There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Saturday, 19 January 2019

Wadi Bani Khalid and the Wahiba Sands: Part 3 of Oman, Kingdom in the Desert

This is a new post though it descibes the events of the 16th of November 2018
It will be moved to its appropriate date shortly

Leaving Ras al Hadd

The breakfast buffet provided further support for Y’s statement that Europeans sit out in the heat while Omanis sit inside in the air-conditioning. It also allowed us to look along the start of the turtle beach which swings right at the horizon and continues for another hundred desolate kilometres.

From Ras Al Hadd the turtle beach strecthes into the distance
At check-out I was presented with the 4 rial (£8) bill for last night’s beers, for which I had paid cash. I pointed out the error and asked for my 5 rial room deposit, which, I was told, had been given to Y.

Outside Y agreed that his 10 rial deposit (two rooms, his and ours) had been returned, but I remembered paying a deposit, too. I counted my money – the only cash I had spent thus far was on lunch and beer yesterday and I was definitely 5 rials short. Back in reception they agreed the bar bill had been settled but were adamant that I had paid no deposit. Y arrived and he too was sceptical - ‘paying deposits is my job’. I stood my ground, I had a clear memory of taking the money from my wallet. The receptionist suggested we look at the CCTV – whose existence I had not even noticed. "That'll prove me right," I thought. Standing in the backroom with Y and the receptionist, I watched as we arrived. In crystal clear pictures I saw myself hand over our passports and take them back once they had been photocopied. Y took the deposit money from his wallet and then I was given a key and left. I had handed over no money. I still distinctly remembered doing so, but had to accept what I saw. Fortunately, I had remained calm and polite, so I could back down without total humiliation, but I left with the worrying thought that I had a clearly recollection of something that had not happened – was I losing it? A milder concern was that my cash supply was 5 rials short.

Through Sur and into the Interior

We drove back over the stony desert and crossed the neck of the lagoon into Sur.

The new bridge into Sur meant we did not have to drive all the way round the lagoon
This time we encountered something resembling a town centre.

Sur
Before heading into the interior towards our destination for the day, the Wahiba Sands.

From Ras Al Hadd, through Sur then down to the Wahiba Sands
Our journey started on Highway 23, yet another sparsely travelled six-lane dual-carriage way. Less stony and desolate here, the softer landscape allowed scrubby vegetation to eke out a precarious existence.

Highway 23 from Sur
Highway 23 will eventually be like this all the way to Ibra, but for moment the section nearest to Sur is complete and the next under construction. We were soon on a two-lane road and even passed through the occasional village.

Village on Highway 23
Then we turned off and headed into the hills towards Wadi Bani Khalid.

The road to Wadi Bani Khalid
Wadi Bani Khalid

You know you are nearing the wadi when you find the road lined with parked cars - Friday is the start of the Omani weekend.

Y parked and we walked along the concrete edge of the canalised stream, though the concrete was not continuous and a little jumping, and occasional paddling was required.

Reaching the main swimming area, we walked to the far end where there was a bridge and café. Few were swimming (none in my photo, though there were some later) perhaps because modesty is the rule here. An official from the Ministry of Tourism sits in his little gazebo (right, far end of pool in picture) waiting to take offence at the slightest glimpse of female flesh - the perfect job for a pervert.

The main swimming area, Wadi Bani Khalid
The wadi enters the pool through a deep-water channel where swimming is not permitted.

Deep-water channel above the main swimming area, Wadi Bani Khalid
Following the channel upstream involves a clamber over the rocks (hard work in the hot sun), but eventually leads to an alternative pool where European style swimming costumes are acceptable.

Standing above the alternative swimming pool, Wadi Bani Khalid
Here too swimmers were thin on the ground - or in the water. Several local lads were jumping in from the rocks but there was also one young man who was fully dressed and with no intention of swimming. Perhaps he had come to watch European women in skimpy bathing suits, but if so he was only an amateur pervert, not a professional like the chap in the gazebo downstream. He was not having much luck and declined to watch me floating in the pool, but more people were arriving by the minute.

As I float in the Wadi Bani Khalid the ogler turns away in digust
Another deep-water channel came in from the right and I swam some fifteen metres along it before rounding a bend and meeting a rock wall. To its right the stream entered the channel in a tinkling rapid even its greatest fan could not call a waterfall. By the time I returned to the main pool it was crowded and there was plenty for the ogler to ogle.

I had been dried by the sun long before we re-joined Y at the café. He suggested we eat there but they offered only a buffet so we asked about alternatives. Y looked please and said,‘I know a much better place.’

