Posts from the ‘Adventure’ category

Minus 35° Celsius. Time for a swim

By Chris K

Today’s Itinerary

Only a couple of days ago it was Minus 35° Celsius in Harbin. (That’s about the same in Fahrenheit – and ridiculously cold whether you speak imperial, metric, or Klingon.)

Naturally, temperatures like that mean only one thing: we’re going for a swim.

Swimming in the river of ice, because you only live once

Apparently, when it is ridiculously cold in China, you go swimming. This is because it ‘feels nice’, and is ‘healthy’.

We didn’t really believe that people would willingly participate in such an obviously mad activity, which involves immersing themselves in water that is just barely this side of being a solid.

And yet – here’s the proof.

We quote from the video;

“people enjoy the way it feels”.

Yeah. No.

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

Not actually brave enough to risk losing limbs to frostbite, we’re heading on to a different activity – one that doesn’t involve grievous bodily harm. At least, that’s what we’ve been told.

Photo by mickey, Licensed under CC.

Photo by mickey, Licensed under CC.

Looking at that photo we’re not so sure.

We’re off to see some tigers. As we mentioned yesterday, Harbin was originally a Russian city on the edge of Siberia – though it is now (and has been for a long time) China’s northen-most major city. In apparently the largest park for Siberian tigers in the world, you can observe the tigers up close as they wander through a natural environment.

Photo by mickey, Licensed under CC.

Photo by mickey, Licensed under CC.

Feeding time is a little bit more confronting, often involving food that isn’t quite as processed as that bacon and egg roll you had for breakfast this morning.

Photo by TaQpets, Licensed under CC.

Photo by TaQpets, Licensed under CC.

This guy just wants to give you a big hug. Sort of.

Mostly hug. Just a tiny little bit of gnawing.

Saint Sophia Cathedral

In another Russian connection, Harbin is also home to the “largest Russian Orthodox church in the east”.

Built from timber, it fell into ruin until a charity drive raised around $1.5 million USD to restore it to its former glory.

Photo by timquijano, Licensed under CC.

Photo by timquijano, Licensed under CC.

More of the Harbin Ice Festival

Although that feeling of wandering around a magical wonderland is not quite as strong during the day, it is still very worthwhile revisiting the Harbin Ice Festival.

In some respects, daylight gives a sober view of the sheer scale of some of these architecture marvels.

Photo by Rincewind42, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Rincewind42, Licensed under CC.

You may also encounter some of the wildlife. This is a local Arctic fox, the wild strain of the infamous domesticated Siberian fox. Sadly Sibfox, the company that sold Siberian foxes as pets, is no longer operating. Happily, there are still some photographs of baby foxes (pups) online!

Photo by Denise Chan, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Denise Chan, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Rincewind42, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Rincewind42, Licensed under CC.

Want to Go? Need to Know!

  • Founded by a Russian citizen of Polish descent (aka the Lord of Alcohol), Harbin beer is one of the most popular beers in China, and possibly also the first.
  • According to Shanghai local Nick – Harbin should technically be spelt Haerbin, as it is pronounced in China.
  • There’s not an enormous amount of English language guide information for the (to use the full name) Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. However, we can point you to Wikipedia for more history and loads more pictures of the incredible sculptures created over the years!.
Photo by Ivan Walsh, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Ivan Walsh, Licensed under CC.

The memories of those ice towers will (hopefully) last a lot longer than the frostbite! But there’s only just enough time to see them all before tucking in to one last warm dinner of Chinese food. We have an early flight tomorrow from Harbin to Osaka, Japan.

Have you been to Harbin? What did you think? Tell us in the comments!

Auckland in 3 Days: Black Sands, Island Ferry, Base Jumping

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

Stylish start to our 3 days in Auckland

Tamaki Drive, a beautiful start to our 3 days in Auckland. Photo by Elmastudio, CC License

Kia ora, as we end our New Zealand dream holiday with three days in Auckland. Keeping us away from the tourist traps this weekend is Kiwi Kim, a proud local who arrives wearing an Auckland Blues rugby jersey.

