9th February 2018
Wild Frontiers' client Steve Rencontre recently returned from a tour of Oman and has put together a photo diary of his trip, including goat parades, dressing up and lost runners. Photos by Steve and Amanda Rencontre.
We all gather together for the first visit of the trip: the Grand Mosque. Tour leader Phil is on the left, then we have Sarah, Nabhan (chief driver/guide), Idris (driver), Jenny, Nawaf (driver), Bill, Michael, Kate (Michael's wife), and Amanda. Out of shot is Bill's wife Daphne, and the final member of the group, Jerry, is yet to arrive. Turns out he made a simple mistake in dates when booking his flight!
Pictures can't really do this thing justice. It looks like an alien spacecraft crossed with a Disney castle and it's about the size of one too. Eight tons!
The whole mosque is like this: biggest/tallest/whateverest, although the dastardly crew in Dubai have grabbed some of their records now.
Some of you may know of last year's Surrey Cow Parade; well this is roughly the same thing transferred to Arabia and a Muscat Goat Parade. There are loads of them in the grounds of a museum we visit.
And our first Omani meal. We have a 'family room' at the restaurant, because women don't normally eat with strange men. Obviously I'm not a strange man, but I can't speak for the others... Although this is not Saudi Arabia by any means, Omani culture is still very conservative.
Oman was a major trading nation in ancient times and has a large immigrant population today, so the food is a mixture of North African, Greek, Arab, Indian, Pakistani and doubtless others. There's nothing obviously endemic and it's not challenging to the modern Western palate, unless you're Jenny (top right), who doesn't like spicy food. Despite this, she's travelled extensively in lands where spicy food is the norm!
At Wadi Bani Awf – "Snake Canyon" – a bunch of locals are out for an afternoon's fun. On the hillside opposite, a couple of others are putting up targets for them to shoot at. This is not private land, and the safety precautions seem to be roughly "don't get in the line of fire". Quite how many laws they'd be breaking by doing this in good old Blighty is hard to imagine!
And now for some slightly less dangerous fun with the dressing-up box. Nabhan explains the various costumes and then we try some of them on.
The girls do rather better in the shiny department. I'm wearing the brightest thing I can find on the male side and the other two aren't even trying!
That's the eponymous view behind us!
I was trying to look up a village name or something, but there isn't one. This place really is in the middle of nowhere and it must have been quite a gamble to build it, but it seems popular and successful, with plenty of other guests apart from our group.
There used to be a lot of hand-made pottery workshops in the town of Bahla, but this is the only one still operating today. He makes it look so easy!
It's been made very clear to us that we should ask before taking obvious pictures of people, so it comes as a bit of a surprise to find people asking me to take their picture! Amanda and I are standing in a bit of open ground when we have to move out of the way of a pickup truck, but the guy stops and gestures to me to take a photo please. I oblige, then show him and the kids on the camera screen, and they all seem very pleased. They're not the only ones, either. Some lads running a stall in the fish market are dead keen to be models too.
Perhaps they think I'm a professional photographer and they'll become world-famous when I publish these shots. Err, sorry...
Now there is a happy man!
We've just collected the alcohol supply for our camping nights. It's been a bit of a surprise to find that even hotels catering to Westerners mostly don't have licences, and there's definitely been a bit of an air of black market skullduggery about obtaining a few bottles and cans. Even Sweden doesn't make it quite this hard to rot your liver. (Aside: I used to have a T-shirt that said, "The liver is evil and must be punished!")
We visit a Bedouin camp, and this lady is one of the few who are willing to have their photo taken - although possibly a small tip from Phil is what makes the difference. Then again, when we arrived and I said "Salaam alaikum" to her, she gave me her hand to shake, which I thought was a definite no-no in their culture.
And so to our first campsite, in the dunes of the desert. As is the way with deserts, the temperature drops sharply at night, so the fire is most appreciated.
Our tents don't have fly sheets, so initially we're really struggling to get everything in without touching the sides, but then we think: hold on, desert - it ain't gonna rain here! So we just shove everything in and forget about it until we all discover in the morning that there's been a really heavy dew, and all the tents are soaking wet! Indeed, many of us (including me) are startled into premature wakefulness by our very own internal raindrops falling on our head.
Well here's a road sign we don't see in the Home Counties.
At the beach, fishing boats are pulled up onto the sand. Probably in Sinbad's day they used pure muscle power, but now they have jeeps which they cake in oily tar to protect them from the salt water.
