In 1995 Saluki Motorsport's managing director and adventure enthusiast Mark Powell did a road trip from Abu Dhabi to Salalah and Muscat with Ray Stirton and Terry Locke. This is a detailed account of their journey.
MARK POWELL RAY STIRTON TERRY LOCKE
Pajero Range Rover Cherokee
Diary of Events
DAY 1 LAST MINUTE RENDEZVOUS
DAY 2 THE LOST CITY
DAY 3 THE SALALAH PLAIN
DAY 4 LAGOONS AND THAT SINKING FEELING
DAY 5 TRANQUILLITY AND TRAUMA DAYS
DAY 6 BEACHES AND SABKHAS DAYS
DAY 7 PAJERO SALVAGE
DAY 8 SPECTACULAR WADI TIWI
DAY 1: LAST MINUTE RENDEZVOUS
As the sun began its ascent into the azure blue sky over Muscat, accompanied by the corresponding rise in temperature, the city below was subdued and peaceful. It was the first day of the Eid holidays, a time for family gatherings, and thanksgiving.
In contrast, the scene in a garage workshop was one of vibrant activity. Radiator cores were being welded, viscous fan coupling locked, re-install the radiator, and then the road test. This culminated two weeks of intensive care when new cylinder heads, high tension suspension coils, and road rally shock absorbers were all fitted.
A successful road test and my ageing Range Rover would be fit to tackle the 2000 mile round journey from Muscat to Salalah. The first 600 miles via a mind numbing straight black topped road through desert scrub. The 1400 mile return journey would be along deserted beaches, over sand dunes and mountains passes.
Time had almost run out, and throughout the morning telephone calls were being made to prepare for the alternative eventuality, which was that the Range Rover could not be prepared in time for the trip and I would have to go as a passenger. A very poor second alternative, very much the last resort.
At 12:30 the phone rang. Even in the heat of the day the car could not be made to overheat, it was ready to go. By 14:30 the vehicle was packed, and three hours later I made the rendezvous with Mark and Terry, on that black ribbon of a road that cuts southward through the desert to Saialah. Our first night was spent at the Ghaba Rest House. A basic establishment built to accommodate weary travelers that have pulled into the adjacent fuel station. Terry in his Cherokee and Mark in the Pajero (Shogun in Europe) had begun their journey in Abu Dhabi early that morning. After a night at the guest house, and a "cold" breakfast of sausage, beans and fried eggs we were ready to go.
DAY 2: THE LOST CITY
Six hours of relentlessly counting off the Kilometre signs to Saialah brought us to a junction with the graded road which was to take us to the "Lost City of Ubar". Found after 1,500 years buried under sand, when an expedition led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes in 1991 began to unearth fragments of pottery etc related to ancient civilisations in a sink-hole adjacent to the village of Shisr. As we headed towards the site I picked up the first of 2 punctures that I was to have on the trip. Two spare wheels are essential for an expedition of this nature, as punctures due to the rough terrain are frequent. So in heat approaching 50°C we began unloading the vehicle and changing the wheel. Back into the vehicles, and half an hour later we were standing in the ruins of a city that had 4000 years ago been at the heart of the developing civilisations.
Arrowheads have dated this site to 5000 BC, however it first rose to prominence in 3000 BC as a centre of export to Mesopotamia and Egypt of frankincense. The most precious material known to man for almost 2500 years. It is likely that the incense used to bury the Pharaohs in their majestic pyramids would have come from this very site. Before its decline between 100-300 AD Ubar would have been an awe inspiring site of great towers, and majestic buildings. But following the decline of the Roman empire, demand for incense dwindled, and the fate of Ubar was completed when a large portion of the city collapsed into a subterranean sink-hole. The surviving population, it is believed, then turned to a nomadic Bedouin way of life. Our minds began to turn to our own journey, and then it was back on the road and to Salalah. Lying at the foot of the Jabal Qara mountain range, the fertile Salalah plain, watered by the Indian Monsoon is a welcome relief from 600 miles of desert scrub. We took the opportunity to spend a night in a local hotel, before setting off in earnest next morning.
The expedition had been Mark's brainchild following a visit he had made to the Sultanate last year. He was so impressed with the scenery, people and opportunity for such a wide variety of off road driving, that his enthusiasm quickly convinced Terry and myself to join him.
DAY 3 : THE SALALAH PLAIN
Outside our hotel the dawn tranquility was rudely disturbed as the cars were started up and driven out of Salalah. Mark leading in the Pajero, followed by my Range Rover and Terry in his Cherokee Jeep. We drove Eastwards across the plain towards the ancient harbour of Khowr Rowri, and the ruins of Sumhuram. These ruins are reputed to be the remains of the Queen of Sheba's palace, majestically located on the edge of an inlet set back from the bay.