She tells us that Auckland is a walkable harbour city, seen by too many tourists only from the inside of a bus. So our Friday morning begins with a coffee reviver and walk to the city beach at Okahu Bay. We walk along Tamaki Drive, a narrow strip of land that provides breathtaking views back at the city, the Harbour Bridge, and out to the volcanic island of Rangitoto.

Does this Bridge look familiar to anyone else?

Auckland Harbour Bridge. Presented without Comment. Photo by Sids1, CC License

Awake now, our wander back into the city takes a detour into the suburb of Parnell to explore the architectural heritage on display, from modern mansions to the colonial-style homes that seem a better fit with the natural surrounds.

Through here, we enter the Auckland Domain, a common of greenery carved out of the city and home to the Auckland Museum. There’s time to wander around the war memorial. And then at 1.30 we are assembled for an unforgettable connection with the Maori Culture, first a tour of the Maori Gallery and then as witness to a Maori Cultural Performance that’s engaging with its energy and confronting in its style.

A Haka Bearing down on You

Maori Cultural Experience – fantastic! Photo by Crys, CC License

Our time in the land of the long white cloud has been focused on more modern pleasures – whitewater rafting and wineries. So the immersion into the Maori culture is welcome, and within only a few minutes we begin to recognise how the indigenous heartbeat has been present through our New zealand holiday all along.

As we leave the Museum, Kim points out Mount Eden, Auckland’s highest natural point at the top of (yet another) volcanic mountain. With true Kiwi craziness, she tells us how she considered adding that walk to our 3 day Auckland itinerary, but opted instead for a place that’s just as high … and a lot more exciting.

View of Auckland, New Zealand

Enjoying Auckland in 3 Days. Photo by Lynda, CC License

So all of a sudden our hearts are racing again, as we ascend Auckland’s Sky Tower … and strap ourselves in for a Sky Jump. 192 metres (630 feet) above Auckland City, with a wire tied to our back, this is BASE Jumping without a parachute.

The moment on the edge lasts forever – and the drop down also feels like slow-motion so we’re amazed to discover we fell that distance in only 11 seconds. Kim (who does this every chance she can) reckons that in free fall we reached a speed of 85km/h (55mph), which means for those 11 seconds we were the fastest moving objects this side of Auckland Airport.

Our hearts will slow down enough for us to sleep tonight, and Kim’s promise of a more relaxing Saturday proves true as she leads us on a trip out to the black sands of Piha beach.

Having taken the time recently to learn to surf, we have a chance to practise some more. The surf here can get unbelievable rough – thankfully, we’ll be containing ourselves to the more protected Piha Bay.

After lunch, there’s an opportunity to walk across the black iron sand to the imposing Lion Rock, which separates North Piha and South Piha beaches. Why is Piha beach sand black? The iron content is so high, the sand can actually be collected by magnets!

Piha Black Sand Beach

Piha Black Sand – so iron-rich it can be picked up by magnets! Photo by Tatiana Gerus, CC License

Sunday is also more leisurely, as we leave the City of Sails by ferry to the nearby Waiheke Island. Auckland twice hosted the America’s Cup, and as we move through the water, the many sailors out and about confirm that the city owns more yachts per capita than any other in the world.

As we disembark the ferry at Matiatia Wharf, we notice plenty of other tourists jumping into tour buses to explore the wineries and local produce of this 7.5Km (12 mile) long island. Kim has told us to wear our walking shoes, however – it means we won’t see as much of the island, but what we will see will be experienced fully.

Of the range of available walks, we’re taking the Church Bay Circuit, a slightly strenuous 3-hour, path across Atawai Whenua Reserve and down to the beach at Church Bay. This is the perfect spot for a picnic, sitting on the beach facing up to the top end of this country.

Bays of Waiheke Island

Bays of Waiheke Island. Photo by Dave Snowden, CC License

The philosopher Lao-tzu told us that ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. Auckland lies almost exactly 1,000 miles from Queenstown, where our Kiwi Odyssey began last week with a single step off the Kawarau Bridge. Tonight, after glacier hikes, winery tours, ferries, trains, and limousines, we have a late night flight to Hong Kong, via Shanghai.