It was after one when we left the wadi and started our descent back to Highway 23. On the way up we had not noticed the greenery marking the line of the wadi, even where there was no surface water.

Spotting the line of the wadi on the descent to Highway 23
Bidiyah

Y had failed to mention that his chosen restaurant was over an hour away and we were hungry by the time we reached the village of Bidiyah (spellings vary). There is little to see on the main road, but we could hardly miss the restaurant bedecked in National Day bunting.

The restauarnt in Bidiyah
Again two portions between three was more than adequate, and again biryani rice was the main staple. In place of yesterday’s tuna we had chicken, pleasingly immersed in an Omani curry sauce. Southern Pakistan and the Indian state of Gujarat are just across the Gulf of Oman/Arabian Sea and the trade winds have been enabling commerce since the invention of the sail, so Oman inevitably picked up a curry habit. Omani curries are less complex than the best of India, and a little lighter on the chilli, though a bottle of chilli sauce sits on every table for the desperate. Omani lunch usually also includes a salad – mild red onions, tomatoes, cucumber and a wedge of lemon – which never happens in India. Chapatis and the inevitable dish if dates completed our repast.

While paying the modest bill, I discovered the missing 5 rial note that had concerned me in the morning, stuck between our passports in my ‘inner wallet’. Further proof  I had a memory of an event that never happened

Omani chicken curry in Bidiyah
Well fed Y drove us off the main road and into the village which is more nucleated than most Arab settlements. Bidiyah is on the edge of the Wahiba Sands and before venturing off-road we stopped to have the tyre pressures lowered.


Getting the right tyre pressure for driving on sand, Bidiyah
Into the Wahiba Sands

South of central Bidiyah the tarmac comes to a stop. The village continues for a while…

The last gasp of Bidiyah village
…and then you are out in the sands.

Into the Wahiba sands
The Wahiba (or Sharqiyah) Sands, 50km wide and 150km long, are a system of parallel dunes running NE-SW. We were heading for the 1000 Night's camp, one of Wahiba's ten or so permanent camps and the deepest into the desert.
 
We made good speed, the sand shushing away from the tyres generally gave a comfortable ride, but occasionally the mass of tracks going one way creates a series of narrow, lateral indentations (as in the photo above) which shake the car about. We encountered the same phenomenon in the very different surroundings of the Mongolian steppe in 2007.

We encountered an impromptu dune bashing contest. Two cars were involved, accelerating in turn towards the base of the dune and competing to get as high as possible before forward motion ceased and their spinning wheels did nothing but throw sand into the air. We watched four attempts and all petered out roughly where the gulley on the left joins the ‘piste’. On one attempt the car slewed round as it stopped and came closer to tumbling down the gulley than was comfortable.

Dune bashing in the Wahiba Sands
At Bidiyah a sign to the camp had pointed into the desert and we followed the designated groove between two dunes for several miles until the tracks swung left and zigzagged up the side of the dune. No road existed as such, but the sand here was hard-packed and half way up there was another sign.

There is no road, but there is a road sign
On the way to the 1000 Night's camp, Wahiba Sands
Once over the top we continued along the next groove. I began to wonder if it was just a matter of following the tracks; Y had done this journey many times before but could anybody do it? I would not, I decided, like to try. Tracks lead in all sorts of directions, wild camping is popular and you could find yourself following tracks to a camp site deserted days before. Unless accompanied by someone with Y’s expertise, I would not attempt this without GPS.

1000 Night's Camp, Wahiba Sands

The camp had a stone-built reception area, dining room and pool, and a collection of huts tricked out to almost resemble a tented encampment. We were shown into a ‘tent’ that was as hot as an oven. The windows and shutters were thrown open and with a through breeze the temperature soon started to drop. At night, we were told, would be cooler and comfortable without air-conditioning - and so it was.


Not quite a tent, 1000 Nights Camp, Wahiba Sands
We went to inspect the camp’s oryx. The Arabian Oryx once roamed all over the Arabian Peninsula but overhunting led to it being declared extinct in the wild in 1972. There are now some 7,000 breeding in captivity and releases have allowed the wild population to top 1,000 - with every prospect of increasing further. It is, so far, the only species to have its threat level downgraded from ‘extinct in the wild’ to ‘vulnerable’.

Arabian Oryx, 1000 Nights Camp, Wahiba Desert
It was suggested we might like to climb the dune and watch the sun set into the desert. After wading through deep sand in pursuit of turtles last night and clambering over the rocks at Wadi Bani Khalid this morning, our legs wanted a rest so we gave it a miss this time.