The soft beach sand which would have hampered any invading force, even today claims victims. Terry, in the pursuit of the ultimate photograph, sank his Cherokee up to the axles.
The flamingo's that were earlier posing gracefully on one leg, were now effortlessly gliding overhead, contemptuously viewing our laborious attempts to free the Cherokee.
After some digging, sweating, pushing and pulling we were all back on the road, and heading east, parallel with the Jabal (mountains) to one of the more unusual mosques in Oman. Bin Ali's mosque is built over his tomb, and is an excellent example of the architectural style of mosque that is specific to Dhofar region in Oman. From here we left the black top road, which we were not to drive on for a further 1,400 miles.
The track we chose, took us up the near vertical Jabal to a height of almost 2,000 metres, and onto the ochre coloured mountain plain, (populated by farms and small villages). We were attempting to find a huge sink hole, where underground water has dissolved the limestone. With the aid of Mark's satellite positioning system, which can pin point a location to within 1/2 mile anywhere in the world, we found ourselves in the middle of a farm, looking for a hole. Well according to the GPS, it had to be here somewhere. From out of the lean-to buildings, a young Omani named Sayed came over and then guided us the last few hundred yards to the sinkhole. It appeared 400 yards wide and almost a mile deep. Sayed began the descent finding his way down an ever-steeping path, until at almost 2/3 of the way into this giant bowl our progress was barred by the remaining sheer slope down into the bottom pool.
We were informed that water had once been retrieved during times of drought, utilising a system of pulleys which would be used to winch drums of water up to the surface. As we began our ascent, I began to wander if the winches were still available. It was 2 o'clock and the sun was at its height. Sayed waited patiently as we rested "to admire the views". Then onwards and upwards again until at last we made the top. We chatted briefly to Sayed, who epitomised so many of the Omanis we were going to meet on our journey, welcoming and willing to assist and share a smile. As we drove off, I barely had enough strength left in my leg to push the clutch in. Onwards to the coast, and the village of Jibjat was our next point of reference, however what had appeared on the map to be a simple place to locate, almost cost us an afternoon driving hopefully along the mountain top tracks. After repeated reference to the co-ordinates reported from the satellite on our position, and various discussions with local inhabitants of villages which were not Jibjat, then finally after enquiring at a Royal Oman Army base, we were back on track.
As we descended from the jabal top, we began to enter into Wadi Salafan. Wadi's are water
courses that may or may not have water present, but following flash floods can rapidly transform into raging torrents of water easily capable of sweeping away a vehicle in its path. At this time of year there was little chance of a downpour, and we began to pick our away around, through or over the boulders that made up the river bed. This is severe test of any vehicle's suspension, and I was delighted with the performance of the new suspension system in the Rover. The wadi wound it's way around the base of the jabals, taking in every direction of the compass, including 180 degrees from where we wanted to be heading. But by late afternoon we were on the graded road and heading for the oil camp of Marmul. These graded roads are kept in excellent repair by vehicles resembling mutant snow ploughs, that would appear more at home in the science fiction film "Dune". Our initial aim was to make the first camp on the coast, however as the sun began to set this was becoming increasingly unlikely. Spurning the comforts of the PDO accommodation, mess and bar, we carried on past Oil Gathering Station C, over the small jabal, and made camp just off the edge of the road to Shalim just as the last of the sunlight was extinguished.
DAY 4 : LAGOONS AND THAT SINKING FEELING
We were awakened by a large moth that had found its way into the tent and was frantically flapping around trying to escape. I say we, although Terry, Mark and myself had ended the day sleeping in the same tent ( reduces the time required to make and break camp ) the dawn however found Mark sleeping on a small hillock under the stars.
Whether this was an attempt to be at one with nature, or to escape from the close confines imposed by the tent we were never to know. Nevertheless it was an exercise which he did not repeat, which may in part be due to the large number of scorpions, spiders and a variety of flying insects which come out to play when the sun goes down. Following breakfast and an invigorating shower we broke camp and headed off for the village of Shalim where we could fill up our vehicles with fuel for the day. After fending off some rather persistent Bedouin tribeswoman intent on selling us their woven handicrafts, we continued towards the coast and the village of Ash Shuwaymiyah some 25 kilometres past Shalim. The graded track traverse's the desert scrub until it reaches the edge of a precipice which then drops 300 meters to the coastal plain below. The panorama from the precipice of the cliffs is magnificent as it looks out over the coastal plain and the Arabian Sea. A road has been blasted out of the cliff face which allows a safe descent, but one can imagine that until this was constructed this area may have been almost inaccessible by vehicle.
