2006 - A Little Project
Archaeological Diving around the Farasan Islands, Saudi Arabia
Wednesday 31st May 2006
Got a call on the room phone at 0845 - I was still in bed. It was the hotel booking agency - they'd only received payment for one room and they wanted me to cough up another $504 but there was some confusion about which payment had been received. I told them to email me the details.
Up reluctantly at 9am - could have slept for hours more but need some breakfast. Had a pretty good buffet breakfast and went off to the business centre to see my emails and sort out this payment business.
I had several URGENT emails but none of them clarified which of us had paid and which had not so I emailed back asking for clarification.
Sat out by the pool for an hour with my book - in the shade, the sun is very hot. Simon joined me after a while and we walked down the steps to the private beach. I could feel the hot ground burning through my sandals, and Simon was hopping about in bare feet. The beach was deserted, the hotel's pretty empty anyway - out of season. We waded into the ridiculously warm sea and had a little swim about. After swimming a couple of 100m I had sweat running off my brow.
Back up to the pool for another hour and we decided to go out and see Muscat.
I keep telling Simon that I don't intend to spend much here but it's hard to keep him in check with his taste for the high life. We got a cab and asked for the souq - but they close for most of the afternoon. I wanted to wait and try again later but Simon wanted to go to the city centre which was open, and I gave in. The city centre was a very boring place like Milton Keynes shopping centre and we wasted an hour there.
Muscat is very scenic with harsh craggy mountains behind and the clear blue sea out front. The most noticeable thing though is that it's spectacularly clean and ordered, the whole place gleams. I'm not sure I've been anywhere cleaner. The people are very different too, they're very quiet, polite, considerate and all smartly dressed. Even the noisier youths in the centre had clean and crisp t-shirts and jeans. Most of the women are in full black covering but few are veiled. They all have a softer look than most arabs, I'm not sure if it's a lifestyle thing or if it's genetic - they seem more Persian, and maybe they just are. I don't know anything about the history of Oman but it is very close to modern Iran so the Persian theory could well be right.
We bumped into a couple of british blokes, one of them wearing a diving t-shirt, and stopped to ask about diving here. They recommended a place out the other side of Muscat so we went to have a look - and I'm wondering just how much this bloody taxi is going to cost us, he's adopted us and waited while we were in the centre.
45 minutes back through Muscat and into a road through the craggy mountains - quite spectacular - and to the dive centre, nice place in it's own little cove. We booked a day's diving for Friday, 2 dives with all equipment for about £50 including a pick-up/drop-off from the hotel.
Back along the coast, past the Sultan's Palace, past a load of old forts and some nice bays and to the souq. Wandered through the souq - only the tiniest amount of hassling - all very quiet and civil - doesn't seem right somehow.
Took several photos along the way, mostly out the window of the moving taxi so they're not great but they show a bit of Muscat.
And back to the hotel about 5pm and the taxi wanted about £42 - a lot of money.
Sat around by the pool reading my book and "chilling out" in the 40+C heat by the pool.
Went to check my emails and I'd received a reply stating that they'd definitely only received one payment. Yes, ok, but WHICH ONE?? Replied again asking for clarification.
Showered and cleaned up and went for the barbecue meal in the hotel. Only £15 and really good food and plenty of it.
Few more drinks on the balcony outside the hotel bar - still blazing hot at midnight when we packed up.
High: Muscat is very nice, if a little toooo clean - it's a bit like a model village, a bit too artificial for my taste.
Low: £42 on a bleedin' taxi, could've done another dive for that much.
Thursday 1st June 2006
Down for breakfast at 0930 after a little lie-in. Simon had a phone call this morning from our hotel agent requesting his payment again but still not clarifying who from. Went to check our emails again but the connection was lost before we got anywhere.
Out to loaf around the pool for a while and read my book again.
About 1100 We decided to visit the marina we drove past yesterday - there's another dive centre there, and for a general look around.
The diving looked similar to what we'd already booked so we didn't take it any further. Had a wander around the marina admiring some pretty decent boats and some pretty decent scenery for a couple of hours, with a few drinks thrown in.
Really bloody hot today, the sun just bores into you and I'm getting burnt again - it's difficult to avoid it.
No sign of any taxis to take us to the bay halfway back to the hotel. We enquired in the marina office and a bloke offered to take us for the standard £5 fare. Walked along the front taking snaps and frying in the sun. I leant on my rucksack on the polished granite sea wall and took the photo of the picasso triggerfish in the bay. Simon leant on the wall next to me, without rucksack protection, and scalded his arms.
We had to get out of the sun so we returned to the hotel about 1500. Simon went off to his room to sleep and I sat by the pool onder a shade reading for the rest of the afternoon.
Back to my room about 6pm and got a phonecall from reception, our agent has been in touch with the hotel and won't pay the 2nd room so now we have to pay the standard flat rate of nearly £100 a night for one of the rooms!! Checked my emails and it's confirmed that the agents are now closed for the weekend. How much more am I going to be screwed around on this bloody trip. Sent the agent an email telling him he'd admitted that the error was his, he'd ignored my requests for more information so we could sort it, we'd wasted time and money on emails and phonecalls and now it was going to cost even more, and that I wouldn't be dealing with his incompetent company again!! That's £120 on top of the 4-night bill.
Down to the poolside bar for a drink but the mosquitoes are out tonight so we went inside for the seafood buffet - really good meal again. A drink on the terrace of the bar and packed up at 2230, earlier start tomorrow, we're being picked up at 0750 to go diving.
