Saturday, July 23, 2016

Jebel Shams: 9 Things to do in Summer

Jebel Shams, highest mountain in Oman at a height of 3005 meter has to offer many things to do in summer, where weather is almost 15 degrees less than Dubai! Just across the border beautiful things await and Jebel Shams is one of those natural beauties!

1. Overnight Camping and Barbecue Dinner

Cave camping on Jebel Shams
Wearing Simr Flowers in my ears
We camped in a mountain cave the first night on Jebel shams. Read our story of successful camping in summer. While father and son slept till late, I woke up around 7 am, a while after the sun rise. I couldn't sleep further because of light and I was excited to have look around early morning.

The view from our tent was amazing, wide wadi and juniper trees, shrubs, lot of greenery, freshest air and goats busy grazing! When I climbed down from the cave, I saw a Acacia Tree filled with lots of scented yellow flowers and millions of beautiful and colorful butterflies hovering over these flowers along with bees. It was a beautiful scene. This is called Simr tree in Arabic, we call it Babhali in Indian state of Maharashtra. But I never noticed the sweet scent of flowers before, may be it might be specialty of middle eastern Simr trees. So I couldn't help but pick up camera first thing in the morning. From some poetic reference I remember from my childhood, I even tried those yellow flowers as earrings, These natural earrings were well matched with my tee, just excuse me for my bare and 'just woke up from the bed' face!
Beautiful butterfly on Simr (Acacia) Tree

2. Nature Walk, Pick fruits, See rock formations

Nature Walk at Jebel Shams Base Camp

After the breakfast in our cave, we got ready and went on exploration, our family's favorite ritual on every travel. All of us love to explore new places on our own, given chance even independently. Sometimes it becomes difficult when three minds wanting to wonder off in three different directions. Our first stop was the widely spread wadi at the Jebel Shams base camp, seen from our cave. The temperature might be around 29-30, it was feeling like 26-27 and there were many shaded trees, (sunscreen is must). So we decided to take a nature walk. This is the place from where famous Balcony Walk starts (hiking route W6), which takes you to Grand Canyon. We noticed few marks for trekkers in red, white and yellow painted flags on stones.

Picking fruits from Juniper tree
My son particularly loved the goats. Goats were coming after us in hope of some food, when I told him that he offered the banana he was eating and one the goat finished it in 2 seconds. So we had to shoo away them later. Ruhaan loved a particular white goat the most and he announced that. He even wanted to cuddle her, but we were not sure about mountain goat's behaviour and they had sharp horns too. Instead I diverted him to his favorite activity collecting stone and there were billions! We collected different shapes triangle, square, diamond almost the perfect shapes. I was particularly fascinated by my finding. Those mysterious sweet addictive berries were from these juniper trees. So I couldn't keep myself away from picking some berries myself. I am extremely fond of picking up berries in wild, during my university days we used to go for trekking and camping in Sahyadri ranges in India. I used to love picking up and munching on conkerberry or bush plum while hiking! These kind of fruits you can generally find only in wild we call it Jungle Delight (Ran mewa in Marathi)

Juniper Berries
Later I found out these are not actually berries, these are female seed cones like pine cones but with unusually fleshy scale. These berries have medicinal properties and used for arthritis and weight loss. You can find one of the oldest Juniper trees here, the older juniper trees have twisted and wider trunks like this one!
Older Juniper Tree

Goat Horn
After collecting berries and stone, we walked along a dry stream. the stones where stream used to flow had characteristic marks. There were lot of different stone formation, a very interesting place to explore. Some dead looking grass, different lush green bushes. Simr trees and Juniper tress dominated the landscape. We even found a horn shedded by goat. You can find many different kind of stone and rock formations here. This area is mineral rich with copper, iron and other minerals, one can easily find white crystals, natural quartz lying on on wadi bed. Oman used to be an ocean bed 200 million years back, that sea began to close, the Asian and Arabian plate started moving and these mountains including Jebel Shams were formed. That is why you get to see metamorphic rocks here which are otherwise buried deep in earth elsewhere. On the way back to wards car, my husband found some interesting rock formation, where he could take out sheet like stones which he could pull out easily.