We were once again back on the coast line, which we had planned to stick to until we reached the outskirts of Muscat.
Exuberant at being back on the coast, we decided to drive the remaining 9 kms to Ash Shuwaymiyah along the beach, but a combination of over inflated tyres driven by an over inflated ego, rendered the Range Rover hopelessly sunk in the sand. Out came the shovels and after I had finished swearing, if not sweating, I began to reverse out inch by inch until back on firmer terrain. We therefore passed through Ash Shuwaymiyah courtesy of the graded track, but our quest for a more arduous test of our driving skills was to be found only a few kilometres into the neighbouring wadi. We scrambled up a short rise to gain access to a gorge hewn out of horizontally stratified limestone, but as we drove through the gorge it was somewhat difficult to appreciate the scenery. Particularly when considering choices between; scraping against a tree or a large boulder, whilst ensuring the relatively smaller boulders we were driving across didn't crack a diff or rip the exhaust off.
Our reward was to view at the end of the gorge, an idyllic scene of palm trees and small rock pools surrounded on three sides by white limestone cliffs. It never ceases to amaze me the diversity of wildlife that can be present in such remote locations. For example in this location due to spring water and occasional rainfall, we found several small pools of water each containing numerous small (1 inch in length) brown / green frogs. Also scattered about the area were boulders with an almost spherical shape, which ranged in size from 0.5 to 2.0 metres in diameter. Their entire surface was uniformly scalloped, which may have been the result of weathering erosion, giving them the appearance of huge Neolithic golf balls. We all safely negotiated our way back to the track and then doubled back to Ash Shuwaymiyah to resume our journey.
The rugged coastline was defeating our objective to drive along the beach, but at every opportunity we explored tracks down to the villages on the coast. On one occasion the track led us to the fishing village of Sharbithat, that on reflection seemed to present a microcosm of the entire country. A very smart almost pristine village overlooking the bay, upon which was located the old ramshackle dwellings constructed of brick, wood and corrugated sheeting. Although these dwellings appeared incredibly fragile, it was not unusual to see a 2 metre wide satellite receiver dish balanced on the roof. Wrecks of Land Rovers (once the only 4WD vehicle used in Oman) were left abandoned alongside new Land Cruisers.
Fishing is the primary source of income, and as always on our trip the local people we met were friendly, helpful and I think perhaps a little surprised as to why foreigners would drive from Abu Dhabi and Muscat to witness the scene. Which from a more practical point of view, revealed that our way forward along the beach was once again barred by the towering cliffs, so it was back on the graded road. By mid afternoon we had descended another steep drop into the village of Sawqirah, and were now driving within sight of the Arabian Sea and looking for a site to make camp. We were aware that at this stretch of coastline a large lagoon had been created by a narrow sandbar, which appeared an excellent location to make camp. We drove through the little sandy knolls and over small rises until we came to the edge of the lagoon, however a small stretch of wet sand separated us from driving onto the sandbar. Enter the intrepid Mark Powell, complete with new wide desert sand tyres, who gingerly made his way out onto the sand, then promptly sank. Somewhat reluctantly, I made my way out, hitched on the tow rope, hit the throttle, and then sank. At this stage, with two cars gradually inching down into the mud, it became rather obvious that we should get the cars out pretty quickly and via a different route than the one I had attempted. Thank goodness for the cavalry, in came Terry in his Cherokee Jeep and whilst keeping to the high ground pulled both vehicles out at an almost 45° degree angle, an impressive achievement.
Eventually we made camp a little further up the shoreline before enjoying a relaxing dip in the sea, which was occasionally interrupted by Terry running back to evict some curious camels from our camp. We then ate our meal, sat on the sand, and watched the last of the day light send silver streaks dancing across the surface of the sea.
At this point our neighbours came out to introduce themselves. Just a few metres from the high tide mark the beach was littered with hundreds of conical piles of sand approximately 30cms tall. These had been made by ghost crabs and serve to attract the female crabs prior to mating, and as the sun began to set, they began to emerge from the holes adjacent to the sand cones in ever increasing numbers. The large crabs were approximately the size of a mans fist and could traverse the sand at an amazing speed.
In such a wonderfully tranquil setting, we all slept soundly and awoke refreshed and full of enthusiasm for what the day held in store. Just as well.
