Saturday, May 12

Flying high


Garry and I are just a few weeks away from celebrating the third anniversary of acquiring our fast growing small business.  The time has simply flown by.  We’ve been incredibly busy renewing its systems and infrastructure to sustain its growth.

Projects we’ve completed to date include rolling out a new accounting system and customer relationship management system, rebuilding its website on a modern e-commerce platform; and refreshing its sales and marketing program - an exercise that’s included a new catalogue, new email marketing campaigns, online advertising and a new custom-built trade show booth.  We‘ve also refrshed its corporate identity and added four new suppliers.

Our outsourced warehouse has also relocated to larger premises and we’ve taken on dozens of new customers nationwide.  We’re now focused on a second phase of projects that enhance the foundations we’ve put in place.  This includes a software automation project that will ultimately see orders flow from our website into our business systems and then on to our warehouse with little or human intervention.  We’re also adding new functionality to our upgraded website and building additional websites designed to enhance our customer service.


It’s been an astonishing ride filled with Plenty of highs and lows.  Highlights to date have included winning four industry awards; Supplier of the Year, two Toy of Year awards and more recently Best Stand at the annual industry Toy Fair.  We’ve also watched sales double and at least one of our brands establish itself as an emerging market leader.

However, perhaps the most transformative change in recent times has been the much-anticipated appointment of a part-time business manager.  Sue has come up to speed quickly.  In her first three months she’s progressively freed Garry and I from an increasing array of administrative tasks.  We’ve suddenly found ourselves with free evenings and weekends; along with the ability to finally plan a few business trips and vacations that were previously impossible to take without closing the office.

Qantas must love us!  Over the next seven months we have no fewer than six trips scheduled.  This includes a ten-day business trip to San Francisco to meet with two of our largest suppliers, a week’s vacation in Fiji to celebrate Garry’s 50th birthday and a Christmas vacation in New Zealand. We also have our regular trip to Melbourne in August where we exhibit at an annual Gift Fair, plus flights to Hong Kong for its annual toy fair and our annual trek to Nuremberg, Germany in January next year to meet with our suppliers.

Our trip to Nuremberg next year has been routed via London.  This gives us an opportunity to attend the London Toy Fair and hold planning meetings with one of our key suppliers.  We’ll be flying on the new non-stop Qantas route from Perth to London in its uber comfortable Dreamliner.  Then while on our way to Nuremberg we’re spending a weekend in Krakow, Poland.  This will give us an opportunity to experience firsthand the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.


This flying visit to Poland, and our week in Fiji, will add another two countries to my travel map and bring my count to 70 countries (if you include three very fleeting visits to countries where we briefly crossed the border but didn’t stop for more than a few minutes).  Garry worked out that by Christmas both of us will have done enough travel to finally renew our Platinium status with Qantas.  It's been more than five years since I lost my Platinum status and even longer for Garry.  Garry recently celebrated achieving lifetime Gold status with Qantas, a milestone I achieved several years ago.

While in New Zealand for Christmas we're planning a week-long road trip through the Taranaki region.  This will be my first visit to the area.  Once completed I'll have effectively visited every corner of the country for the first time in my life (with the exception of Stewart Island - which is on my travel bucket list!).  Finally, we're taking a weekend off while in San Francisco to spend a few days trekking through the Redwood Forests of Northern California.  We drove through the area without stopping six years ago so it will be fun to spend quality time among the forest giants.

After three years of hard slog its wonderful to finally find ourselves with the time and flexibility to travel again.  Thank you Sue!  Long may it last!

Saturday, April 14

Back in the Mount


Garry and I recently appointed a part-time office manager. Sue is proving to be a godsend. As she's come up to speed we've suddenly found ourselves with time to spare at the weekend - and even better - greater flexibility to take time off or plan a vacation.

I took advantage of this change in the business to fly back to New Zealand for Easter. Sue's appointment meant that I could fly on dates with cheaper airfares and not worry about leaving Garry to fend for himself in the office.


The Mount put on a spectacular display of warm weather. Mum and I took advantage of this one afternoon with a leisurely walk around the Mount. We also walked out to the headlands of Moturiki Island, a small island located off Mount Maunganui's main beach. The island has gone through several transforms since the first humans arrived.

It began life as a Maori Pa. European settlers then opened a quarry on its western flank before the abandoned pit was transformed into a small marine park housing penguins, seals and dolphins. I recall spending many fun afternoons here as a child watching the animals perform tricks for an appreciative audience. Today, Marineland is gone and the area has been restored as a nature reserve with bush walks and grassy picnic spots.

Saturday, March 10

Mountain high. Fjord below.


Our final day in Khasab was spent driving through the dramatic Hajar Mountains that separate Musandam from the United Arab Emirates.  Our half day excursion saw us travel by 4-wheel cars up winding gravel roads until we reached Jebel Al Harim, the highest mountain peak of the Musandam Peninsula.  Our tour stopped short of the summit soaring 2,087 meters above the sea level. The summit is home to yet another of the area’s ubiquitous military listening posts and thus out of bounds for tourists.


