Saturday, 10 May 2008

Arabian Nights

Seeing as we missed off the Arabian Peninsula (thanks to the Saudi government) when we were passing by earlier on in the trip, we decided to take the opportunity of a stopover in Dubai en-route to Perth. However we still had some time to kill in South Africa as we wanted to ensure that the car had departed South African shores before we did and then there would be nearly another month before the car will arrive in Perth (via Malaysia). So we remained in beautiful Cape Town for another nine days. Plenty of time we thought for activities such as diving and taking a trip on the Cable car. This was before we realised that during our final week there were three, yes three public holidays and fairly changeable and windy weather.

As it turned out, when it was good for us go diving, the conditions were not suitable. Oh well, we thought, the diving in Oman is apparently rather good so we will just have to wait until we are there. On another beautifully clear morning we decided to take a hike up Platteklip Gorge (the particularly steep ascent up Table Mountain) with the intention of taking the cable car down (I really hate steep downhills, unless I am on a mountain bike or snowboard of course). Remembering that the last time we tried to take the cable car it was closed due to high winds we kept an eye on the cable car as we walked up to the entrance to the gorge part, especially as the wind did seem to be increasing. Thankfully we had kept a good eye on it because by the time we reached the start, yes the cable car had stopped running. We did not see it running again until the day we flew out.

Nevertheless we still enjoyed some lovely walks, right from the centre of Cape Town, up to Signal Hill and on to Lions Head, which afforded fantastic views of Cape Town and the coast.

Of course after we waved goodbye to the car we also lost our accommodation. Hardekraaltjie Campsite, however, had some cabins for rent which were considerably cheaper than a backpackers. So we moved into Rose cabin for a few nights. Rose cabin came equipped with beds, a kettle, a few aluminium pans (great for burning food) a blunt kitchen knife and a fridge. It is amazing how quickly our routine changed as we adapted to our little cabin. Losing the car also meant that we had to walk everywhere now, although one day our neighbours from when we had been camping gave us a lift to the supermarket.

A couple of days before we were due to leave Cape Town we decided to move into the centre of the city. Hardekraaltjie was a half hour walk from the train station and the train ride was another half hour into Cape Town, and the trains did not run very frequently. On a previous day we had visited a few backpackers and eventually selected one which was pretty central and seemed to be fairly quiet- we were not looking for party central, although most of the backpackers in the city are in the partying area. Unfortunately we did not view it at 4am, but it was not the other backpackers that were the problem - it was the morons outside. The noise did not stop until gone 6am. These idiots would drive around in some crappy car with a souped up stereo playing their music so loud it made our whole room vibrate (on the third floor), then they would hoot their horns continuously for minutes on end, then the police would join in switching their sirens on and off while other cars sped up and down the street with cars double parked on either side before slamming their brakes on. I was almost expecting someone to tip a drum of oil onto the road so they could skid into it. One really sophisticated chap, with a couple of ladies in tow, decided to make his own disco on the pavement. While the ladies all hung around swaying to the music emanating from his car clutching their bottles of beer, he most indiscreetly took rather a long pee- oh how we wished we had our super powerful torch with us.

After two rather sleepless nights we headed out to the airport and out of Africa. The easiest way to get to the airport is to take a shuttle. This was for us, though, rather expensive so we took a train and walked from the train station. Clearly this does happen very often. The train ticket vendor was rather surprised when I asked for 2 first class tickets to Lavistown and as we walked through the litter strewn neighbourhood after dismounting from the train it became clear that white people walking round with backpacks did not happen every day. Nonetheless everybody was polite and also everybody we passed greeted us and we arrived at the airport unscathed.

We landed in Dubai on a warm and smoggy morning and negotiated our way to the Youth Hostel by bus. We then headed into town at 8am because we could not check in until 14.00. We spent ages wandering around trying to find a coffee shop that was open, just to have a drink and get out of the sun. On our previous forays into Arabic countries we never fully appreciated that there is nothing open in the morning. The following days we walked down the same streets in the late afternoon and it could have been a completely different place, all the shops and cafes were open and there were so many people around.

We did find a bit of life at the wharf where immigrant labourers were loading/ unloading dhows in what seemed to us a most precarious manner. After wandering through the Gold Souk and many other street including the car spare parts quarter (one of the best we have seen on the trip so far) we eventually found an air-conditioned coffee shop in a mall where we hid out for a couple of hours until it was time to claim our room at the Youth Hostel. It is a good thing we are not here in the middle of summer - at least it is only 45ºC at the moment.

