Cruising Episode Two – Floods, Petra, Red Sea fish, pirates and Oman

Well, where were we? In the last post I covered the first part of our Middle East cruise on the ‘Voyager’ – have added some more pictures to that now – and in this post I carry on cruisin’.  A wet day in Petra, a look at life below the Red Sea, fending off the pirates, and exploring Oman.

      So, after the floods in Sharm-el-Sheikh, we chugged up to Aqaba, in Jordan, for our trip to Petra. Unfortunately, the bad weather followed us, and it was a pouring wet morning. We saw scarcely anything of Aqaba.  Apparently, it has the sixth largest flagpole in the world – here it is. It carries the flag of the Arab Revolt commemorating the Battle of Aqaba that took place in 1917. Think Lawrence of Arabia.  You can look across from Aqaba to Eilat in Israel.

Aqaba flagpole
Looking across to Eilat, Israel.

      Rain or not, we all piled into coaches and set off across the Wadi Rum desert to Petra. Weather continued vile. We stopped at a rest house place, and horrors, were told that Petra was closed due to flooding. Collective collapse of Brits…

Weather not encouraging…..

     We hung about disconsolately for a while, and then were told that the site had partially reopened, so off we went. When we arrived, the rain had stopped, and the site was indeed open, so in common with about a million other people who had presumably also been waiting for the ‘off’, we walked down to the entrance of the gorge, or Siq. We had been strongly advised not to take a horse, or a carriage…..

Walking down to the Siq – with the crowds

      The first bit of the 2km walk down the Siq was fine, if a bit crowded – stunning rock formations and colours, but as we got further in, streams of water gushed from the walls onto the path, which rapidly turned into a fast-flowing stream. Worse, the smooth path was replaced by ancient paving – chunks of rock made slippery by the wet – and even deeper water.

Water appears

     Eventually, we were struggling to hop from stone to stone in a press of others, with horse-drawn carriages still splashing past.  However, Philosopher did capture the classic view of the Treasury appearing round the bend in the path.

Classic view of the Treasury
The Treasury

      To cut a long story short, it was wet, crowded and we were short on time. Still, I have made it to Petra. Some of our party walked further on, others barely made it to the Treasury, and one man slipped and broke his leg…. He broke it quite badly, but said he had not come all this way not to see Petra. They loaded him into a carriage which then took him down to the Treasury – the jolting must have been agony.
     By the time we had floundered back up again the sun was out. Philosopher had sore toes from his wet shoes rubbing his feet.
     Like many places these days, Petra felt so overun with tourists it was hard to appreciate it. We count ourselves lucky to have seen so many wonderful places in the world before the mass tourism explosion happened.
     The views of the Wadi Rum were much better on the way back. In the villages we even saw some Bedouin tents. Most of them are now no longer nomadic, and have houses, but apparently they still like to erect their tents in their gardens and sleep in them.

Bedouin tent
In the distance, a proper Bedouin encampment

     Next day, we sailed down a bit of the Red Sea and docked at Safaga, back in Egypt again. Many of our fellow passengers set off for a punishingly long trip to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. We had been there, so went on a day’s Red Sea snorkelling instead. That felt more leisurely – there were only 30 of us.
     Our boat to the Giftun Islands, the snorkelling destination, set off from Hurghada, the next resort up the coast, and in former times, very popular with tourists. Now, it is like a ghost town. Our guide told us that of the 250 hotels, only 40 were open. It really brought home how depressed the Egyptian tourist industry is. The guy told us that he used to do five trips like ours in a week, but this was his first in six months.

Hurghada – a ghost town

     We had a good boat trip out to the islands – how blue that sea is – and landed at an island resort called ‘Paradise’. The islands are just chunks of desert in the sea….

Paradise Resort, on the Giftun Islands

      It was indeed lovely, and almost as soon as we splashed into the water, there were some brilliant yellow and blue fish nosing around. I’ll have to get some pictures off the internet. The weather was fabulous, too.

