Building (largely by workers from India and the sub-continent) seems to be happening everywhere in Muscat, indeed everywhere in Oman. New international airport, new railway network, 4G upgrade to the telecom network; a major new infrastructure project seems to be announced everyday. Everywhere that is apart from Mutrah and "Old" Muscat which seem quiet unhurried villages on the coast in comparison with the bustle just a short distance inland.
Mutrah, despite being the main port area for Muscat has the feel of a small fishing village with a very active fish market where the daily catch is delivered and sold. It had a lovely atmosphere without a particularly fishy smell and nobody seemed to mind as we (and subsequently a coach load of tourists from the recently arrived cruise liner in the port) wandered round the fish market looking at all the different types of fish that had been caught that day. There were tuna, swordfish, sardines, red snappers and many other strange looking types of fish most of which I couldn't name; one large dark coloured fish with protruding eyes looked particularly ugly to me as it was laided out for display at the back of a truck (see final fish market photo).
Stallholder at Mutrah Fish Market
Freshly caught Swordfish and Yellowfin Tuna at Mutrah Fish Market
Mutrah Fish Market
Mutrah Fish Market - the cruise liner tourists arrive
Ugly looking Fish being unloaded at Mutrah Fish Market
Moving on from the Fish Market we walked along the "Corniche" or harbour wall looking at the boats in Mutrah's harbour and port area. There were a couple of pretty Dhows moored off shore but pride of place was given over to the Sultan's Royal Yacht with its dedicated naval supply ship behind it. It's an impressive looking boat but apparently spends most of its time moored here. Behind the Royal Yacht was the big cruise liner Costa Atlantica and a couple of small catarmaran ferries, I think we can guess which boat the coachload of german tourists at the Fish Market came from!
The Corniche at Mutrah
Dhows in Mutrah Harbour
The Sultan of Oman's Royal Yacht in Mutrah Harbour
The Cruise Liner Costa Atlantica moored in Mutrah Port
Across the road was the entrance to Mutrah Souq, a typical chaotic Arab Market but housed in a surprisingly modern building. We were lucky to visit it on a Sunday, an unusually quiet day but will still heard one stallholder offering to sell "Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh" which perhaps isn't one of the most original of sales pitches but probably goes down well with the tourists.
The entrance to Mutrah Souq on the Corniche
Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh on sale at Mutrah Souq
From the Souq we moved on to Old Muscat in the next bay along the coast. Like Mutrah, Old Muscat feels unhurried and small scale compared with the bustle of the commercial area slightly in land but the buildings are certainly not old and pride of place goes to the Sultan's Palace built in 1972 on the site of the former British Embassy. Surrounding the Sultan's Palace were different ministry buildings and a couple of museums one of which was the Bayt Al-Zubair with its interesting well presented collection of traditional weapons, clothing and other artifacts from the different regions of Oman. It also had a new hall dedicated to the "Jewel of Muscat", a replica of an Arab Dhow that was sailed to Singapore in 2010 recreating what happened in the 9th Century.
The Sultan's Palace
The Sultan's Picture on the wall of the Bayt Al-Zubair Museum
Giant ornamental Frankincense Burner at Al-Riyam Park overlooking Mutrah Harbour
A must do in Oman is to venture out and stay overnight in the desert and my chance to do it had arrived. I booked myself a personal driver/guide with a Toyota 4WD Landcruiser and booked a night at the 1000 Nights Camp about 20 odd miles into the desert (corny name but this is the land of Sinbad after all!).
A Map of the route to our overnight camp in the Arabian Desert
First of all there was the little matter of getting there, Wahiba Sands is about 150 miles (240 kilometres) from Muscat. We drove for about 3 hours south through Ibra before turning east into the mountains to stop at the famous Wadi Bani Khalid Pools for a couple of hours to have lunch.
These pools are basically a beautiful oasis in a very arid area and I went for a refreshing swim in a rock pool up near the waterfall. We then returned to the lowlands and headed towards the Desert.
