Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk

I have been posting a bit about walking, recently, what with my frustration at being unable to do a great deal of it after my foot operation.

Foolishly, I made reference to the following episode in a reply to someone on one of the ‘walking’ posts, and admitted I might write about it sometime. Well, take this as a Warning From Someone Who Learned The Hard Way.

Thirty years ago I lived and worked in Oman. I was a seismologist, working on seismic data for an oil exploration company – but before you all shout at me, my conscience is clear. I don’t think I was particularly good at it, and I don’t think my efforts contributed to anyone finding any oil.

*phew!*

I do worry that as a result of this post, though, someone will now contact me and say ‘Hello, Mick. I was a geophysicist in Muscat when you were there, and I remember that one of the projects you worked on found absolutely stonking amounts of oil!’ But I doubt it.

Anyway, let me set the scene.

I lived near Muscat, the capital, which lies on the north coast of Oman. Behind me, towards the interior, ran a line of high hills

It is a massive simplification, but just at this point the hills run east to west, parallel with the coast, and consist of a series of ridges (jebels) and valleys (wadis). So to cross them from north to south (or in the opposite direction) the traveller has to continually climb up and down for the entire journey.

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I bet you can already see where this is going.

When I had a few free hours, I would often walk out of my house, and up into the hills to just wander around and explore. As a result of this, I knew the first couple of wadis and jebels pretty well. There was a high, prominent jebel to the south, though, which was the final ridge before the land fell away to a wide stony plain, and I had never gone that far on foot up till then. This ridge was easy to spot, however, as there was a large microwave (radio) transmitter on top, and I knew it was the final ridge as we would often drive past it on the south side.

I had a day off.

I don’t know exactly what time of year it was, but it must have been in the ‘cooler’ season, because even I wouldn’t have been stupid enough to try when it was really hot.

Surely?

I didn’t even have a proper rucksack, I had a small roll-bag, which I slung uncomfortably over my shoulder. Inside, I had a single bottle of water, and a dozen small packaged juice drinks. I had a compass, but no map. I had a hat, I had a camera.

So, well-equipped and well-prepared, I set off.

The first couple of hours went well. I crossed two or three ridges and felt fine. I guess I should say at this point, that I was pretty fit. The project probably wasn’t an unreasonable one, by any means.

Certainly not for someone with the right equipment and supplies.

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I was probably just beginning to feel a bit hot and tired when I crested what I thought would be the penultimate ridge, only to find I was looking down on another two smaller ridges that I still had to cross before reaching the final large one.

And the large one was looking very large indeed!

I can be ridiculously, unreasonably, stubborn, at times. I remember that on the final ascent I had to force my legs to bend and stretch, to take each step, but the top was getting nearer and nearer and I wasn’t going to give in.

I made it.

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I enjoyed the view and the moment. It was, admittedly, very impressive and I knew I’d done pretty well to get there.

And really, all I needed to do then was to carry on down the south side of the ridge, walk another kilometre or two to the road I mentioned earlier, and hitch a lift back to Muscat.

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Have I mentioned I can be unreasonably stubborn?

I turned around and started heading down the north side towards home.

I could draw this out into a long dramatic story of my walk, but I’ll give you the abbreviated version.

I found I was in difficulty as soon as I had to go up the next hill. especially as I had finished all my drinks by then.

It took me several hours and more energy than I realised I had at one point, just to get to the final ridge. But at that point, I knew I no longer had the energy or strength for that last climb. I could not do it. Fortunately for me, I knew I could follow the valley for a mile or two east, where it would come out to the coast plain. So I turned and stumbled that way. By now, I was desperate to find some sort of shade, just for a moment, but there was nothing.

But I staggered along, and as the hills either side dropped down, I came to a cluster of buildings. I don’t know what exactly they were, but I staggered in through a doorway and an Indian working there took one look at me, sat me down and brought me water.

‘Slowly!’ I remember him saying, as I poured it down my throat. ‘Not good to drink too quick!’

I didn’t care. I drank it like a camel on steroids given twenty seconds to fill up. I got through an awful lot of water, but he made me sit and rest for a while before I went off again. I think he offered me food, which I refused, and I think he offered to find someone to drive me, but I don’t really remember too much from that point on. I did walk home eventually, though. I just hope I thanked him sufficiently.

It was not one of my more intelligent adventures.

The Travel Bug Bit Me – part 3

When I lived in Oman, the land around where I lived and worked was all stone desert; hills and valleys of razor sharp broken boulders, water worn stones at the bottom of dry valleys, with occasional villages and settlements and old, crumbling, mud brick forts dating from the time that the Portuguese were there. Almost invisible tracks used by goats and nomads wound their way through this wonderful landscape, or simply followed the routes of the wadis, the dry river valleys. I had a very small scale map of the country, as well as a few very large scale maps that I had pinched from the office where I worked (I did return them when I left). These would consist largely of huge areas of blank paper, with the occasional ‘tree’ or ‘large boulder’ helpfully marked, although they did show the main wadi courses and mountain ridges.

I was very tempted to write ‘here be dragons’ on them occasionally.

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Never before had I quite understood what silence was. And it was the first place (to be followed by the Himalaya) that I was to truly see a night sky. I was periodically astonished by the desert’s outbursts – blasts of hot wind like an opened oven door; flash floods that appeared from a blue sky in minutes, to ferociously drench the unfortunate climbers on the top of a previously baking jebel (hill); and tiny earthquakes and landslides – I was no doubt fortunate never to witness a serious one. I would overnight in the desert with friends and we would lie on our backs to watch the unbelievable night sky with its thousands of stars, satellites and shooting stars, before ascending a 10,000ft mountain in the morning, or exploring a stretch of uninhabited coastline.