Over the next couple of days we managed a bit of sightseeing. Dubai is a much more interesting city than I had imagined. We enjoyed some brief respite from the stifling heat when we made the quick trip across the creek on an Abra. These rather small but sturdy boats zip across the creek racing each other in a manner distinctly reminiscent of dodgem cars, especially when it comes to parking - this really is parking by feel. In the twilight we visited a restored area of old merchants houses with wind towers and courtyards. We viewed the inside of one which now houses a philatelic museum, it really was most interesting and enlightening. Stamp collecting has taken on a new meaning for me.

Another day we navigated our way out to Jumeira which is home to the iconic sail building (which is an hotel) of Dubai. This area of Dubai even has air-conditioned bus shelters. There are signs prohibiting eating food in them. I am sure that this is to stop people having picnics in the cool of the bus shelter. We also spent a couple of refreshing hours on the beach right opposite the famous “World” development a little way out to sea. However, we saw nothing through the smog and haze.

Although the Youth Hostel does not have a kitchen (they seem to have changed quite a bit since I last stayed in one) the street food in both Dubai and Oman has been really good value and tasty, mainly with Indian or Lebanese influences. However, one night we ended up with some food that was just a little too spicy for Gavin’s palette. Luckily for me I got to polish of the wonderfully tender chunks of lamb.

By now it was time to head towards Oman and Muscat. We had heard of a dive centre a little way out of Muscat which also rented out cabins on the beach for a reasonable price. It sounded so perfect. After a couple of days in Dubai I started to come down with a cold. Bad news for divers - a cold and diving is a nasty combination. So although I have not felt unwell at all with this stupid cold, I cannot dive. Ok we thought, why don’t we just head out to the dive centre anyway and hopefully it will improve? Well despite all our attempts to make contact with the Oman Dive Centre (from South Africa, Dubai and Muscat) we have heard nothing. Their phone numbers do not seem to work and they did not respond to our emails. Also when we could finally access their website it seems that their cabin prices have increased by 400%. So on our final day in Muscat, incidentally I am still very snotty, we thought we would go out to the dive centre and just go snorkelling. We just had the small matter of reporting a lost mobile phone to the police to complete. The phone had been lost a few days earlier but when Gavin had tried to report it he was asked to return to the police station after the weekend. Gavin will give you an indication of just how futile such a process is Oman in his next post, but needless to say four hours later we had achieved nothing and no time left to get to the dive centre.

As is commonly the case, things often turn out very differently to how we anticipated but we have had a very interesting time in Oman. We have been staying in an hotel overlooking the harbour and port in Muscat (Mutrah), which feels more like a small town than part of the capital city.
We walked along the Corniche to the old walled city of Muscat and spent an interesting hour or so in the city wall museum developing insight into Omani history and culture. Despite its rather delayed entrance to modernity the country seems to be very well developed and so much cleaner than most of the countries we have passed through since leaving Europe. The Omani border post is certainly the most grand either of us has visited. We even picked up a complimentary map of the country. How ironic that there are so many countries we have been through with no map available at all and the only one we don’t drive to ourselves has a map.

Another day we managed to find our way to Qurm beach about 10 km away which involved a bit of a walk. Here the distances when walking seem to more than double due to the heat and we have not had very good experiences with taxi drivers - again Gavin will explain. We had hoped to find some food along the way, according to our map we would walk past a major mall, but of course at 11am on a Friday nothing seemed to be open. So we had a lovely few hours on the beach with our 2 oranges to sustain us. In an effort to retain some modesty I initially kept my shorts on over my bikini, but all the men stared at me anyway, when I was sitting on the beach and when I went in the water. So after seeing some other western women bravely wearing bikinis I followed suit, but I certainly would not have behaved so rashly if Gavin had not been there.

On the way back to the bus we passed an open coffee shop so we ducked in for samoosas - yes I have managed to convert Gavin, although it is more to do with desperation as the samoosas here are not spicy.

It has been a bit of a culture shock coming here. Not only do we not have all the comforts of camping and our car but the whole rhythm of life is so different. One aspect of this that is so liberating for us is that we do not have to worry about being somewhere safe when it gets dark. In Cape Town, especially as the nights were drawing in, we needed to ensure that we could catch a train in time so that we were not walking back to the campsite in the dark. Whereas here it only starts to get lively in the evening, when it cools down enough to sit outside.