Wadi Bani Khalid
The natural pool below the waterfall above Wadi Bani Khalid where I went for a swim
A quiet spot to phone home from and make the family jealous :-)
I could tell this was going to be in a different league to anything I had experienced before as I became aware of the enormous sand dunes in the distance and we stopped at a garage to have our tyres deflated to 18 psi.
Garage specialising in deflating/inflating tyres coming on and off the soft sands of the desert
As we started off my driver said we needed to change the mood of the music and as we turned onto the soft sand and headed at speed for our first large dune we had techno on full blast! Then ensued some serious dune bashing as we roared up higher and higher sand dunes; it was a serious adrenalin rush with our landcruiser floating like a boat on a river with a mind of its own as we tore up the soft sand; it often felt like we were going to turn over as we climbed higher and higher dunes the deeper we got into the desert.
My first view of the soft sands of the Arabian Desert
We encountered some fellow travellers as we made our way across the desert
This was a particularly large sand dune that eventually beat us and we had to give up trying to climb it in case we got stuck
My driver - Jekyll and Hyde character, steady on/off road but an evil maniac once let loose on soft sand!
After a while we reached a Bedouin House and stopped for coffee, obviously a tourist stop with the bedouin women selling a few small handmade trinkets but not over done. I have had it a few times now and have developed a taste for the local Kawah, a small coffee flavoured with cardamom and normally served with dates.
Arriving at the Bedouin House on the way to our overnight camp
Kawah (Coffee with cardamom) and Dates with the locals
There was another small group visiting the Bedouins with us
We then carried on and after a while reached our overnight camp. After unwinding for a bit I was determined to see a desert sunset and we drove up a large sand dune to see it. A few others joined us and the orange hues as we watched the sun set on the desert horizon were every bit as amazing as we had been told to watch out for.
My driver then decided I needed another adrenalin rush and instead of going back the way we came went straight over the top of the dune which felt like a near vertical drop! Initially we got grounded but with a bit of help we were soon floating down the front of the dune in the landcruiser. You would never dare drive down a slope that steep normally but soft sand is very forgiving.
Pesky Camel, get out of my way! We need to get to the top of the sand dune before sunset
Me on top of a sand dune waiting for the desert sunset
It got quite busy on our sand dune
Sunset in the Desert - it was worth the wait
My tent was right at the edge of camp which I thought was great as it meant I would have a more authentic feel of sleeping in the desert. My tent was pretty much just a woollen bedouin tent, a couple of beds and a open to the sky toilet/shower but anything more would have spoilt the experience.
My Sheik Tent in the Desert
Inside my tent
The view from my tent in the morning - that isn't a member of the vulture family is it?
For dinner the camp arranged a Bedouin special of lamb with spices cooked for 24 hours in a charcoal pit covered over with sand. While a big deal was made of digging it up, when I tried it I didn't think it was anything special and wish I had stuck with the chicken biryani and fresh hummus that appears to be the national dish. While we ate we were entertained by a small troupe of musicians playing Bedouin music.
After cooking for 24 hours in a hole in the ground, time to dig up dinner!
Dinner is ready and is taken in to be served
We had Bedouin music to accompany our meal
The generators at the camp were turned off at 10 o'clock and there was a lovely light pollution clear sky, one of the many attractions of the desert. A bit later after the moon had set I saw the stars more vividly than I have ever seen them before in my life; all the constellations were clear as if on a page of an astrology book - the Great Bear, the Lion, the Virgin, Orion - I have never before seen them as clearly as that.
In the morning we decided to have breakfast early and start back; I was tempted to try a ride on a camel first until I saw another tourist have a go and saw how uncomfortable they evidently were and decided for the time being to give camel riding a miss!
A couple of camels waiting for the tourists
A fellow tourist having a ride on a camel - it looked like torture!
As we made our way back across the desert I had a chance to take in the scale of the landscape around us, it was awesome with very large sand dunes as far as the eye can see.
The endless desert
The Sun beating down on the desert, lest we forgot how dangerous a place the desert can be
We also chanced upon a group of locals trying to race their Wrangler Jeeps up a particularly steep sand dune and stopped for a while to watch.