High: quiet afternoon by the pool
Low: being let down by the stupid agent - probably £120 down the drain
Friday 2nd June 2006
Missed breakfast as I'd set my alarm on my phone, which is an hour slow - still on Saudi time. Met our lift at 0750 and got to the Oman Dive Centre about 20 mins later.
We signed in and got our kit, got sorted and were on the boat at about 9am. The others on the boat are a bit of an odd bunch - some hooray-henry young brits with loads of expensive dive and photo kit, several germans and a japanese.
30 minutes to the first dive site - a wreck The Al Munassir, intentionally sunk as an artificial reef. Quick briefing and we were in. The vis was pretty poor, maybe 8m or so, but there was plenty of life. Swam to the stern and dropped to the 30m bottom - a huge stingray was laying under the prop - by far the biggest I've ever seen - at least a 2m wingspan. Tried to get a photo but it didn't come out - too dark without flash, too much backscatter with flash.
Back up to the main deck in about 12m, nice morays. In under the main deck with a huge shoal of fish? that let me join them. More morays towards the bow.
I saw an open door and went in for a look in the dark - it was a bit iffy as I had no torch and I'm only wearing a shortie, the current pushes you around a bit and everthing's covered in razor sharp coral and rust. I hadn't gone in far when there was a big bang and it went pitch dark. The door had been slammed shut by the current!! It swung open again but slammed shut again before I got there - and you wouldn't want to be caught in the middle when it slammed!! I waited until it opened and seemed steady and shot out again. I was a bit surprised they hadn't warned us about it, or better still wired the door in one position - except they did say don't go inside . . . .
I was a bit underweighted so picked up some scrap and put it in my pocket - just about enough, Simon had to do the same. Got to the bow and there was a big dark hole into the next level down - irresistible. I caught Simon's attention and went down, he followed. It was a big empty space and clearly went some way in so we gently finned along in back towards the stern. It was very dark and disorientating but I love this sort of challenge, and so does Simon. Just as the light behind us was disappearing a faint glow appeared ahead of us and we were out the other end. Time was nearly up so we headed back to the shot and ascended. The dive guide came and took Simon's bit of scrap - I think he thought he was pinching a bit of the wreck.
We went and stopped in a bay for a while for a drink and snack. The coastline here is tremendous - harsh, craggy rock mountains and turquoise blue sea.
Then soon set off for the 2nd dive - a gentle drift along a reef. Not long after we were in Simon had disappeared - he was just above me and next time I looked he'd gone but I'm not bothered, I'll carry on, do my dive, maybe find him, maybe not, maybe get ticked off for diving solo, whatever . . . . Quite a nice little dive, poor vis again but quite good life, and very relaxing just bimbling along with the gentle current. I didn't see anyone else for the whole dive and came up after 56 mins.
When we were all back on the boat I learnt that the dive guide had found Simon on his own, wondered where I was, and insisted on buddying up with him, and gave him a bit of a ticking off afterwards. Nothing was said to me.
Back to the dive centre about 2pm where we paid up and had some lunch.
Got our lift back to the hotel and only then realised that we hadn't been charged the extra £6 each for using nitrox - a nice little bonus.
I went back to my room for a rest. I wore contact lenses today as I was using a hired mask, and my eyes are a bit sore as I haven't worn them for ages. Crashed out for 3 hours!
Met up with Simon about 7pm and we had the buffet dinner again - really good again.
Quick few drinks on the bar-terrace and finished up around 11:30.
High: nice little solo dive - peace, tranquility and plenty of fish
Low: pity about the fairly poor vis
Sat-Sun 3rd-4th June 2006
Breakfast and out by the pool for a few hours reading.
Checked out about 1pm - my room was charged at low rate for 2 nights and full rate for 2 so not as bad as we'd feared. We've got some money balancing to do back in the UK.
We cabbed back to the souq in the afternoon as Simon wants some souvenirs.
Back to the hotel about 5pm for some final sun and got chatting with Emma - an expat hairdresser from Sheffield. She was waiting for her mate Paul, a geordie expat and reckoned he might be able to find Simon some work out here - he's now thinking about coming back pretty soon.
We met him in the bar later and they hit it off straight away. Chatted with Emma for a while but she was soon pretty drunk. Paul's going to put Simons name forward for a job he turned down recently and they parted as lifelong friends. We got away in our cab to the airport about 11pm.
Finally took off about 2am - 20 minutes late. We flew north over Iran, over Iraq and Turkey and on into Europe. Landed at Heathrow after 8 hours, around 7am.
Simon went off in a taxi and I went to look for the underground. Got on the tube but there's maintenance work going on everywhere - had to take a tortuous 3 trains and a bus just to get to Euston. Straight on a train to Leighton Buzzard. Home at midday.
High: it's always nice to be home
Low: it's been a tough, and disappointing trip
The expedition suffered badly from poor preparation and some poor management and as a result we achieved much less than was planned.
I only did 3 dives and none were technical dives - maximum depth was just 21m. We did find some of the geological features that we set out to find - undercuts in the fossil coral at historic sea levels that would once have been convenient caves for early man to inhabit when the sea level was even lower. We did some detailed surveys of some of these areas and there was enough information there to produce a useful final report. The broad theories were roughly proven and it is clear that more work should be done there.
But .. despite the results, my overall feeling is that the whole trip was mostly a very frustrating and disappointing experience.
Om balance I'm not sorry I went. I saw some new countries and some great sites, I learnt quite a lot about archaeolgy and geology, met some interesting people, and some of it was fun. But it could have been sooooooo much better.