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Here you'll find notes from recent trips to Oman. Topics are:
Hoti Cave has moved (not the cave, silly, just > the accounts
of the through trips)
National Day trip
Hoti Cave adventure, December 17-19, 1997
Cemal tried to kill me a number of times toward the end of our residence in Oman. He set up my first ever abseil adventure into MajlisAl Jinn, a 178 meter drop which I naively enjoyed at the time. On my next abseil adventure, a mere 100 meters or so into Funnel Cave, I got hung up and barely got myself down, leaving kit on the rope which fowled Eric on his descent, though we all survived it somehow. So I eagerly took Cemal up on it when he suggested a relatively non-lethal jaunt through Hoti Cave (unless of course it had rained, which it had been doing the past two months, but we may hit it lucky, Cemal said - I'm easily talked into such trips).
On the appointed day, a Wednesday after work, I bundled my family in the car for the drive back down to Oman (they hadn't packed, they didn't think I'd go with the clouds as threatening as they were). We got off to such a late start that our last-chance dinner was in Al Ain, still in the Emirates. We chose the Hilton and regretted it half an hour into the long wait for our food to be served. We crossed the border late at night (two sets of cards to fill out at the UAE and Omani checkpoints, 4 passports, the scrutiny and eventually the stamps) and an hour later got hung up at a serious midnight Omani roadblock halfway to Ibri. The police wielding flashlights checked all the bags in the front seat but left my family alone and let us pass with a cursory check of our camping gear. By the time we cruised through Ibri everyone was asleep in the car but me. I listened to BBC in English, the midnight to 1 news hour, which took me almost to Bahla. We rolled up at the Hoti cave resurgence an hour after that had finished, climbing the last rocky slope in the moonlight in our Blazer. There were several other cars in the camping area and everyone asleep in tents, so we pitched ours as quietly as we could. The family went to bed in the tent and I slept like a log in the car until 6, when Dusty's alarm went off. He'd left it in the car so as not to wake the others in the tent. Ink, Schnuggs!!
Next morning we coffee'd (the Arabs make it into a verb) and breakfasted (we make it into a verb) and Bobbi and the kids headed in the car to the capital to visit with Marsha and Neal, especially as Adam was around, one of Glenn's old ABA school chums. Meanwhile, Cemal, Eric, Paul, and Bart and I headed off in Eric's car to the cave entrance up the mountain. We parked in the rocks and headed past the goats and friendly, waving villagers down the hill to the wadi bed leading to the upper end of the cave. On this walk down I slipped on a rock and landed on my little finger in such a way that it came out of joint at a 20-30 degree angle upwards. This startled me, but I reflexively pulled it back into position. The joint made a satisfying click as it went back into place. During the rest of the trip, it bothered me, but it didn't become swollen or painful until days later.
We walked into the mouth of the cave to the first 10 meter pitch where we rigged a rope and descended, leaving the rope behind to be retrieved later. We intended, in case I haven't mentioned it, to go through the cave 4 km to its resurgence near our camping spot where Cemal's wife Nita and Paul's wife Elvira would catch up on their reading during the day and hone their camp cooking skills that evening in anticipation of our emergence from the cave. However, in the event the rains had raised the water level in the cave to the point where we couldn't make it through the sump near the end, we would have to turn back and climb the pitches we were about to descend; hence the consideration for leaving ropes in place against that eventuality.
The cave was superb, one of the best I have ever explored. It wasn't great for decorations, just a few curtains and the usual stalactites and mites. But it was spacious and comfortable (as opposed to cramped California crawlways). I had come prepared to be wet and cold most of the day, but it turned out to be a warm and humid cave, with the water a pleasantly cool, welcome relief against the sweat buildup from carrying a pack that would fill with water through the zippers and not release the water through its waterproofing (must get a suitable pack next time). The first kilometer was a treacherous slog over devilishly placed boulders, but after a few hours of that, we reached a part where we abseiled down pitch after pitch in subterranean waterfalls, and this was truly beautiful, the trickly water music lending an apropos backdrop to the Styx-like ambience. Though wet was the order of the day, the flowing water eased the friction of ropes passing through figure 8's. Here the cave was like a calcite cathedral, with high vaulted ceilings marking the fault line. We passed through chamber after chamber, sometimes walking, and sometimes breast stroking through pools to arrive directly at the next pitch, with some of us waiting in the water while others crawled out on a lip to abseil 10 meters over the edge.
After some hours of this we emerged into an area of goar pools reminiscent of Pamukale in Turkey. Here the walk was not only watery beautiful, but the sandpaper consistency of the mineral rock gave us our only sure footing the entire trip. This took us after another hour to the edge of the final lake, which we would traverse in a kilometer-long swim to the last half hour hike leading to the exit. Here we rested and ate what we had in our packs, and changed into our wetsuits and back into flippers. Then we slipped over a waterfall and into the lake and floated comfortably downstream. All of us had brought flotation devices. I used an old-style bib stab jacket, but Bart had brought an inflatable crocodile. I wish I had had a camera. I found out later I did have a camera. I thought Bobbi had taken it off with her in the car, but I found it among my things later at the campsite. It was a Minolta good in water to 3 meters. It would have been ideal for this trip.