We saw few camping sites, which left over burnt camp fire and unfortunately some litter though there was a big garbage bin kept near the resort fens. After spending almost an hour outdoors we started feeling hotter so we walked back to the car. As we were coming back on road, we saw a young Omani family with child picnicking in shade of large Juniper tree. We waved at them, they smiled and waved back. Later in the evening my husband made a Omani friend living in Al Hamra Village, told him they often come to Jebel Shams for a pleasant day out during summer.

3. Grand Canyon

Woolen Brace Late
Our next stop was Grand canyon viewing point at just 5 minutes or less drive. Note that the railings there are not dependable; it is advisable to keep young kids away from viewing area. The Grand Canyon is definitely a nice spot for photography. Right across the viewing point, there is a barasti stall selling woolen bracelets. The Omani girls were bubbly and started wrapping bracelet around my son't wrist. They could speak basic English, but politely denied to take any photos of them. My son enjoyed their company, so much that he entered their shop and played. They were more than happy to entertain him. We bought a bracelet, but couldn't buy juniper berries, but we promised to buy in evening after we finish our first batch. But they still fill up pockets of my son's jeans with berries. Omanis are really great hosts and it felt so homely because even Indians offer things to kids not in an attempt of selling you goods but just a kind act towards kids!

Next morning we ventured further past Jebel Shams Resorts and found even better views of Grand Canyon. I fell in love with these rugged mountains, may be because my hometown in nestled between Sahyadri's rugged mountain ranges. The views can become little overwhelming if you are alone. Me and my husband took turns to walk upto edges of mountain to have a look at the view as we didn't want to take Ruhaan with us. The mountain edge is definitely not a place where you can take your active child.

Watch Grand Canyon from Jebel Shams 

4. Sun set at Jebel Shams Resort

Sunset from Jebel Shams Resort

From Grand canyon view point on day 1 of exploring, we were famished. So we decided to take lunch in another resort named 'Jebel Shams Resort'. I liked the interiors of restaurant with day lighting at center, few Omani handmade palm decor on wall, lots of views to outdoors from all sides and a mason jar with succulent arrangement inside used as center piece of every table. Simple and beautiful restaurant. The food was good to, we has tasty chicken curry rice and fish from their set menu, not many options but we were happy. The delicious hummus was freshly made.
Jebel Shams Resort Restaurant 
The views from this resorts are outstanding and you get to see best sunset from Jebel Shams from this resort. So we decided to spend that night in their Arabic tent with best sun set views. While my husband fetched our tent from previous resort me and my son relaxed and rested in our arabic tent. It was getting hotter outside, there was no AC, only a cooler in tent, but that was enough for us. I don't know do they really need AC anytime of the year? Around 4.30-5 o clock the wind started blowing and temperature dropped again. So we took our little man to the play area in front of reception. Then I grabbed tea and sat outside our tent on the bench just to enjoy the view and sunset. Watching goats grazing next to me outside the fens and interesting shrubs and grass around. It was really one of the most beautiful sunset I seen in few years. It was very windy during throughout evening and night. By now we forgot how it feels during summer in Dubai!
Mountain Silhouette (View outside our tent)

We also met with a lovely Spanish speaking family from South America, who stay in Muscat and came to enjoy a night. These days my son is ice breaker in our family, he just ran towards their son saying 'my new friend'. They came in big group of close relatives, so after a nice chat they joined back with them. We continued our exploration in huge premises of resort. We didn't realize how time flied watching colors in skies after sun set and silhouette of surrounding mountain. On of it was looking like a face of man from side with wide open jaw. Ruhaan found it very interesting. Again we watched stars and I tried telling my son difference between twinkling stars and not twinkling planets. Then our astronaut played pretend rocket take off.

5. Camp Fire

Camp fire
During later evening it was really chilling outside, so much that they started heater in the restaurant, but we opted to sit outside just by thinking we are supposed to return back to the furnace the next day.
Again fantastic food at dinner, having soup on chilling night feels great isn't it? We even filled up our coffee mugs with hot tea and coffee.

