Oman - Part 2

 

23/1 Onwards South, direction Wahiba Sands.

Fort and mosque in Jalad Bani Bu 'Ali

We had no intention to drive through the Wahiba Sands, as the pistes are all sand and about 200 km long. The Sands extend right to the coast, so the tar road goes inland around it. However, on the fringe of it we had seen a shortcut on our maps, being a piste. There are no signs, so we use the GPS for navigation, which also shows this piste, but we soon find ourselves riding in soft stuff and wondering which way to go. When the BMW finally digs itself in we decide to turn around, knowing that we can't rely on either maps or GPS. However, we now need to look for a camp site and camping in sand sounds a lot more appealing than in stony desert, where you always have to clear away sharp stones before pitching the tent. So we turn off towards another village. I barely slow down for the big sign saying "Welcome to the Wahiba Sands, take a guide, " etc. As the road swings into the village proper there is a patch of sand in the turn. I swing around, too, and WHOAA!, this is all deep loose sand here in the village. Remembering my sand-riding training in the UAE (Hi Stephan!) I give it herbs (power and revs) and plough on. Lars' bike soon gets stuck ahead of me and I stop, too. The first child appears, extends his hand and demands bakhsheesh. This is new for me around here, but I just do likewise. He gets angry and wants to slap my hand. More children appear, but they are just curious. We decide to deflate the tyres and push on. This is made difficult by the children, who keep pushing and pulling the bike. It's just dug in and hence sitting there rather precariously. I have a hard time fending them off, trying to make them understand that it will fall over and that the exhaust is hot. With deflated tyres it's a lot easier and once we get the hang of it it's actually fun, although the piste is nothing but tracks in the sand, making the bikes dance. There are a surprising number of camps in the sand along the track, camel and goat farms. As we ride along a 4WD comes up beside the piste and a woman leans out taking pictures of Lars. When we stop to take our bearings they stop, too and it turns out they are German tourists out for a camp, too. This may be an organised camp, we don't know. Unfortunately, Lars doesn't get their contact details, so he will not get the pictures. Perhaps they are reading these pages... Parking the bikes isn't easy: we can't use the stands, as they sink in. So we apply the front brake and let the rear wheel dig itself in, but not too far! Then we have to get off and dig a hole for the sidestand. Thus balanced, we can then find a piece of dead wood to put under the stand. Once the camp is set up we talk and wonder whether we should just continue South, but decide that that is probably just silly. The dunes will look the same all the way, so why take risks?

24/1 The next morning there is fog only a few metres away, but once the sun comes up, so does the wind and blows it away. This time it's Lars who walks up the dune. We continue on towards Ibra, stopping off for a spot of sightseeing in a village. Another shortcut track on our maps we also can't find, so we stick to the main road.

Normally, we would have taken the road South around the Wahiba Sands, if it hadn't been for an aquaintance who had given us a route through a supposedly spectacular wadi. To get there, we need to be further inland. So we head another 80-odd km West before turning South.

 

 

 

 

 

The desert here looks like this as far as you can see in any direction:

25/1 Alas, it was to come differently, due to a small light bulb. I spare you the technical details, suffice to say that Lars thought his charging system was about to fail and so he wasn't going to ride down a 130 km dirt track with zero traffic. We had just stocked up at a Pakistani restaurant in the middle of nowhere with water and petrol from a canister when he decided this. So, we go down the said track for 10 km to camp. In the morning we return to this restaurant to carry out some repairs. We change the alternator rotor and find the battery is being charged, but the light is still dim, so we take the main road South again. Some distance down this road Lars realises that the bulb has simply slipped out of its socket, so there actually is no problem. Too late. As we ride East again from Haima to the coast we spot a sign for the Oryx sanctuary. Lars is keen to go and see it, but entry to the road is by permit only and there is no reply at the number given (siesta). It is here that I realise that we couldn't have done the route through the wadi, as it presumably goes right through the sanctuary. I didn't know we needed a permit and Lars had forgotten... Several hundred km detour through the featureless expanse of the desert...

The amazing thing about the desert here is seen in a stone Lars picks up and shows me: underneath it's an ordinary, rough broken stone. The exposed side, however, is polished smooth by the wind and sand. It must have lain in this position for thousands of years, undisturbed, despite all the tyre tracks around here. I wonder how old some of the tracks are. It's so flat, you can ride in any direction. It's late in the afternoon when we reach the coast again. Decision time: do we go 30 km North to Duqm, where we know there is a filling station, but probably no hotel? There isn't another pump on our maps for hundreds of km. We decide o play it safe and fill up. Of course there is no hotel here. 80 km South on the cape there is Madrakah and I have some GPS tracks there, meaning Klaus has been there. We make a dash for it. Madrakah turns out to be a fishing village, rather run-down looking, except for a brand-new housing complex. No facilities whatsoever, we camp on the beach.