DAY 5: TRANQUILLITY AND TRAUMA
I fell asleep and awoke to the rhythmical hypnotic sound of lapping waves against the beach. After taking a few steps I was totally relaxed, floating in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, watching the sun rise. It was one of those very rare sublime moments, when nothing else matters, and you feel completely at ease without a care in the world. Nevertheless as any Physicist will tell you, every reaction must have an equal and opposite reaction, and if I was currently oblivious to any cares, then that was only because they were waiting around the corner. First I noticed I had a puncture, so I set about replacing the wheel whilst Mark and Terry had breakfast. As per our normal routine, I then went to start the car and leave it to idle for a few minutes. Turned the key and although the engine turned over it refused to start up. Up came the bonnet and after a very thorough and methodical check over the situation was summarised by Terry. "You need a new starter motor". Then my luck changed, the spark plugs began to catch and then the engine gave out its familiar growl. I was mobile again. Feeling a huge sense of relief, I packed up my kit and prepared to reverse off the sandy rise. Back I went, and straight into a patch of churned up soft sand. Terry's first attempt to drag me forward only resulted in his car getting stuck. So after digging down and placing any and all solid material at hand under the wheels, Terry had a second attempt. Thankfully, on this occasion I managed to keep up the momentum and crawl forward out of trouble.
Qahal is famous for it's "Pink Lagoons" which are small totally enclosed pools of seawater, where the water has turned pink as a result of a specific algae, which can survive and bloom in this ultra saline environments. Our visit coincided with a period when the lagoons had evaporated to pink puddles, or alternatively were still too large and therefore the water had not evaporated sufficiently to increase the salinity, and promote the algal bloom. As we watched the flamingo's wading in the lagoons, I couldn't help remarking that they weren't pink either.
Our next priority was to locate a supply of petrol, which was to be found in almost every village, being dispensed in the rudimentary fashion. The petrol was invariably stored in a tank and the "attendant" would fill a 5 gallon jerry can from a tap before siphoning the fuel into the car tank. The jerry can was the absolute unit of measurement and price per jerry can had to be agreed before filling.
We were now temporarily leaving the white limestone cliffs behind and entering a much more rugged coastline composed of dense black rocks, which became increasingly dominant as we approached the headland. As we passed through the village of Ras Madrakah, the undulated terrain developed into steep but small hills scattered with black boulders of various sizes, but after a short drive we were on the beach and heading towards a shipwreck. This wreck is shown on the front cover. The cliffs around this area have been notorious for shipwrecks and on our way back, we were to see that regardless of all the advances in modern technology, human error can still prevail. Only a few weeks earlier, a supply vessel carrying provisions for the village, appeared to have missed the harbour entrance and was driven onto the beach. On our drive back through the almost lunar black rock landscape, I noticed that Terry was no longer following me. As there were a few alternative routes through the rocks I proceeded onto the village while Mark went back to check if Terry was in trouble. After about 10 minutes Terry came driving into the village, although it was immediately apparent that all was not well. In the meantime I had struck up a conversation with some of the local teenage boys. Terry's problem was that as he was proceeding through the rocks the interior of the car was suddenly full of smoke. Just as quickly as it had appeared it disappeared, and although causing a brief moment of worry it never happened again. Apart from their natural curiosity towards the cars it transpired that one of the local boys was looking for a lift home. I duly obliged and with no indication of where this boy lived we headed off for the town of Duqm.
After some 15 minutes a small Bedouin camp appeared on my left hand side, a little distance away from the side of the road and my hitchhiker asked me stop. Although I saw some wonderful and spectacular sites during this trip, my one regret will be that I didn't accept his invitation for coffee. This was Terry's last day with us and I felt that we should proceed to Duqm without delay, to allow Terry as much day light hours as possible so he could make good headway on his own upto Muscat. Therefore after politely rejecting his offer of hospitality, we all carried on to Duqm, bade farewell to Terry and then went to locate the town ice factory. Since all the villages on the coast are actively involved in fishing, each place has its own ice factory. Every day we would pack ice into our cool boxes with all our provisions and offer to pay, and every day our offer of money was rejected. Our ice had melted somewhat prematurely and we needed to stock up before the evening, therefore we took directions from the petrol station (Duqm has the rare distinction of a BP petrol station) and headed off to the factory. It is located at the beginning / end of a magnificent horseshoe bay that stretches for miles. Using a rocky outcrop to provide shelter from a stiffening breeze we made camp looking across the calm turquoise waters and the flat expanse of golden sand. Today had been quite eventful, particularly the morning, so it was with great relief that we swam out into the sea to relax, but as I bobbed in the waves chatting to Mark I was subjected to a shocking experience. After being lifted off my knees by one wave, I put my feet down to steady myself, and trod on an Electric Ray. It's debatable who got the biggest fright, since my not inconsiderable weight suddenly descending upon this fish undoubtedly gave him a bad back and in return I received a curious tingling sensation across my foot. The trials and rewards of my day seemed so remote from a football ground 3,500 miles away in Falkirk, Scotland. Which was where the once all conquering Aberdeen Football Club, were that very afternoon fighting for their Premier League survival in the last game of the season. In the midst of all this natural beauty I tuned into the BBC World Service and listened as the game unfolded and Aberdeen secured a place in the playoffs, ultimately on their way to avoiding relegation. I believe my elation, was matched by Mark's relief that my generally pleasant demeanour would not be upset. My last task of the day was to reverse my car up the slope of the outcrop which would allow me to bump start in the morning.
