Sunday, May 14, 2017

Oman Part I: Lazy River, Bimmah Sinkhole, Wadi Shab

Ok, so continuing on with days 2 and 3 of our inauspicious trip - I'm afraid that while things ran a little bit more smoothly after we departed Dubai, luck still wasn't entirely on our side!

Michael and I enjoyed a very comfortable, approximately one hour flight from Dubai to Muscat on Oman Air.  It was a very new plane, not very crowded, with a lovely entertainment system (I started watching "Hidden Figures" as soon as I plopped down in my seat) and a very cool camera on the underside of the plane that recorded our take-off from a bird's eye view, in sharp, crisp HD.  Michael got this really cool picture of Dubai while sitting next to the window.
 We also saw the desert from the air.
 Honestly, that was probably my favorite part of Dubai - leaving on a jetplane and getting such lovely aerial images!

Once we landed, it took FOREVER to get our rental car sorted out at the Budget car rental in the Muscat airport.  In my distracted and administratively-hassled state, I also left my NY driver's license there and didn't realize it until much later (sigh).  But the good news is that when we returned the car five days later, they were able to locate my license in their locked box of lost and found goodies (yay).

 We rented a glossy, white, HUGE, Land Cruiser.  It was a 2016 model and 4 wheel drive (which was essential for the terrain we were going to cover) but I was very unimpressed.  For a car whose starting retail price is $85,000 (and yes, this soon became relevant), the car was upholstered in a 1970s-style suede-like cloth, had no automated seats, and... no rearview camera?!  How is this still competitive in today's market?  We also didn't realize until we drove the car off the lot that the engine was a V6, not a v8 (double sigh from Michael) but I didn't mind that so much (as I just see engine and horsepower in terms of dollars flying out the window for wasted gas).
By early afternoon, we were finally, finally on our way to the Shangri-la Al Jissah, a huge resort composed of three different hotels on the coast about thirty minutes away from Muscat, Oman's capital.
We were staying in a family room with connecting suites in the Al Waha hotel, whose pool, it turns out, was connected to the pool of the Al Bandar hotel by a lazy river.  I've gone tubing in Texas with my law school friends previously (so much fun) but I'd never done a lazy river at a hotel resort.

We immediately changed into our bathing suits, slathered on sunblock, filled a water bottle that more likely than not was filled with something other than water, and headed down to laze away.  We each started out with one tube but by the end, we may or may not have had 8 or 10 floaties among the four of us.

We were also THOSE hotel guests who insisted on floating down the lazy river one last time, even after they had shut off the current, leaving the pool staff exasperated as they waited for us to exit before they cleaned the pools and poured in chlorine.  Ooops. 



After a beautiful sunset, we headed out of the resort for dinner.
We drove about twenty minutes each way to try out a local joint called "Student Biryani."
 (Side note: this is something I can't stand about resorts - why do they always have such terrible, unimaginative food?  I do not go to a new and exciting, foreign and utterly different country, to eat spaghetti and club sandwiches for double the price what I can get them at home).   Student Biryani racked in at 11.50 Omani rials for all four of us eating and drinking to our heart's content, which was half of the cost of a buffet dinner for one of us back at the resort.

When we returned to our hotel, it was dark and the resort and pool were lit up dramatically. 
It was pretty.

The next morning, we headed back out to the lazy river for one final hurrah (really, we were not at all lazy in our pursuit of the activity) before heading out on the road for the sinkhole and the wadi shab, which I had heard from friends and read from reviews that were fun and worthy of a visit.

I must pause here and confess that roads in Oman and I do not get along.  They don't like to signpost and it's very hard (putting it mildly) to follow on GPS when suddenly a road disappears or a turnoff that appears on the map simply does not exist in reality.  All of this is to say, I may not be the navigator you want while driving through a baking hot desert or a really humid coastal road while you're trying to make good time...

Here are some pictures of our trek south leaving the Shangri la.

We stopped for lunch in a tiny little town that seemed deserted.
 We ordered all the biryani just because we didn't know what the other things on the menu were.  Clearly it was very tasty (or we were very hungry) because:
One of the best things at both dinner and lunch were the naan and roti.  Like Katie said, they know how to make bread in this place.  I could have just eaten roti and been happy.  After that quick meal, we were back on the road heading south.

We made it to the sinkhole after a few confused turns and almost turned around without venturing in because a taxi driver at the entrance scared us that we were running out of time.

The Gulf of Oman.  The water was a beautiful blue green.
It was HOT.  Day 3 and already a healthy tan going...