Heading for the bustle of ‘Honkers’ gives us extra reason to appreciate the serenity of the walk back to the ferry, and the calm journey across the water into the city as we bid farewell to New Zealand.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • The world champion NZ rugby union side are called the All Blacks. But did you know that the NZ soccer team are called the All Whites?
  • The Auckland Museum makes some of its pieces available to view online, like this nice collection in tribute of New Zealander and Everest Conquerer Sir Edmund Hillary.
  • The Maori Cultural Experience is a daily performance and gallery tour (though you can choose to see one, and not the other).
  • Some people climb the Auckland Sky Tower for the views, the revolving restaurant, or the coffee, and return down via the elevator. Crazy, but true.
  • A return ferry to Waiheke Island costs $35.50 – Waiheke Ferry fares and timetables are here.

What would you do with 3 days in Auckland? Or indeed, on a New Zealand journey of a 1,000 miles? Please share your experience in the comments below.

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If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you join them?

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

Travel to Australia and New Zealand from Europe or North America, and you might be tempted to lump these two countries together. Experience them both, however, and you will see that the similarities don’t extend much past funny accents. Case in point: we spent last weekend on an Australia road trip taking in the east coast beaches; this week our New Zealand road trip will involve Whitewater Rafting, and a hike across a glacier!

Our local guide Dene suggests we go easy on our Friday morning breakfast, although he’s promised us “a calm morning white water rafting“. We’re not sure how that could possibly work, but at 8.15am we find ourselves on the banks of the Kawarau River, which is much easier to navigate than the Shotover River we took the jetboat through yesterday.

Rapido Rapido

And this is the beginners guide to Whitewater rafting New Zealand! Photo by Queenstown Rafting, Licensed under Creative Commons

(Lord of the Rings fanatics will observe that the Kawarau looks a lot like the River Anduin that flows parallel to the Misty Mountains.)

With Queenstown Rafting we actually spend a couple of hours cruising the river, and it is an ideal experience rafting for beginners – though the heart rate does pick up as we plunge into the 400m long Dog Leg Rapid. The hot shower and sauna at the end are welcome, and some of us probably wish we could stay here when Dene let’s us in on the next destination…

…Bungy Jumping off Kawarau Bridge!

He seems to be enjoying that!

Bungy Jumping is safe – just scary as hell! Photo by Los viajes del Cangrejo, CC License

Bungy jumping – now available all around the world – actually began on this bridge in 1988. We’re not sure what possessed AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch to jump off a perfectly good bridge, but we’re glad they did! Now can we muster the confidence to follow in their footsteps. (To be fair – it’s not even a footstep – lean forward and let gravity do the rest!).

Any second thoughts we have drop away when we see the person in front of our group calmly step over the edge … completely naked! And if you’re not sure you could do the same, Queenstown’s only tandem jump means you can hand that decision over to another person and leap together.

You don’t really have time to get nervous. Without much fuss you, too, are strapped into a harness and then, quite suddenly, you’re standing up on the platform and there’s nothing in front of you but air. That’s when your heart starts beating faster and your grip tightens on the pole, which is all that anchors you to earth.

Three, two, one, JUMP!

Everything in your body prevents you from jumping, every instinct says no, and yet…

It happens in fast forward and slow motion, the sky, the ground, the river, then SPLASH! Your head is soaked, you’re smiling like a maniac, and you’ve done your first (and maybe last?) bungy in New Zealand.

Going, Going, Gone!

Going, Going, Gone! The first two photos are Adam Selwood; the splashdown photo is by Mat, CC License.

Beautiful Lake Wanaka

View of Lake Wanaka. Photo by Edwin, CC License

We use New Zealand’s long summer twilight to make the short drive out of Queenstown to the town of Wanaka. Plenty of New Zealand tours spend a few nights among the scenery here – we get stuck into “Her Majesty’s” pizza at The Cow Restaurant, before a sleepover and a Saturday morning drive towards the Franz Josef glacier on New Zealand’s west coast.

Some people are hikers, and full day treks across the glacier are available. Some people are more sedate, preferring to experience the 12 km (7.5 mi) long glacier and the nearby Mount Cook from the air. Dene has never seen the point in limiting our experience, so we’re doing both (it’s called heli-hiking)!

