05 Oman, UAE, Saudi

OMAN November 1998

When the border gate remained closed after a long siesta Jan crawled through the barbed wire, approaching the army post on foot and nearly got himself arrested. In spite of application 3 months before and waiting in Sana’a for 14 days, our road permit had not arrived at the Sarfayt border post. In fact it was not even open for vehicle crossing or non-local travellers! Their suggestion was that we should retrace our steps and take a different track – a 500km journey – to the inland border post of Mazyunah… Locals brought us tea. At sunset the burley officer reported no progress. One group of Yemeni workers invited us for supper. Others brought the supper and offered us a container of water. After dark we surreptitiously sent frantic e-mail (via satphone) to Des and Landrover in Oman. (If they knew about the phone we would probably be arrested as spies!)

The next morning the army Sergeant asked if we needed anything. Jan replied: “We have food for 2 months but we might ask you for water after 4 days”. (It was clear that we were not going to go back!) Soon afterwards the Captain came and said that he would try to contact the Royal Omani Police from this end. Lunchtime we were fed again and the little teacups donated as a gift. 26 hours after our arrival the Sergeant with the Indian accent removes the chains from the gates: “Congratulations! Welcome to Oman”. (“And tarred roads” we think) Two soldiers in a Land Rover escort us 60km to the next Army checkpoint. They take the travel permit but also phone the base to check its validity. At the Royal Omani Police Checkpoint the explaining and phoning goes on and on. Eventually an ROP officer escorts us the 100km down the incredible engineered winding pass to Raysut where we spend the night at the police station; (but with only our passports in custody!) The next morning we are escorted to Immigration in Salalah where the paperwork is done for us and we are finally free to go.

Immaculate Oman! Perfect pavements and swept streets. Lush green lawns with flowers, fountains and works of art adorn the traffic circles. Avenues of trees link the pristine parks. Only shiny new cars around. Tailors and Tailors and Tailors create the long white“dish dashas” the Omani men wear. ‘The big chief’ is Sultan Qaboos. We see his palaces and extensive royal stables. He studied town planning in the UK and has beautified the entire Sultanate. World-class museums have been commissioned. He is pro conservation and has succeeded in re-introducing and breeding the Arabian oryx and the Thar (mountain goat) again to Oman.

Our considerate pilot friend had left maps for us at the Salalah airport. He directed us to a vegetated wadi for an off road camping spot: “The beauty and the cruelty of the “wadi” – the dried-up, frequently stony creeks that have known better days. They form a fossilised hydrographic network and natural channels of distribution, which spread throughout the entire Arabian Peninsula. During the rainy season these “wadi” can suddenly swell, their flood waters surging down on the villages with an unexpected rage.”

It is a thousand kilometres of smooth driving through the desert to Muscat. . The capital is beautifully situated next to the sea and in between the mountains. The mosques and the adornments of art and plants enhance the scene. (Extended over 50km).

It was through Des’s continued efforts and liaison with Land Rover Oman that we succeeded in getting into the country. We enjoy the company and the home comforts with Captain Des and Adri. They have liked the pleasant and safe way of life and have used every opportunity to explore Oman in their Land Rover. Now the contract is over and Omani pilots have to fly. (Their affirmative action is called “Omanize”). They take us on an unforgettable sunset cruise past the sultan’s giant yacht and the forts above guarding the harbour. The mosques begin chanting one after the other, as the sun sets.

Des takes Jan to Land Rover for spares and to thank Mr. Thomas for getting us into Oman. All foreign workers have to be sponsored by a national and many pay off large sums of money. All businesses must be registered in the name of a local and he partakes of the profits. The labourers and shop owners all seem to be Pakistani. Now we understand why Omanis and UAE citizens are able to drive such fancy vehicles and wander around in the park and sit and chat and drink tea and coffee and smoke hubble-bubble and never do a stitch of work.

We are sorry to leave Muscat but enjoy visiting the forts of Nizwa, Bahla and Jabrin on the way to the border.


“Welcome to the United Arab Emirates”. El Ain’s museum has a good display of Bedouin daily life and wedding finery. We camp outside the town at the camel racetrack.

Camel races

Before sunrise the activity starts: ”Ten or more splendid racing camels await the starter’s signal. A confused medley of cars follow the camels; their necks stretched out in front of their bodies, sidelegs moving in unison, they seem to be defying the laws of gravity. At the finish line the tiny jockey jumps down from his frothy mouthed mount” .

The racing camels are accompanied to the starting line by a larger camel. Next to the oval track fence follows: Two Land Cruisers with TV cameras, a mini bus, a large bus (the ‘ring-side’ seats), a control vehicle and two ambulances. The circuit is 6 kilometres and each race takes about 10 minutes. On the grand stand TV’s with split screens are placed so that the group, the leader and the time is displayed. There are only local men in white dishdashas with, on their heads, a white kaffiye and black agal with tassels. The TV staff offer us tea and Al Ain mineral water. They tell us that today there are 10 prizes for each race and the first prize is 1000 dirhams (xl,5=R) In an important race the first camel receives up to 2million dirhams. A winning camel can sell for 3million dirham!

