Where the heck am I?
19.08.2007 -17 °C
It was about the time that I stepped off the plane that I realised that this was a completely different kettle of fish to the trips we had done previously. It was late June and even at 8:30am, the immense heat and humidity that struck us as we left the air conditioned cabin was nearing melting point. It was like nothing we had ever experienced before...
We had left South Africa a few weeks before on a much needed vacation away from the cold and wet Cape Town to what we hoped would be a much warmer Europe. It wasn't until the week before we left that we decided we would visit Oman, home of my girlfriend’s sister and a country that was only a short hop away from our connection in Qatar anyway.
We waved goodbye to the damp Cape Town surroundings as the wheels of the Airbus left the runway. Our first stop was to be in Johannesburg where we were to pick up some passengers and then head off to Doha in Qatar for our connecting flight to London. The flight to Doha was a little over 9 hours and we were fortunate enough to view Mount Kilimanjaro at sunset as we flew by. That, I must say, is probably one of the most spectacular things I have ever had the privilege of seeing.
We landed in Doha at around 10:30pm and were due to wait roughly four hours for the connecting flight to London, which was to be another 7 hour flight. We were still descending into Qatar when I happened to notice the outside temperature at 12000 feet. The display read 17C! Now usually this wouldn't have bothered me but it was 10:30pm and the outside temperature would usually read about -15C! After touching down, we were taxiing to the gate when the display read the outside temperature once again - this time the reading said 38C - at 10:30pm! I turned to my girlfriend and said, "This thing must be broken or something. I mean I know we are in the Middle East but 38C at night?"
The hot air hit our faces as we walked down the stairs to the awaiting busses, ready to shuttle us off to the air conditioned airport terminal. We were not alone it seemed in our quest to save a few pennies by taking a round about route to get to London. Other South Africans seemed to be thinking the same thing, "What on Earth?"
The "under construction" Doha airport was an experience all in itself. We wondered around for about half an hour looking through the Duty Free section, me kicking myself for buying cigarettes in South Africa when they were half the price in Doha. Eventually the monotony of looking at various trinkets and books led us away from Duty Free to the welcome aroma of coffee. We each ordered a take away coffee and then proceeded to join the other hundred or so younger looking tourists who were sitting on the floor. Now if you have never been to Doha airport, you will need to understand that it is an extremely busy airport at night. A great deal of connecting flights come through the airport as it is the mid-way point (for the price conscious traveler) between the east and the west.
The four hours seemed to drag on before finally we could head off to our gate and what we hoped would be a smooth boarding to the plane... Not to be! We turned the corner to find that the gates were all temporary constructions with paper gate numbers that seemed to change with each flight. Interesting...
We found what seemed to be our gate and then stood in the mass of people all trying to get through at the same time. We were literally being bumped from left to right by this person and then the next. Apparently because the gates were temporary gates, this entitled people to forget about a thing called a queue and rather just head for a Israelites mass exodus style thrust! Eventually I had had enough and decided to take matters into my own hands. I used our trolley as a battering ram every time someone tried to cut in front of us. The more timid of the South African travelers saw me doing this and felt that strength in numbers was the way forward and so joined in battering people out of the way to get to the front. Needless to say it worked and we forced our way ahead of a few "gate crashers" and into the plastic chair filled temporary gate holding pen. Twenty minutes or so later, we were heading away from the airport to the plane aboard our shuttle bus, everyone in agreement that even the confides of cattle section on the plane was far better than the airport.
London is a wonderful place, scratch that... London Gatwick Airport was our Eden compared to Doha airport. The air was a great deal cooler than that of Qatar. 16C to be precise, which apparently was somewhat of a heat wave at 7:00am. It didn't take long for us to get through passport control and customs and we were soon heading off to Kent with my brother who was really excited to see us.
It was just a few days until kick-off for the 2006 football World Cup in Germany and England was a hive of buzzing football crazy people all willing to tell you that this truly was England’s year to lift the trophy. We spent ten days in and out of Kent and London taking in as many things as we possibly could. My girlfriend had never been to England before so it was to be a real treat for her. From Stonehenge to Big Ben, Chartwell to Tower Bridge - we truly covered a great deal of ground in the time we spent in England.
