Wednesday, December 31

Forts, forts, forts

Oman has 1,700 kms of coastline, tracing one of the most lucrative trading routes between Europe and India. To protect this vast area from the ever present threat of invasion, Oman progressively built more than 500 forts, castles and watch towers – often more than once. Many of the nation’s surviving structures rest on the foundations of earlier fortifications. While the architectural style varies, most have a common theme of distinctive circular towers.

Not surprisingly, these buildings often became the seats of administrative and judicial authority in the immediate area. Today, many of the forts remain the focal point of local towns. Inland they were often surrounded by lush date plantations offering both food for the local and a disruptive defense against invasion. Since his ascendancy, Sultan Qaboos bin Said has funded a national restoration program for more than 60 forts. Many are now museums, open to the public for a surprisingly small entry fee of less than a pound.

On our last day in Oman Garry and I decided to complete a popular circuit of four such forts north of Muscat. We made our way 100kms along the coast before heading inland to our first destination, Al Hazm Castle. Much of the drive was along wide, straight dual-carriageways; often lined by trees and decorated with colourful flower beds. It took just over an hour to reach Al Hazm, a quiet town nestled in the midst of a large date plantation, surrounded by almost barren, rocky plains.

Al Hazm Castle was built by Iman Sultan bin Self the Second in 1711. So closely was he associated with this building that his tomb was eventually housed inside. Like all of the castles we visited, it was constructed from local stone that was then surfaced by a brown concrete-like render. Unfortunately, it was closed for further restoration the day we visited. I had hoped to see the artillery museum inside which has cannons dating from 1550. Instead we had to satisfy ourselves with a glimpse of cannon barrels protruding from its circular citadel.

Fifteen minutes further inland was our next stop, the impressive Rustaq Fort. This imposing structure sits on a low mound in the shadows of the Jebel Akhdar, part of Oman’s Al Hajar mountain range. The highest point, Jabal Shams (the mountain of the sun), around 3,000 metres (around 9,800 feet) high is near by. Rustaq Fort is considered one of the nation’s oldest, tallest and best preserved forts. It first structure was built around 600AD and, much like Hazm, is surrounded by an extensive date plantation.

The present structure is the result of reconstruction by the first Imam of the Al-Ya'aruba dynasty between 1624 and1649, when Ar-Rustaq was established as the capital of a united Oman. During this period several impressive watch towers were added to create the complex you see today. However, the oldest tower, an oval-shaped structure known as the Tower of Kisra, was built by the Persians in the 6th century. It’s named after their leader Khisro Anu Sharwan.

Despite its fame, we had the entire complex almost to ourselves when we arrived. This gave us an opportunity to take dozens of photos without a single tourist in sight. The fort itself is entered via a small inner door set into a large, impenetrable wooden gate. As you step across the threshold you’re instantly taken back in time.

From here we made our way past the falaj (or stream) that supplies the complex with fresh water to a small courtyard where a long, narrow stone stairway provides access to its upper reaches. We spent an enjoyable hour exploring the fort’s interior, visiting a remarkable cannon room and clambering over its impressive fortifications, including each of the watch towers.

From Rustaq we made our way to Nakhal, 50km south. This also marked the start of our journey back towards Muscat. For much of its length the road traced the banks of dry gravel river bed, slowly winding its way through stark, rocky foothills. This gave a wonderful sense of how harsh long-distance travel must have been in previous centuries. It also became clear why some many of Oman’s forts sit inland as our route passed a number of wadis, or streams, nestled in the mountain shadows. Travel by land clearly followed these scarce water sources thus encouraging construction of the forts we were visiting.

Nakhal Fort dates from the pre-Islamic era, and underwent significant renovation in the 9th and 16th centuries during the reigns of Bani Kharous and the Al-Ya'aruba imams respectively. It was built on a rocky outcrop that sits above the local town and the ever present date plantation.

This prominent location makes Nakhal all the more impressive as you approach. It literally looms over the surrounding area, rising 200 metres above the surrounding area. Surprisingly, the main road to the fort crosses an empty river bed without any protective structures. Clearly it rarely sees any water flow and thus doesn’t justify more hardy foundations.

Much like Rustaq, we were among the only people visiting. We saw perhaps a dozen people during the hour spent wandering the forts many battlements and towers. However, as we departed a tourist convey of four-wheel drive vehicles came roaring by. We’d clearly timed our visit to perfection.