Dinner was the hotel buffet – there really was nowhere else to go and anyway it was already paid for.  Lynne had fish, vegetables and a pappad, I went for a vegetarian curry with biryani rice, pickles and a chapati. It was pleasant enough but the desserts were spectacular and I tried all three (glutton!). Gulab Jamun (always may favourite Indian dessert), Umm Ali (an Egyptian version of bread and butter pudding, but so much better) and Omani Halva (an extraordinarily sweet, red, gelatinous grain rather than a nut based halva.)

With a clear sky and minimal light pollution we had been looking forward to viewing the stars, and we wandered out and find a spot well-hidden from what little artificial light there was. Sadly, we had forgotten to check the phases of the moon when booking this trip and the waxing moon was far too bright for star-gazing.

Oman, Kingdom in the Desert

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Auschwitz

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

27th of January 2019

This post was written in 2011 about a visit to Auschwitz in 2002.

In 2019, with anti-Semitism on the rise and growing far-right and nationalist parties in India, Europe, the USA and across the world it is important to remember where this sort of politics leads. 

Lynne and I visited Poland in July 2002 and I wrote this soon after. I don't claim any new insight - I doubt there are any left - and Auschwitz has been written about many time before by people better qualified and more eloquent than me, but I could not visit such a place and walk away like it was a country house or a museum. I had to write something, if only to try understand what I had seen.

Like all tourists in Kraków Lynne, and I walked up to the castle and the cathedral, strolled along the Vistula, lingered in the magnificent old square and photographed the seminary where Pope John Paul II trained as a priest.

Wawel Cathedral, Krakow

The next day we drove fifty kilometres east to Oświęcim. Oświęcim? The name is hardly familiar. Why make a special journey to this small industrial town?

Every part of Poland has spent long years under foreign occupation. Every Polish town has at some time been Russian or German or Austro-Hungarian and has acquired different names in different languages. ‘Oświęcim’ is pleasantly obscure, but its German name is known throughout the world. Oświęcim was once called Auschwitz.

Today the camp is a museum administered by the Polish government. Beyond the modern visitor centre, we passed beneath the words ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ in wrought iron and entered the camp itself. All around us shoulders hunched, faces took on thoughtful expressions and conversations hushed in half a dozen languages. I was probably not the only one wondering why I was there. Had our visit any more moral validity than slowing down to gawp at a motorway accident?

Entering Auschwitz under Arbeit Mach Frei in wrought iron

At first sight Auschwitz does not seem terrible. Well-built two storey red brick barracks stand beside neat gravel streets lined with shady trees. I had read that the birds no longer sing here. That is not true.

Auschwitz
Once a barracks for the Prussian Army, it was not built to be a place of horror
Entering a building we were faced with photographs stretching the length of the corridor – portrait sized versions of the camp mug shots. They look back at you, some terrified, some defiant but most with carefully guarded expressions. At first the roughly shaven scalps rob them of individuality but moving down the line you begin to see real people staring out from a living hell. Beneath each photograph is a name, an occupation - lecturer, shoemaker, engineer - a date of admission and a date of death. For older men these are often days apart, but generally it took perhaps six months to work a man to death.

Other blocks are as they were in 1944, straw the only bedding, toilet facilities cruelly inadequate. We entered the ‘Death Block’ past the bullet-pocked wall against which those who displeased the authorities were shot. In the basement, where Cyklon B gas was first tested on Russian prisoners of war, a party of Spanish teenagers listened uneasily as their guide explained the events of sixty years before.

Everywhere the shaven headed photographs stared down. Some of the hair was spun into cloth - a bolt of it sits in a glass case at the top of a flight of stairs – but much was stored. It now occupies a gallery in one of the huts. Behind a glass wall is the hair of tens of thousands of human beings. It is impossible not to stare open mouthed. It is impossible not to walk the whole length of the gallery though every step offers the same pitiful view as the step before. When I entered the camp I thought I might grasp some understanding of the suffering endured here, after this I knew I never could. In another hut is a gallery of shoes: men’s and women’s shoes, labourer’s boots and city loafers, broken and lace-less each one a public witness to a personal tragedy. There is a gallery of suitcases stencilled with names and the addresses they would never return to. There is a room of brushes - hairbrushes, shoe brushes, shaving brushes, toothbrushes. There is a mountain of spectacles and a sad display of prosthetic limbs.