"I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne." One for the Indiana fans, although I'm pleased to be able to report we weren't being strafed by a Nazi fighter plane. Oh, and it seems that Charlemagne never actually said the words attributed to him by Dr Jones, Sr, it was a pure invention of the scriptwriters. But who cares! If the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, there is another universe in which he did say it.
A room with a view.
Our second beach camp is a bit disappointing after the first, simply because of the volume of garbage washed up on the beach. Much of it comes from local fishermen just chucking stuff overboard, but also from as far as the other side of the Indian Ocean. It only takes us half an hour or so to make this pile. Nabhan says that the local municipality is supposed to organise cleaning the beach, but they often don't bother. He asks me to send him this picture so he can use it to put pressure on them.
A brief dip to satisfy honour is plenty for me, but there are braver souls among our number. To be fair, it's not that cold, but I'm not particularly fond of swimming for the sake of swimming, especially when there are waves. Give me a coral reef to go snorkelling around and I'm yer man, but that's for another time and place.
There are strange little tracks all around, and at first we can't quite figure out what they are. Rodent? Snake? Nothing seems quite right. And then we spot a Hermit Crab – caught red-handed! Well, footed.
This camel has just given birth, and its owner is encouraging and helping the calf to drink.
As well as what one traditionally thinks of as camel-coloured camels, the region is also home to unusual black camels.
Tonight, we camp in the Rub' al Khali - the 'Empty Quarter'. This is the largest sand desert in the world (650,000 square kilometres according to Wikipedia!) and although we haven't travelled very far into it, we can easily believe it. That little dot is Kate.
4WD cars, a few tents, and ...well... sand.
Amanda decides she'll go for a run first thing. "How are you going to not get lost?" I ask her. She mumbles something about running in circles, but I'm not convinced. OTOH, there's no point trying to stop her. Years of experience have taught me that years of experience have taught her nothing in this regard.
A couple of hours later, we're pretty sure she's lost. Phil and I each choose a dune and climb to the top but can't see her anywhere. Nabhan goes off in the jeep but comes back alone. He's followed her trail easily enough, but she's gone into an area where it's not safe to drive alone, so he needs another car. I jump in with Nawaf and off we go.
We reach a point where the cars just can't continue, so Idris gets out and starts following on foot while we circle back to approach from another direction.
Finally we see her, or at least Nawaf does, and our lost camel is returned to the fold and everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief! She's a bit dehydrated, but no worse than she gets running back home sometimes. She says she knows I was really worried because I forgot to bring my camera!
Phil says she's going to be included in his briefings for future visitors!
This is what happens when you're out in the desert for too long...
We're on our way to an artificial oasis. Oil prospectors found water instead, and they installed some pipework to a make a thermal spring and create a little patch of green and a hot bath!
Jenny washes her hair!
Most of the rest of us strip to swimming costumes and jump right in, as it's the perfect bath temperature. Unfortunately, it's a bit sulphurous and smelly, though by no means as bad as some spas, and the stone surfaces are very dirty. Most of you gets clean (well, cleaner than before), but not any parts touching the sides or bottom. Soap would probably solve the problem, but we don't have any to hand right now.
"Help! Let me out!"
Phil climbs a dune to be silhouetted against the Moon as it rises, but none of are expecting quite such a perfect alignment. Theoretically, yesterday was the actual full moon, but you'd be hard pushed to tell the difference.
Just after sunrise.
And before we leave the desert, here we are, the motley crew in full!
Back row, L-R: Amanda, Bill, Michael, Kate, Jerry, Jenny, Daphne, Steve
Front row, L-R: Idris, Nawaf, Nabhan, Phil, Sarah
I should perhaps point out that the reason I'm standing slightly apart from the rest is not because I don't want to be associated with them, but because I've just run back from pressing the timer start button and haven't had time to pose more carefully.
The boys want to have a little fun. I'd quite like a go myself, as it happens, and I don't think I'm the only one.
And here's another camel...
Camel meat is supposed to be very lean, but they must have found some extra fat from somewhere because this dish contains lumps of it and is quite greasy. It's not inedible, but certainly doesn't have everyone eagerly wolfing it down.
It's hard work walking into the wind, so Daphne calls for assistance from Nabhan who then needs assistance himself from Nawaf. Or, well, maybe, this is just a touch playing to the gallery.
See, it's not all desert! This is a rare example of a wadi with water in it that isn't the result of a flash flood.
We have to depart at 3am for a 5am flight to Doha (in Qatar) where we change for Heathrow. You've all seen airports often enough, so there are therefore no particularly interesting pictures to be had until we finally get to London.
We're nearly there... No we're not... Yes we are... No we're not...
Well we made it in the end. Time to start planning another trip!