I spent almost every spare hour that I had out in that desert, either trying to find my way across trackless ridges in my jeep, or just walking; walking everywhere within walking distance and discovering just how much there is actually to see in a desert. I was supremely happy in that environment, and some 20 years later when I had to change aircraft in Muscat, I found myself looking out at the purple tinted hazy mountain lines with something very close to homesickness.

Today, even waiting on the station to get a train to go to the next stop, a coffee in hand, a bag over my shoulder with a book in it, I am on a journey. And that journey feels clearly related to the longest journeys that I have ever taken. There can still be the same sense of travelling, of departing and arriving. The search for food and shelter… I think that it shows just how much a journey largely exists in the mind. Often our perceptions of a journey seem to differ from that journey’s reality (as many things do, I suppose). A long, difficult journey can seem to be over quicker than a short, easy one.

Just packing a rucksack, even an overnight bag when I used to have to occasionally stay over where I once worked – a wash bag and towel, sleeping bag and clothes – I feel as though I’m off on a journey. There is a certain amount of excitement…

And I know, too, how smell is such a strong, evocative, sense. Just with the kitchen window open, at 10pm on a slightly rainy October evening, I suddenly catch a scent of something – something cooking nearby, or a hint of smoke, perhaps – and I am instantly transported to Nepal, high in the mountains, remembering an evening with sherpas and villagers beside a river where we ate and then sat around talking and drinking and listening to those sherpas and villagers singing.

Okay, I’m ready to go and pack, now…

By Popular Request (2)

First of all, a huge ‘thank you’ to all of you who contributed to the comments thread on my post earlier this week, ‘Religion or Philosophy.’

I thought it made it the most interesting so far, and all of your comments certainly given me much food for thought about what I had written and my feelings around the subject.

So, today, a couple more paintings. I didn’t paint much when I was in Oman, apart from a few sketches and watercolours, so these ones were worked much later, from some of the photographs I took.

It is in the desert that I have been most aware of the contrast between light and dark, and that is something that I wanted to bring out in these paintings.

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Oman #1 Acrylic on board. 24 ins x 36 ins

There is something about ruins, by their very nature, that is stark. They have been shaped by human hand, but are now broken. Designed and built for a purpose, but now with that purpose gone. There is a sadness, or at least a feeling of melancholy.

There is a sense of emptiness, which is frequently a feeling that comes upon the traveller in the desert.

And in the desert, there is not that softening growth of ivy, for example, to soften the harsh and fractured edges of ruins.

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Oman #2 Acrylic on board 37 ins x 23 ins

The second painting, Oman #2, was also an exercise in the use of triangles in composition.

Oman (1)

Prior to 1970, Oman was, in many ways, still a medieval country. There were no more than 3 miles of tarmac road in the whole country, the gates of the capital, Muscat, were still closed between the hours of sunset and sunrise, and it’s exports were largely confined to dates, limes and frankincense. Oil had first been discovered as far back as 1956, and then in commercial quantities in 1962. Production began in 1964 and led irrevocably to massive changes, although these would not come about until 1970.

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This launch (Omanis never use the word Dhow) was on the shore at Yiti, just east of Muscat. It would most likely have been used for trading and was probably still seaworthy when I took this photo.

Mindful of these changes that had happened virtually overnight to other Middle Eastern states when oil had been discovered, the then Sultan, Said, was determined that Oman would not go the same way. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, his solution was to stash the proceeds in the royal coffers, whilst the country and its people remained poor. It was a situation that could not last for long, and in 1970 his son, Qaboos, overthrew the old Sultan.

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Old fort at the village of Baushar, near Muscat.
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Carved wooden door in Baushar Fort

I lived there between 1985 and 1988, during which time the country was making large strides towards being a modern state, although many parts of the country still felt as though they belonged in another century. Around Muscat and along the Northern coast, there were new towns springing up, modern shops and hotels, main roads, and much of the development that might be expected. There did appear to be an emphasis on the building of facilities such as schools and hospitals, however, along with a good deal of restraint, which was a refreshing change from the way that many other states used their oil wealth.

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Pottery kiln at Bahla.

Bahla has good quality clay and produces large numbers of pots, which are thrown on simple foot-operated slow wheels and fired in large mud-brick kilns, which are fueled with brushwood.

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Newly-fired pots

Away from the towns, to visit most of the villages was like stepping back in time. Buildings were often still mud brick and palm thatch, and many of the traditional cottage industries were still followed.

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Falaj.

The Falaj system of irrigation originated in Persia and was spread throughout the Arab world. I have even seen examples in Spain. The system consists of a series of underwater channels bringing water from where it arises, usually in the mountains, to where it is needed, where it is distributed by overground channels. These channels, both underground and overground, have been built on a very gentle gradient and show astounding technical skill, being built only with primitive tools, often very deep underground. Many of the Omani Falajes are reckoned to have been built by 500 BC.

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Dates spread out to dry near the town of Quriyat.

Dates are an important crop in Oman and were the main export until the discovery of oil there. They are still dried in the traditional way – in the sun.

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Boy on a donkey with sharks. The sea has also traditionally been a major source of food for Omanis. I passed this boy just outside Quriyat.

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Coastal mountains, SE of Muscat.

For a long time after I finally left Oman, I harboured a strong wish to go back there. But recently I watched several videos on YouTube, which have cured me. Many of the places that I knew as small settlements with dirt roads and small houses, have become places of great wealth with wide boulevards, modern houses and cars, and tourist hotels. It is, no doubt, a development that is welcomed by the majority of the population, but it is not the Oman that I knew.

Oasis

There you go. A picture of an oasis.