Rub Al Khali (The Empty Quarter)

Half way through February, Niall’s mum arrived for a holiday in Oman, and as she’s been here a few times before, we thought we’d do something a bit different this time and do a mini roadtrip away from Muscat to visit some places that none of us had been before. I took a couple of days off work and we made it into a 5-day trip over a long weekend. As it was Chris’s birthday whilst we were away, I made a birthday cake the night before, which was somewhat complicated by the fact that our gas bottle ran out just after I’d put the cake in the oven……. I did wonder why it wasn’t cooking after it had been in there for 5 minutes already!

Lemon Drizzle birthday cake

Lemon Drizzle birthday cake

Anyhow, it turned out OK in the end, and I made some more homemade marshmallows to roast over the campfire to go with it. If in doubt, make marshmallows, and pour more lemon drizzle onto said cake.

Homemade Raspberry ripple marshmallows!!

Homemade Raspberry ripple marshmallows!!

So we loaded up the car, plugged in the solar panel, filled up all the tanks (and the fridge!), packed the tools (always an essential when you’re driving a 30-year old Land Rover!) and headed off.

Heading out of Muscat we drove to the base of Jebel Akhdar where we met up with Gab and Liz in their Jeep (Sheba!). We drove up onto the top of the plateau and went for a little hike, to see if we could try and meet up with the Wukan – Hadash trail that we’d hiked a few weeks previously with some friends of ours. We never did manage to find the trail that met up with the other one, but we did have a lovely stroll with some (as always) great views out over the plateau.

Hiking up on Jebel Akhdar

Hiking up on Jebel Akhdar

When we got back to the cars we drove on up the mountain to find a nice place to camp overnight. Gab spent a while building a masterful fire (even Niall was impressed), and out came the birthday cake!

Birthday cake time!

Birthday cake time!

Cake went down very well, followed by a nice cold beer, and some camp-fire BBQ’d burgers and baked veg…… followed by the marshmallows. The fluffy, bouncy, airy marshmallows. Honestly they are so good. I can’t believe I’ve only discovered how easy they are to make in the last year!

Man make fire. (First they have to chop the wood though)

Man make fire. (First they have to chop the wood though)

The next morning we headed on up the mountain to take a sneaky peak around the Alila Jebel Akhdar hotel; it’s situated right on the edge of the cliff, with some absolutely stunning views. As hotels in Oman go, this is by FAR the nicest one that I’ve seen; small, beautifully designed and built to fit in with the surroundings, but luxurious and elegant at the same time.

Admiring the view at the Alila Hotel, Jebel Akhdar

Admiring the view at the Alila Hotel, Jebel Akhdar

After a wander around enjoying the views there, Gab and Liz headed back for Muscat, whilst the three of us headed further south, towards the town of Adam. I’d driven through the town before on our way down to fieldwork in Sur, after accidentally taking a wrong turn; it was a wrong turn that resulted in a beautiful little drive along raised roads through a plantation, and I’ve been meaning to go back ever since. So this time, we did!

Exploring the old village at Adam

Exploring the old village at Adam

We very quickly stumbled on the old walled village in the centre of the plantation, which by the looks of things is being renovated, or at least preserved which is fantastic. One of the joys of living in Oman is the freedom to explore wherever you want to go; we parked up and wandered around the outside of the old buildings (there was a sign explicitly saying keep out of the old village).

The old village buildings

The old village buildings

After a little detour through the plantation which resulted in a very tight Austin Powers-esque five-billion-point-turn we got back on the main road (briefly) before turning off towards the Empty Quarter and into camel country! Awesome seeing the groups of young racing camels heading home for the night.

Young racing camels being herded home at the end of the day

Young racing camels being herded home at the end of the day

The best thing about camping in Oman is that you can just turn off the road whenever you see a good spot for a campsite, and as long as you’re not in anyone’s way and you’re being respectful (i.e. not in a village!) then you can pretty much camp anywhere. We were treated to a lovely sunset in a dry wadi bed.