Wrangler Jeeps doing a spot of sand dune climbing
This Jeep looks like he is going to make it!
After a final swipe of a few sands dunes with the landcruiser before re-inflating the tyres for tarmac we headed to the coast for 1.5 hours to Sur, a major trading port before the Suez Canal and famous for the building of Arab Dhows. Unfortunately the tide was out when we got there so we didn't see Sur at its best but we passed the famous Al Ghanja Arab Dhow outside the Sur Maritime Museum and visited the famous Sur Boatyard where there were several Dhows under construction.
A view of Sur Harbour including the Al Ghanja Arab Dhow outside the Maritime Museum
An Arab Dhow under construction at the Sur Boatyard
We then headed north-west along the coast towards Muscat 93 miles (150 kilometres) with a few stops and lunch along the way. The first stop was Wadi Tiwi, a beautiful spot but with very narrow winding roads especially through the village. We then had lunch and stopped for a rest on White Beach (a popular beach in Oman but only accessible by 4x4) before moving on to Wadi Shab, a larger but equally beautiful wadi a bit further along the coast. Unfortunately my photos don't seem to do justice to what idyllic settings these Wadi were.
The road upto Wadi Tiwi
The White Beach between Quriyat and Tiwi
A Pickup Truck making its way across a ford in Wadi Shab
Rottnest (or "Rotto") is a small island 12 miles off the Fremantle coast famed for its wildlife (and in particular "quokkas", cat sized marsupials) and used as an idyllic holiday retreat by the locals. The day started with catching the early ferry from the Barrack Street Jetty in Perth and then an hour long cruise down the Swan River past West Australia's equivalent of Millionaires Row to Fremantle.
Perth from the Barrack Street Jetty
View from the ferry on the Swan River between Perth and Fremantle
Having berthed up beyond the "Costa Deliziosa" Cruise Ship (the big cruise ship currently in port) and loaded up with more tourists, bicycles and ballot boxes (for the imminent state election), the ferry sped past ships queueing to berth up in Freemantle Harbour. Arriving on Rottnest Island about 30 minutes later, we then got on a RIB (Rigid Inflatible Boat, apparently similar to those used by the SAS) for a 90 minute "eco-tour" right around the island stopping at coves to see the wildlife along the way.
Bicycles and Ballot Boxes being loaded on the Rottnest Ferry at Freemantle
Approaching Rottnest Island on the Ferry
The RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) we were on going around Rottnest Island
On the eco-tour RIB speeding around Rottnest Island
The ride bouncing along at up to 35 knots outside the speed restriction areas was fun and we saw lazy New Zealand Fur Seals, nesting Ospreys and well as foraging Stingrays but I must admit I had hoped to see more as dolphins and seas lions are often also seen on the trip I took.
New Zealand Fur Seal at Cathedral Rocks on Rottnest Island
Kayaking and snorkeling amongst the seals on Rottnest Island
New Zealand Fur Seal floating on his back on Rottnest Island
Osprey perched high up on a cliff on Rottnest Island
On returning to Thomson Bay (the main settlement on the island) I hired a bicycle for a couple of hours to explore the island's interior as with cars non-existent this is the recommended way to get around. I managed to reach the Oliver Hill Guns (WW2 Battery installed to defend Freemantle Harbour), Wedjemup Lighthouse and ride past some of the salty pink lakes (4 times saltier than sea water and like the Dead Sea you naturally float in them) before I had to return back to make sure I was back in time for my ferry.
The WW2 Gun Battery on Oliver Hill
Wadjemup Lighthouse on Rottnest Island
A pink lake on Rottnest Island
Me exploring Rottnest Island by bicycle
Geordie Bay full of yachts on Rottnest Island
Back in Thomson Bay I made a quick visit to the museum and "Quod" (old prison now hotel, Rottnest was used as an aboriginal open prison during the 19th century) was beginning to worry the only quokka I would see would be the one sleeping by the surf boards at the bicycle hire shop. I need not have worried, literally just before I got back to the boat one wandered out in front of me and good as posed for my camera!