Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Diving in Oman: Bandar Khayran Nov 17, 2010, and travelogue for 5 days camping, Eid al Fitr break

My logged dives #1019-1020

Wed Nov 17, 2010

Our last day in Oman was the most typical of all. We had planned an ambitious walk, one I had made many times and under many different conditions. It was one of my first walks in Oman, the place where I got stuck out overnight with John Turvey just above the town of Wakan, he and I cuddled against the cold under his space blanket, a thin strip of foil that was supposed to retard heat loss. I'm not sure how well it did; it was cold. That had been a prodigious walk. John had been checking out the area and thought he knew a way up to Saiq. So we had driven in John's Pajero to Wakan and headed up the mountain. I remember that John did a good job of scoping out the way up from Wakan and through the gap but it was a hard slog to Menahir for a day hike.

Menahir at the time was a large town of hovels of goat herders. The military lockdown on the Saiq plateau was still firm at the time. We walked up the graded road from there, now paved, and made it out to the graded track that we figured led to Saiq (also since paved), but we didn't know which way to go. We guessed wrong when we got a ride with a military vehicle heading the way down the mountain, though at that spot on the plateau it didn't go down for a while yet. In any event, I know now we got a lift going the wrong way from Saiq.

It was forbidden for anyone without a permit to the Saiq plateau to pass the checkpoint going up the road there, but apparently there were no rules about dealing with people who walked up, so the soldiers were happy to help us out. In any event we rode some distance with them and I guess got a lift back; I don't remember, but we somehow got back to the track back down to Menahir and walked into that town back down the dirt road and then walked among the villagers traversing the terraces back to the wadi leading to the gap above Wakan. And then we headed down, sun already down below the mountains behind us, John fairly loping downhill, me favoring my weak knees and slowing up the show, with a result that, knowing what I now know about this place, we got caught out at dusk in one of those places where the world seems to drop away into space and we were watching darkness fall over Wakan. With no apparent way to get down in the dark, and no provisions or contingency for an overnight hike, we were stuck there in the cold night chill.

Now there is a painted trail showing the proper way up that cliff face and Joan and Dusty and Bobbi and I drove up to Wakan to walk it. Bobbi and I did it recently, and now it's a piece of cake to follow the marks to the trail improbably traversing the cliff face that I never found the many times I did this walk before, either as a day out or in combination with walking to Menahir and sometimes down Wadi Halfain to the main Nizwa road. In those days we always used to drop from the falaj in Wakan to the wadi below and climb back out again and then it was a crap shoot getting to the right ridge that would carry you up to the next one. If you missed one of those ridges you'd find your way ahead to be a steep climb and scramble, which I did many times, sometimes having to abandon others who rather abandoned me and turned back.

But now the trail is painted and you can easily follow it as it traverses the cliff face and takes you to exactly the right ridge to gain the next one, and on up to the top, up the steps there, a rewarding walk with great views down over the Ghubra Bowl and the mountain villages at the back of Wadi Mistal.

But today, after driving into the wadi, way to the back, we came to the fork marked Hijar and I pulled up to a man standing there and asked him the way to Wakan. He pointed it out us and mentioned that he lived there and needed a ride. Joan and Dusty were kind enough to squeeze aside and make room for him in the back seat.

He guided us up the road and at one bend he cautioned me to be careful and slow down. We were speaking in Arabic and I thought he was warning me about oncoming traffic but he wasn't. I was to find out during the course of the day that this was a spot where rains just a couple of days ago had washed some boulders into the road and I was the second car that week to get caught by them to where the car lacked power to continue up the road. I let myself roll back but by now I had been caught by the boulders in the road and trying to extract myself from those on loose gravel with a steep slope, I quickly destroyed my right two tires, or maybe they had been destroyed on first encounter, and now the car had two flat tires and was wedged in the boulders on a steep slope. The other car earlier that week had done the same thing, lost two tires just like that, at the same spot in the mountain road, and stuck in the boulders.

It looked pretty hopeless at first but the man we were helping got on his mobile and called for help from the town we could see perched prettily at the end of the road. Meanwhile, Omani shebab appeared from down the road in their cars heading up, and since we were blocking the way, they were forced to stop. They probably would have anyway.