Outside there is another world of trees and singing birds. It is hard to decide which world is real. Passing the hospital where Josef Mengele performed his perverted experiments we reached the crematorium. Auschwitz was a work camp, not an extermination camp but for most death was the only release. As the Red Army advanced, the Nazi’s blew up the ovens as though trying to pretend nothing had ever happened.

If Auschwitz is terrible, a two-minute drive took us to a place that is even worse. We approached Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau, across flat Silesian farmland.

Outside the gates of Birkenau life goes on

The gate-tower and forbidding entrance are familiar from flickering newsreels.

The gate tower at Birkenau seen from inside the camp

We climbed the gate-tower and scanned the vast camp, but it is the railway that attracts the eye. Bisecting the camp it leads a quarter of a mile into the distance. At the end of the line are the gas chambers and crematoria. To the west only the brick chimneys and floors of the wooden huts remain...

The railway and the destroyed huts as soon from the gate tower, Birkenau

To the east a section of the huts have been preserved and look much as they did in 1945, except that grass is neatly mown and the people are tourists - well fed and brightly dressed.

Preserved huts, Birkenau

We descended and walked through the camp. A fox strolled past us, as though everything was completely normal.

Fox, Birkenau
We entered one of the huts. If the barracks in Auschwitz could have been comfortable under a different regime with a different purpose, these were designed for misery. At night the inmates huddled on dark wooden shelves, the small stove pathetically inadequate in the vicious Silesian winter.

Inside one of the huts at Birkenau

Birkenau was purpose built for the extermination of the Jewish race. Killing was on an industrial scale. As trains arrived those who could work were taken to the camp where they might survive for weeks or months while the rest - the old, the infirm, mothers with children - went to the gas chambers. If the camp was full whole trainloads were gassed on arrival. In eighteen months two million people were killed. As at Auschwitz the gas chambers were destroyed as the Russians advanced. As at Auschwitz it remains obvious what they were.

The Railhead, Birkenau
The gas chambers and crematoria are just to the right

How did all this happen? The camp forces visitors to face deep questions about the nature of humanity and the presence or absence of God. It would be inappropriate to attempt to deal with such serious topics in a few sentences here.

Back in Krakow we visited the Kasimierz district, home in 1939 to 70 000 Jews.

Lynne outside the Old Synagogue, now a museum, Kasimierz

Today 150 live there but with Krakow’s tourist boom Kazimierz is enjoying a renaissance and restaurants serving Jewish food surround the old square. We sat outside the Café Ariel eating Jellied Carp and Tcholent stew. It was Friday and men wearing yarmulkas strolled in the square greeting friends. As dusk fell they drifted towards the synagogue. I wondered why they had stayed in Krakow. I had neither the language nor the impertinence to ask but I knew that for centuries Poles and Jews had lived here in harmony. Even in the worst days there were oases of sanity, the factory of Oscar Schindler lay just across the river from where we sat.

We dined at the Ariel Restaurant, the square in Kasimierz
As night fell children danced outside the synagogue singing traditional songs in a joyous affirmation of their ancient culture; proof enough that the ‘final solution’ had failed.

I cannot say that I enjoyed visiting Auschwitz, but it was an experience I will remember and it finished with children singing, a note of hope at the end of a dark day.

(originally posted 06/01/2011)

...and finally

This was not the world's first nor its last genocide; events in Cambodia and Rwanda were the re-emerging tip of an iceberg that will not go away.
Phnom Penh (2) Killing Fields and Torture Chambers
Recounts the events in 1980s Cambodia seen from the vantage of our 2014 visit.

None of this makes cheerful reading (or writing), but it is important

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Cannock Chase, Wind and Rain: The (N + 8)th Annual Fish and Chip Walk

This is the 9th of these walks I have written about – I started with the Nth though the exact size of N is still discussed. In recent years I have warned that I am running out of new things to say about a walk across Cannock Chase, but the time for warnings is over, this time the well has run dry.

Almost.

After a wobble last year with only three walkers on a January Chip Walk, it was good to be back in the proper pre-Christmas slot, and for there to be 6 participants: Francis, Lee and me (last year’s stalwarts), Sue and Mike (last year’s missing regulars) and Anne S on her first (hopefully of many) Chip Walks. It would have been 7 but for occasional welcome guest Anne W having to cry off at the last minute.

Mike and I arrived at Chase Road Corner to find Francis’ van parked with the flattest of flat tyres and Francis, Sue and Lee sitting inside, oblivious. We pointed out the problem and while they were taking stock of the situation Anne texted to say she would be ten minutes late. She suggested we set off and she would run and catch up. Her enthusiasm is a tonic, but nobody has threatened to run on a chip walk before; I don’t think it should be encouraged. We waited for her, of course, and she arrived as Lee and Francis finished changing the wheel.

