Sunday, April 12, 2009

Turtles and Mountains


Travel Month:

April 2009




Muscat, Sur, Ras Al Jinz, Ras Al Hudd, Nizwa, Jebel Akhder

Watch turtles and hatchlings, ocean, mountains

Total Distance Covered:

2000 KMs


I always wonder what makes me go out and sleep in the tents at far away places, this urge comes back again and again and I enjoy the tiredness, fatigued body and I travel even more as I grow older. Thankfully, I got a family who supports me on this each time I propose going out in the rough and the tough. Our children are 11, 7 and 3 today and they support and enjoy the travels as much as we do. We all fight during the journey due to fatigue, we argue, we do all kinds of nasty things and at the end we always help each other pitching the tent, putting on fire and preparing the food. This is what makes the family I believe, and that's what adventures are all about and that's how we get to plan for a trip yet again each time.

Children got sick just before their spring break and had to take the whole week off, therefore I thought to take them out for a few days for a change of air towards the end of their holidays. This time we decided to finish off the two major destinations left in Oman. With this we would complete all major areas of this Arabian country. These two place are Turtle Beach (Ras Al Hudd and Ras Al Jinz - close to the city of Sur) and the mountain range of Jebel Akhder. Oman is a country where they built road networks only in the last five years and have promoted their country as a tourist destination pretty well.

We had a slow start in the morning and had breakfast with some nice parathas, chana and qeema. It was already 11am when we were able to hit the highway towards the border town of Hatta. Hatta boder post is not as busy as Al-Ain so we opted going through this one. We got the exit stamps in no time and then got in line for the visa stamping at Omani check post. We collected Oman's map from here that became very handy in the rest of the journey. Our target was to reach Sayq Plateau in Jebel Akhder by the night falls. However when we hit the Muscat road we realized that people gave us wrong suggestion to take this road and it added about 200 kms extra to reach Nizwa - the base town before Jebel Akhder. Anyhow while exploring the map I found a detour that would connect us to Nizwa road and would save us more then 100 kms. A police car on the highway also confirmed the same and suggested us to take the road identified. It was a side road and a single lane. We were suppose to drive just over 100km on small roads to reach Nizwa but we ended up reaching a point where the road became wadi road means dirt road snaking up in the mountains going towards Wadi Al Hamra, that was about 50 kms from Nizwa. Situation was accessed and we decided not to take a chance since we were just one vehicle and a family, and this time was right after the flash floods happened in this very area. It was quite evident that the way would be a nasty one as the road we were driving at was broken at many places and the tarmac was totally washed away at points. So we ended up taking a round back to the Muscat road loosing on time by atleast 2 hours and driving about 100 kms extra.

Due to all this we decided to stay in Muscat rather than continue driving either to Sur or to Jebel in the night time. Children were already tired and hungry as we did not take a proper break so far. Muscat was not far and we made it to one hotel in the Ghubrah Area with in one hours time. After we checked in, we drove out for dinner and had a good meal at a Taaza with chicken bbq and broast and rice. Kids had KFC next doors. The place was very nice and clean, and the meal tasty and fresh.

After the diner we visited the main Souq (Market) of Muscat and had a stroll at the corniche over looking two giant cruise ships. We called it a day at 10pm and drove back to get some rest and get ready for the next day drive. The stay was comfortable with A/C working mildly.

We had our heads down on the map to find the best way to drive to Sur as we changed our plan and decided to visit the turtles place before going to Jebel as it made more sense looking at the map. There are two ways to go to Sur from Muscat, one is the main highway that goes to Salalah and you cut off from it towards Sur and the other way is to pass through Quriyat and continue towards Sur right along the beaches. It used to be an old dirt track and just recently upgraded to a nice carpeted road with toll plazas on it (toll plazas are not yet operational). However no one seems to be knowing about this new road, but we still decided to go along the coast rather than going to the mid country and then driving back to the ocean. We had plenty of time at hand so opted for the smaller roads rather.

Once we decided to take the road along the beach, we stopped at a gas station for some supplies and then continued towards Sur. Most of the road until Quriyat is still under construction. But after Quriyat the road has been mostly completed and it is a nice one way highway. The old road or I would call it a track travels along the coast much closer to the water. The road is going through the mountains, so one has to be careful to control the speed. One could get carried away due to the excellent road condition and less visited highway so far.

We took 2 detours off the highway and visited some nice old villages through dirt roads. We noticed that there is still no development in these villages yet, due to having no roads earlier. And now they would definitely be developed as there is a highway traveling next door. But so far these are untouched areas and the people are really simple. The paths inside the village are very small and hardly one car could go in the main streets. These villages are right on the coast and one could see fishing boats to identify their means of business.