Next stop Germany! Our flight left London Stanstead at some ungodly hour of the morning. Planning is truly essential when you travel and clearly our plans had been made on a whim of, "Oh I don't mind waking up at 4am (pre traveler’s excitement) to get to the airport at 5:30am to catch a 7:30am flight. It will be fun!"
Our flight aboard our friendly German airline was well should we say German. "Everyzing muzt be ontime unt very very clear ja!" To be honest we found ourselves chuckling at the wonderfully pleasant airline staff aboard the plane. This was some adventure.
The two weeks in Germany started with us landing in Dusseldorf before catching a train to Sigburg to our family there. Germany was seeing the best of the European summer. It was truly shining down on the world cup and everyone was lapping it up. We had been extremely fortunate with weather so far. England’s one and only week of sun had appeared the week we were there and now Germany was hot and wonderful.
We spent a few days in Sorlingen before heading off to Cologne for what was to be England vs. Sweden weekend. The Cologne Dome steepled out above the city as we walked out of the train station. Friends of ours were to meet us just outside the station, a job easier said than done, with the mass of English and Swedish supporters gathered on the steps outside the station. Throngs of yellow and red and white littered the streets and it was only by fluke that we managed to locate our friends. The city was buzzing. The tension was growing and the Koln Beer was flowing. Everywhere you looked there were football crazy fans all singing and dancing to music being played over the speaker system. We made a bee-line for the taxi rank. We were meeting more friends in one of the public viewing areas in the city park. I had a huge smile on my face as it was the first time in days I was able to speak English to anyone other than my girlfriend. My German was not brilliant, passable but not brilliant and it was good to be among a few people that understood what I was going on about.
Needless to say, my happiness overflowed with jugs of Koln beer and I was well on my way to being one of those annoying drunk football supporters. Hey this was Germany and the World Cup. If I couldn't do it here, where could I do it? The game was a draw 2-2. Fans from both sides let the party carry on well into the night and well we joined in!
The next morning we woke up feeling a bit worse for wear but having had a brilliant time. Our friends were working as it was Friday so we decided to have lunch at a restaurant near the apartment. Brilliant idea! Food was definitely needed and we were more than happy to stuff our faces.
After a few more days in Cologne we headed back to Sorlingen before another early departure aboard a high speed I.C.E. train to Frankfurt airport. We arrived in Frankfurt airport ready for the next part of adventure and another 3 hour layover in Doha airport. The less said about that layover the better. Unfortunately the only connecting flights we could get to Muscat at such short notice was via Dubai. Yes you are right... it was a lot of flights to take in a month! But eventually we made it to Muscat.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, the heat was something every person in their life needs to experience at least once. It was said to be one of the warmest summers in history and believe me it was living up to the reputation. Thankfully Seeb international airport is rather small so the bus ride from the plane to the terminal took all of thirty seconds. The family had organised for us to have a priority meet and greet and visa assistance on arrival and judging by the queues to passport control this was a real bonus. We had just entered the terminal when I saw a friendly smiling face holding a small board that read Mr. Bruce and Miss Jennifer. We walked over to him and greeted him. He smiled and beckoned us to follow him into a separate room where we were greeted to a bottle of ice cold water each and a few cookies, while they took our passports and went off to get the necessary visas stamped inside.
This was our first experience of Omani culture but it was 10/10 so far. A few minutes later we were guided through passport control and whisked down to get our luggage. "Enjoy your stay Mr. Bruce, Miss. Jennifer," said Saalem (the smiley face) as we headed for the exit doors.
The family were there waiting for us as we came through. We were all a natter as we walked outside to the car.
"This heat is unreal!" I said. "It's this hot at 8:30am in the morning?"
"Only in summer came the reply."
Our first impressions of Oman and Muscat during the drive to the Villa/house were one of shear amazement. We had never seen anything like it. The streets were spotless and his Majesty and the Omani people obviously took great pride in keeping it that way. Cars zoomed by as we headed to what we would describe as suburbia. Each house looked similar to each other and we were told that this was because it was the Omani style of building.
