The Great Outdoors
Summer may have its outdoor charm in countries that have a pronounced winter season, but it’s the winter that earns all the outdoor perks in this part of the world – be it a casual trek, a swim in the sea, an adventurous desert safari, a game fishing trip or a mountain biking session
In 2005, author Richard Louv coined the phrase Nature-Deficit Disorder in his book ‘Last Child in the Woods’, to describe the all too normal condition of spending too much time indoor. He pegged the deficiency to a disorder, but clarified that Nature-Deficit Disorder is not meant to be a medical diagnosis, rather, a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world.
The ‘disorder’ aspect of the deficiency may not have found consensus with experts in the field of mental health, but there is certainly no disputing the importance of the great outdoors, which has intrinsic health values, including sharper faculty for attention and a general feel good factor.
The feel good factor is the big decider here, as winter opens the treasure box of outdoor activities that are tagged under fun. For the great outdoor has a way of rekindling the seemingly elusive feel good factor. Fresh air in a natural setting is known to induce relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety; consistent outdoor recreation is also said to boost self-esteem. Whether the trigger for the outdoors is physical fitness or mental wellbeing, a tryst with Oman’s seemingly boundless outdoor options is inevitable during the pleasant winter climes.
In the following pages we present a panoramic perspective of tried and tested outdoor activities that are best pursued during the coming months. Go on; explore Oman’s outdoors with us…
The shimmering golden sands of Oman’s visually compelling desertscape is best experienced during the cool winter months, when the weather joins hands with nature to beckon even fastidious folks to check out the treasures of the desert.
An inspiring communion with nature is guaranteed, even if one is simply pitching tent in the open plains or lodging at one of the camps in the Sharqiya Sands. But if adventure is the spur, a desert safari could be just what the weather calls for.
As Rebecca Mayston, Manager of The Guide Oman notes, it is their self-drive Desert Safari that gives participants a unique opportunity to enjoy the true adventure of being in the dunes. She attributes the adventure factor to the thrill of learning desert driving with the comfort of an experienced crew.
Listing desert safari as a perfect outdoor activity this season, she says, “During summer, the temperatures are too hot, which is why we run our events from September to April. Winter has cool crisp evenings and lovely daytime temperatures, allowing people to enjoy the dunes.”
She advises those with adventure in their veins to go on a self-drive desert safari, for that ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. The other option, as she notes, is to go on a private tour to a camp.
Guide Oman’s Desert Safari provides all the essentials of the trip, (including the option to rent a suitable 4×4) with a highly skilled support crew of medics, mechanics, marshals and catering, as well as the essential training in requisite desert skills at the destination. While there is no denying that Sharqiya Sands can also be experienced by undertaking a private trip, to be able to self-drive is a unique, must-try experience. However, it is important to follow certain guidelines, maintains Rebecca. “If you are not joining a formal trip, you should ensure that you are with people who have the skills and necessary equipment for safety and recovery. Never go alone,” is her firm advice.
Also, pointing out the importance of maintaining the pristine environment of the desert, she adds. “Always tidy up after yourself; take all the garbage, leave only foot prints. Help us keep Sharqiyah as beautiful as it is today.”
Winter is a great equaliser. It has its own ways of making things pleasant for all outdoor activities, including fishing, in this part of the world. Although there is no ideal season for game fishing, as Adrian Hollis notes, some times of the year are better for fishing than others.
A renowned game-fisherman and GCC based investment professional, Adrian, who likes to spend his weekends chasing fish in Oman, has found that there are more fish caught by game-fishermen during the winter than at other times. This, as he observes, may be due to the fact that it is simply more pleasant to be out when it is cooler.
Explaining about game fishing in Oman, he says: “The game fish we have here in the Sultanate are mainly migratory, which are affected by the seasons and water temperatures. When the weather (and therefore water) is hotter, there will, most likely, be more Dorado around. These are a mainstay for the boat-born game fisherman.