By the time we returned to our tent, almost all guest had lit up their campfire and Ruhaan was super excited. So we requested wood and got our own campfire. It was amazing to sit outside with wind blowing, chilling weather, darkest skies with so many stars, campfire and hot tea and our favorite juniper berries (yes my husband bought another batch from the Omani girls, as promised)

It was a great night to remember! After Ruhaan slept, we both just sat side by side next to campfire experiencing that enchanting moments. I don't remember such peaceful night out in last many years in UAE.

View outside our Arabic Tent at Jebel Shams Resort

Jabel shams Resort is definitely a better place to stay in terms of views and wind. They have different options of stay. Their swimming pool and observatory both were not functioning. But there is so much space around in the resort that kids can play and explore for hours without getting bored.
Jebel Shams Resort

6. Villages on Jebel Shams

Traditional Omani Houses
Next morning, right after a nice breakfast, we drove further in mountains from our resort for some more exploration. We took few stops to look at better views of grand canyon, but there were no railings, so couldn't spend much of time.

Grape Vine
Further down we found a small settlement with small orchard and cattle, Al Hatim Village. We stopped to have a look, there was a small shop selling same things stones and white quartz crystals, horn shedded by goats, woolen bracelets and key chains and juniper berries. There are views every where of grand canyon valley, bowl like wadi in the center. But I was drawn to a particular house with a yard shaded with grape whines. So I asked permission to photograph, there were only ladies with younger kids, men and older kids must be out for work. They happily welcomed me.

You get to see stone cairn made by hikers around the trekking path, this one we found just outside tiny Al Hatim village.
Stone Cairn

7. Shop Local Produce

If you are in Jebel Shams then you need to experience shopping local produce. Firstly these things are cheaper and it's definitely a way to support native people of Jebel Shams. Juniper berries are for just 1 riyal, super tasty and great for weight loss and has medicinal properties. You can just pick them up by yourself, but when you do that you will come to know it's not very easy to pick even handful of them. So that 1 riyal is for the efforts of these young girls picking those berries patiently for you. You can buy those woolen brace late or key chains, they are made from goat wool and look great.

One more thing we took with us to Dubai is fresh grapes from Al Hatim village. My husband couldn't help but bought those black grapes from those ladies, where I took some photos. They told us grapes would be like lemon, but we didn't care, we just wanted that experience of eating fresh grapes and we enjoyed it, also shared with our friends.

After the grapes shopping we decided to start our descend and head back to UAE. This time I drove in those challenging roads. may be not so challenging, but you need first gear to climb up steep uphill and you need to keep control on breaks while descending all the time. It was amazing to see the same views from different angle and at different time. We stopped in between to take photos of winding roads in mountains, very scenic drive indeed! If you love driving you need to drive here. There are few diversions in between towards few other mountains and wadis, if you have some more time.

8. Yemeni Lunch at Al Hamra Village

Staff from Jebel Shams resort suggested us to try Yemeni restaurant in Al Hamra village right before
Yemeni Restaurant
shell petrol pump when you are coming from mountain side. We are always up to try different cuisine so we stopped. Unfortunately I was in shorts and I didn't realize till we got down. But they didn't treat us differently at all and there were dedicated rooms for families. But the catch was there were no tables and chairs. You need to remove your shoes outside, they spread a table cover and serve food on it. My son found it very unsettling! actually it was not too different from Indian style at homes. Many people still sit on floor and eat, we did that many times in our child hood. But now most of homes in India have dinning tables and not many restaurants offer this kind of sitting arrangement. So after a little bit of running away and a short melt down, my son finally settled down with a complaining face. It was really funny!

The food was okay, similar to arabic food. We ordered chicken and fish with rice and we liked it. It was an experience. There were not many options there and mostly shops were closed. 

9. Bahla Fort

Bahla Fort
 This time we took the route through Bahla, hoping to get glimpse of Bahla fort. It is UNESCO world heritage site. 