The journey through the mountains was without doubt truly spectacular.  The view as we ascended simply grew ever more breath-taking as we rounded each hairpin turn.  Along the way we witnessed goats defying gravity on the cliff faces while catching tantalising glimpses of rural life. 


Highlights included a brief stop to view the Bedouin village of Sayh. Situated at 1100 meters above the sea level Sayh is a small and peaceful village nestled on a mountain plateau that forms a surprisingly green oasis in the dry and harsh terrain. 


We also stopped in the shadows of Jabel Harim around 1600 meters above sea level to view an expanse of fossils dating back several million years.  It was extraordinary to see dozens and dozens of these ancient shellfish encased rock after rock at such altitude.

The tour ended with a drive to the eastern coast of Musandam.  Here we visited a narrow lookout that revealed the azure blue waters of Khawr Najid, perhaps the most stunning of the region’s fjords. Without doubt we’d saved the best view for last. Khawr Najid proved the perfect end to an adventurous weekend.  We drove back to Dubai that afternoon and flew out early the following morning for Frankfurt and a frantic week of business meetings.


Tuesday, February 20

Tent Pegging - but not as you know it


Every so often Garry and I get lucky in our travels and find ourselves in town during a festive occasion.  Perhaps the most memorable of these was in Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  The day we arrived the town was celebrating its annual festival day with parades, processions and thousands of colourfully dressed locals dancing in the streets.


During our recent weekend excursion to Khasab we found ourselves staying at the Atana Hotel whilst it was hosting an international sporting event.  However, this was no ordinary event.  By chance we'd stumbled upon the world’s first International Women's Tent Pegging Championship. What’s that you ask?  We honestly had to Goggle it ourselves.

The competition involved a series of action-packed horse-riding events hosted on a beach near the hotel.  A temporary stand had been erected in front of a sandy track that ran along the shoreline.  From a boat offshore we watched competitors racing down the track while attempting to be the first to spear or capture targets in the sand.


Competitors from six nations participated in the three-day event including a contingent from Australia.  It was quite a surprise to see the Australian flag fluttering away on a beach in northern Oman.  The Australians came second, beaten only by the South Africans. Who knew Australian women were among the world’s best tent peggers?


Sunday, February 18

Kumzar


Our second day in the Musandam region was spent on a private day trip to the remote village of Kumzar. This delightful little village is perched in solitary splendour at the northernmost tip of Musandam, hemmed in by sheer mountains and accessible only by a 2.5 hour boat trip. Garry and I spent 45 minutes visiting the town with our guide while our boat captain waited offshore.

Until 2015 tourists were prohibited from coming ashore making this a truly unique destination.  I was keen to visit simply because it looked postcard perfect online. I also loved the idea of somewhere unspoilt by hordes of day-tripping tourists. However, the more I read about the town the more fascinating it became.


Geographically, Kumzar is a paradox. By land, this is one of the most remote and inaccessible settlements in Oman. By sea, however, the town overlooks the Straits of Hormuz, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Its unique location has created some fascinating cultural quirks that make Kumzar unlike any other place in Oman. 

The locals speak their own unique language called Kumzari. They trace their ancestry back to a hotchpotch of ethnic groups ranging from Yemeni to Zanzibari.  The 700-year-old village is also said to have become home for European and Indian sailors shipwrecked off the nearby coast.

Kumzar’s population currently stands at around 5000, with its own school, hospital, power station and desalination plant. The inhabitants live largely by fishing for nine months of the year, netting barracuda, tuna, kingfish and hammour (much of which ends up in the restaurants of Dubai).  During the scorching Summer months locals retreat to a second home in Khasab.


The ride to Kumzar was almost worth the entire journey itself.  We cruised past the magnificent sea cliffs that fringe the coast, past the entrance to the fine Khor Ghob Ali, and then Goat Island (Jazirat al Ghanim), ringed with fluted limestone cliffs. 

In the past, local Kumzaris would often bring their sheep and goats across to Goat island by boat to graze, given the lack of suitable pastureland around Kumzar itself. Today much of the island is out of bounds. Its northern headland is populated by military buildings housing a growing array of sophisticated electronic surveillance technology.

Beyond Goat Island you enter the Straits of Hormuz, with magnificent seascapes, craggy headlands and a considerable number of oil tankers.  It’s here that we passed through a narrow strait where three rocky islands collectively known as the Jazirat Salamah form the most northerly piece of Omani territory. We also saw the UK’s Royal Navy on patrol.


Ten minutes or so later we rounded a final headland and got our first glimpse of Kumzar, with its colourful huddle of buildings backed up against a sheer wall of mountains behind it. Space is very much at a premium here. Buildings crowd together.  The main street is effectively a wadi flood channel with houses perched on the highest points of the surrounding gravel beds.  

The town even has its own distinct urban zones.  Lots closest to the cliff face are reserved for dozens and dozens of goat sheds, the centre of town houses the inhabitants and the pebble beach foreshore is home to a handful of stores and cafes where the locals congregate for an afternoon of sweet tea and gossip.