There’s a beauty to the scenic helicopter flight across the glacier, but there’s real danger here as well. Unstable ice cliffs mean many hiking tracks are now off limits, and the Maori name for the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, which speaks of a tale when Hinehukatere’s lover Wawe was swept to her death here by an avalanche.

Helicopter view of Franz Josef Glacier

Helicopter view of Franz Josef Glacier. Photo by Greg Hewgill, CC License.

It’s hard not to think about those stories as the helicopter drops us off (and disappears over the horizon!). But during the 2 hour hike back to the town of Franz Josef our guide keeps us amazed with the scenery, and also demonstrates the tangible evidence that climate change is having on this World Heritage Site.

Hiking Franz Josef Glacier

Hiking the Glacier. Photo by Edwin, CC License

It is summer, but increasingly the walk is over rock formations carved by the glacier as it recedes under global warming.

The adventure portion of our New Zealand trip is closing, as Dene fares us well. Sunday will be a relaxing day, a four hour drive through national parks to the city of Christchurch. But to help us sleep tonight, and to reward our bodies for the stress of navigating rapids, jumping off bridges, and trekking in crampons across a glacier, we head for an evening at the Glacier Hot Pools.

That’s right – you can immerse yourself in New Zealand’s natural beauty without needing to check your travel insurance first! Now who has the first massage …?

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Queenstown Rafting offer twice-daily adventures on the Kawarau river
  • We always felt that bungy jumping was a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience; and if you’re going to do it once, do it where it all began
  • The most popular helicopter experience in New Zealand is to the top of Mount Cook, allowing you to walk around up top without having to do any climbing. Most of these depart from Glentanner Park, NOT the Franz Josef town (www.helicopter.co.nz/mtcook.asp)
  • The drive from Franz Josef to Christchurch is longer than it looks – it’s due east as the crow flies, but you have to drive 90 minutes north before the road actually turns inland through Arthur’s Pass
What is a Crampon?

Crampons! Photo by Edwin, CC License

Have you toured New Zealand’s South Island? Got your heart rate thumping? What are your memories – Let us know in the comments below.

Jetboating Queenstown: The World’s Adrenaline Capital

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

There’s time for one last breakfast in Australia, before our last view of Sydney as we fly over the Opera House and Harbour Bridge on our mid-morning flight to Queenstown, New Zealand.

New Zealand is two hours ahead of its antipodean bigger brother, so our flight doesn’t land until 3.25pm local time. Waiting for us at the airport is Dene, a self-confessed adrenalin junkie who came to Queenstown for a two week trip … ten years ago.

It’s been over that period of time that the South Island of New Zealand, and Queenstown in particular, has invented itself as a must-do global destination, and the adventure capital of the world. And Dene is keen to get our hearts thumping as quickly as possible – we’ve barely left our bags in the hotel when we find ourselves at the Station Information Centre awaiting a shuttle bus to the afternoon’s excitement.

Known as the Shotover Jetboat, it sounds like an exaggerated name – but it actually does take place on the Shotover River! Ten minutes drive from the centre of Queenstown, it seems even when it was named in 1860 there were adventure sports in mind.

Shotover Jet on the Shotover River

Shotover Jet in action on the Shotover River, Queenstown New Zealand.

Shotover Jetboat

A jetboat roars down the Shotover River at 85km/h.

The Shotover jetboat experience lasts an hour and a half, of which the highlight is the 25 minute jetboat experience. Three companies have the rights to jetboat the river, and two others come here for whitewater rafting. The fast-flowing rapids make for exciting water sports, and have also carved some serious caverns into the landscape – it’s one thing to stop and admire the natural beauty (and keep an eye out for any seams of gold that may have been overlooked in the late nineteenth century goldrush)…

 

…it’s another thing entirely to attack those cliffs with the accelerator firmly on the floor, hitting speeds of 85km/h (55mph) before the driver whips the steering wheel just in time, bringing the Shotover river’s cold water into the boat, and your heart into your mouth!

