Raining in Oman is a rare event, especially in large amounts. On average, the amount of yearly rain in Muscat is 100 millimetres, mostly during wintertime. A few days ago, a depression hit the northern part of the country, including the capital city, with heavy rainfall and strong winds affecting the region. Muscat is located in a narrow area between the mountains and the sea, so the rain very quickly travels between them; in large amounts, it fills the wadis and carries the danger of floods. In such circumstances, people are encouraged to stay home, to avoid driving under such conditions.
I am fortunate to live in an apartment that faces the sea, so during the day of the storm, I had the opportunity to take several photos from my balcony. In between the rainy periods, there would be brief spells where the sky cleared up a little bit; this resulted in interesting compositions with dark and dramatic clouds sweeping over the coast. From the early morning until sunset, I kept an eye on the developing weather; whenever a dramatic cloud formation appeared, I would pick up my camera to photograph it. It was interesting to see how the clouds varied during the day, from large dark masses coming in from the ocean to smaller banks passing by the horizon.
It turned out that staying at home due to bad weather resulted in a collection of nice photos. I have used my 3 lenses for this set, that is, 16mm, 35mm, and 56mm. Each one provided a different approach, depending on composing wide for the sky and clouds, or framing a bit more tight.
This article is about a recent trip of the local astronomy group to a dark observation site, located south of the town of Adam, about a 2.5-hour drive from Muscat. During my first stay in Oman, I used to be part of the astronomy club, so I was glad to learn that it was still active. Every month, the group goes to a dark site during the weekend closest to the new moon, for some great night sky observation. There are some good experts in the group, with new telescopes and imaging gear, that can produce some stunning images of planets and deep sky objects; in my case, I simply enjoy looking through the telescopes, and take some photos to stack later, using trailing or accumulation options.
After an uneventful drive, we arrived at the site, which is in a flat gravel desert area that extends in every direction until the horizon. Most of the interior of Oman is like this, vast areas of flat landscape, where only a few shrubs appear here and there. As you can see on the following map, the light pollution levels are very low, which makes for excellent observation conditions.
The wind had been quite strong during the day, kicking dust into the air, and we were concerned that might affect our viewing conditions. During the sunset, rather than abating, the wind picked up even more, bringing more dust with it. I walked around the campsite taking some photos and noticing potentially interesting compositions. The scarce shrubs provided interesting foreground subjects while framing the photos against the featureless landscape.
Fortunately, the dust cleared around 9 pm, but the wind continued to blow strongly. We were able to see some interesting objects, like Jupiter and a few double clusters; the highlight was the Orion nebula, with its dust and gas clouds clearly visible around the stars. Due to the wind, the telescopes were shaking a bit, so it was not possible to take images. Despite the strong wind, I decided to set up my Fujifilm XT-5 camera with the Fujinon 16mm f/1,4 lens on the tripod, and shot about 120 images at 30 seconds each, which resulted in 1 hour of total time. I framed a tree in the foreground, to provide a focal point against the night sky. After finishing the images for the star trail, I then mounted the XT-4 with the Voigtlaender X 35mm f/1.2 lens and took 10 photos of the Orion constellation. I used Sequator to stack both sets of images, the first one as a star trail, and the second one as accumulation.
The following morning, before sunrise, the wind had died, and there was an eerie quietness due to the prevailing silence. A few crows were flying overhead. I walked around taking photos of the small trees and shrubs. There was still a lot of dust in the air, so when the sun came up, the light was diffused; I used this to shoot some photos of the trees against the rising sun, to good effect. Even with the wind and the dust, it was a nice trip, it is always good to go out in the field and spend the night under the stars.
The Al Hajar mountain range in north Oman spans almost the entire country from east to west. This vast region is home to some of the most beautiful and wild places that you can visit and explore. One of my favorite places is located close to the picturesque village of Bilad Sayt (see map below for general location). To reach this spot are two main alternatives: you can drive from Muscat to Al Hamra and go up the gentle southern flank of the mountain via a nice blacktop road; or you can drive from Muscat to Nakhl and go up the steep northern flank. The latter option is the one I prefer, as it involves driving along a very scenic gravel road that crosses some beautiful landscapes and mountain villages. It requires a 4WD vehicle, and careful driving, but it is well worth the effort.
Once you leave the black top, you will enter Wadi Bani Awf, and its labyrinth of canyons surrounded by jagged peaks. After a few km of driving through the valley floor, with some green farms along the way, the road starts to climb, along a series of sharp curves. This part of the trip will take you to Bilad Sayt, a village that is nested on the flank of a hill, surrounded by mountains and green cultivated fields. Just before reaching the village, don’t miss one of the entry points for the famous Snake Gorge, a deeply cut and narrow canyon where the sun rarely shines; it is one of the most popular adventure destinations in Oman, involving some rough trekking and swimming through a few pools. I did it back in 2003, and it was a thrill.
Bilad Sayt is a good place to take a leisurely walk in between the farms and houses, to experience a way of living that is centuries old. Omanis are very friendly and will be invited to have coffee and dates. After the village, the road becomes quite steep, as it ascends the flank of the mountain, which on this side is almost vertical. Be prepared to negotiate hairpin bends and use low gear. The upside is that some fantastic views will open in front of your eyes, encompassing the mountain range and wadis. It is impossible not to stop a few times to take photos.
It is early January, so when I finally reach the top, it is colder than in the valley; after all, we are roughly 2,000 above sea level. Compared to the last time I was here, in 2009, a couple of tourist projects have been built, but it is still quiet and peaceful. There are other people around, mainly sightseeing; as I mentioned earlier, it is easier just to drive up the northern side of the mountain. I pitch up my tent and sit down for a while, enjoying a snack and taking in the views and feel of the place. I am close to the edge of the steep cliff, and the panoramic views are amazing. A few goats are grazing in this rocky landscape, which is mostly barren and dry, apart from a few bushes and some trees.
I walk around taking photos and waiting for the sunset. Down in the valleys below, the nighttime is already encroaching, while towards the west, the sky and clouds take on the warm colors of the setting sun. It is a magical part of the day. During the night, the temperature dropped considerably, to only a few degrees above freezing. Some heavy clouds also rolled in, but only a few raindrops fell. Looking at the image files later, I decided to convert a few to black and white, to enhance the light and the shapes in the landscape.
The following morning, I woke up before sunrise and had another great photo session. I walked along the ridge taking photos as the sun was rising, with some great light. I was only surrounded by windy silence, the same goats from the previous day, and a couple of eagles flying above me. After an hour or so, it was time to have breakfast and break out camp. It was a wonderful experience to come back to this place and see that it remains unspoiled.
As a final note, all photos were taken with my Fujifilm kit, namely the XT-4 and XT-5 cameras, with the 16mm f/1.4 and 56mm f/1.2 lenses.