Our day of hiking was shot now, we were clearly going to have to resolve this problem, but the Omanis turned it into a cultural experience. The shebab quickly pitched in to move the boulders as best they could until someone appeared from the town with a crowbar, and then the rocks got moved from around our wheels. The next thing was to maneuver the car down hill to where it was a little flatter. This took coordination with much coaching on which way to move and which way to cut the wheel. After half an hour the car had moved forward on two shredded tires and then managed to roll back to a place with less of a slope. And the willing Omani young men grabbed tire tools and spanner and went to work removing one tire and helping extract the spare and getting that into place. But the process was slightly different from on flat tarmac. Here the jack was used to elevate the wheel. As the jack showed warp from the sloping vector forces, the tire was removed and placed under the carriage in case the jack gave way. Then someone appeared with another jack which was put under the springs. I thought this a poor idea because the springs would not support load, but this was just to push the wheel up so the spare tire could be replaced, which they did, and now we had a crowd of helpful people around us but two destroyed tires, one still on the car.

The guys helped us think how we could get back to civilization to get new tires. They asked if I wanted to get someone to drive us there. This would cost money of course. It was a 90 km round trip down the mountain and out the dirt road and through the winding gap to the pavement to Nakhal and Barka. I agreed to this and the guys got on their mobiles and summoned a car. They helped me think through removing the second tire and taking both, leaving my car on a jack, a little precarious, but they helped me roll further downhill to an even flatter place where the slope was more likely to support a jack. They helped remove the tire and put it in the back of the car that showed up. They invited Bobbi and Joan up to Wakan to drink coffee and have a look around, while I negotiated a price for the trip into town and back, 25 rials, 250 dirhams, or about $70, not bad for getting someone to break his Eid plans, drive me the hour it took to get to Nakhal, help me buy tires and haggle the price, wait while the tires were replaced and balanced (bad news, one rim was damaged ouch$!), run me back uphill the next hour, and even help me replace the tire and put the wheel with the bad rim into the spare area.

You might think that this was an awful way to spend a holiday, but I'd made this walk many times. Wakan is a town that people drive to from Muscat just to see, so Dusty and Joan and Bobbi enjoyed themselves while they waited on me to finish the business. We had had the accident at around 10:30, before noon I was heading downhill toward town and Bobbi, and Dusty and Joan were piled into the back of a station wagon going uphill as invited guests till I got back, by 3:00 we were replacing the tire on the car and lowering the jack, and by 4 I was down in Nakhal getting the air pressure in all my tires checked. In other words, the Omanis had in their engaging way pitched in to help strangers, seen that all was taken care of, and turned an impossible situation of getting a car with two shredded tires wedged between boulders on an uphill slope extracted and its tires repaired in the nearest town, and saw that we were on our way in the improbable time of just 5 hours. We missed our walk but our house guests caught an uplifting glimpse of Omani culture and enjoyed their visit to Wakan, and our already favorable impression of Omanis was once more reinforced positively.

It's difficult to form an accurate impression of Omanis sometimes. On a previous visit Bobbi and I had lucked into the Suwaiq Motel. At the time we had been a bit shocked, expecting to find a quiet place to sleep, to find this little night spot tucked away on a back road from Suwaiq to Rustaq, but now with our visitors in tow, we headed there on purpose, after our day of diving in the Muscat area. It was further along toward Sohar than we expected, and we didn't arrive until 9 at night. Even then we went out looking for a camping spot, GPS'd it, and noted the km distances back to the Motel so we could find it later after a few beers.

The Suwaiq motel is a place with a Hindi and an Arabic night club. You pay a rial entry and a rial per tall can of beer. The people are friendly and surprised to see foreigners. We were there midweek so it wasn't very crowded as on the weekend, but there was still an old man who'd overdone it passed out cold on the floor next to the ticket booth, all the security and cashier personnel simply ignoring him. Inside the bar the organ grinder put on a plausible show of Arabic big band music with all kinds of electronic gimmicks, replete with programmed tambour, and violin passages, while he played the main theme and a male singer sang, quite well. The dancing girls were there, plump with huge breasts emphasized by crassly fetching but not too revealing costumes. They moved minimally more or less in time with the music as if bored by it all, mouths chewing gum out of synch throughout. There were cross dressers there as well. One man wore his headscarf, not wrapped on his head, but draped down his shoulders in the style of a woman, while others appeared less subtly in black female attire with black lipstick and heavy makeup, a surprising site here in this devoutly Muslim yet sometimes tolerant country. When the music indoors became too loud we moved outside to tables in an open air courtyard, and there we received an invitation from one of the men to visit him at his house next day, an invitation repeated the more insistently the more we refused it.

