Friday, 30 January 2015

Road trip: Wadi Bani Khalid

After leaving Desert Nights Camp we headed to Wadi Bani Khalid, which is less than an hour from the camp.

The surrounding mountains means that there is a constant flow of water throughout the year, which makes it an oasis in the desert, filled with green and large pools of water perfect for cooling off in.

You can explore the North or South of the wadi, we chose the North, parking up in the carpark and taking the short walk along the falaj system to the first pools. Here is a good high-point to look over both sides of the wadi (and a small cafe for a buffet lunch, if needed).
The first pool was full of people swimming and depending on how far you are willing trek into the wadi there are more pools, each one more secluded.

There is also a cave, about a 15 minute walk away. At this point you can really feel like Indiana Jones, climbing, over, under and through the boulders along the valley. The cave itself isn’t really worth seeing though, it is small and dark and the main attraction inside isn’t much of an attraction. There was a group of local boys hanging around nearby and one guided us through with a torch, which is a must-have because once you move away from the entrance you can’t see anything (he of course followed us back to the car for a tip after). If you fancy testing your courage though, do crawl inside, just be prepared to get dirty and a little scared!

Of all our adventures so far Wadi Bani Khalid has been my favourite. The place is beautiful and next time I would like to explore the South side, which has more water pools, some water falls, and rock climbing to experience. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Home baking: Soda bread

My dad is to blame for my expensive taste in bread. Rather than the typical 'rubbish white loaf' he would come back with selections from all sorts of artisan bakeries, breads made with different concentrations of rye flour, and sour doughs filled with various nuts and seeds.

What I would give now for even that rubbish white bread. Although the Arabic bread sold here is nice, I miss real bread, the type you slather butter on.

So I decided I would start making my own. Soda bread is a good one to start with, the ingredients and instructions are simple, and the preparation and cooking time short so we get to enjoy it hot for breakfast at the weekends.

The basic recipe is:

500g plain flour (I use diet flour which is a combination of rye and wholemeal mostly)
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon salt
400ml buttermilk

As you can probably tell from the pictures there is milk and a lemon included in my recipe and that's because from what I know Oman doesn't sell buttermilk, but souring normal milk with a lemon works just as well. I take 400ml milk (low fat as I'm trying to be healthy) and add about two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice. You then leave this to sour for about 5 minutes, or however long it takes you to prepare the rest of the ingredients. After that time you notice lumps in the milk, it was difficult for me to picture but trust me you'll know when you see it.

After mixing all the dry ingredients in a bowl add the milk and stir. The mixture is sticky and at some point you have to get your hands in there to make sure everything is combined.

I have adapted a Paul Hollywood recipe, he would now tell you to dust a surface with flour and roll the dough into a ball shape on that, which I did once and you just make a mess for yourself to clean up so I skip that step and roll it into a ball in the bowl as much as I can before transferring to a baking paper lined tray.

You then flatten out the dough a little and mark it into quarters cutting through the dough but not through to the bottom.

Finally a dust of flour and put the dough into an oven at 200oC for 30 minutes. You should end up with a golden loaf that sounds hollow when you tap the base.

Leave it to cool on a wire rack before slicing, or do what we do and cut into it straight away and enjoy.

I've also experimented with adding sunflower seeds, which worked well and might even try an olive and pesto version next. I do plan on trying more complicated bread recipes, are there any that you would recommend next?

Monday, 19 January 2015

Camping: Wahiba Sands, Desert Nights Camp

I grew up with a very movie-inspired idea of what the Middle East and the desert looks like: golden sands and dunes as far as the eye can see, only disrupted by a lone wandering camel. You can appreciate my disappointment when landing in Muscat to find that it didn't fit this image. One area of Oman does fit the bill though, Wahiba Sands, and its located about 3 hours drive from Muscat. 

For my parent's final weekend in Oman we decided to treat them to a glamping experience at Desert Nights Camp, where you can experience the real desert with all modern comforts that Londoners expect. The drive to the camp is much like any other drive around Oman, lots of rocks, mountains and wadis. But as you approach the area you start to see a hint of the "real" desert, which is very exciting. 

The camp is situated about 10km from a tarmaced road. A four wheel drive is ideal, but we saw plenty of regular cars whizzing up and down the path, which is well tread. The sight as you distanced the road was quite thrilling, real sand, complete with ripples, and even camels. Driving on sand is surprisingly bumpy though, even though my husband described it as "like driving on air". 

We were welcomed into Desert Nights Camp with cool towels, dates, and Omani coffee. The friendly staff whisk off your luggage to your tents, saving you having to drag it through the sand. We stayed in a huge two room Bedouin style tent with plush Arabian inspired furnishing. All of the tents are air conditioned and I was pleased that the roof is doubled lined to limit the number of bugs that could have access to you! 

At around 4.30pm we were driven up to the top of the dunes to watch the sunset, which was my favourite part of the whole trip. The view is amazing and as the sun goes down the colours you see are beautiful. 

Breakfast and dinner are included in the stay, the camp's main area has a restaurant which serves a buffet BBQ for dinner, which was very good. We chose a spot outside to enjoy the atmosphere and luckily the wind had died down a bit or we would have ended up with very sandy food! 

After dinner we ventured away from the restaurant to get away from the lights and see the stars. If you are one for star gazing I would recommending downloading an app for your phone before you arrive (there is internet at the camp, but is limited to the reception area and is very slow). With the app you simply point your phone at the sky and you can see the names of each of the stars and what constellations they are in, and because there are very little "city lights" I've never seen so many stars. 