Jet Boat Danger Signs

If you think the spectators can get wet, think about being on board! Photo by Claire Taylor, Licensed under Creative Commons

If you can eat after that (and Dene can – the jetboat is his idea of a morning commute) then the place to go is Fergburger, just around the corner from where we’re dropped off on Shotover Street. New Zealand is famous for its sheep (which outnumber human inhabitants 7 to 1), so the lamb burgers are a good start, but the range extends as far as the vegetarian option ‘Holier than Thou’ and a nice piece of venison in the ‘Sweet Bambi’ burger.

(If you can’t eat after that, you can still enjoy the interactive Fergburger website here.)

Queenstown Minus5 Ice Bar

Chilling with cocktails at the Queenstown Ice Bar. Photo by Ian Armstrong, Licensed under Creative Commons

And then we wash it all down with some cocktails in the coolest bar Queenstown offers – the Minus5 ice bar at (you won’t believe this!) 88 Beach St. If you thought the jetboat waterproof coats were the fashion highlight, wait until you step into the eskimo garb required to keep you comfortable inside 18 tonnes of ice.

Talk over cocktails turns to New Zealand’s tourism options. Even in the adventure capital, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings / Hobbit films have made inroads. Lord of the Rings tours from Queenstown are a possibility, but Dene has more exciting plans, and suggests that Hobbiton on the North Island would be better for any LOTR fanatics.

So we head to bed with our hearts still racing, partly from the Jetboat, partly from the red meat and cocktails, and just a little in anticipation of the adrenaline plans for tomorrow.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Queenstown (south end of the South Island NZ) is serviced directly from some southern Australian cities (like Sydney and Melbourne). Most international tourists enter New Zealand via flights to Auckland (North Island) or Christchurch (north end of the South Island). Internal flights are frequent, and cheap if you absolutely must start in Queenstown
  • The Shotover Jet runs every 30 minutes. Bookings are advised during busy times (like school holidays). Also keep an eye on the temperature – in winter, icebergs the size of cars can be found floating down the river
  • The New Zealand government notes that the sheep-to-person ratio in New Zealand peaked at 22-to-1 in 1982. They are also keen to point out that in Australia the ratio is 4-to-1 so some of those jokes are just Aussies being mean
  • Bookings are required to experience the Minus5 ice bar

Been to Queenstown? What have we missed? Or do you think there’s a better adrenaline capital elsewhere in the world? Let us know in the comments below.

The Bedouin aren’t the only Wise Men of Oman

Today’s Itinerary

By Jacob Aldridge

The sun rises over the Wahiba Sands, Oman

The sun rises over the Wahiba Sands, Oman. Photo by Aries Vitan Wong, CC License

There’s something different about waking up to a cool desert morning. Unlike the genuine cold of a Viennese Christmas Market, which bites at your throat and chews your fingers, early risers in our desert camp experience a more invigorating chill. It’s almost as if the cold focuses the mind on the significance of every moment.

Breakfast includes some traditional fruits from the Arabian peninsula, and before we’ve even offered to help with the washing up and taking down the tents we’re ushered back into our 4WDs.

People have lived in the Wahiba region for almost 8,000 years, and while modernity gives opportunities to the next generation, it’s a shame to note that most of the camel trains we pass are ridden by tourists as the locals embrace the air-conditioned benefits of a new 4WD.

Two camels in Oman

Camel photo by Erkan Pinar, CC License

Mid morning we stop to visit a Bedouin house in the desert, an opportunity to meet and talk with some of the proud tribespeople who embrace both their bedouin traditions and the emerging Omani national identity. Livestock remain the key economy here, mostly goats and camels. While tourism is increasingly important, we get the feeling that the clean house and well-dressed, well-spoken people we meet are nothing new – they may be surrounded by 12,500 square kms (4,800 sq mi) of desert, but that’s no excuse for a mess.

 

How friendly are the locals? Check out this video – this group are either being very polite to an Australian tourist, or they actually like the taste of Vegemite!