This was our fourth night camping in Oman. On Saturday Nov 13 we had with an all day effort finished our emails and loaded the car and barely managed to get away from Abu Dhabi at 6, in hopes of driving up Jebel Al Akhdar and camping on the Saiq plateau, but we didn't manage all of that. We stopped for an excellent Lebanese meal in Al Ain before hitting the border at 10 and not crossing into Oman till 11 that night. We drove a ways toward Ibri and pulled off into the desert to sleep rough, our last chance to enjoy cold beers from our cool box.

The next day we continued up to the Saiq plateau and wound up at the town of Rus at around 1 p.m. for the short but rough walk to Aquabat Talhat. Dusty and Joan, not sure of what to expect, were relieved at how easy the walk was, just 3 hours. It was cold but we managed a huge fire and enjoyed sausages washed down with two bottles of wine, the first of which I'd overtly placed in Bobbi's pack for portage to the campsite, but the second of which I'd kept in reserve in my pack, pleasantly surprising everyone when I produced it.

Next day we returned to the car with lighter packs and by lunchtime we were in Nizwa, where we visited the souq and fort. I was keeping an eye on the time because I wanted to get us up to Jebel Shems so we could do the balcony walk the next day. My goal for leaving Nizwa was 3 pm and by that time we had gassed the car near Falaj Daris and were sitting down to roadside chicken and fish biriani.

Hunger staved off for a while (though we were some days overdue for showers) we headed past Tanoof for the Hooti Cave turnoff to Al Hamra. All these places bring back memories, as does the road to Jebel Shems, our destination on this particular journey. Amazingly to me, the road is now tarmac most of the way. I recall when living in Oman before 1995 what a change just the power lines had been. Now the road wends down Wadi Ghul in a ribbon of tarmac, passing the well marked entrance to Wadi Nakhar, which you can now drive down.

Back in the days, Mike Douglas and I used to hike up Wadi Nakhar, entering the weaving village at the end in the only way then possible, on foot, and spending time with the residents there. Mike had them weave him a carpet once, which they did in an all-night event, and in the morning, voila, carpet! These distinctive carpets have been familiar to visitors to Jebel Shems since our time in Oman, when the villagers in Nakhar used to portage them up the mountain to sell them at the rim. Whenever I accompanied Mike to Nakhar, I took photos of the people in the village and brought in prints on my next visit and handed them out. The villagers were very appreciative, and once when Mike and I spent the night there, I brought my guitar, and after a meal of inedible goat (too stringy) we tried our hand at fusion, rocking the rock wadi walls with my rifs and their ulations. We used to bring them things like powdered Tang, which they really weren't sure what to do with. I have fond memories of the village there, of the old man, Rashid, who did the prayer calls, whom we heard died, and of the ladies who used to breast feed there unabashedly and paint their faces with yellow streaks, and the kids and their donkeys, and the wasps whose hives the people used for honey, and they had lemons from their orchards, and they would show us where they stored them to dry, so they could sell them when the market was ripe. It was a tough existence, sleeping there was tough, noises from crying babies at night, falling rocks, braying donkeys, the old man calling prayers at dawn. We might wake up on one of the roofs where we slept at 8 after the last prayer call had ended and somehow we managed to sleep exhaustedly at dawn though the villagers had all gone off on their daily chores. Those chores included climbing up to the Saiq plateau to interact with the people living there and haul their carpets up. Mike and I were invited along though I for one never made the trip.

But now that this is a different world, I understand it a little better because I can now drive to the top of Jebel Shems, find a quiet camping spot (though they're starting to get trashed everywhere now, a lot of litter sadly), and I can do the popular balcony walk, which at one point passes over Nakhar, where I can look down and see the dam and pool with the orchards alongside surrounding the peaceful vllage. Only now life has brought a car track to Nakhar, where there were boulders impassible to cars before, and Dusty has grown and brought his girlfriend, and we're all walking the balcony trail together above this strikingly remarkable canyon, with its abandoned village and grotto at the end with stalactites and stalagmites in the making.