From Nakhal we made our way back to the coast and on to Muscat. We stopped briefly in the seaside village of Barka to see its impressive fort located on the shore of the Gulf of Oman. Unfortunately it was closed. I later learnt that inscription inside this fort record the name of Ahmad bin Said, the first imam of the Al-Bu Said dynasty, and victor of Oman's final battle against the Persians. While in Barka we drove along the shore past simple brown brick huts and fishing boats. The poverty of the local people was evident, a striking contrast to the clean white buildings we’d seen in Muscat all week.

Tuesday, December 30


Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said ascended to the throne of Oman in 1970. He swiftly laid out plans to modernize Oman without destroying its culture or character. Incredibly, the sultan’s program has worked. Muscat is very much a modern city with excellent infrastructure; highways, malls and modern conveniences. However, it’s retained a wonderfully sleepy feel.

After six days lounging and dozing by the hotel pool, Garry and I felt it was time to explore our surroundings. We hired a car for our final two days in Oman, spending the first day touring Muscat and the second venturing out into the dusty countryside to see several stunning forts. This post and the one that follows capture the highlights of our touring.

Muscat looks and feels like an urban postcard from the Sixties. While the city’s infrastructure is modern and efficient, its overall profile maintains a slightly dated look. Take the waterfront district of Mutrah as an example. Nestled in a sheltered bay, this laid-back commercial district has been Muscat’s trading hub for hundreds of years. However, much of its current infrastructure was built in 1974 as part of the Sultan’s moderisation program. Little seems to have changed since.

The port itself relatively low-key, with a curving harbor promenade providing a simple, uncluttered backdrop. Low-profile, white buildings line the sleepy waterfront, or Corniche as its known, while a dramatic stone fort maintains a silent vigil from a rocky hillside overlooking the harbour. In fact, stone watch towers and forts are everywhere in Muscat.

As we wandered along the foreshore were stunned by the clarity of the water and the overwhelming abundance of fish - of every variety including colourful tropical fish I've only ever seen on coral reefs. However, its the sultan’s enormous sand-coloured luxury yacht that dominates the scene, in striking contrast to a couple of classic wooden dhows anchored nearby.

While in Mutrah we also visited it’s famous Suq, or market. Spices, silks, traditional coffee pots and other merchandise filled its stalls, along with the cheap tourist clutter you find everywhere. Sadly, the neighbouring Gold Suq was closed. Perhaps the most memorable shop we discovered was one selling antique firearms, silverware and other classic items.

Our next stop was Riyam Park. Here a peace treaty was signed in 1648by the Portuguese during their final year of occupation. The park is dominated by a giant white observation tower in the shape of a traditional incense burner. Unfortunately the park wasn’t open. For some odd reason its opening hours were listed as 4.00pm to 8.00pm; yet another example of Muscat’s wonderfully sleepy feel.

We made our way around the headland to Old Muscat. Here a ring of mountains surrounds a narrow bay. Each side of the bay is protected by 16th Century fort; Mirani and Jalali. Both were restored by the current Sultan whose colourful Al-Alam palace dominates the harbourfront. It was here we also came across the only crowd we saw all day. Busloads of tourists were being escorted along the grand ceremonial piazza that leads to the locked Palace gates.

From old Muscat we drove along the coast through picture-perfect villages set in quite ocean bays, framed by barren, rocky hills. We soon came upon Al Bustan Palace, an opulent five-star hotel built in 1985 for a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. The hotel sits on its own private beachfront, surrounded by lush date plantation.

The GCC consists of five Gulf States who’ve committed themselves to the creation of regional common market and single currency modeled on the European Union. In an ironic twist, the latest GCC summit opened at the same venue yesterday. This also led to several major road closures, an act that encouraged Garry and I to get out of town for the day. You can about our tour of classic Omani forts in my next post.

Friday, December 26

Christmas in Oman

Four days have flown by since our arrival in Oman. The weather has been unrelentingly glorious, throwing up day after day of cloudless blue sky and warm temperatures in the mid-20s. We’ve spent most of our time crashed out by the hotel pool, napping in the sun and ordering the occasional cocktail. In fact we’ve yet to leave the hotel grounds.