First fish we saw…

      Then the boat took a little group of the more intrepid amongst us out to deep water and a coral reef, which was just amazing. The only down side was the bloke who came with us from the Hurghada dive place – he kept on trying to keep us together in one group. Philosopher and I are both experienced snorkellers, and like to drift along quietly on our own – we don’t even wear flippers to avoid churning the sea up and frightening the fish. We had to literally, physically, fight this man off – he kept grabbing my arm and trying to drag me back to the group. However, we managed, and had a blessed few minutes exploring the reef in peace – until another boat arrived full of Italian schoolkids…
      However, the fish were wonderful – I had not expected them to be just as you see on telly….

Yes, the reef and the fish did look like this
A blue-lipped clam – saw one like this.

      The beach was beautiful. For the first time, I felt as if we were on holiday…..

Great beach

     After leaving Safaga, we had five days at sea sailing through pirate-infested waters. The ship was hung with razor wire, and had to be blacked out at night. We attended a pirate lecture from the captain (‘Leddiesngenelmen’), and had a special pirate drill. If we heard ‘Code Purple’ we had to lie on the floor in the inside corridors wearing life jackets, in case anyone fired a rocket through the windows… Why Code Purple? Why not just ‘Pirates Ahoy?’ We also took on board some special security men, who had strange shaped black bags – presumably they’d brought their golf clubs….

Mysterious people arrive on board
Unloading their gear
Razor wire

     We didn’t see any pirates of course – even if they had passed by, a ship full of Brits would not have made very impressive booty. The restaurant staff put on a special pirate meal for us. We told them we came from Hastings, pirate capital of the UK.

The only pirate we saw!

     One bit of excitement, someone fell ill and had to be taken off the ship as we were sailing between Somalia and Yemen – probably the worst place in the world for that to happen, except maybe Aleppo or Mosul I guess.  It was too far to send a helicopter from Saudi Arabia, so they had to send a fast boat, and load the poor devil into it before a very long and rough ride up to hospital In Saudi, presumably in Jeddah. The ship had to stop for several hours in one of the most dangerous bits of waterway.
     So, how was life on board for the five days? The daily lectures were quite good, so added those to our routine of Sea Stretch classes, and I visited the gym daily. Ate loads of course, and got hooked on daily cocktails….
     We didn’t sit out in the sun that much – too hot. However, there were ‘lizard’ folk who just lay out on sunbeds all day – crikey were they orange and wrinkly. The temperature was well over 30 degrees most days….

The lizards

     I began to find cruise life uncomfortably like boarding school. The routine, being pushed together with people you didn’t know and did’nt like the look of, and the constant feeling of not quite ‘fitting in’. The experienced cruisers had their wardrobes well sorted, and many women appeared in different dresses every night. It was so like not having enough of the right ‘mufti’ at school.
     Then there was the competitive talk – it moved from who had done the longest and most exotic cruises to wild-life sightings – I saw a dolphin today, well I saw a whole pod of them, I saw a turtle, well, I saw a huge leaping sword fish bla de bla. We didn’t see anything at all until the last sea day, when I think by sheer will-power we summoned a school of dolphins from the vasty deep. They gambolled around our bit of ship for at least five minutes.
     We did meet some nice people – an Australian woman travelling on her own, and an English/American couple who lived in Tavistock. To be fair, most of the passengers were pleasant enough, just not our sort of people.
     What else? I visited the Bridge. No big wheel to wrestle with – in fact there was nobody driving the ship at all, it does it all automatically with computers, and there was just a little joystick thing to adjust the course if necessary.
     We went to some of the evening ‘shows’ delivered by the hard-working entertainment team – surprisingly high standard. One night the senior staff did a ‘Call my Bluff’ session, interspersed with spontaneous music. That’s the Captain on guitar….

