller roads. It was a green country but in another manner. I couldn’t really compare Switzerland with Holland, as these are two distinct countries with two entirely different landscapes.  The roads other than the highways were really small but maintained.

Most of the area in this country is well below the sea level and how it has survived centuries is because of the system that they have developed to channelize the water.

Edam was also a wonderful village but different from Volendam as it had the big canal dissecting the town and then smaller canals in few streets. It seemed like a village of medieval time. Very quite and elegant but still people living in it. A few shops here and there but with a great décor. We first drove through the streets wherever we could go and then parked our car to have a walking tour that was worth the effort from tired bodies. We saw the old buildings and streets, stroll on the canal banks and enjoyed the fresh air. Luckily today was the sunny day and we could really enjoy the walks, as when we started the day in the morning it was raining but it stopped by noon since when we started walking.

The first infamous round cheeses were exported from Edam to all corners of the world many centuries ago. Traditional cheese markets take place every week during the high season, and the few remaining cheese warehouses keep the memory of this colorful past alive. Edam is a town rich with history, monumental buildings, beautiful squares, shopping streets and outdoor cafés.

It was 5pm and the shops were closing already like rest of the EU. So we drove off to go to Merken another fishing village.
Let me briefly put some more info about these villages. The historic fishing villages of Volendam and Marken are best known for their characteristic wooden houses, water sports, traditional costumes and fresh fish. Tucked away on the coast of the former Zuiderzee (a North Sea inlet), now the IJsselmeer (Lake IJssel), these villages have preserved their character for many centuries. The quaint houses, winding canals and drawbridges create a truly romantic, winsome atmosphere.
These old villages still have life in them and a very well preserved one. These people really respect their assets and in this case their history and the buildings. You could still see centuries old houses in good shape and livable condition. I found people quite simple here.

After Merken we continued driving to another village, which is on the island joined via road. Here we had to park outside the village in designated parking lots for 10 Euros as there were no visitor cars allowed in the village. The gardens here were one the most beautiful ones as we saw in Swiss but here the difference was that they have converted their small gardens into pieces of art by putting so many different kind of plants in a very artistic manner. It was one amazing sight for us. We walked around and enjoyed the village tour thoroughly. Evening was falling in so we started walking back to the car although we wanted to stay here for more time.

We were staying at one of Waseem’s friends from today for the next two nights. So we drove back to their place that was about 45 minutes from here. GPS took us straight to their location and found that they were out for groceries, usually people don’t come in time when they give a particular time but that’s not us, we are always in time, so we had to wait for 30-40 minutes for them to reach back. They were a very nice family of husband and wife with their three children. I sincerely thank them for their hospitality and for having us at their place.

The evening was spent chatting with our hosts and late at night we crashed into our beds. It was a semi camping kind of a thing as we were using our camping mats and sleeping bags on the floor.

We got up in the morning, got ready, had breakfast and left for Amsterdam on a train for which we had bought tickets the day before when we visited the station information center. Today we were planning to cover Amsterdam as much as we could despite being the rainy day. It started to rain early morning and even when we left for the station that was not too far it was still raining. We used our raincoats and continued. Train took 40 minutes to reach the main station right in the heart of the city. We had bought the full day tickets for the buses or trains for today. Rain didn’t stop at all so we came out and started our walk according to the city walking tour guide from one place to another and from one square to another.

Amsterdam was built several years ago as a fishing village and then rose to the level of one of the modern and important cities of the world. Today I see it as a run down city. This city has big networks of canals in a grid system. Must be an elegantly lay out once but now with time and age it is all getting dirty and is breaking down. There was lot of maintenance and construction going on but my views are according to what I saw and felt about the city. It’s a youngster’s city as smoking of even pot and other stuff is allowed here. So it’s a heaven for drinkers and smokers, as I would call it. Another business is thriving in this town is the sex business, as this business is rated as a trade here. We walked quite a bit in rain when we decided to have a break and for that the best thing to do was to hop on to a bus and enjoy the city while drying the cloths, so we did the same. The bus conductor suggested us a couple of places to see and dropped us off at one point where there was a flea market going on. It was pathetic by the way so we had a coffee break instead and used their bathrooms instead of paying euro a person elsewhere, we used this Euro per person towards our cofee.

We came out and started walking when the rain started off again at great pace. We kept walking in different streets, along the canals and crossed several monuments and squares. It was by afternoon when we decided to go back and get the car for further exploration. We had yet to see the famous windmills. The train came right after we entered the station so after 45 minutes we were driving our car and going towards Zaandam where the famous old-fashioned windmills were located.

We stopped just before a bridge where construction was going on and parked our car on the road and walked across. There were several windmills here making beautiful scenery. The houses were along the water and on the other side few more houses and many wind mills. We took a walk in the pretty village along the water and then through the village. There were a couple of small windmills with in the village as well. And no need to mention that there are smaller sized canals everywhere and the birds of so many kinds were in abundance all over Holland. Rain stopped and gave us a chance to explore this village and enjoy the nature. Green pastures looked absolutely amazing with cows grazing in them. On our return we saw the bridge opened up fully to let one ship go under it and that made kids very excited as well because they had not seen this before. Walk to the car took us 10 minutes and then we headed home.