Stuck in Oman

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They say that cruising is all about fixing boats in exotic locations…


We arrived at the port of Salalah in Oman after a very uneventful crossing from Maldives. It had been interesting hearing the radio talk from shipping traffic evading pirates and observing the ships as they prepared to enter the Gulf of Aden ‘safe corridor’. From hundreds of miles out they were running without lights, AIS, or radar, -pirates were foremost on everyone’s minds, we had to keep our eyes open, not only to avoid the baddies but freighters as well!
But the trip was too uneventful from the sailing point of view, not enough wind and an often contrary current meant we had to do a lot of motoring. However, we arrived at Salalah 10 days after leaving the Maldives, happy to be there and we thought, -unscathed.
That is, until I checked the saildrive and found that instead of oil we had we now had rather weak looking mayonnaise, -a water/oil mix…bugger!
That usually means leaking bottom seals around the propeller shaft. Although they were relatively new, we had hit something on the way over so suspected we might have caught up some line on the prop shaft to do damage.


We arranged a quick lift-out with one of the ENORMOUS container cranes here, (poor QV, she did look helpless, dangling on the end of a very long string), we replaced the seals, it all went well, and the lift-out was very professionally done. Mr Hatim, the Operations manager of GCT, the crane company,  has a ‘can-do’ approach!
It was a little disconcerting that when I replaced them, the seals had seemed OK, I wondered at the time, but as all seemed well after a few days here, we joined a group of other boats in an anti-pirate convoy and headed off down to Yemen, -motoring of course!





Unfortunately, at our first stop, Nishtun, after just 30 hours of engine running, the oil was clearly getting milky again… many, many BUGGERS!!!
We had the dilemma then of what best to do, -we could carry on, which would inevitably mean motoring for several hundreds of nautical miles, if neccessary, changing the oil from time to time, but not being certain what the problem was; would it get worse? would there be repair facilities in Aden?, -or would we have to go to Egypt? -which might be even worse for getting things done professionally… we returned to Salalah.
We are now planning to replace the whole lower part of the saildrive, from the diaphragms down, the parts are on order from Singapore.
There’s virtually no chance now of us continuing on this year, the last of the yachts have gone through, the winds have changed to southwesterly, so it’ll be December before we can consider sailing again.
We looked at the other option of taking a piggy-back ride on a container ship to Suez or the eastern Med; but as the quotes are $US44000 and $US64000, we’ll be waiting!
Initially we had been keen to go to the marina in Muscat, but it is 600 nm each way, full, extremely hot over summer and doesn’t like live-aboards, -it’s also prohibitively expensive.
Leaving the boat here, stripped and covered, on the dock until December is a ready solution and they tell us that most seasons there are several boats elect to do so. Staying in the water is not practical. On the hard however, the security is good, police and Navy are right alongside, it is a dry climate, so there shouldn’t be too much harm come and it is also comparatively cheap. That’s easy and what we’ll almost certainly be doing.
We have an apartment and car organised for a month while we do the work, but beyond that, we don’t know. Living here won’t be hard, the supermarkets are of international standard and we have the Hilton to visit for good coffee and the internet. We have Mohammed to help us. He’s tall and black, has a big white-toothed smile and  wears a flowing spotlessly white dish-dash gown and white Muslim pill-box cap, -to him, nothing is a problem!

There are places to go, the surrounding desert is interesting and the beaches are delightful with white sand and clear water. (Sadly, it’s not so good for the cycling, -no-one does it, and Arab drivers in large Mercs are crazy!)
It will be an opportunity to travel to some places and see a lot more of the middle east than we expected, the Gulf states are not far away. There are numerous other possibilities too…especially flying out with a bike! And of course we will be able to have some time back in NZ, in winter, -to cool off a little…
Oman is actually a great country, we could be in a far worse place. It is hot, dry and very dusty, with many many camels.
Although not as so filthy rich from oil as it’s Gulf neighbours, it is still well off, the people are really nice and friendly, they couldn’t be more helpful. It has been a real surprise, -we expected far different from Arabs!
Salalah too is a nice town, a good mix of old and new with a comparatively cool climate. Although it is hot, dry and dusty now, over the summer it is cooler as there is more cloud, some light rain, and the hills go green, -we have that to look forward to, they say.


And who says Salalah is not a cruising destination? -there are cruise liners in once or twice a week and recently the Queen Mary 2 came and docked alongside us!
(Interesting too, though of no help to us this year, the owner of Abu Tig Marina in Egypt has his luxury motor-yacht at the dock right behind us, he’s in the process of developing a marina here, -north of Salalah, said to be opening next year).



It’s a very busy port, mainly with container ships, but we’re also surprised at the number of coalition warships who visit for bunkering, -between watches in the ‘piracy corridor’ of the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf.