Official Amouage Gold picture

You can buy Amouage Gold perfume from the source

We arrive back in Muscat by mid-afternoon. There’s plenty of time before our flight to take in more sights and sounds of this city – but it’s the smell we are interested in. More specifically, the smell of the Amouage Perfume Factory. Feted as ‘The Most Valuable Perfume in the World’, Amouage Gold for Women is created from the resin of the frankincense tree and the essence of the rare Omani Rock Rose, plus another 120 ingredients including Myrrh.

That’s right – Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. If you’re looking for an excuse to treat yourself this Christmas time, look no more.

Conveniently, the Amouage Factory is located not far from the airport, meaning we arrive in plenty of time for our Oman Air flight onwards. We will land tomorrow morning in Bangkok, Thailand.

Want to Go? Need to Know…

  • A single entry, one month visa for Oman can be purchased for 20 OMR (about $USD50) at the airport
  • December temperatures in the desert are reasonably mild, but the summer heat and the late winter evenings are especially dangerous
  • Even experienced desert drivers and hikers are reminded to take precautions with water rations and recording your planned itinerary with your consulate and/or hotel in case of accident
  • You do not need to book in advance to visit the Amouage Factory
  • Click here to stay up to date with a free subscription to our daily destinations email

Share your Oman thoughts or desert experiences in the comments below.

Skip Dubai and Abu Dhabi – Oman is the new hot destination

Today’s Itinerary

By Jacob Aldridge

We considered a self-drive tour of Oman, but being mindful that English is less common outside of the main cities (and we don’t speak Arabic) we decided to join a small group tour. And there are a surprising array of tour options and Oman holiday packages – including Turtle Watching! – as Oman aims to compete with (and outperform) the airport hubs of Dubai (Emirates) and Abu Dhabi (Etihad).

Textiles at the Ladies Market

Ladies Market in Ibra – the adjacent souq remains co-ed

At 8am the luxury 4WD arrives at our hotel. There’s a two hour drive ahead of us, as we leave Muscat’s waterside location and head south through the Harjar mountains and inland to the town of Ibra, in the Sharqiyah area. Now best known as a ‘gateway’ town, Ibra also boasts a weekly ‘Ladies Market’ – every Wednesday the souq is open only to women, and run by women, with a focus on household and textiles products.

Al Mansfah Ruins

Some of the ruined mansions of Al Manshah

As we drive away from Ibra the village of Al Mansfah is silhouetted on the horizon, a community of 19th Century mansions that fell with the fortunes of the region into disrepair. At this point we assume Ibra is a gateway to barren desert sands.

How wrong we prove to be, as the 4WD enters the Wadi Bani Khalid ! With several fresh water springs, and year round water, this valley (Wadi is Arabic for valley – we’re learning Arabic fast) is known for the deep blue water at the foot of the mountains. Experienced hikers would be drawn here for the opportunity to explore some of the largest caves in the country, including the underground chamber of Kahf Maqal. We stop for a more relaxed picnic lunch.

 

Desert oasis of Wadi Bani Khalid

Just what we imagined an oasis to look like. Photo by Andries3, licensed under Creative Commons.

And then it’s into the desert, and the Wahiba Sands. Covering 12,500 square kms (4,800 sq mi), what initial looks barren surprisingly reveals itself as an expansive ecosystem. The region is home to the Wahiba Bedouin tribe, and we’re staying here tonight in a desert camp. You may have been camping before – but you’ve never been camping like this!

Driving a 4WD through desert sand

Experienced drivers know how to maximise safety and fun. Photo by Erkan Pinar, CC License

We could spend a few hours enjoying the spacious tent and the food and drinks available in camp – truly, this must be how Bedouin tribal leaders lived despite the nomadic elements of their lifestyle. However, we have one more activity today – and it’s something Lawrence of Arabia could never have imagined: dune bashing in our 4WD! Definitely best led by an experienced sand driver, there’s a real thrill in racing up a mammoth sand dune, with no road in sight, and then cresting over and down the other side. This is why we travel.

So much fun can be exhausting, and dinner and bed beckon. But be sure to take a few minutes to drink in the night sky as the milky way reveals an expanse of stars known to every generation of humans except the modern city dweller. We will fall asleep feeling humble between the innumerable sands below and the infinite stars above.