At one place from a bridge we saw a lake passed by and it looked awesome place with mountain on one side and trees on the other. That one glimse was enough for us to turn back from the next exit to explore the lake. So we came back to find out this wonderful place that we would have missed if we were looking towards the ocean. We saw some other tourists there brought by some tourism companies and some locals doing picnics. The lake is very long and we had to cross one patch of water to park our car and then cross the other on foot to get to the other side to walk along the lake that goes for 45 minutes to end up in a bigger pond. We continued for about 25 minutes and then stopped after crossing the water one more time. This was the time limit set for us to start back and head towards Sur. It is a lovely spot and I would recommend spending more time here to other visitors. The name of the village is Tiwi where one has to take the exit.

The journey continued and we entered Sur just after hot mid day. Due to the afternoon break, we found everything closed. We found this town boring all the more due to this reason. Anyhow our final destination for today was Ras Al Jinz where the turtle beach is. It is further 50 kilometers down. After reaching Ras Al Jinz we met a dead end with a building between the two mountain ends and no way to pass through, though we were expecting to see the ocean and the beach. The last hour or so drive is quite boring as the road has been built far from the water (purposely I believe) and goes around a creek that you could only see from far, unless one would want to go off road. Anyhow after inquiring at the building we got to know that this is an office taking care of turtle beach and also a hotel for people to stay at very high price (atleast for us) at 1200 / room. Moreover they were at capacity (100 people at one time) for tonights turtle beach trip at 9pm. This was very disappointing after driving for more that 900 kms, and the kids were really sad. However they told us that the 4am trip still had room available, that we put ourselves in immediately and on standby for the 9pm trip.

We preparted our lunch not far from there, where the wind really picked up making us eat cooked/semi-cooked kababs with lot of dust accumulated in our pan already. As we were hungry therefore we didnt mind that really. Now we had to make a decision either to camp next to this place to stay closer to the turtle beach to catch one of the tours or go far and camp at a better location and drive up here for the tour. Finally we decided to stay closer. It was kind of a dirt valley enclosed in low range mountains. The floor was full of rocks and very uneven. We picked up one spot and cleaned the area from rocks to pitch the tent. Our site was ready well before the dark. Wood was collected and a fire pit was prepared for the dinner that we would be having late night.

There were other two vehicles traveled from Qatar, they camped a little further down and we could see their camps from our location. At the sun set, and the moon became visible we realized that it was a full moon. This made us go back to the office to put another request for the 9pm tour. There were still 2 hours left before the tour and we decided to go back in and stay their as standby. This eventually worked out and they let us in at about 9:15pm, surprising children remained very patient during this wait due to a slide show going on in the hotel. We were told to wait for our guide to go to the beach for turtle watching. Once we came out at the back side of the building, then we got to know that there was fair bit of walk to reach the beach and I was carrying Hassan on my back. So my exercise already started at this point. At the beach we were briefed about the green turtles who come here for laying eggs and then we had to wait for some turtles to come to the beach. And then our guide told us there have been two hatchlings close by, everyone walked to that spot, no one was allowed to talk or use the flash lights. Only one light was used to guide the baby towards the beach. It was very impressive to see such a small turtle right after his birth was able to walk all the way to the water, a good stretch of distance for the poor creature. These two landed in water safely and as soon as we came back to sit quitely and wait for the 4 turtles making holes already, we saw two foxes looking for the baby turtles. These were the predators, the others were asleep - the seaguls. 2 turtle babies out of 100s survive - scary!!

We saw turtles laying eggs and covering them safely, then making false holes for the foxes to go crazy digging them and then the walk back to the water. It was a great experience to monitor this phenomenon so closely. It was 11:30 when we came back to the hotel and eventually to our camp after using their bathrooms.

Children were very tired after a very long day, we were tired too but very hungry first. So after putting kids to sleep, me and my wife started preparing bbq for our dinner.

The yolk was hanging very low - full and bright - the scenery which was very dry, rugged, rocky and terrible suddenly changed into a very beautiful one with mountains in the back drop lighted up plains by moon light. It was very romantic indeed.

Two camels were on the loose and haunted us a couple of times looking for some food. The shadow was quite scary the first time around as a giant creature under the bright moon. This only happened in the early 30 minutes and then the place was without a thing whatsoever.

The dinner was without any doubt, one of the best dinners I had in our several campings under full moon and no creature in site. It was very quite and serene in moon light. Atmosphere was very romantic but with the scary far away feeling. We realized that we were the only two people on earth by 2am and then rushed to get into our tent to have some sleep. I was not sleepy anymore.

The morning was sunny and the temperature rose sharply to 34. We packed up and went to see Ras Al Hud, 15 kms away. We had our breakfast on the beach and then drove to Sur. Most of it was closed due to Friday holiday. So we continued towards Nizwa now.