In port right now too, is the brother of the Sultan of Dubai with his fleet of 6 ‘ships’, named Reem 1-6. Reem 1 and 2 are for his personal and guest accommodation; Reem 3-6 are dedicated toys and toy carriers, stacked with high speed fishing craft, water pleasure toys and everything else he and his guests might require on a holiday at sea for a week.
Disappointed as we were and hard as it is to see our friends going on; and hard too as it will be to fly out and leave QV for a few months, we intend to make the best of the unexpected change in plans. Anywhere else where we’ve been for the last 7 years this problem would not have caused the major upset in plans that it has here, we would have been able to lift out and repair readily or at least sail to somewhere we could do and not have had to miss a whole season, but that’s the tough luck of it!
Fortunately, we can still afford the inconvenience and time is not an issue.
We also have to admit, that we were not enjoying moving so far, so fast. Since leaving Phuket we’ve been uncomfortably rushed and regretting being unable to spend more time in the Andamans, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. We wish we knew then what we know now, -we’d have stayed much longer!
Moving so quickly is not Quo Vadis’ style, -a 9 month break in Salalah is much more like the way we do it!
The good news is that as we’ll be able to leave here for the Red Sea in December with the first of the north-east monsoon,  we’ll have a good 2 months head start on other boats leaving Thailand. It’s 600 miles to Aden then another 1000 to the Med, making it a comfortable year and enable us to enjoy the excellent cruising they all say is in the Red Sea, without rush.
So that’s where we’re at, and where we’ll be for a while. We’re beginning to look forward to the change of plan and what we can make of it…it’s not a bad place to be stuck!

Port Salalah:

Port Salalah, or Mina Raysut is about 20 km out of town.


It is a busy container port with big industrial developments such as a methanol plant being built nearby


and the container facility is growing;



as we saw when this rather top heavy ship-load of new container cranes from China slipped into the dock when Queen Mary 2 shipped out!


But the port not only serves big ships, in the basin where we are anchored there are local fishing boats and on the dock,



fishermen employed permanently mending drift-nets. There is quite a community of these and other workers resident within the dock gate security barriers. They don’t leave as to do so requires visas, so for their needs, there are good shops with a remarkably wide range of stock, 2 restaurants with cheap food, a Mosque


-and even soccer, -although on a somewhat dusty playing field…



These resident men are also crew off the small trading vessels that come here, they too, dock right alongside us in the anchorage basin and are often from Somalia or East Africa usually discharging cargoes of stock.



They’re brought here for local slaughter so are in good condition, but their handling in the Halal way is not always the most humane


as they are forcibly shoved and dragged out of the boats. I’ve seen cows being lifted from the hold by crane, -bent over like hairpins, limp and helpless, as they hang from a single rope around the girth…


…so I don’t believe this cattle handler would always be so caring! 

In spite of all this activity around the port, as ports go, it is comparatively clean, the water teeming with big fish and there is a large resident grandad turtle in the anchorage.

When we first came, the weather was cool, the little bit of wind was from the north, but when it blew up a little, as it came from over the desert we were in for a real dust storm.



 Visibility was greatly reduced, the sun just a light disc in the sky, we couldn’t see the other side of the harbour, -and the dust got into everything, -we had to keep the boat closed up and then after, it was a big clean-up job.
Now, the wind has gone around to the south-west, so comes off the sea, it is hotter, but far clearer, -we can see the hills again.
Just across the port road, the jebel, (the desert hills) begin.



It borders the sea with dramatic cliffs



but it’s proper desert right to the edge, with many camels


grazing on the sparse desert vegetation


which, despite the dryness, sometimes can be quite beautiful.


Further south, along the road to the Yemen border is the Mughsail Beach,


often popular, but deserted on this dusty day,


apart from the sardine fishermen. 


Further along, past a small, deserted, holiday village



are sea caves in the cliff side and blowholes, which for lack of swell, today are so umimpressive as to be quite safe even to stand astride without likelihood of getting wet!



Beyond there, the road climbs to 1000m or so, the geological formations are outstanding, as is the engineering to build the road. Although not busy, there has been no expense spared.


Southern Oman is frankincense country and this is an area where there are a lot of the trees.


Here, at this time of the year, their blossoms are being used for keeping bees, although the more usual product from the trees is the ‘frankincense’ of biblical times. After the bark is stripped, the sap is collected, mixed with wax so that it becomes a hard gum and it is fragrant when burned on a small charcoal burner, used to ward away evil spirits and mosquitos alike.



It’s a very rugged and little visited piece of shoreline and the constant dust cloud only enhances the barren desolation!
Any vegetation is very hardy and well adapted to dryness


such as the elephantine ‘desert rose’ with ‘water-tank’ roots,



or leathery leaves



and often fiercesome prickles to deter grazing camels!