     The senior staff also did a question and answer session for us, all about the running and management of the ship. It was really interesting – we could run for about 15 days without refuelling, and carry enough food for about three weeks. I didn’t like hearing how cruise ships discharge ‘black water’ i.e sewage into the sea once they are 19 miles off the coast. Ugh. Imagine the pollution from all those huge ships….
     When it wasn’t boarding school, it was a holiday camp. Foxtrotting with Sarah and Tony in the Darwin Lounge. Putting with Paul on the Lido deck. Bridge club in the Lookout Lounge. Origami in Scott’s Bar…..  No, no, no. We read lots of books, played scrabble, slept. They had a good library on board.
      As well as the lizards, other subgroups to be avoided included the good-time gals – older women on their own who gathered together to drink cocktails and shriek. The drunks – swaying on bar stools and getting embarrassing with the Fillipino waitresses.  The solitary nerds and saddos – say no more but to be avoided at all costs. The ancients – say absolutely nothing but grit teeth while someone on a zimmer frame holds everyone else up…. Before each trip, they said whether or not it was suitable for persons with restricted mobility, but did they take any notice. No. The bores, the stupid…. oh, stop right here….

The Verandah restaurant, our usual haunt for breakfast and lunch

     Eventually, we arrived in Salalah, Oman, before sailing on to the capital, Muscat. Now, this is a strange country. Ruled by Sultan Qaboos, an absolute dictator/monarch, but apparently relatively benevolent, it has been totally transformed since he took power in the 1970s, and there is scarcely an old building left – at least in the bits we saw. Everything looked like it was built five minutes ago in ‘international oil-rich Arab’ style. Massive irrigation projects have turned desert into parks and gardens, huge road systems built for the huge cars they favour. Enormous mosques, opera house, Sultan Qaboos schools, universities, hospitals etc.
   In Salalah, we visited a brand new mosque and a very boring, brand new museum. The place is big on frankinsense.

Mosque in Salalah
Frankinsense tree at the museum
Classic desert palm trees

   Oman was interesting, because we have never visited anywhere like that before, but also alarming. There is apparently little unemployment – you wouldn’t dare not work, and also because they invest so much in infrastructure projects.  If there is not enough domestic labour, they import Bangladeshi and Indian labourers. It may look pleasant on the surface, but I wouldn’t fancy your chances as a dissenter in the Sultan’s model state. I read that many bloggers are in prison…….
     It is possible things may be different in the mountainous interior of the country, but I do faintly doubt it.
     In Muscat we went out walking on our own – phew was it hot though.  You can see how shiny and  clean it is. Very few women were to be seen, and many of the men wore long white dish-dashas.

The incense burner – symbol of Muscat
The Sultan’s palace


Shiny marble pavements


Muscat Corniche at night
The Sultan’s yacht – nearly as big as our ship

     We had been told that as it was a conservative Muslim country, we all must cover up, which we did.  However, there was a German cruise ship which tracked us from Salalah to Muscat, and those Germans are totally shameless. Around they trotted in shorts and strappy tops – I saw two women trying to get into a mosque dressed like that – and on a Friday.  Then when their ship left, sailing back into the pirate zone, it was not blacked out like ours, but lit up like a fairground.
     Talking of shameless, on our last night a beautiful three masted sailing ship tied up near us, the brand-new Omani navy Sultan Qaboos sail training vessel. We went to look at it with Graham, the nice bloke from Tavistock mentioned above. Philosopher and I would just have gawped but Graham blagged his way on board, and crew members showed us round.  Just my luck – had no knickers under my long skirt. Just the thing for climbing up and down breezy ladders in front of a load of Omani sailors….

    Long journey home – flight from Muscat to Dubai, then seven hour flight on a huge Airbus that holds 600 people.
     Would we go cruising again?  Probably not until we are older. We liked the ship, the staff were truly excellent, the food was great, but both of us disliked being herded about on outings with lots of others, and the whole on-board culture schtick. By the end, I had just about had a basinful of my fellow Brits.
     Also, ports big enough to accommodate even small cruise ships like ours are very inconvenient places. They are usually a long way from town centres, and sure, you can walk off the ship, but then you can’t walk about in the port because pedestrians are forbidden, or get to the towns without being pestered by hordes of taxi drivers etc.
      Anyway, to finish, here is a cute Omani kitty…



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