Our hotel is wonderful. It sits on a the edge of an almost vacant beach front, surrounded by simple, low-profile white buildings that stretch as far as the eye can see along an uncluttered coastline. All of Muscat seems to consist of white, low-profile buildings; neatly framed by a coastal range of stark, barren mountains. As I type, the local mosque is calling for evening prayer as a golden sun slowly sets.

Muscat is a rare find. I don’t think we could have chosen a better place to unwind. The overall impression here is that of a sleepy seaside town; one spared the character destroying over-development so common along the English Channel coast or anywhere along the Mediterranean. At times Oman feels so removed from reality that it's almost a caricature. It’s as if we’ve stepped into the pages of a classic Tintin comic book. Yet the buildings really are white, capped by jagged battlements, and the locals really are walking around in crisp, clean, white disdashas robes and red-check Gotra headgear.

Today, we spent Christmas with 500 other guests enjoying a sumptuous outdoor Christmas buffet. The entire central lawn of our hotel was given over to decorated tables and buffet stations offering roasted meat of all forms, salads and some of the most exotic dishes I’ve ever seen. Roast Wild Boar or Guinea Fowl anyone? In keeping with Australian tradition, after lunch, we wandered down to the beach for a quick paddle in the sea. Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, December 24

Feeling under the weather

Britain is in the midst of the worst influenza outbreak in more than a decade. I should know. I spent the week before Christmas holed up in bed feeling absolutely rotten. It took six days before I began feeling better, literally the day before we flew to Oman. In the past 10 years, the only substantial outbreak was in 1999-2000; at least until now.

As of December 23, the overall infection rate from the H3N2 strain of the influenza virus stood at 39 cases per 100,000 people within the general population. Figures released yesterday show a 75 per cent rise in people consulting doctors with flu-like symptoms compared with the previous week. The rate has leapt from 39.5 consultations per 100,000 of the population on 14 December to 69 consultations yesterday.

The UK Health Protection Agency said this week that young people are currently being struck down with the flu at three times the rate of their elders. For every 100,000 people aged 15 to 44, at least 54.4 of them have the flu, compared with 18 cases for the same number of people aged over 65. Scientists believe the higher incident of infected young people reflects a continuning Government focus on flu vacination for people over 65.

This makes sense as I certainly didn't have a flu shot this year. Until now I'd been skeptical that immunisation was worth the effort. It had been more than a decade since my last serious bout of flu. I'm not so skeptical now after feeling terribly ill for almost a week. The current outbreak is not expected to peak for another four weeks. I'm glad I'm now immune!

Saturday, December 20

Here comes the sun

We’re off to Oman in the morning. I’ve been doing a little research in preparation, trying to learn more about this exotic location. If I’m honest, we selected Muscat because it was likely to be warm and could be included on the annual round-the-world tickets we’ve been buying. Our flight with British Airways is actually an extension of it direct flight to Abu Dhabi. Beyond these facts, Oman was a blank page.

I've been surpised to learn that, unlike so many other Middle East nations, the Sultanate of Oman has been self-governing for more than 250 years. Its ruling Sultans trace their origin back to 1741 when a group of invading Yemeni tribesmen defeated the incumbent Al-Yarubi dynasty. This earlier dynasty had in turn replaced the Portuguese who’d occupied Muscat and the surrounding area for 140 years.

The Portuguese arrived shortly after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India in 1498. This new, lucrative trade had to be protected. Muscat was seized less than nine year after da Gama returned to Lisbon. A large, fortified city rapidly took shape. More fortification spread along much of the rugged Omani coastline in the centuries that followed. Today its coast is dotted by numerous large, imposing stone forts. We’re hoping to see a few of them ourselves over the next week or so.

Muscat is by far the nation’s largest urban centre, with approximately 700,000 people in the surrounding area. Almost all of the nation’s wealth is founded on oil. However, the nation’s reserves aren’t substantial resulting in efforts to develop an alternative economic base. Tourism has been targeted for development. However, unlike its glitzy neighbour, Dubai, Oman is actively courting a more upmarket crowd. This was very much evident when I began researching hotels for our vacation. Most venues were five-star establishments, with service and prices to match.