Sunset at camp number 1

Sunset at camp number 1

Driving into Rub Al Khali (The Empty Quarter) the next morning took us into oil and gas territory, with a lot of heavy machinery, pipelines and gas flares on the horizon. Due to the number of oil exploration plots in the desert, the roads were surprisingly good, although in some places the regular heavy traffic movement meant that those annoying regular bumps had appeared in the road, giving the feeling that you were constantly driving over particularly vicious cobbles! It was amazing how quickly the scenery kept changing; one minute we’d be driving along with dirty, almost muddy-looking sand on either side of us, then the next minute there would be vast areas of salt with orange dunes in the background, then the next minute just sand as far as you could see. This carried on until we got right to the edge of the large dunes, and into the desert proper.

Salt flats and sand-dunes

Salt flats and sand-dunes

I’ve never been into a desert before, and everything about this was just as I had hoped it would be! Beautiful patterns on the sand dunes, knife edges along the ridges where the winds had blown, and all manner of cool small sand ripples much lower down.DSC_1752

We stopped up for lunch (and a bit of a snooze) under the awning seeing as it was so hot in the sun and we weren’t in any rush anyway. We’ve been taking the car out on lots of little test outings ready for the big road trip home, but this was the first time we’d taken the awning with us and actually used it. Considering it was a home-made jobbie, it’s done us pretty well so far.

I got a bit over-excited taking photos of the sand dunes, random patches of green in the desert and basically anything else I could point my camera at. Chris and I discovered that the most enjoyable way of travelling was with our feet out of the windows to keep them nice and cool in the breeze. It was extremely hot in the sun, but once the sun started to get a bit lower in the sky a bit of a breeze picked up, and driving with the windows down was just about bearable.

patterns in the sand

patterns in the sand

Once we’d got past a very large army base, the roads suddenly deteriorated (they’re obviously not used much at all past that point) and it was time for the occasional detour around sand dunes that had crept their way into the road.

Dunes, greenery in the desert, and dunes in the road

Dunes, greenery in the desert, and dunes in the road

We picked ourselves a lovely big dune to camp at the bottom off, and drove off into the sand to get to it. Surprisingly the sand was quite hard once you got off the road; very different to the sand in the Wahiba Sands, which move a lot more over time and therefore the surface is much softer. We climbed (most of the way) up to the top of the dune to watch the sunset before dinner in the desert, with the added luxuries of a beer from the fridge and a quick shower from the water tank seeing as we had so much water with us.

climbing the dunes to watch the sunset

climbing the dunes to watch the sunset

We headed east out of the desert the next morning, finding much smoother roads once we got close to the next oil/gas site. All of a sudden we got to the end of the sand dunes, back into landscapes similar to those we’d come through before the dunes on the previous day. Lots of perfectly parallel exploration tracks criss-crossed their way across the surrounding sand / salt flats and over the road, right up until we reached the oil fields and turned out onto the main road. Lunch parked up a little way away from the main road was made more amusing as Niall suddenly piped up with “Is that a RIB on the back of that truck?” so I looked up and said yes. It was our office RIB, with another truck following closely behind with the ESO RIB! They were heading down to Salalah for whale and dolphin surveys; what were the chances of us crossing paths in the small amount of time we spent near the main road!

After heading north on the main roads for a while we ventured off the main road again, still south of Nizwa and Sinaw, heading to some hills we could see in the distance. We stopped for the night at the bottom of these hills; after the quietness of the desert on the previous nights it was a little strange to be able to see truck lights moving along the roads in the distance.

night lights

night lights

Camel country was definitely the name of the game the following day, coming up past Sinaw, across to Nizwa and Izki, past the camel racing stadiums and tracks, the camel camps and pens dotted all over the countryside. We carried on to the town of Tanuf, where an abandoned village lies, destroyed in the Jebel Akhdar war amid the rebellions of the 1950’s. There’s now a water bottling factory in the town, bottling the mineral water that can be found in the springs there. After a quick wobble around the village, we headed out and up onto the mountain road that takes you over the top of the mountains to join up with the Wadi Bani Auf road. We managed to get the Geocache at the top of the Wadi Bani Auf road, before heading back down, stopping off at the viewpoint to take in the views. No matter how many times I drive this road, the views never get old.

The ruins at Tanuf

The ruins at Tanuf

A picnic lunch (aka use up the leftovers) and a cup of tea in the shade of the wadi later and we were on the road back to Muscat after a delightful 5-day trip around the central parts of Oman. Another test for Henry J Ruffington successful completed!

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