We floated to the one critical spot in our journey. The water sumps at this end of the cave, and there are two places where passage could be impossible, necessitating a return journey. At this point, we were not exhausted by our exertions, but we could see that a retrace of our journey that night, before our batteries ran out, would have led us to that state. Pushing on, at one point we had to float 20 meters with only our noses between the water and the low ceiling. Paul, who knew the way, went first and called back that the passage was doable. Cemal, who doesn't swim, went next, to get it over with. The rest of us followed, kissing rock the whole way. This took us to the final hurdle, an inverted hurdle actually, where we had to go through a submerged hole to reach the chamber opposite. Shining our torches into the hole we could see light on the other side through perforations in the rock wall, so all we went for it. Not much choice, really, drowning, or a long slog back. We all opted for drowning and emerged sputtering on the other side.
We had by then reached a point where I had been before on numerous trips into the resurgence with friends and family when I lived in Oman. From here it was a short swim to the point where there used to be inner tubes from previous cave trips (the tubes had gone, unfortunately; we tried to get Bart to leave his crocodile, but he had become attached to it, and could not part with it, and wished to blow it up later in the privacy of his tent and further consort with it). And so we walked out of the cave and into the campsite below where awaited hot pasta dishes and beer.
Next day, we went back for the rope we'd left at the first pitch. Some village boys followed us down to the cave asking where the others were. They had seen 5 go in, and now we were 3. I tried to explain that the cave came out the other side. Later that day we drove over to Misfah to visit the village and look at another cave in the area, a sinkhole which we heard had foul air below. We found the hole and followed the road to a village at its end where we sat down to coffee and dates with the villagers. I asked the villagers if there were any more caves in the area, and they told me of one called Nahr above Wejmah, which we could best reach from that village in 5 hours. As we were leaving, our host expressed regret that we had not come on a Thursday. If we could come back on a Thursday he said, they could send someone with us to show us the cave. As it was Friday, he said, it would be inconvenient to go there just then, as we'd arrive at 6 in the evening. We had never asked for a guide to the cave, but he out of the blue offered one, but only if we would return on a Thursday. Amazing people, to offer strangers a guide who would go 10 hours out of his way to show us a cave we had only then learned about.
After that we visited Misfah, a charming village above Al Hamra and at the base of trails leading into the Jebel to all the wadis on the other side. At a time before the road, not so many years ago, Misfah would have been accessible only by hiking or by donkey. Now it was visited daily by tourists, not all of whom could understand its unique position. Misfah sits above a high wadi full of date palms, from which it must derive its wealth. Its houses are built like an Italian village into the hillside, complete with archways over its stone passages, and an ancient watchtower. It blends well with its surroundings, from which it extracts water in a picturesque falaj leading through a pool set above the terraces and full of happy kids on hot summer mornings.
After a hot walk down from where Don Carroll and I had slept at the top of the jebel at one point during my residence in Oman, we had wound up in Misfah in the early afternoon. The friendly villagers had sent for a daughter to open the store by the town gate so that Don and I could slake our thirst on soda pop. There are always a couple of old men sitting there, and we fell into conversation with them. Meanwhile, a couple of tourists rolled up and walked self-consciously through the gate, looking and no doubt feeling out of place, no knowledge of Arabic, nor of local sensitivities. This is a town that used to be on the tour bus route until the villagers put a stop to these most egregious of incursions. One of the old men indicated the tourists passing and said something to the effect of: typical, no salaam wa alaikum, they just come and walk around, and don't say anything to anyone. The villagers of Misfah respond warmly if you say hello and can't and don't want to understand the camera toting tourists who don't.
On this trip to Misfah I wandered around with Paul and Elvira, Bart and Eric. Eric eventually wandered off and after a time I went looking for him. When I returned to where I'd left the others, they were gone. I went looking for them in the upper parts of the town where it was difficult to distinguish public walkway from private foyer, and I inadvertently walked in on a family gathering in an alcove. I tried to escape my faux pas, but the family called me back and insisted I redeem myself by sitting down to tea with them. So I sat with a lady presiding with a tea kettle over a brood of sons, daughters and grandchildren. They poured me a tea and sent out for oranges. In the lull while we were waiting for the food, I said I needed to leave and find my friends, so they took me to a window overlooking the town center, and there was Eric sitting down there, waiting for the rest of us. So I excused myself to join him and barely got away with a couple of oranges stuffed in my hands on exit. The Omanis are remarkably wonderful people, lucky enough to live in a remarkable land.
