Friday, January 20, 2006

Cycling UAE and Oman

Our benefactor....3 years later and I've forgotten his name!

Instant city... Dubai

Instant city

Skiing when its 40 outside....opposite of west Edmonton mall water park


Guest of honour!

The happiest man on the planet

Hard work

space age mosque

sunrise.....after laying her eggs

grand canyon of oman

dubia camel races

Burj al arab 7 star hotel Dubai

Hi Folks....

Suppose I don't need to write much, as the newspaper article below took care of that! The UAE and Oman really were perfect cycling destinations:

-Wonderful hospitality

-Very safe

-Excellent desert camping under the stars.....

-Perfect weather in Dec/Jan....never used the fly for the tent

-Clean...garbage cans everywhere

-Excellent roads (except for a few gravel roads)

-and 99% dog free!

Steve and Maria

Emirates Today (Dubai's newspaper)

Sunday January 15, 2006

Brandy Scott meets a husband and wife who were enchanted with Oman and the Northern Emirates on their recent cycling tour.

Valley deep, mountain high and all on two wheels

While many people might dream of the Maldives, or a chilly European capital, for Steve Tober and Maria Zambrano, there was only one way to spend Christmas and new year: touring the northern emirates and Oman by bicycle.

Twenty-five days, 2,350 kilometres and several hundred photographs after their energetic holiday pedalled off from Dubai, the husband and wife cycling team are calling it their “dream trip” with the “perfect elements”.

“It’s something new around every corner,” says Tober of the couple’s travelling style. “Yes, there are times that you feel exhausted, but as with a lot of things in life you have to suffer and sacrifice a bit to have something that is really worthwhile. Cycling does that for me.” To many, it may sound too much like hard work. But five minutes of conversation with Maria and Steve is enough to realise that a “normal” relaxing holiday is not an option.

The pair met 10 years ago in Zambrano’s native Columbia, where Canadian Tober was teaching English. He was running in – and losing – a cross-country race; she “felt sorry for him”, he jokes, and waited to speak to him afterwards. Tober began following Zambrano, an accomplished long-distance runner, to her morning training sessions on his bicycle. They were married in Canada within a year; Zambrano ran – and won – a 10 kilometre race the morning of her wedding.

DISCOVERING CULTURE Within months of meeting, the pair took their first bicycle trip together, cycling 500 kilometres from Columbia to Ecuador.This was followed by a three-month, mountainous 5,000 kilometre ride from Columbia to Chile; they spent last summer cycling for three weeks through the Alpine regions of Europe.

Travelling by bicycle is the best way to get to know a country and its people, say the pair, now based in Libya where they teach at the British School of Benghazi. “There are so many people out there we know nothing about, so many cultures,” says 35-year-old Zambrano. “On a bike, people get closer to you… we are lucky to meet the real people that make the country.”

OFF THE TOURIST TRAIL “You generally go from point A to point B in a car, and tourist places,” agrees 43-year-old Tober. “Part of the attraction of cycle touring is not what the destination is but it’s the journey itself in between and that is where you meet the kind of people Maria talks about, these little places that aren’t so much on the tourist trail but are fascinating.” The pedal-powered pair’s Gulf adventure has certainly taken them off the normal tourist track of malls, beaches and landmark buildings.

Having done a little internet research, Zambrano and Tober landed in Dubai on December 16. The following day, the selfdescribed “morning people” were up and off on the first leg of their tour heading from Dubai towards Al Ain. “We took it easy for the first day because I’ve found from experience you have lots of energy in the first day, but you tend to risk injury. So we did about 70 kilometres and found a little place to camp in the desert,” says Tober.

‘PHENOMENAL’ VIEWS The pair, who carry around 75 kilogrammes worth of camping and cooking equipment between them on their touring bikes, settled in for their first night under UAE skies about a kilometre off the highway near Al Faqa. “At the end of the day, around 3.30pm, we started thinking of camping because we want to be off the road before dark,” says Tober of the routine they followed for just under a month. “Since the desert is so open, you can find places where nobody knows we are there and nobody bothers us. If it was a more congested area, we would ask permission, but generally there is just so much open space that you don’t need to do that.” The next morning, after showering under a bottle of water, it was off to Al Ain, and a night camping at the top of Jebel Hafit. “It is amazing, the road is incredible, beautifully paved and there is nothing surrounding us – the views are phenomenal,” enthuses Tober, who is also a keen climber. “We made it to the very top just in time to see the sun set.”

STEEP CLIMB Pushing off toward the border, the pair spent the next three days travelling down through Ibri to Jebel Shams, Oman’s highest mountain at 3,000 metres. “We went as far as the road will go, which is 2,000 metres. The last 15 kilometres is gravel and we had to push our bikes a bit; it was pretty steep,” says Tober. “We camped right on the edge of the rim overlooking what they call the Grand Canyon of Oman.” The first few days set the tone for the trip, which would see the pair cycle through Nizwa to Muscat, loop around the Sultanate’s east, travel up the Omani coast and back into the UAE, through Fujairah, Khor Fakkan, Dibba, Ras Al Khaimah and Khasab, before heading back to Dubai for a day of well-earned rest before flying out early yesterday morning.