On the plateau at 1000 metres altitude, the air is much clearer, cooler and it’s wilder looking than the wild west!


It’s dry and the conditions harsh, but there we came upon a nomadic camel dairy operation…





Salalah City:

Salalah itself is about 20 km from the port and it sprawls along a lot of coastline.


The town centre is very spread out, with large areas of open, rough, rocky and dusty gravel between roads and buildings, -they’re fine buildings showing great opulence, but driving even in the middle of town often requires off-road skills!



In the suburbs it is even more so. The houses are spaced widely, castle-like or palatial, ‘House and Garden’ quality, -but without the ‘garden’ -and surprisingly, no attempt to reduce the open expanses of dust (or on the rare occasion that it rains, mud) which must infiltrate everything in and about their homes.
For the main, the present town is not very old, it has grown recently with the oil prosperity of Oman
The oldest part however, the old fishing village, is along the beach,


which is a magnificent stretch of white sand and clear water.
Nearby there’s the souq, -the market, -for once, not a place for fruit and veg,


but to buy clothes or have shoes repaired,


buy perfumes, frankincense and the kit for its use



or arms…from interesting characters…

A little further north along the same beach is an archeological site, the ruins of Al Baleed, a town port founded in the 11th century AD, known then as Zafar and used for the shipping out of frankincense to India.



It has been extensively dug over, researched and is now preserved as an open park.
Attached to it is the ‘Museum of Frankincense Land’ -a very well funded and informative museum of the geography, history and sociology of Salalah and Oman.

The road northeast from Salalah along the coast is over desert flatlands at the feet of the hills of the Dhofar Range.


There are some very large private properties out there, with expansive gardens irrigated and green; there are also the occasional irrigated crops of corn, but these are rare patches of green, in the main, it is flat, dry and dusty.
It is along here that there is the large marina/resort development under construction.



…is the first town northeast of Salalah.


It is notable for its castles, fortified strongholds for families in the not too distant past and now open to public viewing.





It’s an interesting insight into the way the wealthy families could once live, cool and comfortable; and reassuring to see too that despite the external dusty drabness of their dwellings the interiors are brought alive with colour. (Judging by the  furnishings in Salalah shops now, they still like colour, but also plush to the extreme, -gilt, velvets, glitters and tassles aplenty -the antithesis of minimalism in household furnishing!) 



Beyond Taqah across a stretch of truly sandy desert, is Mirbat.


…which is an old seaport with a longer history, although the port still exists it has been overshadowed in importance by Salalah.


The town has contracted rather than grown over recent years, so although there are still many attractive old buildings, the merchant houses,  they are falling into disuse;




so much that the inner part of the town could be mistaken for a war zone…

(It was in fact the site of the ‘Battle of Mirbat’ during the Dhofari insurrection of the 1970s. I’m not clear yet as to whether the present ruins are the result of that or natural decay through disuse)  



A little out of town is the ancient Bin Ali Tomb and adjacent Muslim cemetery.



More than just for its obvious natural attractiveness and the setting, clearly it is a place of greater religious significance to those who know why.

Dhofar Range:

Behind the flat coastal desert of Salalah is the Dhofar Range.



 These hills rise precipitously to about 1000 metres, and although completely dry at this time of the year, for 2-3 months from June to August, even though there is little more than misty drizzle in Salalah, it rains up there and it all turns green.
It is from the oases in these hills that Salalah gets its year-round water supply; Wadi Darbat is one such place.


It’s not very green right now,


but when the rains come it all changes and this cliff edge, for a time, can become a waterfall.


In the meantime however, the trees



-and the animals, -just sit and wait…


Further up the wadi, there is still patchy freshwater in the riverbed, it’s a popular place for picknickers.
We are told that during all of July and August, the wet time, known as the Khareef, Arab tourists (those who cannot afford to go to Switzerland!) flock here to experience ‘green’. All accommodation in Salalah is then taken (at a greatly inflated price) and places such as this are busy with campers and picknickers, -despite the rain, mud and myriads of biting bugs!!



The hills of Dhofar are dotted with houses, hamlets and small towns, there’s a network of roads servicing them, -it makes for pleasant driving up in the cool dry air.


The desert landscape is attractive but it must be a hard life with few luxuries for the few people who live here, grazing their animals during the dry time.





They are shy, curious, -and almost invariably friendly.



Beyond the Dhofar Hills there is more flat desert, frankincense trees, ever-changing desert-scape -and after driving another 12 hours, Muscat.

Once our repair work is completed we’ll be able to plan the next few months of being ‘stuck in Oman’, but we intend to travel further, see more of this country, the Gulf States and beyond. There is no shortage of opportunities.

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