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Into the desert

Oman day three


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Portuguese watchtower in Sur

Despite my painful shoulder I slept well, and woke up determined to enjoy the day regardless. With a 9.00 am start scheduled we were able to relax over breakfast, which included another good made-to-order omelette.

Sur

After breakfast we met up with Said as planned – unfortunately he had had to spend the night at a different hotel 15 kilometres away after a mix-up with the reservations. We drove back to Sur where he stopped so we could take a walk on Al Ayjah Bridge, an attractive suspension bridge across the estuary, built just ten years ago.

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Al Ayjah Bridge

From here we could take photos of the watch-towers, lighthouse, dhows and fishing beach. The low morning light was challenging for photography but at the same time made the waters of the estuary really sparkle. There are three watchtowers in total, at different heights, all built by the Portuguese to guard the harbour entrance. Like most of those you see dotted all over Oman, these have been fully restored by the government to serve as landmarks.

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Two watchtowers and a lighthouse

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Dhows in the harbour

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River estuary with dhows

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Fisherman mending his net

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Lamppost

I loved the design of the lampposts – I have a bit of a thing about photographing lamps wherever I travel!

We also stopped briefly in the parking area just beyond the bridge, near a striking beach pavilion. We had a good view of the lighthouse from this spot. This is much newer than the watch-towers, having been built in the 1990s, and is 18 metres high.

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View of the lighthouse

We met a friendly elderly man here, happy for us to take his photo in return for a few words of greeting. He told us (via Said as interpreter) that he liked to come here each morning to get some fresh air and a little bit of exercise.

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Beach pavilion, and friendly local

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Local men at a nearby coffee shop

Said filled up with petrol and we headed out of town, travelling now away from the coast. I took a few photos from the car as we drove into the mountains.

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Driving inland from Sur

Wadi Bani Khalid

Our destination was Wadi Bani Khalid, a popular beauty and bathing spot, but before driving up to the wadi Said turned off up a narrow road that took us to a great viewpoint above it.

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Looking down on Wadi Bani Khalid

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Village near Wadi Bani Khalid

After retracing our route down the mountain we drove up to the wadi’s parking lot, where we could see just how popular it was even on a weekday when few locals were visiting. This is the most accessible and developed wadi in the country but it has been done sensitively and doesn’t detract from the visual impact of deep green waters, lush date plantations and stark mountains all around.

We followed the one kilometre path along the water channel, lined with date palms and other trees. We were excited to spot the vivid blue colours of an Indian Roller, and even more so when he deigned to pose for a few photos before flying away!

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Indian Roller, Wadi Bani Khalid
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The Indian Roller in flight

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Arriving by Wadi Bani Khalid

We arrived at the end of the path just at a good time for lunch, which we had in the poolside restaurant. The buffet food was tasty (my choice was rice, dhal, vegetable curry) but not served as warm as I would have liked.

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View upstream from the bridge

After lunch we split up for a while. Chris took the rocky path further up the wadi, which would have been a challenge for me even without the wrenched shoulder.

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Chris's photos of the upper pools

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Rules at Wadi Bani Khalid

Meanwhile Said went to the tiny mosque to pray, and I had my own plans …

Swimming in the wadi is understandably popular, but you are asked to respect local standards of dress, which means keeping shoulders and upper legs covered. We saw one French tourist head down to the pool in a bikini to be immediately called back by one of the men patrolling the site. The tour guide leading her group later expressed his frustration to Said, as he had apparently told everyone what the rules were and was, I believe, a bit embarrassed when someone in a group he was leading had to be pulled up in that way.

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Fishes nibbling my foot!

Knowing about these rules beforehand I had already decided against a swim, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy the water! So I went down to the water’s edge to sit with my feet in the water where myriads of tiny fish came to nibble on them - a weird but enjoyable sensation, although my hot feet seemed an odd sort of treat from their perspective!

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Water-level view

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Said and a fellow guide - everywhere we went, we met people he knew!

By the time Chris returned from his walk Said had rejoined me, so we all strolled back to the car together. We followed the road back, stopping on the way for photos of the different coloured mountains - green where there is copper, red for silver (I had though iron but Said said no, silver). A reminder of the rich natural resources in this beautiful country.

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Mineral deposits in the mountains

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Mountain view

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Roadside plant

Wahiba Sands

In the small town of Bidiyyah (sometimes spelled as Bidiya or Bidiyah, but Said assured me that the double 'y' was correct) we stopped at a car mechanic workshop so that air could be let out of the tyres, in preparation for desert driving.