It's definitely a must do thing during your drive, when you are driving through Bahla, it's just on main road, you don't need to take any detours. They are restoring the fort, we decided to take short break and take quick walk around the fort. There are abandoned old houses on back side of the fort, I had to take few photos there. Then we just took quick look at Bahla souq which was just in next lane, it was closed so we didn't spend much time. 
Ruins around Bahla Fort
May be we can keep some time reserved to explore the fort from inside and the souq next time.

From Bahla to Al Ain border we went through a sand storm and then rain! We even saw few wind whirls before the sand storm. But the temperature was pleasant most of our drive. At Al Ain border crossing the Omani staff asked very proudly if we been to been to Salalah, after hearing our answer he suggested we should go to Jebel Akhdar next time. That is definitely on top of our list, but we need a four wheel drive to go there.

Overall our experience of Jebel Shams in summer was great, I don't know why we never tried this before in all these years in UAE. We are going there again in winter! I would recommend it in summer for those who like raw, rugged, rustic beauty and who are ready to drive and keep comforts away for some time. It's a great quick escape to better weather during summer!

Have always loved visiting Oman's Musandam peninsula and have great memories of camping on a beach there, but now I totally agree with Omani Ministry of Tourism's tag line 'Beauty has address, Oman!'
'Butterfly counts not months but moments'- Rabindranath Tagore

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Camping on Jebel Shams in Summer

Camping on Jebel Shams during harsh summer, when rest of Middle East is roasting under scorching hot Sun, sounds crazy right? But here is our story, which was not a disaster but filled with fun, outdoor time and surprises.
Cave Camping in Summer 

This summer since we are not going on vacation anywhere, when I found about amazing weather during summer on Jebel Shams, the tallest mountain of in Oman, we immediately started packing our bags.

Road trip To Jebel Shams from Dubai

Here is my zero waste packing for road trip and camping! More on my successful zero waste experience later.
Zero waste camping and road trip packing

We opted for a road trip to Jebel Shams from Dubai just after Eid holidays, so we were sure we won't find much of traffic at border crossing. As we left Al Ain, there are mountain ranges in sight through out your drive. Oman is blessed with ground water, we could see many shrubs, bushes, trees and even grass patches from road. This part had rich soil too. I noticed one olive tree look alike tree, later their population increased as we climbed on Jebel Shams. These are Juniper trees.

On the way to Jebel Shams from Al Hamra Village
The journey took almost 8 hours to reach on top, including our 2 hour lunch and shopping break in Nizwa. Our route was, Dubai- Al Ain- Border Crossing- Ibri- Nizwa- Al Hamra village- Jebel Shams. On the way back we saved time by skipping Nizwa and took route through Bahla.

We wanted Nizwa on the way to buy food supplies for our dinner that day and breakfast next morning, also thought being bigger town, we can get more food options for lunch that day. There is Grand mall in Nizwa, where you can find Carrefour. We opted for Lulu, from what I read, but I was not impressed. Though we could find what I wanted, the fresh items like milk, chicken was 2 days old. There was a big camping equipment section and supplies in Lulu even during summer, gave me a feeling of relief that our camping experiment is not such a bad idea. One more point, don't expect the petrol pumps in this side of Oman as equipped as UAE. Their convenient shops were closed through out our two way journey. But petrol is cheaper there, Shell is one of the best I guess.

Unpaved road, beautiful scenery
As soon as you leave Al Hamra village, where you find the last petrol pump, the road winds up in the mountain from a wide wadi, a delight for any driver. The  temperature starts dropping as you climb up. You can take sedan car up to Jebel Shams, ours was all wheel drive made our drive smoother and more comfortable than sedan. We reached the top of first mountain from where road was going down in valley, which made us think if we are on right route? So we asked few Omani men who were driving behind us, they were friendly and confirmed the route. After you start climbing another mountain, the unpaved road starts and so is the greenery. You can see dry water streams everywhere. We stopped after seeing local tribal girls selling some kind of berries. Those Omani men, driving along side us stopped and gifted those berries to us. The Omani guy couldn't speak much of English but he insisted pointing at our son that it's a gift for him, as we are visiting his country. We experienced same homeliness from Omani people through out our journey.