26/1 We continue down the coast, but it's a rather boring ride, nothing but flat desert and a few rows of shacks and fishing villages along the way. As it's not possible to ride along the coast to Salalah we turn inland and now we really get to the back of beyond. For several hundred km it's flat stony desert. The towns on our maps are just oil supply bases. Ironically, petrol is scarce around here. Most of the track between Marmul and Thumrayt has been sealed, save for about 50 km of dusty rough track in the middle, but they are working on it. By chance we discover that there is at least one nicely graded track running parallel to this, which helps eating other vehicles' dust. That way we almost miss the new tar road further along... We were going to camp n the middle fo this, but Lars decides it's too stony, so we press on to Salalah. We are now entering the Dhofar region. Crossing over the Dhofar mountains at about 877 m altitude it's rather chilly, but on the other side the scenery changes dramatically: there is vegetation everywhere, albeit mainly brown. Down near Salalah things get green and warm. We check into the Al-Hanaa Hotel for a few days of R&R.

28/1 According to LP there is only one thing to see here: the museum. When we find it it doesn't exist any more. Apart from that there are the souks, but they pale in comparison to anything any Iranian or Turkish town has got. The traders are mainly Indians. There are no old buildings to speak of and even the sultan's palace is a rather bland affair. The beach is signposted as unsafe for swimming. Miles and miles of glorious white sand. Lots of mainly derelict buildngs line the waterfront and all shops and restaurants are closed. It's out of season here. The town as such is modern and rather pleasant, almost quiet.

In the evening I connect my PC to the net and it catches a nasty worm that infects most program files, despite an anti-virus running. When I run a manual virus scan over 200 infected files are quarantined, rendering my PC almost useless. Unfortunately, many program installation files are also infected and most files can't be cleaned, so I won't be able to repair this for some time to come.

 

30/1 We finally leave Salalah, but not before having worked on Lars' bike again. We head East along the coast, as far as possible. At a gas station Lars' bike has another electrical problem. Luckily, it's only a plug that has come apart. The Dhofar mountains are always towering on our left. For some distance they show us a steep cliff face. We turn into Sadh for a picnic lunch, but in the port we get invited for lunch. A friendly man takes us to an Indian restaurant. He doesn't eat with us, indicating that he has already eaten. The restaurant seves anything, as long as it is Biriani.

The further we go the wilder it gets and the road, too, keeps getting nicer, until finally it goes right along the water's edge. After Hasik there is a sign for Natif, 6 km. The highway turns into a dirt track and the army blocks further progress. I can't find out why. Tantalisingly, my GPS shows a village 20 km further NE inland, but it seems there is no way to get there. If there was one could continue all the way NE. As it is, to get to the village is about a 500 km drive. As we set up camp on the beach Lars spots some dorsal fins in the water. Dolphins, he thinks. I very quickly get into my swim gear and goggled up, but wait! They could be sharks. Lars shows me a photo he has taken and they look like dolphins, but they are gone now. Lars pitches his tent while I just sleep in a beach shelter. The entire beach is covered in tracks. At night we discover that they are made by small hermit crabs that crawl around the beach in their sea shells.

The last remnants of old Omani architecture passing into history

Khor Rouri

31/1 We return the way we came, stopping very often for photos. The scenery changes every few minutes. There is a pod of dolphins feeding only 20 m from the beach. We stop for a long time and watch them. There seem to be babies, too. We decide to ride around Salalah through the mountains. Quick look at Khor Rouri from above, very pretty from the cliff top, but there doesn't seem much to actually see, so we don't try to get in. We turn inland and go up a steep winding mountain road. Picnic in Wadi Darbat, where supposedly frankincense trees grow, but we don't know what they look like. There is a big pond with shady trees there, a whole lot of camels and a sign warning of bilharziosis in the water.

 

The road climbs to a sort of plateau, about 600 m high. It is a very stony landscape, but between the stones there is brown grass everywhere. During the khareef (monsoon) this must be very green and pretty. There are stray groups of animals everywhere and we often have to slow down or stop, mainly for cattle. This is the only area on this side of the gulf where I have seen cattle farming, all other areas being too dry. There are also goats and camels, lots of all of them. We follow the signs to a sink hole, but having found the car park we can't find the hole. A friendly farmer appears and guides us down through the scrub and rocks to see a very deep hole indeed. He speaks English surprisingly well and tells us that he has one brother studying in Paris and another in London. Lars has another breakdown, but for once it is not his bike. It seems that the Indian laundry people have washed his silk sleepng bag liner too hot. It just falls apart wherever he touches it. So we ride down to the beach and set up camp early and Lars rides into town to get a new one made. He has a hard time: the Arab tailors speak no English and so send him away. The first Indian tailor sends him to buy the material. When he comes back he says he has no time to do it! Other tailors refuse the job, because they only do ladies' garments! Lars should have told them it's for his sister... But he does get it made in the end and it's cheap. The wind dies down in the evening and we have a very nice camp fire, but I soon have it to myself, as Lars goes to sleep early again. We share the beach with some large crabs that come out at night.