The Hajar mountain range looked out across Muscat as we stood enjoying an ice cold beer, after what were a much needed shower and change of cloths, on the roof terrace of the villa. It was now 11am and the temperature was around 45C and getting hotter. We could only handle a few minutes of being on the roof in the heat before we headed back indoors to the loving caress of the air conditioners.
The family had a bunch of activities planned for us but we decided that we had been running around too much on what was supposed to be a holiday. We wanted to take it slow, enjoy our vacation (what was left of it) and see Muscat and surrounds the way the locals see it. We didn't really want to do the whole touristy thing. We wanted to take in the sights and sounds without being branded a tourist.
We enjoyed a barbeque that night and a few cold ones. That was a new experience in itself. Barbequing at night when the temperature was 38C. Wow, what an experience! We slept like babies that night, AC blowing the entire time. The next morning it was time to start exploring. Our family had told us about the Muttrah Souk (market) the night before and it was one of our three wishes to visit there as soon as possible.
The drive from their villa to the Souk was about 45 minutes. We passed through the city along the Sultan Qaboos highway. The highway ran right by one of the major tourist attractions in Muscat, The Grand Mosque. The name says it all. It really is Grand! We were to find out later that it was only very recently completed and was home to the worlds largest Chandelier as well as the world's largest single knit carpet.
We passed through the gates of Muscat and came across the Arabian Gulf. The idealic blue waters lapped softly against the shore. The ancient Dhows moored alongside the jetty's shimmered in the water. The Corniche was alive with people of all shapes and sizes. Some wearing traditional Omani dush dashes and others in the more casual jeans and t-shirts.
The entrance to the Souk stood before us. The smell of Frankincense hung in the air. We were enjoying being somewhat lost inside the souk as it gave us time to visit all the shops we possibly could. The store owners obviously seeing a sale were calling us in and offering us water while we looked through there merchandise. This was unlike anything we had ever experienced. The hospitality was unreal! Everyone was smiling, not just a few people, everyone! Our arms weighed down by our bargain purchases we headed back to the car, proud of the fact that we had successfully haggled for our prizes. We later discovered that the locals feel aggrieved if you don't haggle so we had even gone about things the right way.
The next few days were spent up and down the coastline. Walking along the tops of sand dunes, snorkeling our way along a coral reef and watching turtles lay their eggs at night on one of the beaches near Ras Al Hadd on the Arabian Peninsula. The sheer beauty of this country far outweighed the heat. Our bodies thankfully acclimatised relatively quickly and it was within a couple of days that the immense heat that we had first experienced was replaced with warmth knowing that we had made the right decision to visit this glorious country.
It was with a great deal of sadness that we boarded the plane to go home (not just because we had to go back to Doha airport again). This was a place where we felt like we were really wanted. People were always so keen to help. We actually had gotten lost a few days before and a local Omani had driven with us until we found our way again. Where in the world does that happen?
On arriving in Doha we were pleasantly surprised to find that for the small amount of 20 euros we were able to enjoy the privileges of the Qatar lounge which enable one to relax on a couch and watch some television or surf the internet and catch up on all the things we missed while we were away. Definitely worth the money! The six hour layover we had while there went by in fast forward and it wasn't long before we were back on the plane bound for South Africa.
All the while we were flying home I couldn't help but feel that Oman was calling for us to return. And return we did. Oman truly is the Pearl of Arabia. The people are wonderful. The country is clean and safe and the natural wonders are well... wonderful. As soon as we could we decided to book a week long vacation back to Muscat, this time staying in the beautiful Shangri-La hotel complex.
We had done some research and one is able to find a list of tour operators on www.destinationoman.com as well as other interesting things to check out while you are there. Our advice though is - that we contacted nearly a dozen operators and only 3 got back to us. It seemed as though only a few wanted the business of a small group. I am not going to mention names but they are smaller companies, not what seem to be the larger ones.
Our second adventure was equally special and we hope to once again visit Oman and discover more of the beauty that lies there. If you are thinking of somewhere new to visit, you should think about visiting Oman, The Pearl of Arabia.