Dubai: modern skyscrapers reflecting the sunlight and being reflected in the wide creek. Two busy free ways and a tunnel connect the two hubs on either side of the sea channel. A hotel and the golf club house resemble sails. The golf course and the large creek park form an attractive green belt next to the water. Shops filled with imported goods and a whole market with gold jewellery are to gape at. We try to visit some of the renowned shopping centres but somehow each time Jan is ‘fainting’ with hunger and we have to cut it short!

We stay with Leoné’s cousin, Mienie, and Dawid in their large villa with garden. With Mienie’s good taste and flair for presentation it was 5 star luxury. Even nice old M-net and SA beating Wales and Scotland. . We met nice SA people (some of the thousand SA families in Dubai!) Mark Powell, a friend from Jhb, took us to dinner at the very luxurious Jumeira beach hotel, which has the tallest tower of hotel suites in the world.

Our visas for Saudi Arabia had been arranged from South Africa and were ready for collection. We spent an entire morning trying to locate the Saudi Arabia Consulate. When we did, they had closed at 11 am. Returning the next day, we were told that the visas could not be found by name and that we needed the numbers. We e-mailed and faxed frantically for Ingrid and Liesl to get the numbers. Eventually after a whole week we received our single entry 7-day transit visa. In this time Jan installed some of the parts which Brian had so kindly (once again!) sent. The extraction from the airport took only 2 hours, compared with 8 hours in Nairobi. We also visited the world class museums in the area during that time and also a very modern public library. The women had a separate entrance and a reading room where they could remove their veils

UAE: Dubai

We went West from Dubai towards Saudi. Abu Dhabi the capital of the largest and the oil-richest of the 7 emirates is situated on an island. The corniche has park and walkways and fountains.

When we enter the city, our flag is recognised and we pull off to chat. We are promptly invited for a meal and to meet those who came with them. Captain Solo and Marga. One other police helicopter pilot and three police paramedics and their wives.

Such a nice sociable evening which had to last us a long time…


Leoné covered up

We sleep close enough to the border so that we can enter Saudi first thing the next morning. First 20 dirham each departure tax on UAE side. We enter the dreaded Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They look through all our photographs and only point to the bare arms in one (Not noticing that the ladies are sipping Margarita’s!). Leoné, demurely dressed in abaya, (black robe covering head to toe) is requested to stand outside the vehicle while they search it from end to end (looking for alcohol, pork or pornography; any one of which would get one arrested).

We had to cover 2900 km in the 7 allotted days. (Hard going for a Landrover, even though the speed limit on some freeways is 160 km/h!) At the town of Hofuf we drive in circles because there is no clear downtown and all streetnames and road signs are in Arabic only.

Only once did we see romantic sand dunes. The desert next to the freeway was flat and uninteresting. Riyadh is a sprawling city.. Between 1973 and 1978 SA annual oil revenues went from US$4.35 billion to $US36 billion. Under King Khalid’s reign 1975 to 82 money was pouring into utility and infrastructure projects. Riyadh has

a good museum in a restored fort with English descriptions. Women were not allowed unless accompanied by a man; who had to be related by blood or marriage; the same requirement as when she would be in a car! (Women are also not allowed to drive)

Saudi Arabia: Riyad; Leoné covered up

In Taif we tried to go to the market. We always got our timing wrong because whenever we arrived anywhere they were shutting up shop (5 times a day) for prayers. We visited the market in between prayers. Underneath that black garb the women must be dressed in complete contrast. The fabric and dresses in the shops are so elaborate and gaudy. Even the lingerie is green and red. Bright “gold” jewellery and shops with imported perfumes abound. Many shops sold incense in the form of fibre balls or crystalline resin from the frankincense tree.

Saudi Arabia: Road sign

We had gradually climbed and there was an attractive pass towards the coast from Taif. The direction we had been following was “Mecca” but eventually all non-Muslims are directed to the “Christian by-pass”.

Saudi Arabia: non-Muslim by-pass

One policeman tried to turn us back because ‘trucks’ were not allowed. We convinced him and found the only quarry in the whole pass a few metres further for late night camping.

The other Saudi towns had plain houses and mosques and little decoration or greenery. Jeddah had it all including McDonald's.

Lovely mosques and wooden decorated 5 story houses within the ancient city walls. Many shopping centres, one which includes the exclusive designer shops of the world. We had lunch in a restaurant where women had to sit behind a screen but they were served. Jan could sit with L. Decorated streets and a 30-kilometre promenade with pieces of contemporary sculpture and playgrounds and sea water pools interspersed all the way.

The road never stayed close to the sea but there were signs to the desalination plants and the oil export harbours and petrochemical and cement factories.

We left Saudi and had some time in hand. The immigration official said: “I hope you visit Saudi Arabia again.” ….

Then it was “Welcome to Jordan “ over and over many times while they faffed around with computer and papers for about 3 hours, until it was dark. We felt safe and so welcome that we pulled off on the beach just around the corner from the border…. “Bang” “Bang” at One o’clock in the morning. The police telling us to move on. (JHV can argue even in his sleep: “Why?” “ Where’s your ID?)) Eventually they escort us to a campsite nearby. We feel “welcome” again when the fatherly camp attendant shows us where to park in the howling gale.

We are next to the Gulf of Aqaba. It is the beginning of the Rift Valley and is 1800m deep until it leads into the Red Sea, further south. We have to take a ferry over this channel to Sinai in Egypt.

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