1/2 The wind gets up during the night and our bikes and everything else are covered in salt. The plan is to ride through Salalah, stop to look at a fort Lars has discovered, then continue close to the Yemeni border to camp. Arrived at the site the fort turns out to be a national museum and next to it is the site of Al Bideen, an ancient and important trading port. However, while the site is open the museum only opens late in the afternoon. So, quick change of plans: we stay in Salalah, check into the hotel and take a tour of the mountains. Lars doesn't get very far: out of town his clutch slips. I ride up into the mountains by myself, while Lars returns to the hotel to ponder his next move. My ride takes me up to 900 m altitude and on the other side is the desert, then back up to almost 1000 m and down again into the coastal region with its brown vegetation, trees and banana plants. Quick stop at Job's tomb, a prophet muslims and christians share. The views from the top are not bad. We check out the archaeological site. There are quite a number of good info boards explaining what the various foundations and piles of stones once were. The museum is new and modern with well-labelled exhibits. Sadly, the Thesiger photos from the previous museum aren't on display, I think, although there are some old photos from cities around the country. The aerial photo of Salalah is stunning: it was tiny, with dirt streets and mud buildings. Almost nothing of this remains today. Lars orders his parts from Germany and DHL say they should be here in 3 days. Our bikes get an Indian wash. They haven't looked that clean in months. Afterwards, Lars' front brake hardly works. Seems they spayed diesel onto the bikes despite Lars telling them not to.

2/2 As I get up early I find the hotel manager asleep in the lobby. He later starts telling me a little about his life. He's Philippino, been here 6 years and hasn't had a day off work yet. He is the 24 hour reception. The hotel belongs to his Omani brother-in-law... Lars spends the day reading while I hunt down the virus in my PC. Takes all day.

 

Rakhyut with Route 45 in the foreground?

3/2 We cruise along the coast West towards the Yemen border. Soon the road becomes almost deserted and the scenery ever more spectacular, as the road winds its way to the top of the Dhofar mountains, 1000 - 1100 high. Up here it is pleasantly cool while at sea level it's over 30 deg. and humid, but not unpleasant. We stop off at the Mughalla blowholes. They have put grates over the top of them. Only one blows a bit of mist, but there are interesting gurgling sounds. The petrol station opposite looks closed. Lars needs petrol soon, but we aren't worried: there is another one on our map in Rakhyut. As the road climbs over 1000 m we are nearing a marker that Stephan put into my GPS, ominously called "End of Trip". There is an army checkpoint with a big metal barrier, but after a cursory passport check we are waved on. When we hit Route 45 South to Rakhyut we think we made a mistake. It's a graded dirt road that passes through a farm gate, then becomes a very steep and rough track. A local confirms that we are on the right track, though and my GPS map shows we are following a road. As we almost reach the bottom there is a highway on the opposite hillface. This doesn't have a route number, but corresponds to the road on our map. There are camels wandering in and around the otherwise deserted town. Everythin is shut, including the big tourist motel and both restaurants. And, oh yes, there is no petrol pump here.

 
 

We zoom up the zigzag highway and soon rejoin the main road that runs along the top of the mountain range. Another army checkpoint and here the barrier is closed. But after our details have been entered into the magic book we are again allowed to proceed. The road splits and we turn to the coast again. We are now very close to the border and there are only two more towns. Steep down again and as we stop just before the coast smoke rises from Lars' front brake! His disc has changed colour a little. The clouds rising up the mountainside from the sea and the scenery here remind us a little of the NZ Wet Coast, just warmer and less green. We even have to ride through a cloud at one stage. We roll into Dalkut and get accosted by a somewhat strange young Omani, who tells Lars not to go this way, it's "dangerous, because the army is there", but then tells us to go there. He takes us to the petrol pump, a big drum from where fuel is transferred into Lars' tank with a plastic container. To show us the way to a restaurant he just jumps onto my right pannier, almost tipping me over. He almost behaves as if he owns my bike and I don't have a good feeling with this guy. Never mind. Our map shows the road continuing West out of town to the border town of Sarfayt, from where it loops through Yemeni territory back into Oman. Maybe one day... For now it's a dirt track barred by the army. The guys are very friendly and suggest that it's safe to camp on the beach here. No way! It's full moon = spring tide and I can see clearly that all the sand got flooded last night. We can also see many large crabs scurrying all over the beach. In the end Lars pitches his tent on a headland nearby and I sleep outside a pavillion in the open.

4/2 It turns out the second road exists, after all, but it branches off before ever reaching Dalkut. I don't know about the loop through Yemen, I never get that far, for there is a turnoff for the border. We roll right into the compound and chat with the friendly officials, most of whom speak English. We weren't sure whether this crossing is open for foreigners, but they confirm that we aren't the first bikers to cross here. While there we get our first glimps of Yemen, as a clapped out pickp rolls up on the other side of the barrier to offload some hay. This, in turn is picked up by an almost equally derelict Omani army pickup. Is the army engaging in camel fodder smuggling? I bid farewell to Lars for now, who heads back to Salalah to await the arival of his parcel.