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Letting out air from the tyres

Just a few minutes further down the road the tarmac came to an abrupt end and we were driving on sand. This desert region is usually referred to in most tourist itineraries as Wahiba Sands, its former name – taken from the local Bani Wahiba tribe. Today however it is more properly known as Sharqiya Sands, and that was how our local guides spoke of it. It covers a large area of Oman – about 180 kilometres from north to south and 80 kilometres from east to west, giving a total area of 12,500 square kilometres. The biggest dunes (some 100 metres high) are found to the north, where we were, while the southern part consists of a plain dotted with salt flats.

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First view of the dunes

The desert was formed during the latter part of the Ice Ages through the monsoon winds blowing in from the south west, transporting sands from areas to the south and meeting trade winds from the east which halted this transport. Or at least, that’s my wildly over-simplified version of complex geological treatises to be found on the internet!

Our ‘road’ (really just a track across the sand created by those who had driven here previously) led us past Bedouin homes, some with camels tethered outside or grazing nearby on the slim thorny pickings.

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Mosque on the edge of the desert
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Road through the dunes

Beyond the scattering of homes, the dunes grew taller and Said turned to climb up a ridge which he explained was the route to the camp where we were to stay for the next two nights, the 1,000 Nights Camp.

Another vehicle seemed to be hesitating as to which way to go, so we looped back, straight down the dune, to check all was OK. It was being driven by a French couple who asked the route to the camp. ‘Follow me’, said Said, and turned up the dune again, but after a short distance the French driver turned back. So we stopped again at the top and Said walked back down to offer to drive his vehicle up the steepest part for him, an offer gratefully accepted.

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The dune that defeated the French driver!

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On top of the dunes, waiting for Said

The French couple then followed us the rest of the way, pleased to have the escort I am sure.

1,000 Nights Camp

We descended from the dunes to drop into a wide valley of sand which led to our destination, the 1,000 Nights Camp. The low-level buildings of the main public areas (reception, restaurant etc.) didn’t look too incongruous in this setting, and beyond them footpaths wound between the tents that form the bulk of the accommodation here (although there are a few luxury suites in two story buildings on the fringes of the camp).

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Reception area

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View of the camp from reception

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Restaurant and bar area

We checked in, thankful that there was no problem with Said’s accommodation here, after the previous evening’s mix up (the nearest alternative is 42 kilometres away, so it was just as well!) We were shown to our ‘Sheikh Tent’, the mid-range tent option of three available. In reality though it was more of a chalet than a tent, with fabric hangings in the Bedouin style creating the tent effect. It was large and cosy-looking, rather warm but with a ceiling fan and screened windows to let in the breezes. The attached bathroom was rather more basic, with a wet-room style shower with only one tap and one temperature - lukewarm!

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Our tent

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In the tent

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Our simple bathroom

There was time for a cold drink in the (strictly no alcohol) bar, made from an old dhow, before meeting up with Said again at the reception to drive up to the dunes for the sunset.

1,000 Nights Sunset

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From the top of the dunes

We were up there well ahead of time and were able to take photos of the curves and corrugations of the dunes in the warm late afternoon light. Indeed I took far too many photos over the next hour so apologies now for the desert sunsetn overload to follow!

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Waiting for sunset

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Dunes at sunset

There were lots of camels to add interest to the photos - I suggested to Said that he might have arranged for them to wander past but I don't think he got the joke and denied it vigorously!

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Camels at sunset

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Said and another guide

The sunset when it came was not especially spectacular (it was rather hazy and lacked foreground interest, although the wandering camels came close), but it was still good to be up here soaking up the desert scenery.

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Sunset over Wahiba Sands

If it weren’t for the (many) other tourists doing the same thing we could have thought ourselves miles from anywhere!

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Tourists photographing the sunset

Evening at the camp

Once we got back to the camp there was a little time to relax, and have that lukewarm shower, before dinner. This was another buffet – not usually my preferred option, but I have to say the food here was good (the best of the trip, we concluded later). I especially enjoyed the various starters and the lamb kebabs. We weren’t however able to get a table in the main restaurant area so chose one in a sort of off-shoot, near the grill. We were comfortable enough here but Said, when he found us part-way through our meal, was disappointed on our behalf and apologetic that he’d forgotten to reserve a table for us in the best part – a small error which he rectified on the following evening!

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Evening in the camp

There was live Omani music in the restaurant (an acquired taste I fear) but we retreated after our meal to the nearby open air ‘bar’ for post-dinner mocktails – my pear and ginger one was very nice but would have been even better for a slug of rum, perhaps!

Disappointingly the few clouds we had seen at sunset had turned into a completely cloud-covered sky, so there were no stars to be seen – although given what happened when I tried to look at the stars last night maybe that was no bad thing.

So we retired to bed in our cosy tent, deciding on an early night to catch up on some sleep as going online was not an option – there is no WiFi here or even satellite signal for phones, so our two night stay at the camp was a mini digital detox!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:06 Archived in Oman Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes birds water desert coast hotel camp sur camel oman lagoons Comments (15)

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