“Sailfish are another traveller through Omani waters; they also like the warmer weather. Should a game fisherman manage to catch one of these magnificent creatures, he will surely have had a day to remember.
“In addition to the above there are a number of Tuna species that can be caught here throughout the year. Yellow-fin Tuna is, of course, the one we are most likely to catch. They can grow to an enormous size and will test the tackle and boat handling skills of anyone who is lucky enough to hook into one.
“These fish dive deep when hooked, so make sure you have enough strong line. If you are lucky enough to catch a big one, you will be in for a long battle to get it on the boat. Over the years, I have been privileged to watch many local fishermen catch these on what is the most basic equipment. And they do it well.
“Word of warning… Unless you are very lucky, you could spend many hours and gallons of fuel chasing Yellow fin; but if you get a big one, it will be worth it for sure!”
Lots of other fish abound, but from a game-fishing point of view they are not generally considered, he points out. Delving into the subject, he says, “Kawakawa, a variety of tuna, offer great sporting opportunity in the winter. They are smaller tuna but can be caught by trolling the right lure fast (8 – 12 knots). It is a matter of finding them. Once found it is an easy matter of staying in the area and keep catching.
“The long-tail Tuna, described as the most sporting fish, can often be found in large schools feeding on sardine and flying fish. They don’t dive as deep as Yellow-fin, but offer a very sporting challenge not only to hook but also to get into the boat. An excellent target for the fly-fisher…
“There are numerous other fish that may be caught. Barracuda and Giant Trevally is a couple that the lucky angler may hook into. These fish are difficult to target in the Muscat area, but if caught can certainly make the day.”
Listing out the best places to go game fishing, he notes that although game fish are generally caught near the surface they prefer to at least be in water that is deep. “Muscat area offers better opportunities, as it has fairly deep water, not far offshore, which gives the game-fisher a greater chance of Tuna, Sailfish and Marlin – yes they are sometimes here too!
Once one gets further, West of Fahal Island, the water is not so deep (in game fishing terms). However, all the way down to Salalah there are great opportunities,” he states.
Talking about the ease or otherwise of indulging in this sport, Adrian says “You can learn by the school of hard knocks and discover it all yourself which can be fun, frustrating and take years but can also lead to early disappointment. Why not take a shortcut? There are a number of excellent Omani run charter boats who will willingly take you out. They have all the gear and, most importantly, will put you on the fish. You never know you might just get hooked!”
For interested adventure seekers, Adrian has the following advice:
• The sea can be a dangerous place; it does not forgive fools and commands respect.
• Check the weather.
• Have correct safety equipment on your boat – expect a full safety briefing before setting out, whether with friends or a charter boat (if you don’t get one, don’t go).
• Remember to keep hydrated. When the boat is moving it is easy to forget how warm it can be – even in the winter). A wide brimmed hat and sun block are also a good idea.
• Be aware of the moon cycle and tides as they have a massive influence on feeding patterns.
• Don’t kill fish just for a photo. If you are not going to eat it, release it alive or give it to a local fisherman who has not has as much success as you.
• Don’t get disheartened if you don’t catch anything. It doesn’t matter.
• Do enjoy the day. It’s called ‘fishing’ not ‘catching’ for a reason.
If there were one activity that resonates intimacy with nature, it would be trekking in the early hours of morning, with the horizon turning crimson at the break of dawn. The heavy winter air and the dreamy mist adding to the setting; flavouring even a casual trek with nature motifs.
For regular trekkers, it’s the familiarity established with nature that eggs them on – come summer or winter. But winter has its own charms, says Arun D’Souza, the brain behind the popular Adventure Oman (AO)* group, which has taken trekking to a whole new level with dedicated weekend treks.
