Thursday, 13 October 2016

Beyond Oman: Diving in the Red Sea

Leaving it so long to write up this post has worked out quite well. It's nice to reminisce about the last holiday and the last time I was able to dive before I found out I was expecting. We visited Egypt in February going primarily because of a friends wedding, but deciding to make a diving and a sight-seeing break out of it, too. This post will focus on the diving holiday.

The Red Sea is probably one of the best-known diving and snorkelling locations, and I can see why. That said, February isn't the best time of year to go, but more on that later.

We decided to stay away from the typical resort location of Sharm El Sheik and stay a little outside of Hurghada in Safaga. Although from Europe it is one flight straight to Hurghada, we had to take three. Oman to Amman, Amman to Cairo, and Cairo to Hurghada. On arrival, we were picked up by a very entertaining driver called Mahmood who spent the journey telling us all the problems with Egypt and the Middle East and what he would do to solve them. He also told us just how bad the tourism situation was. Ours was the first job he had had in a week. I expected the area to be quite (February isn't peak diving season), but not as quite as it was. Our resort had a total of five guests, and that was after we arrived. The other resorts in the area had similar numbers. So great for tourists looking for a cheap deal, but not so good for the locals trying to make a living.

We stayed at Orca Village, a hotel linked to the Orca Dive Resort. The general idea behind a diving holiday is that is all you do. Our routine was to rise early for breakfast, get on the boat at 8 am, and then spend the day at sea. The diving only takes up two hours, and you don't even travel that far out to get to the dive sites, but you spend a lot of time just relaxing and enjoying the ocean. We would arrive back at the dock/hotel at around 4 pm, shower and rest, then dinner at around 7 and bed by 9 pm, ready to repeat the whole thing the next day.

Before this trip, I'd only ever travelled by speed boat to dive sites, which isn't the most comfortable way of travelling. While the Orca Dive Club owns a few different boats, because of the locations we were visiting and the number of guests we spent all our days on the Alia 3, which is a nice big boat with a good area for kitting up and a sundeck to relax on in between dives. Lunch was freshly prepared on the boat every day and never failed to impress. Diving is one of those things that makes you very hungry and a lot of the time any food will do, but the guys on the boat did a great job, and every day was different. The dinner at the hotel was also fantastic, and catering for such a small number of people meant that we had what seemed more like home cooking than your typical hotel buffet.

Wow, all these words, and no mention of the diving yet. No surprises that it was amazing. The Red Sea is full of coral and lots of interesting sea life, and the visibility was always great. We mostly saw small things, and it was nice that a lot of them were things we hadn't seen before, but there is big stuff to be seen (sharks, dolphins, etc.) at the right time of year and site.

Rather than waffle on much more, I'll leave you to enjoy lots of pictures instead. We also fit in our advanced diving course out there, which worked out cheaper than Oman and were lucky to get an excellent instructor. If I had to pick a negative about the whole trip, it's that the water was freezing! As I mentioned before February is not diving season and even with a thermal rash guard, two thick wetsuits and a hood, I found it pretty cold. But, that just gives us an excuse to go back in the summer when the water is warm and you don't even need a wetsuit.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Road trip: The Roses of Jebel Akhdar

After several failed attempts to explore Jebel Akhdar, I finally made it up there to see the roses in bloom back in April.

Jebel Akhdar (translation, the Green Mountain), is part of the Al Hajar Mountain range. It takes about an hour and a half to drive to from Muscat, or less depending if you have a driver who likes to put his foot down. At its peak, the mountain is 3,000 metres high, and you don't appreciate just how high this is until you arrive at the base and get your first glimpse at the steep the road to the top.

The mountains are the perfect place to escape to in the summer since it is significantly cooler up there. The temperature was 30 degrees at the base and 20 degrees at the top.

It is called the Green Mountain because at the higher altitudes there is precipitation, which means the land is moist enough to allow the growth of shrubs and trees and support agriculture, which includes pomegranates, apricots, peaches, and walnuts. This time, we were here for the roses. The roses are used to make the famous Omani rosewater, which we were told was the most sought-after rose water in the region. It is added to drinks and food, typically Omani halwa and coffee, and it is also thought to be good for the heart, arthritis, and headaches if you rub it in the relevant areas.

We visited the rose gardens and distiller with Guide Oman. They have a great relationship with a few Omani heritage workers, Abdullah being one of them. Abdullah is one of five Omani's left making rose water the traditional way. According to him, he had been making water since the day his eyes had opened. He wakes up early in the morning when its cool (and before the petals get a chance to bloom fully and lose their aroma) and picks the flowers. It takes 7.5kg of roses to make a Vimto sized bottle of rose water, which is a lot of roses.

The whole flower is then put into an earthenware pot with water, sealed up, and a wood fire lit underneath and left to boil for a couple of hours. The rose-flavoured steam then condenses into a metal container that is inside the pot, and it is then filtered to get rid of the oily residue. This produces a dark and very smoky-smelling rose water, which is nothing like the rose water that I expect everyone has seen and smelt before. The 'traditional', clear rose water is produced by boiling the flowers rather than the wood burner technique.

After seeing the distillery, we walked along to Seeq Village, part of Saiq Plateau. There we got to see the Damascus rose bushes as well as pomegranates, onions, garlic, walnuts, figs and other plants I didn't recognise, and lots of toads.

We then had a very tasty lunch at the Sahab Hotel, which has spectacular views from the gardens of the terraces.

The roses season is over for this year so if you do want to see them mark April on your calendar as the best time. Guide Oman are mostly known for their desert crossing trips, but they do offer unique experiences like these and the relationships they have mean that you do get access to places and people that you might not otherwise see just making the journey there yourself. We paid 45 OMR for the day (which included lunch and drinks). Details of this and the other tours they offer can be found on their website.