National Day Holidays, December 2-5, 1997
We decided on the car on the weekend and put the money down Saturday morning. The car was readied for pickup on Sunday and that night I went through the considerable hassle of registering it. It seemed the police had a rule: my name on all the documents had to be the same in Arabic as it was spelled on my driver's license, and that translates as something like Vancey Stevens. I had to make two evening trips from the registry office to the car dealer and back before I could get halfway through registering the vehicle. Throughout the ordeal, the car dealer cast aspersions on the police for being so picky when it was their fault they ignored the simple rule. Still, in typical fashion here, the dealer compensated for incompetence by bending over backwards to rectify the error, even calling the insurance agent back from town to redo the trick with the rubber stamp. In the end, the car was registered, and Monday morning, the dealer replaced the leaking gas tank with a new one. Next morning we were on the road to Oman at the start of our 4-day weekend.
We were breaking in the engine and had to drive slowly the first day, so we made it only to Ibri the first night, camping near a place where there was a break in the mountain. It felt great to be camping in Oman again. The weather was cool, and we worried about nothing that might disturb us. We had picked up roasty chicken in town, which we ate before a fire of persopis wood. Plenty of that around. The desert was clean and the mosquitoes reasonably at bay. In the night our sleep was punctuated by the sounds of birds, and at dawn, sheep on the hillside sent rocks aclatter to get us making coffee and on our way.
We drove a short way to the ruined village of Sulaif. This is one of the villages bombed by the British allies of the previous sultan during the insurrection to his rule that brought their combined wrath upon Saiq, Tanoof, and Birkat Al Moz. The ruins were similar to those of Tanoof in interest and had always been too remote to enjoy when we lived in the capital. We also dropped in on Jabrin Fort, impressively restored with particularly colorful ceilings. It was the first time we'd been permitted inside without a pass, which can be issued only by petitioning an appropriate office in Muscat. Apparently the Omani authorities had come to the realization that this was just too inconvenient for most who would appreciate seeing the fort, and relaxed the rules. The same didn't hold true for Bahla fort further down the road. On my first visit there years ago, a guard at the door had demanded an exhorbitant sum from Glenn and I so we had simply scaled the walls and looked around at the crumbling ruins. Now the fort was being restored, we were refused entry into the open gate, even to just look. We contented ourselves with wandering around Bahla souk instead. The souk is dominated by a haunted tree, as Bahla people have a reputation for being conversant with the jinns. On our way out of there we wandered up a road with no exit but accepted an invitation to visit a pottery works. The young lad showed us the factory and gave such an enthusiastic demonstration of pottery making, including a tour of the beehive kiln, that we bought several of his pieces at prices higher, we later found out, than even in the tourist inflated Nizwa souq. We hadn't questioned the prices though, as we wished to support the flagging local industry.
I was in the mood for a walk, and we were passing many of my favorite sites on our way to the capital. We drove by the road to Hoti Cave and Gharfat AlAlamain where we had been hailed on one winter's night at altitude. We passed by the mountains back of Tanoof, with excellent walks up several routes into Jebel Akhdar. We passed through Nizwa, now quiet in the mid-day sun, but a marvel of tasteful restoration with its cylindrical fort and blue mosque dome and impressive walls. Finally we came to Umtay and could hold back nostalgia no further. I drove up the rocky wadi and led Bobbi and Dusty on the short walk to the famous Persian Steps, actually one of many paths built with stepping stones up the mountain. The steps themselves continue 10 km up the mountain, Oman's Apian Way, but we only walked far enough to get a sense of the ancient accomplishment.
When we got to Muscat we looked up old friends Patricia and Mike, and then met Cemal and Nita in the Intercon Pub. Marsha and Neil were there and invited us back to their incredibly tasteful museum house for the night. In the morning Bobbi and I got up for a dive at the Oman Dive Federation. We were taken to Bandar Khayran, one of our favorite locales for scenery and underwater life. We were tossed overboard at a place called Paul's Point where we comingled with baraccuda and lots of eels, honeycombs and greys. We drifted by a couple of turtles who didn't even bother to swim out of the way, and we cornered a sting ray in its lair.
Back in town, Cemal and Nita were having second thoughts about camping out on Jebel Shems on account of it was 3 degrees and snowing up there, but they allowed themselves to be persuaded to be dragged out camping if we could suggest a more conducive alternative, and Umtay sprang to mind. So we high tailed it out there, arriving just at dusk and in the last possible light for negotiating the tricky road in and out. After a pleasant evening drinking beer and watching fire dance we hit the sack only to be awakened by raindrops on the tent flaps. In the morning, it was grey in the mountains, and walking was obviously off. Flash floods have recently killed people in wadis in Oman, and the expats are aware of the danger. So Nita and Cemal went back to the capital and Bobbi and Dusty and I continued around the mountain by road to Nizwa, where we caught the Friday market in full swing. We were surprised at how the restoration had not really destroyed the rugged flavor of the place, especially in the gun market, where old men in khanjars hung about or haggled over firearms. Lots of that about, e.g. in Bahla, our next stop. We were pricing silver actually. It was 125 baizas a gram in Nizwa souk and 100 in Bahla. Such a deal. We bought some in both places.
And then we drove back in the rain all the way to Abu Dhabi. We certainly enjoy living so near one of our favorite countries in all the world and being able to slip in and out so easily.
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