“Between September and April is the best time for any outdoor activity in Oman – be it trekking, hiking, off-roading, desert crossing, rock climbing, bouldering, mountain biking, lure fishing, snorkelling, diving and even photography,” states Arun, who has dabbled in most of the popular outdoor activities. The best trekking time is early morning or evening, he maintains, pointing out that the treks usually begin around 5.30am during summer. But with the onset of winter, trekking enthusiasts could even start at 8am and also opt for full day treks that could go on till late afternoon – “However, too late in the evening is also not advisable owing to the light,” he hastens to add.
He suggests first-timers to get inducted into this highly addictive outdoor activity with the Muttrah Geo Trek, which is the nearest marked trail in Muscat. There are, of course, several unmarked wild trails on Hamriya hills, Amerat mountains, Qantab hills, Khairan hills and Bausher hills, besides the hidden beaches at Yiti and Sifah areas, states Arun, who, along with his core team, has explored and found newer avenues to satiate the group’s hunger for trekking.
Pointing out that there are a host of well-marked trails at Wakan village, Jabal Akhdar and Jabal Shams, the experienced trekker and adventure enthusiast sounds a note of caution: “Precaution must be taken while exploring the unmarked trails. It is advisable to go with an experienced group with proper backup and mandatory trekking gear, including water, sturdy hiking boots, hand gloves, full length cotton (loose) clothing, hiking pole, sunglasses, hat, energy drinks, energy bar, snacks, whistle, torch, fully charged mobile phone, radios and satellite phone (optional).” The importance of carrying adequate water cannot be overemphasised, whether it is summer or winter, as the body dehydrates faster when exposed to the outside weather. According to Arun, 2 to 3 litres of water is mandatory for a trek that stretches between two to three hours. Other safety requirements include having a leader and a sweep to ensure everyone in the group is on the right track. As far as AO is concerned, the core team does a recce to understand the path and the requirements thereof. “The path is first assessed to mark it with the grade or level of the trekkers, as not all paths are easy for everyone,” he states.
Interestingly, the excitement of trekking in unmarked trails within the capital is not restricted to the panoramic views alone; trekkers have also caught sight of gazelles in the wild – even foxes and snakes, some of which are poisonous, requiring one to be alert.
With adventure underscoring all the activities of AO, seasoned members of the group have also tried their hands (literally) at rock climbing and have initiated desert crossing sorties – both of which are restricted to the winter months. For rock climbing enthusiasts, the closest is the Khubra Valley, which is around 70kms from Muscat. It has hooked trails and there are different levels marked, points out Arun, who has invested in the expensive rock climbing gear. “It should be undertaken under supervision and always in a group – with a minimum of two persons,” he cautions.
Winter may have no direct bearing on a highly adrenaline boosting sport like kite surfing, but the season is known to present an ideal ambience for first-timers seeking a cautious start. As Alexander Friesl, Managing Director of Kiteboarding Oman explains, “Winter in Oman offers good lighter conditions for a safe start into the sport and light wind disciplines such as race-kiting and Hydrofoil-Kiting. In Foiling and Racing you don’t want to have that much wind as the tactical understanding of the actual wind situation – where to tack and how to set the most efficient curse in a race for the personal advantage – is the real challenge.” But if you are seeking Kiteboarding Holidays, summer is a better time, he maintains.
For Muscat residents, Al Hail and Azaiba are the best kite surfing spots, states Alexander, listing wind condition as a perfect spur to get into action. “Thermal wind situation, caused by mountains in the back, presents a pretty reliable system in the afternoons,” he adds.
However, kite surfing during winter has its own demands, as far as the sports gear is concerned. Pointing out that special light wind gear is required in winter, he lists the requirements as, “really efficient kites and/or hydrofoil board, which is the latest development in the sport.”
Winter or not, kite surfing cannot be listed as an easy sport, as it is a combination of several elements, all of which require equal attention. “You need to control a kite, which means a basic understanding of an aerodynamic wing and the skill to perform a board sport – at the same time. Proper training, which guides you through the basics and important steps, is a must in order to start safe and ease into your kite life. I would say it requires a lot of training at the beginning; things become more easy after the first 20 hours or so on a kite,” he explains.