COUPLE OF CURIOS New Year’s Eve was spent in a small hotel “in the middle of nowhere” at Bani Bu Ali in Oman; Christmas dinner was a cooked chicken in the desert. Campsites ranged from the beach to the summit of the mountains winding along the Oman-UAE border near Dibba, complete with a Pakistani goat herder serenading the cyclists at 1,500 metres on his flute.

Across both countries, the site of the pair and their laden travel ling bikes was met with disbelief, reports Zambrano, who only learnt to ride in her late teens. People have been incredulous at the distances the pair covered under their own steam. “People were honking all the time, saying hello, some would stop and ask ‘where are you going, are you OK?’ ” she says, adding that as a woman, her petite size and obvious stamina was often remarked upon. “Some said: ‘Why are you doing this? Why don’t you go by car?’ ”

On the Omani coast, the couple served as entertainment for a tiny fishing village, with around 50 adults and children fascinated by every aspect of their makeshift camp. “It’s not a tourist place, and they have never seen anyone put up a tent,” she recalls, saying that the adults would shoo the children away before coming back them selves. “They would say: ‘We’ll check up on you in an hour,’ and then go to pray and come back and check on us to see that we were OK.They were just curious.”

After almost a month on the road, Tober is full of praise for region’s cycling conditions – and surprise that more cycle tourists are not taking advantage of them. “This has exceeded our expectations in terms of a cycle tour,” says Tober. “The roads are excellent, the desert is great for camping, the weather is perfect… why aren’t there more people doing this? Why aren’t more cyclists aware of this?”

Safety is one of the major pluspoints about touring the two countries, he continues. “In all the travelling we have done, in Latin America in particular, it is hard to go off and camp just anywhere; you need to have permission so that you are close to someone who might be able to offer some protection,” says Tober, who during his travels has been pickpocketed in Peru, had people try to steal from his bicycle in Ecuador, had a gun pointed at him in Mexico and has been robbed by four men with machetes as he was descending a volcano in Guatemala. “Here safety is a non-issue, people don’t talk about it. You don’t hear: ‘Oh, it’s dangerous, don’t go there,’ or: ‘Don’t do this.’ It is quite safe.”

HELP AT EVERY CORNER But what has really made the trip for the two adventure junkies has been the realisation that Arabian hospitality more than lives up to its reputation. Throughout their tour, the couple were inundated with offers of help and board, from the Omani cyclist who took them into his house in Muscat to the UAE’s Al Belooshi family, who showed them hospitality from accommodation and tours to Eid gifts and celebrations through relatives from Ras Al Khaimah to Dubai. Dubai-based cyclist Ron Coulter, with whom they made contact through a website, provided both housing and lifts to and from the airport either side of his own Eid cycling trip to Muscat. Wolfi’s Bike Shop provided free cycle maintenance before and after the journey.

ABUNDANT INVITATIONS “It’s a small community of touring cyclists and the internet has really allowed us to communicate with each other. They needed somewhere to stay and get started on their journey and it seemed the right thing to do,” says Coulter, who is the building services manager at Wafi. “I am sure someone will do – and has done in the past – the same for me.” Tober says: “The number of people that have come to us and welcomed us into their homes, taken us for who we are and been keen to show us who they are and their culture is great.” He adds that they constantly had to turn down invitations for meals at people’s homes or offers of a bed. “We would have liked to, but we had to make headway otherwise we wouldn’t get anywhere. We got so many offers, we would only do half the mileage if we were to accept every offer.”

On their last day in the UAE, the couple were already talking about next time. Teaching has allowed them to fit in more time for their active travels, says Tober, who has worked as a brickie’s labourer in Australia, thrown pizzas in Las Vegas and driven a truck to support his climbing, Zambrano’s running and their cycling – “anything, basically, to travel”.

FUTURE ADVENTURES Although they already have a hankering to ride through the parts of Oman and the UAE that did not make it on to this trip’s itinerary, the next holiday period, Easter, is already full of plans to cycle from Rome to Sicily and then round Malta. Tober’s ultimate aim is to cycle the entire length of Latin America – a goal from which he is missing only Argentina and, ironically, Columbia, to complete. “It keeps life interesting,” says Tober, who is also considering a Central Asian trip around the Himalayas for the summer.“It gets the endorphins going, because it is a long, slow burn sort of thing, so that you feel great all day.” Zambrano, who has represented Canada in international running events, has a more personal goal. “I want to start a family,” she says. “All the people here ask ‘why don’t you have children?’ I tried to explain to them in Arabic ‘next year, inshallah’.” But although Zambrano jokes that a baby might finally slow her husband down, children would not mean the end of cycling adventures, says Tober, who has just heard of a couple who went round Europe with a two-year-old. “We’ll put them in a trailer,” attached to one of the bikes, he says. “It’s possible; it doesn’t mean you stop.”