Three highlights stood out from our day trip.  The first was the town's children.  They followed us everywhere we went.  One small boy dashed off suddenly only to reappear a few minutes later carrying a baby goat that was almost as big as he was. It was clearly his pride and joy.  Our guide subsequently encouraged us to buy a large bag of chocolates which we then proceeded to hand out as we walked through the town's narrow, gravel-paved alleyways.


The second highlight was an opportunity to witness Iranian smugglers racing across the Gulf in powerful speedboats.  Every day dozens of boats make their way to Khasab to load up on contraband in a brazen display of contempt for international sanctions. However, the Omanis demand that they vacate the port before sunset resulting in whitewater armada of speedboats racing from the town at the same time each day. We later learnt that smugglers are granted a 12-hour pass to visit but aren’t allowed further into town than the Old Souk.

The final highlight was rather more terrifying.  We'd made our way up the coast in a local dhowl boat in relatively calm seas.  However, as we round the northern headlands for home we discovered the Gulf had been transformed into a roiling sea covered in white-capped waves.  It took us almost four hours to return to port riding up and down the surging waves.  I valiantly locked my eyes on a relatively stable horizon and quietly prayed that I wouldn't get seasick. Fortunately my stomach held out as we gained an unexpected insight into the perils of sailing in the Persian Gulf.

Musandam Dreams


 I’ve had a dream list of travel destinations filed away for many years.  It includes a standard list of countries and territories I’ve yet to visit, along with a few more obscure and unusual places that have captured my imagination.  This second, more exotic list features places like Palau’s jellyfish lake and Scotia, an island off the coast of Yemen renowned for its unusual Dragon’s Blood trees.

Another exotic locations on the list include the fjords of Musandam, Oman.  Its craggy peninsulas sit isolated from the rest of Oman by the United Arab Emirates.  They form the southern coast of the politically sensitive Strait of Hormuz.  Years ago I read a fascinating blog post by a sailor who’d wound his way along the region’s stark and rugged coastline. 

We spent a long weekend in Musandam while on our annual pilgrimage to the Nuremberg toy fair.  The break was a perfect way to celebrate an Australia Day weekend and enjoy a little fresh air before a hectic week of back to back business meetings.  The experience didn’t disappoint.  It was well worth the effort.


We were picked up by our tour operator’s transfer bus at 6:00am.  A two-hour drive north soon saw us crossing the Oman border.  At this point the road began winding and weaving its way along the shores of the Persian Gulf before finally arriving in the compact, regional capital of Khasab.  This town is home to 18,000 people nestled in a broad valley carved between the majestic hajr mountains.

Our first day was spent touring the Musandam fjords.  Our tour operator had its largest boat on the water. It included a second deck that offered an elevated, open-air viewing platform.  This gave us an opportunity to soak in the scene from every direction.  This vantage point proved invaluable for watching dolphins frolicking in the boat’s wave.


The Omani fjords are truly awe-inspiring.  Unlike those of Norway or New Zealand these waterways aren’t surrounded by lush greenery.  Instead, their crystal clear waters reflect towering peaks of barren, parched sedimentary rock.  This is the Middle East after all and this is a region where the average temperature year round never falls below 23C. 

I had worried that the lack of vegetation might make the cruise a little tedious after the first hour. However, nothing could be further from the truth.  The stark beauty of the region was truly mezmerising.  We spent most the day cruising the  Khawr Shamm. At 16 kilometers the Khawr Shamm is the longest fjord in Musandam. Its imposing – up to 1000 meter high – cliff walls, the small islands and peninsulas and five remote villages can only be reached by boat.


Perhaps the most fascinating highlight of the day was Telegraph Isaland. Located in the middle of Khawr Shamm this small, flat island’s most notable feature are crumbling walls that support a wide gravel platform.  This is all that’s left of a British telegraph station, meant to protect the new telegraph cable between India and England.

Only five years after going into service in 1864 it was abandoned. In summer, in the time before air conditioning, the hellish heat and the high humidity proved unbearable for Europeans. The local population was also hostile both to the British and to their new technology.

Our day finished on a wonderful high note.  As we cruised back to Khasab we watched other boats constantly racing at speed through the midst of dolphin pods. At first we thought local tour operators were simply abusing the wildlife in pursuit of perfect photo opportunities for the tourists onboard. 


However, we soon discovered that the boats were doing this because the dolphins actually enjoy surfing in their bow wake. The animals love jumping and frolicking in the waves, often following a boat for hundreds of metres at a time.  Our boat spent almost an hour playing with them.  At one point we witnessed a family of dolphins, including a cute little baby, leaping and torpedoing through the water as our boat barrelled down the fjord.


We ended our day with a private speedboat transfer to an overnight beach camp.  Here we slept in tents on the beach surrounded by craggy cliffs in a quiet cove of the Persian Gulf.  It was truly an escape from the pressures of modern life.  Here the only stress was caused by a cheeky herd of wild goats hell bent on finding any scrap of food left over from our fireside BBQ dinner.  However, when dawn broke the following morning they'd disappeared leaving us in blissful solitude.