Summer Camping on Jebel Shams

When we reached at the base camp of Jebel Shams around 5 in evening, the weather was amazing! The winds were blowing and temperature dropped by 12 degrees or more. Actually you can camp anywhere on Jebel Shams. But we chose Jebel shams heights resort, for camping that night so that we can always opt for a room, if our summer camping would fail. Also this camping option provided us proper toilets and dedicated facility by resorts. There was a pomegranate tree in full bloom with lot of pomegranate dangling from the branches near the reception. My son was so fascinated, he touched the fruits and even tried counting, one of the staff just picked ready to eat fruit and handed over to my son. We set up our camp in the cave at Jebel Shams Heights resort. It was beautiful, had a view of wadi around the base camp.

My son had good time playing in their smaller play area holding his treasure, a freshly picked pomegranate! My son even got acquainted with an Omani family, who were one of the guest in resort. The resort provided us key to nearby room for washroom as their dedicated washrooms for campers were far from cave.

Freshly picked pomegranate, such a delight
As it started getting dark, we started preparing our barbecue dinner. The resort has provided lights near cave, but while walking around we needed torch. There is dedicated place for barbecue and camp fire right in front of cave a circle built with stones. We had to keep watch on our son all the time as there were no fence around cave, which was situated at some height. But this dedicated place for fire made things safer. Ruhaan kept himself busy keeping watch on ants with torch in his hand all the time. Every time I had to wash fruits or vegetables, he accompanied me proudly lighting up our path with his torch. He played with his one car in between, but we almost didn't have to worry to keep him busy.

Our Home for a night
It was such delight to cook dinner outdoors without feeling hot. The temperature might be little higher but it was feeling like 24 degrees, specially because of lack of high humidity. So then we decided to have a small camp fire after dinner with left over burning coal and some wood lying around. We had our dinner while watching stars above us. After dinner we had fresh fruit from Oman. The berries Omani people gifted us were so sweet and addictive, though it had big seeds in it.
Omani Berries

Before bed, my husband read a camping story to Ruhaan in tent. After few failed attempts this was Ruhaan's first camping experience. Last time we camped on a beach in Fujaira and it started raining with thunderstorm, which was predicted a week after! So he never really had a full experience of camping. At first he was little bothered by flying moths and bees sitting on outer surface of tent. But he soon got used to it and made it fun game to flash torch on them.

Enjoyed his first camping
The night was peaceful apart from braying of donkey once or twice! We could all take a good night sleep without any disturbance. Not many mosquitoes were there and we made sure to keep tent closed at all times in evening. We didn't sleep in the sleeping bags, instead we used them as mattress. Also we kept tent door open, with only net closed for ventilation.

 Jebel shams heights resort staff were friendly and co-operated us at every step. They even stored our food in their fridge overnight on our request. We didn't use the swimming pool, there was lot of sand in it, neither we had any meal at resort. But our cave camping experience was good. The best part was cave was cooler till late morning so my boys slept till late without bothering by any temperature rise. The cave provided shade for us during morning and while having breakfast. I would recommend to bring your shade or opt for shaded camping option at resorts in summer. Though it's not too hot, there is breeze almost all the time, but it's same scorching Sun.

Amazing weather on Jebel Shams in Summer

Our car showed 50 degrees in Al Ain in the morning, 47 degrees in Nizwa that afternoon. When we were climbing up car gauge showed 34 degrees and 30 degrees when we reached on Jebel Shams early evening felt like 27-26 degrees without humidity. At night car showed 25 degrees felt like 22-21 degrees and we had to use our light blankets.

My husband was so fascinated by the temperature drop, he kept on taking photos of temperature gauge in car at different times. He even took a quick snap, when he woke up in the middle of night!
Our Car's Dashboard, Temperature 25 degrees at 3 am 

The temperature drop was the main attraction of Jebel Shams! Coming up my next post about what outdoor fun we had on Jebel Shams and what are things to do when you are there specially during summer.