But having dealt with such fraught turns, I thought we owed at least a quick visit and charged forward.  I think it was totally worth it.  Here is the Bimmah Sinkhole:

The view was lovely and the water was so refreshing.  I immediately shed my clothes and waded in.  (We had all dressed that day prepared to go swimming sporadically at a moment's notice).  Michael and Justin climbed up the ropes and did a jump off of the cliff wall, I floated on my back and enjoyed the coolness of the water, we all got a few pictures, and then that was it.  We were off to our next destination.
Can you see me?
After nearly driving off of a cliff at one point, and missing the turnoff (sigh), we finally found the wadi shab.
Where the road abruptly stopped and we nearly drove off a cliff.  Clearly not the right way.
 Apparently "wadi" is the Arabic word for "gorge between cliffs," and it's the perfect word for what we went to explore and hike and swim.  We paid a local boat operator 1 Omani rial each (about US$2.50) to be ferried across a very shallow river, then hiked our way into the gorge.
The water is actually very shallow but trust me, that $2.50 for a r/t ride is worth every penny
 Here are the pictures of the hike that I managed to take:
It was a very hot hike even though we had gotten to the wadi late (we started our hike at about 4 pm).  At one point I got quite red in the face and Michael kept trying to pour cold water on my face/head.  I didn't actually feel bad, but I was definitely hot.  It took us about half an hour to hike through the gorge, and while it wasn't easy hiking (you had to walk up and down and over some ridges and rocks), it wasn't that tough. 

When we finally got to the part of the wadi where we could take off our clothes and wade in, we all sank in in relief.  There were a bunch of people swimming there.  We couldn't quite figure out how far we could swim down the river, and we heard from a few people around us that they didn't see what the fuss was about.  Katie and I floated on our backs and relaxed as Michael and Justin went to explore.  We heard them a while later, and it turns out that they had found the secret cave and waterfall!  

Sadly, I have no pictures at all of this part of the trip, as I didn't have time to run back to get my phone.  However, this part was definitely an adventure... Michael and Justin led us all the way back into the wadi, walking over painful rocks barefoot, slithering beyond a few rounds of slippery rocks, and swimming until we finally reached a barely perceptible narrow opening between two cliffs.  It was very dark, very narrow, with a bit of light at the end - and there was just enough space for you to fit your head and neck above water in that tunnel.  We swam through single file, and I confess I got a bit panicked here because it felt so claustrophobic.  The water also got a lot choppier in the tunnel, as it slapped back and forth between the two sides of the cave.  But then we were rewarded by emerging into an amazing cave filled with light and a huge, thundering waterfall.  It was amazing!  

I was still a bit panicked and tired from the swim through the tunnel, and as I tried to swim across the cave to the opposite wall, I inhaled a huge lungful of water.  Thank goodness Michael was there to see me frantically point at my throat and nose as I continued swimming to the other side.  I'm sure I would have made it, but I felt a huge gust of relief when I felt him come up behind me and hold me up against the wall.  There were ropes built into the cave wall, so we used those to climb up to the ledge.

Unfortunately, all of that investigation and exploration meant that we were losing light quickly.  After relishing the experience for a few more minutes, we hurried out.  It was now nearing 6:30 pm and the sun was setting.  We hated the thought of being out in the wadi, trying to climb over rocks and ridges in the dark.  Our return hike was all business - steadily prodding forward as quickly as possible.  We had missed the boat transfer for the return (they were very clear to us that we needed to catch the boat by 6:30 pm).  By the time we made it back to the dock, there was no choice but to take off our shoes and socks, sling everything into a bag on top of our backs and around our necks, and wade across.  Michael got a double dose of it because he tried to find an easier way across for us (didn't work) which caused him to then have to do another trek across.  The water probably only came up to our lower thighs, but the worst part was the bottom, which was slimy and slippery and muddy and full of rocks and seaweed.

By this point, it was nearly 8 pm and we were dirty, smelly, thirsty, tired and hungry.  And to make matters worse, we still had to drive nearly 2 hours to our accommodation for the night - Desert Nights Camp, or glamping in the desert.  And to make matters even more terrible, after Michael brought the Land Cruiser into the narrow inlet to pick us up right by the water, he backed the truck into a pole.  We all gasped at the terrible crunching and scraping sound.  I feel terrible about that, because the car had no rearview camera, it was completely dark, and he had to turn the car around in a very narrow inlet where he just didn't have enough clearance.  We should have just walked out to the car rather than have him drive it to us, but I didn't realize in my tiredness how difficult it would be for him to drive the car in to us.  Lesson very much learned.

This part of the trip was grueling, probably most so for Michael as the driver.  The problem with the drive was that we couldn't go that fast at night (a lot of the roads were under construction) and we essentially had to drive the most roundabout route (three sides of a square instead of just one, most direct line) because there was no other way to reach the desert.  Needless to say, by the time we finally reached Desert Nights Camp, I was weak-kneed with relief!

Overall, the Shangri la was very much a beach/pool resort, however, it was very comfortable and relaxing.  The exact address and details are:
Shangri la Bar Al Jissah
Barr Al Jissah, PO Box 644, Muscat 100, Oman

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