Perhaps the most legendary of the nation’s hotel is Al-Bustan Palace, set in its own secluded cove surrounded by stunning, stark and barren mountains (see the image above). The hotel was originally built to host a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in 1985. Last week it completed a massive refurbishment that had seen it close down for more than a year.

I naively assumed they might be offering bargain rates in an attempt to rebuild lost trade. Imagine my horror when I discovered the cheapest room was at least £315/night. No bargain there! We eventually secured a hotel in town offering a seaview room with breakfast, afternoon canapes and other delights for significantly less.

The weather looks promising. We’ll arrive to a temperature of 22°C, which is forecast to rise steadily throughout the week to a high of 26°C by the time we leave. Overnight lows will dip to 20°C. The forecast chart also shows a continuous row of sunshine for ten days. I couldn’t think of anything better! We’ve had cold, drab, damp weather for much of this week in London. Who wants to put money on our vacation being extended after we arrive?

Friday, December 19

How cold is cold?

We had a plumber spend four hours trying to fix our central heating system today without luck. What started as a simple job to replace a leaking valve has resulted in us needing an entirely new boiler. This won't be available until December 24. As a result, we're stuck with life in a cold house until we go away on Sunday. Fortunately, the plumber has promised to replace our boiler while we're gone.

I've also had a terrible dose of flu since Monday. As a result I've been holed up at home feeling rather sore and sad. Sitting in a cold house feeling ill certainly isn't my idea of a fun time. Roll on Oman I say!

Our new boiler was successfully installed. We now have oodles of central heating again. We also think our heating system has been working overtime for the last couple of years thanks to the slow leaks and low pressure in the system. We suspect this had a lot to do with the incredibly high gas bills we've had for the last couple of winters.

Sunday, December 14

Year Four begins

Today marks the start of our fourth year in London. How swiftly the previous three have passed. As Garry remarked last night, “it feels like we’ve been here forever”. I have to agree. As each year passes it gets harder to recall the details of our life in Sydney. Only the relentless cold weather and regular mortgage payments reminds me of all that we’re missing.

To celebrate our third anniversary we caught the tube into town for another meal at The Living Room last night. Unfortunately the food and service wasn’t as impressive as our first visit. The streets were full despite the incessant drizzle and a surprising number of stores were still open.

Even more surprising was the number of stores offering large discounts less than two weeks before Christmas. Several had 20%, or even 40%, off everything in stock. Last year, offering a 40% discount before Christmas would have would have had you locked up in an institution. How times have changed.

Three years ago we arrived in London as its booming economy began overheating. The talk then was of personal wealth and indulgent leisure. Today the signs of a serious recession are everywhere. The Bank of England has cut interest rates to 2%, while the Pound rapidly approaches parity with the Euro.

The official exchange rate hit £1.00 = €1.11 last week. However several exchange counters at airports and rail stations now offer a rate of one to one. Today’s headlines also include talk of unemployment benefit claimants passing one million before Christmas. A year ago the rate had fallen to 794,900 (2.5% of the workforce).

Fortunately full employment continues in our household. Garry’s contract has been renewed for another six months until May 2009. The project he’s involved with has at least another two years to run and would currently cost more to halt than it would to complete. As for me, I’m as busy as ever, but travelling far less. My next business trip isn’t scheduled until February. It seems that recession is the ideal antidote for reducing your carbon footprint.

This afternoon Garry and I went for a late lunch at Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK). Our meal brought back memories of our first lunch in London three years ago. As we waited for our serviced apartment to be readied, we ventured down the road for lunch at a local gourmet burger joint. This was our first experience of London prices.

Little has changed other than our immunity to sticker shock. Today my buffalo meat burger cost £9.80, plus a few pounds more a drink and side order of fries. I was curious to try Buffalo (delicious) but dread the thought of converting its price to Australian dollars.

Cold, wet and in the dark

We witnessed the earliest sunset of the year last night. At 3.50pm the sun set in London. As a result the sun was below the horizon for at least 16 hours yesterday. This event always happens every year just before the winter solstice (December 21 this year). I noticed this afternoon how dark it got when I went out shortly after 4pm. As I collected the weekly dry-cleaning I literally had to remind myself this really wasn’t a late-night shopping experience.