Changing a tyre, Chase Road Corner car park
Those not involved in motor mechanics spent the time enjoying the Chase Road Corner car park’s arctic condition. It is an exposed spot and we set off into a stinging icy wind. I paused to adjust a boot lace and found I was quickly left behind, even the swiftest walkers in the group going just a little quicker to get the blood circulating….

Moving briskly from Chase road corner through a cold and biting wind
….and to be over the lip of the Sherbrook Valley as soon as possible. The descent into more sheltered territory came as a relief.

The descent starts, led by two Geographers and two of Santa's elves
Despite the slightly different starting point we soon picked up last year’s route, following Marquis’s Drive to and through the visitor centre and down to the railway and the A460. In the lowest part of the walk the weather felt positively balmy – at least in comparison.

One of them has disappeared! Marquis's Drive down to the railway line and the A460
A footbridge now spans the railway, but you still have to cross the A460 Rugeley-Cannock Road where the stream of fast cars is much more dangerous than the occasional train ever was.

There is no reason why the climb up to Stile Cop Road seems much easier on Marquis's Dive than the tedious drag up Miflins Valley - they start at almost the same height, are much the same distance and the two paths eventually join - but it always does. We paused for coffee where one of the mountain bike trails joins the main drag.

Coffee stop above the mountain bike trail
We continued to the end of Stile Cop Road and crossed it into Beaudesert Old Park and descended to the Horsepasture Pools. Francis took a nasty tumble on this section last year, but the path is now in much better condition with far less slippery mud, so the descent was made without mishap.

Down to Horsepasture Pools

At the pools we felt the first drops of the promised rain, though it was only spitting as we strolled from the pools to Upper Longdon and the Chetwynd Arms.

Thw Chetwynd Arms, Upper Longdon
The walk had been only 10Km, and we had been fairly swift, so we reached the pub shortly after 12. Lynne and Alison T, who were to join us for lunch were still some distance away. So there was a problem, how do you kill 30 minutes in a pub?

We ordered when they arrived, though as it was a Fish and Chip Walk the only real choice was garden or mushy peas.

Lunch at the Chetwynd Arms
l to r, Alison T, Lynne, Sue, Lee, Anne, Mike, Francis (and I'm hiding behind the camera)
It was Sue’s birthday, and her meal was delivered with a lighted candle. Happy Birthday Sue, and because it is your special day I shall not even mention that you ate vegetarian lasagne on a fish and chip walk.

Happy Birthday, Sue
I was waiting for her to blow out the candle, not realising she had already done it (Duh)
The longer we sat in the pub the steadier the rain became. Three years ago we gave up at lunchtime, but then we had been soaked in the morning and the afternoon looked worse. Also, Lee’s car was in the pub car park, which it wasn’t this year, so the temptation never arose.

The temperature was reasonably mild as we climbed into our wet weather gear and took a sunken path out of Upper Longdon which runs north of the Chase…

Down the sunken lane from Upper Longdon
… and into the field paths above Brereton (which is, I suppose, a suburb of Rugeley). Every walk on or around the Chase offers the opportunity of a view of Rugeley Power Station, but these paths have the very best. Softened by the mist, it has, as Anne observed, a certain brutal beauty.

Rugeley B was opened in September 1970 and burned 1.6m tonnes of coal a year to produce around 9 million MWh of power. There was a plan to convert it to burning biomass in 2012, but that came to nothing and the power station closed in summer 2016. The 120 job losses were regrettable, but Rugeley B is yet another coal fired power station no longer venting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that is good for the whole world. The ever-reliable Wikipedia tells me it is scheduled for demolition next summer, so this may be the last photograph of it to appear in this blog – but I will believe that when I don’t see it.


Rugeley Power Station
We returned to the woods at Chetwynd Coppice, found our way round the exotically named India Hills and returned to Stile Cop Road by the cemetery, 1.5 Km south of where we crossed it earlier. I had expected to turn up the hill and walk to the car park we usually use, but Lee had parked in the cemetery, so that was the end of the walk. The afternoon had been a brief 3 Km jaunt, but even at 3.15 the light was beginning to fade.

Lee drove us all back to Chase Road Corner, which was as bitingly cold as it had been in the morning. Exercise had been taken, tradition had been maintained, so now on with the festivities.


The Annual Fish and Chip Walks