 

Stars are visible even inside your tent

Night may be falling, but the wonder is only beginning. 4WD and Tent Phots by Erkan Pinar, Licensed under Creative Commons

Want to Go? Need to Know…

    • You can see a list of Oman Air’s holiday packages by clicking here
    • There truly are a range of tour options from other operators if you search for them, from 2 night to 2 weeks, and encompassing a lot more than we thought Oman would have to offer
    • December temperatures in the desert are reasonably mild, but the summer heat and the late winter evenings are especially dangerous – even experienced desert drivers and hikers are reminded to take precautions with water rations and recording your planned itinerary with your consulate or hotel in case of accident
    • Click here to stay up to date with a free subscription to our daily destinations email

Share your Oman thoughts or desert experiences in the comments below.

Driving About Muscat, Oman

Today’s Itinerary

By Jacob Aldridge

Our plane touches down at Seeb International Airport in Muscat, capital city of Oman, just before 10am. Strictly speaking it’s still winter, as it was when we left Vienna yesterday, but here on the Arabian peninsula (and at the same latitude as tropical south-east asia) the temperatures aren’t expected to drop below 22ºC (72ºF) all week.We have a two day Oman Air holiday package starting tomorrow, which means today is all ours – and there are things to do in Muscat, this vibrant city. To make the most of it, we’ve hired a car at the airport – why not, in a city where petrol is regularly less than 40 cents per litre. Drive about Oman on the right hand side of the road!

Why is Oman on our itinerary? Have a look at this video!

Grand Mosque

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, photo by Gary Denham Licensed under Creative Commons

As would be expected of this predominately Muslim nation, Muscat’s skyline is dotted with Mosques. Grandest among these, and one of the few that is open to (respectful) tourists, is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, located on the main road between the airport and the city.

Being careful to avoid prayer times, we remove our shoes and step inside the square prayer hall, which can fit 6,500 worshippers. Modern Islam holds itself to be a religion of peace, and the serenity of this holy place is obvious. Inside, the orderly and spacious nature of the design means we can feel the space much faster than taking in all of the detail. Though there are a small number of individuals praying, it’s clear that they are having their experience and we don’t feel we are intruding. If you’re unfamiliar with Islam, though, it’s hard not to wonder whether you might inadvertently offend somebody just by being here. The Sultanate of Oman, like many middle eastern countries, is working on the balance of cultures.

Back in the car, and we’re heading from the Mosque the Sultan to the Sultan’s official residence, the Al Alam Royal Palace. Not open to the public, we still decide to drive out to the its location on a point of land jutting out into the Gulf of Oman.

A number of Forts mark important points throughout Oman, and though some are recent most are remnants of a colonial past when the country was under Portuguese control. Most famous are the twin forts of Al Mirani and Al Jalali, which stand to attention close by the Al Alam Palace. We walk up the nearby Corniche, to the base of the Mutrah Fort, taking in the view of the twins before ending with an expansive view back over the city.

One of the twin forts

Fort al Jalali, a Portugeuse fort twinned with Fort al Mirani

So far, we haven’t really felt the desert country, and standing by the water as the afternoon progresses we can associate more about Oman’s maritime history than the Bedouin lifestyle further inland. As the nation emerges further as a global destination, diving off its broad coastline is one of the prominent attractions available.

Westerners are advised to understand the local customs, particularly in relation to religion and gender. We’ve found nothing to concern us from having a great experience here. One Australian film-maker created the page Side Trip of a Lifetime about Oman, and has even taken to the streets here to ask other tourists about Oman for Western Women?

Want to Go? Need to Know…

    • While some middle-eastern countries are more relaxed than others in regards to western cultural norms, always be respectful of locals
    • This is particularly important when visiting Mosques – modest clothing and definitely no shoes
    • English can be called Oman’s second language, and particularly in Muscat street signs are translated and English speakers can be found in more tourist locations
    • A single entry, one month visa can be purchased for 20 OMR (about $USD50) at the airport
    • Stay up to date with a free subscription to our daily destinations email

Have you been to Muscat or driven about Oman? Share your experience – and what we’ve missed – in the comments below.