For wannabe kite surfers, here is a quick checklist of dos and don’ts from the expert: “The main requirements are being able to swim and a minimum age of 14 years. No other pre knowledge is required, as this will be learned during the course. The understanding of the sport as a serious sport rather an activity is important; this requires a bit or work at the beginning. Being on the board at the beginning is rather an achievement than an entertainment…”
Gardening in Oman
If adventure is not a stimulus to venture outdoors, gardening could be your best bet to experience the flavours of the season. Winter is the perfect season to get started, says Rachel Eapen*, lifestyle blogger. “In our part of the world, the optimum planting time is October and November and September is the best time to start preparing your soil before planting the seeds,” she suggests.
An experienced gardener with a penchant for interior décor, Rachel has the following guidelines for wannabe gardeners.
Garden patch or area: Select your garden patch in your backyard or planters if you decide to do it in your balcony. It is always best to start small with planters and potted plant. However, please make sure your area gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight. If the sunlight is too harsh you can consider using netting for shade. This will help in keeping the soil cool and reduce moisture loss.
Prepare your soil in September: Augment your soil with compost and fertiliser and keep it ready before you plant the seeds. I prefer to plant the seed in a seed-tray till it germinates and I then transfer it to the pot or my garden patch.
Shower your love and nurture: the best time to water your plants is early morning, before the heat goes up. However, please do not over water. If the soil is not dry and contains moisture, you need not water. Fertilise once in a while to provide nutrients to your plants. And, weeding is an important task because weeds invade your crop space, nutrients and water.
According to Rachel, balcony and terrace gardens are more intimate, easy to manage and can easily enhance the living experience of the home. She advises choosing colourful pots, preferably terracotta, which have better drainage with saucers under drainage holes to avoid spillage. “Vertical gardening is another option if you have space constrain. Vines and plant climbers are good to cover your balcony rails and wall; use hanging planters to give a vertical dimension. And, to add a little drama and cosiness to your balcony add one or two strings of fairy lights or Moroccan lantern and place an outdoor chair to make it your own sanctuary,” she states and suggests the following plants for Oman’s climate.
Money Plants: This is a fast growing vine plant and it doesn’t need constant watering. It requires little sunlight, constant air circulation and little water.
Boston fern: Ferns are vibrant green plants and are best suited in hanging planters. All it needs is a cool place with indirect sunlight.
Spider Plant (Chlorophytum): Spider plant produce long leaves that are green and pale yellow and are best suited in hanging planters. These need mild sunlight and water moderately. This is a plant that reproduces baby plants quickly and cleans the air from harmful toxins.
Snake plant (Sansevieria): Snake plant is the most tolerant plants of all. This is a plant that you can afford to neglect and it will still look fresh. It needs indirect sunlight and very little water; it is best suited as a corner plant.
Dwarf Jade Bush: This is a succulent bush that has bright green leaves with thick brown stems. It needs good air circulation and little water. This plant is considered as a good bonsai plant.
But if you have a backyard, balcony or terrace that gets direct sunlight, the most popular and colourful flowering plant to grow are Petunias. They are grown in pots and hanging baskets. They do not need a lot of water and grow best in sun. Even marigold, bougainvillea, hibiscus, chrysanthemums, aloe vera, cactus are good options which are best suited for Oman’s weather. The other option is to create your own kitchen garden. For the past couple of years, every winter I have grown cherry tomatoes, green beans, spinach, green chilli, eggplant, lady’s finger and different herbs. There is nothing more rewarding that reaping your own harvest.
(Rachel is an amateur self-taught artist, a photography enthusiast, freelance writer and a passionate blogger who chronicles about interiors, décor, art & artists, illustrators, designs, photography, travel and culinary adventures through her blog Tickled by Inspirations – http://tickledbyinspirations.blogspot.com/)