The next morning we enjoyed breakfast and took advantage of the free camel rides offered. Although the ride was short (about 3 minutes) it was long enough for me to realise I wouldn't want to head out into the desert for hours on a camel!
We only stayed the one night, and if you aren't doing any extra activities that is enough. Price wise the experience isn't cheap, an average night costs 125OR for two people (prices do drop when it gets hotter). There is a lack of mid-range desert camping experiences so the option really is to go glam or budget. Obviously if you are in Oman on holiday I say go glam and treat yourself to any of the additional activities you want, you only live once. However, as someone living here I would love to return but the price is limiting. As a HSBC customer they had a offer giving me 15% discount (which just about covers the taxes not included in the room rate) but the camp made it really difficult for me to get this. If you are a Phoenix Club member I believe you can get 20% discount, just make sure you confirm it with the camp first and have it in writing!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

First meeting of the WGO Book Club

Last night was the first meeting of the Women's Guild Oman Book Club, which I have taken the responsibility of organising. I've always loved reading, but I got back into it again after moving to Muscat. I had a lot of time on my hands, and access to books was easy as I have converted to reading books electronically and downloading them. The great thing about reading is that you don't need anyone else to enjoy it, but, that said, it is always good to find others with common interests, and I have always wanted to be part of a book club.

We met in Gloria Jeans, The Wave, and settled on the sofas with hot drinks in hand. We discussed the book The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, which I thought was fantastic and, despite the two main characters having cancer, very uplifting. The book was easy to read and the story gripping, so I whizzed through reading it in about four days.

What I liked most about the book club was the opportunity to look at the book on a deeper level. Honestly I am a bit of a superficial reader, I stopped doing in-depth analysis of books after English GCSE, and usually base my opinion of a book on nothing other than if I enjoyed reading it. I do find that with books I miss the small details, I get wrapped up in the characters and story so much that plot twists tend to catch me, unlike in films/TV shows where I am much better at predicting what will happen next.

The book had some great quotes, and I think what I liked best about it was how it made me think about love, life, living, and death. I don't want to give too much about the plot away, because I really do recommend it to all (although I have watched the film too and it is a good portrayal of the book if reading isn't your thing).

To end this post I'll  leave you with one of my favourite quotes.

“You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world...but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.” 
John Green

Sunday, 4 January 2015

2014 in review

Last year will always be remembered as one of the most eventful of my life: getting married, relocating, starting a new job, and going on holidays were just some of the highlights. 

Here's a month by month recap:

January was consumed with final wedding preparations, I say final but we had only started planning in November. Hair and makeup trials, dress fittings, and ordering favours were just part of the things to do. I also finally booked my flights to Muscat, I had been delaying doing this as that was the point when moving seemed very real. 
In February and across Valentine's weekend we got married, we had two events, the civil ceremony followed by a party with close family and friends, and a religious services followed by a much bigger party! The week following the wedding was spent seeing family and friends and saying goodbye before flying to Muscat.
March was very much about settling into life here. My husband had already bought a lot of the basic furniture but we made another trip to Dubai and Ikea to pick up extra things. We also went on a diving/snorkeling trip with friends and I learnt just how damaging the sun can be when I came away with a burnt nose. 
In April my mum and sister visited. I wasn't working at the time so we spent the days at home enjoying time together and by the pool and I showed them as much as I knew of Muscat. We also went to Dubai for a few days (at this stage my spouse visa still wasn't ready so I was having to come in and out of the country to get an updated visa). 
In May, we took a short break to Turkey to see my parents who stopping there for a few days before heading on to Cyprus. We went a few days ahead of them and visited Cappadocia, which was fantastic. We explored the valleys, went on a balloon ride over the chimneys, and an organised tour, including an underground city. It was a very packed two days. We then spent some more relaxed time in Istanbul with my parents, enjoying walking around the city and eating good food. 

In June, I had the interview and offer for my current job and having just got my spouse visa began getting the paperwork together for my work visa. 
Ramadan started at the end of June and carried on for most of July. By this time the weather was ridiculously hot so I spent much of the time with the air conditioning cranked up, waiting for sunset and time to break the fast. We spent every evening with my inlaws, eating, and watching the World Cup. 
In August we went on honeymoon to Thailand, spending 4 days in Bangkok exploring the temples, and shopping, and then 7 days in Koh Samui, a beautiful island on the east coast of Thailand. We had a great honeymoon, considering how stressful settling had been for me the break was very much needed. Thailand had great weather, and food, and because the place is so tourist friendly we took advantage and did lots of activities. We also had the most fantastic spa experience on the last day, four hours of pampering to relax us before the flight home. You can read my review on Trip Advisor if you want to know more. 

September was spent waiting to hear when I would be able to start my job, I finally heard that my visa was ready at the end of the month and confirmed my start date in October.
The first two weeks of October I spent in London catching up with friends and family. I had brought my flight forward a week so I was able to surprise my parents. I made sure to eat all the food I was missing, do some shopping and enjoy the weather, wearing shoes and boots for the first time in 8 months. I started work the day after I arrived back in Muscat, which was a good thing it was a great distraction from home sickness. 
A few weeks later, in November, my parents came to visit for three weeks. We packed the time with activities, going out locally most evenings and further afield at the weekends, I have already shared some of our adventures here, and here
After what was a very packed year December was a very mellow month, we bought ourselves a BBQ and had a test run at beach, and enjoyed a night at the Royal Opera House

Next year, I'm looking forward to more BBQs, road trips, Opera House visits, and holidays, and I will of course share them with you all here.