Nizwa was about 3-4 hours drive that we completed without any hickup. We did get supplies from a gas station at Sur including some ice for the drinks. We crossed a stretch of road where we did not see a thing for several minutes. Just before reaching Nizwa we stopped for lunch and had biryaini at Izki. From here the road starts going into hajjar mountains into Jebel Akhder range. This was all army installation earlier and still we had to pass through army check post that only allows 4x4 vehicles drive past this point, and they specifically instruct drivers to engage 4x4. It was very steep ahead, the temperature started coming down as we climbed higher in altitude and it dropped by 10 degrees when we reached Sayq Plateau a small town on top of the driveable mountain. I could not see any greenery uptil now that I had heard about and was quite disappointed with that. We entered the only hotel in the area Jebel Akhder Hotel that was full. and we were returened back. Anyhow we settled into a hotel apartment that we found with some research and the kids finally had a TV break watching cartoons. I spoke to a nice local to ask for places to see and he pointed out a few places on the map.

It was time to explore and change our mindset from a dry rocky mountain place to a nice and pleasant hill station. We had picked up a brochure about the area from JA Hotel when we stopped to check availability so we had some places marked already, to visit.

There are a few villages where they have made steps of land that could be cultivated. These are full of fruit trees and rose trees. The flowers were are full bloom at this time as it was rose season. We made our way to the one recommended by our local friend. Once we turned from the main road the small single lane road started descending steeply with several curls. Eventually we reached a spot from where the village houses were visible and the track still continued going down by more steeper and thinner. After contemplating I drove further and the track became as small as our truck and we could barely cross through, but there was no return now. So it remained like that for another 100 meters and it opened up into a parking with a few children playing there and a few people sitting on the small wall watching the view on the other side. It was showing off the lands cultivated by the villagers with fruits and flowers. We managed to communicate with a person who told us a little about the place and then we started our trek to the east side of the village. It was a small street first then converted to a very small trek along the falaj going through the orchards but descending steeply towards the valley.

Children were loving every moment of the trek as they had enough of dry mountain driving and this was very refreshing with some green visible. There were no fruits as the flowers just bloomed and fruits will ripe in august. However the rose flower trees were loaded with pink color flowers. The walk was very pleasant, we walked through pomegranate trees, fig trees, under the grape wines, crossed the small wheat plantation. It is amazing the way these small fields have been developed, hats off to the residents. The evening was falling in so we had to stop the kids and convince them to turn back and climb up to the car before it was too dark. They didnt want to go back but we finally convinced them. All of us loved this little village on the side of this mountain. We came back to the parking and met some old locals and had some chat with them through sign language as we didnt know each other's language. Finally we said goodbye to everyone there and started our drive back. As soon as we entered the village on the small track going up at more than 45 degrees, another car came from the top and we had to reverse back to the parking with great difficulty to give way to the on coming car. On our second try we made it up to the road. Driving back was again very slow and on a low gear, the car was just crawling and one could run or brisk walk with it. We came back to Sayq and visited the shops in the town. Almost all the shops say FOODSTUFF on them, and they carried everything including groceries and vegetables. Other than the village that we visited there was nothing interesting in this town so far. We drove around for some more time and then came back to our hotel as it was already quite dark. Kids started enjoying their cartoons on the tv and I went down to order some food for us. Food came quite fast and we were done in no time. Everyone was tired so we all laid down in the Majlis (sitting room) and watched some tv before hitting the bed.

We prepared our breakfast ourselves in the morning and enjoyed the kitchen provided to us. Omelete, fried eggs, sausages, bread, fried patatoes made a good meal and we did justice to food before leaving the hotel. We planned to visit Wadi Bani Habib this morning that was about 10kms away. The drive was winding road through the mountains and we had parked our car in the parking already. Everyone got ready for the hike with their survival knives, hiking sticks, water etc. etc. This is an inhabitable village and a long canyon filled with greenery. There are several trees in there and it made a very beautiful sight. The hike down to the base of the canyon and then further on in the canyon bed was very nice and refreshing. Though we were quite tired into our fourth day of travel. Everyday we had walked a fair amount and running after kids was in addition. We walked for another hour or so and then turned back to hike back up. Once we were back everyone used their bathroom facility next to the parking and we drove off to Diana's Point which is another picturesque place and the name implies that Lady Diana visited this place once and since it is named as so.

It was already getting hot which was surprising at this altitude. We drove towards the highest point in this region and towards the last stop on road, but it was quite boring with on rocks around you and nothing much noticeable. Therefore we returned to the main road and started our final descend towards Nizwa. We reached Nizwa to take a break and bought some supplies and a well deserved ice cream. The temperature was touching 35 but in the shades it was not too bad.

We were driving back and crossed through Ibri and then entered into UAE through Al Ain border. Crossing Al Ain on the way back from Oman is always painful as it takes you about 45 minutes and several round abouts to reach the Dubai highway. We made it safe and fresh back home before it was dark to put an end to another wonderful travel of ours.

Note:- Always check your passports while entering the UAE for entry stamp as this time they missed out stamping for my son and they made me go back to the first counter to get the stamp again.

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