Such a beautiful walk, we had lunch in the grotto, then returned the two hours back to our car and headed back down to Muscat where we made it off the mountain at around 3 and drove into Muttrah and the capital, so well laid out with parks against the opheolite outcrops on one side and beautiful seascapes on the other. Muttrah was aglow with national day lights, and we took the picturesque corniche road to prim and proper Muscat, and continued on down the coast past Horomel where we used to hire boats to take us over to Cemetery Bay for diving. Our destination was the Yacht Club where we were hoping against hope this busy Eid weekend to find a place to camp. Amazingly, at a time when accommodation was rumored to be sparse in Muscat due to the large number of Eid al Adha visitors, the Yacht Club had only two tents on the beach and welcomed ours, or more specifically our money, 5 rials each, for camping. But that was more like a club entry fee, which gave us access not only to camping space on the beach but to to the beach restaurant and bar at sundown with lovely views of Cat Island. We put off showering (men's and women's bath houses on the beach) to relax al fresco on the veranda over food and beverages, a welcome respite after hours of hiking and driving. Then after showers we offloaded our bedrolls in the tent which accommodated us well, 4 people, with the sound of the waves thumping on the beach to lull us asleep, and later in the night once we became aware of them, to keep us awake, as the waves ripped across the beach and thumped the sand in quick succession, annoyingly, no longer relaxing.

So we might have all been lying awake in the morning when the kids in the next tent woke up and started in on their mommies, and that sound got us out of bed early enough to have packed the car by 7:30, wondering if we should go somewhere for breakfast.

We had diving planned. We had unfortunately double booked ourselves as we were leaving Abu Dhabi with everyone telling us they were full but would try and squeeze us in, but then we were out of mobile and email contact for several days, so we didn't know for sure where we could dive. We made bookings at three places, two of which had not really confirmed. Only the ODC (Oman Dive Center) had said that they could likely accommodate us, but they were short of equipment. Accordingly we had brought everything but BCDs (a little bulky for our maxed out Honda). The OCD wanted us there at 8 but we had also booked at Blue Zone for 8:30. We had the number for Blue Zone but not for ODC so as we had time we decided to go to the ODC first. If there was a problem we could make it back to BZ but on arrival we saw our names listed on the ODC manifests so we decided to go with them. We gave BZ a call to cancel but was told they had turned customers away, so our double booking had in fact caused them a loss, which I'll have to make good on.

Meanwhile we went with the flow of diving where we had ended up. ODC has installed a 100 meter jetty of interlocking plastic, making a long walk out to their big boat, which we were disappointed to see had 30 divers booked on it. That seemed a bit much, but the staff at the ODC put the best face possible on it, and it turned out the diving was somehow excellent. The choice of dive sites was good. Our first stop was the big ship Al-Munassir, sunk in Bandar Khayran back in 2003, so it had not been there when we left in 1995. There is a picture of it on my website here: Despite the fact that 30 divers all arrived en masse, we staggered our descent it, and because the ship was so big, we rarely saw any of the other divers. It was a deep wreck, 18 meters at the top we were told and 30 at the bottom. It turned out the top was at more like 13 meters, though the 4 of us collected ourselves on the deck a few meters lower than that and then went off to explore. It's a great wreck for diving. The ship is upright, which helps with orientation, and has open passageways running the length of the ship. There are portholes, open holds, and dark passages to peer into. At the bottom under the hull we found a small ray. Up at the top there was a large honeycomb moray, always fun to observe on wrecks. There were other morays and the usual panoply of fish that gives wrecks that uncanny juxtaposition of robust ocean going trade vitality with the ghostly finality of Davey Jones's locker.

The dive boat then took all 30 of us around the corner from the wreck at a site called Novice Bay. These were all familiar dive sites from when we lived for 10 years in Oman and used to have friends with boats who took us often to Bandar Khayran. It was nice diving again in these old haunts and seeing a few turtles. At least I think I remember seeing turtles.

Maybe someone else who was on these dives with us will remember more about them and leave a comment below (hint, hint ;-).

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