We also had a roofer inspect the slow leak in the spare bedroom on Friday. It’s taken four months for the landlord to finally take some action. His visit was well timed as we’ve endured a day of non-stop drizzle resulting in the appearance of a regular drip. We have buckets catching regular drops at the head of our spare bed. I guess it’s one of hidden costs to living in a heritage conservation area. These old buildings are impressive but do require regular maintenance.

Aside from the rain, it’s been a particularly cold winter so far. In November our average maximum temperature was the lowest that it had been for at least a decade. Today’s maximum temperature was a chilly 5°C with similar temperatures predicted for the next five days. Roll on Oman!

Wednesday, December 10

Friends for Christmas

We had a group of friends over for Christmas drinks and dinner on Saturday. Garry decided to go for a more casual affair this year. Instead of a more formal sit-down meal at the dining table we elected to serve a series of finger-food courses. This alternative menu went down a treat.

We started the evening with champagne and our famous cheeseboard, an anti-pasta platter and raw vegetable sticks. This was followed by a sushi platter before serving a course of hot food. Garry baked plenty of chicken wings and ribs, along with mini quiches and satay sticks. My favourite were some Thai fish cakes we found. Really spicy and full of flavour!

Regent Street closed for Christmas shoppers last weekend

We ventured out into Oxford Street to make our final dinner purchases about 4pm. The Council had closed the street for pedestrian use, encouraging more than 1.5 million people to come in to town. Don't ask how difficult it is to find peanut satay sauce in London! I tried three stores before finally purchasing tiny tubs being served at an Asian takeaway counter in Seffridges Department Store.

Our dinner party was completed with a desert of mint ice-cream, fresh fruit salad and profiteroles loaded with delicious Bailey's Irish Cream filling. Yum! The evening was completed by coffee and chocolates. Five finger food courses in total. Needless to say, we had far too much food. Sunday's meals consisted of leftovers.

Saturday, December 6

Water tight at last

Our Sydney apartment is finally water tight. After more than four years of work locating and repairing leaks we’ve been advised that the work has finished. Earlier this month replacement carpet was installed. Getting everything to this point has been an excruciating process. Years of chasing the developer and strata managers, while watching endless attempts to identify and repair leaks had left me wondering if we’d bought a lemon.

At the time we purchased the property (five years ago next month), we knew we had a problem in the main bedroom. However, within a year of moving in, we encountered new leaks on the opposite side of the building. In the years since at least three separate faults had been found and rectified. In fact, when I inspected the apartment last April I was astounded by how extensive the repairs had been. In many respects, I’m relieved we weren’t living there. I’m sure the disruption would have driven Garry insane.

The first leak five years ago

First, we endured a torturous process to secure the developer’s agreement to pay its share of the replacement carpet cost. They’d originally agreed to do this. However, leak repairs took so long that the building was no longer covered by a statutory warranty and thus a dispute over who was responsible for which cost. In New South Wales, the developer remains liable for the repair of structural flaws for six years after completion. We bought the apartment at the end of its fourth year.

Securing insurance for the damaged carpet was an equal nightmare. Our first attempt to process a claim coincided with some of the worst flooding New South Wales had seen in a decade. It was almost impossible to get through to an agent for weeks on end, compounded by the tyranny of time zones. After finally making contact we were told our policy wouldn’t cover the damage. Garry had the decision successfully reversed after yet another round of calls.

Finally, selecting the correct carpet was also fraught with problems. The length of the entire process meant that carpet samples we’d viewed three years ago differed from those quoted on for insurance purposes. Weeks of frustrating emails and late night calls were required to finally agree on the style, quality and composition of the replacement carpet. We eventually selected a light dusty brown shade called Nutmeg. Yesterday we heard that it’s all been laid and everyone is happy.

Five years after we first discovered the first bedroom leak our apartment is finally water-tight. Long may it last!

Tuesday, December 2

The festive way

It's December, which officially makes it Christmas season in my books. Over the weekend Garry and I decorated the house with all the usual festive trimmings, as well as erecting our well-worn David Jones Christmas tree. We gave the tree a bit of an update this year by splashing out on some funky blue lights and some sparkly new ornaments. The tree looks better than ever.

Next weekend we have a swarm of friends coming over for Christmas dinner. This offers a great excuse to drag out the famous oak-barrel cheese-board and uncorked a few cellared wines. It's going to be a long night. We've also started counting down to Oman - only 21 days to go!