DAY 6 : BEACHES AND SABKHAS
In the morning as we drove along some of the finest beaches in Oman, it was an exhilarating feeling as the incoming tide washed the tyres, occasionally throwing spray over the windscreen. Overhead the sun was still rising, as we speed across these gloriously deserted beaches. Periodically our way was barred by the rising tide which had swept up over some narrow strips of beach and reached the small coastal sand dunes. In any case these dunes were easily negotiated and then it was back on the beach. Eventually a series of cliffs forced us to drive up over a rise, which from the top presented an awesome view of a giant sabkha. This is an area that was initially flooded by seawater which has since largely evaporated, leaving a vast expanse of salt stretching virtually, as far as the eye can see. To add to this incredible spectacle the remaining water was pink from an algal bloom. Once the crust is broken there is normally only very wet mud underneath, therefore venturing off the beaten track on sabkhas can have disastrous effects. From our vantage point we could see the track cutting across the sabkha and about 400 meters from this track there appeared to be a vehicle, around which there was some activity, which obviously required investigation.
We drove across towards a Toyota pick up and 2 elderly Omanis who were harvesting the salt. This they did by forming small cones of wet salt which appeared pink, however once these cones were left to dry the salt became white and was scraped up by small boards and into hessian sacks marked SUGAR. I can only assume that the course nature of the salt would ever prevent any confusion. I understand that the salt is used by the fishermen for drying and preservation of their catch.
After driving through the sabkha, our route to Khaluf took us via the beach and another shipwreck lying just off the coast with her back broken. Khaluf has none of the modern housing that is being constructed adjacent to many of the established villages and the only signs of technology benefiting the locals were the engines on the fishing boats and Toyota pick ups fitted with enclosed tanks on the flat bed to transport the fish under ice. After Mark obtained some directions we left the village and soon encountered a more rocky surface, within which were trenches that appeared to have been cut into the rock. Negotiating the twists and turns in these trenches and driving in and out over loose rubble, provided a stark contrast to the rapid progress we made across the sand.
We then found ourselves back on the beach, exchanging friendly waves with the fisherman as they dried their nets and we made our way up the coast, stopping briefly at Al Nakdah to enquire about a ferry crossing to Masirah island. Unfortunately, neither the sailing times nor the price was agreeable with our plans and so we proceeded along the coast to Ras ar Ruways which is located at the South East extremity of the Wahiba Sands. The Wahiba Sands extends 80 kms from the coast to the interior and stretches 180 kms Northwards from Ras ar Ruways to Al Minitrib. It contains some of the highest dunes found in Oman and is currently estimated to moving inland at he rate of 10 metres per year. Beneath the sand are the worlds largest deposit of Aeolianite (cemented wind blown sand) which is exposed at various locations along the coast like layered shards. From Ras ar Ruways to where we were to make camp for the night at Khumwaimah is a distance of approximately 55 kms, which was driven over the relatively small rolling sand dunes on the edge of the Wahiba Sands. Once we decided to make camp we selected a site away from the coast, to avoid the local fishermen who drove their pick ups at breakneck speeds along the beach and dunes from one village to the next. However although we were quite happy pitching the tent amidst the dunes, a visit by a scorpion later in the evening and the many tracks which we found in the morning left by the sand snakes, made us aware that nature can also provide its own hazards.
DAY 7 : PAJERO SALVAGE
The Arabic atmosphere was enhanced as the morning call to prayer was carried by the morning breeze across the desert from a nearby village mosque. Nevertheless my own prayers fell on deaf ears and my morning began with a tug down a sand dune to get the car started. Thankfully, once this initial start was achieved, the car could be stopped and started again at will. Today was to turn into one of those days where we would enjoy the ability of our vehicles to tackle a variety of terrain's and obstacles. Initially we drove over some of the larger coastal dunes before I tried my hand at coming down a slip face. Sand dunes are swept in a particular direction dictated by the prevailing winds, therefore one side of the dune tends to have an incline which can vary in its steepness however as the sand is swept over the crest of the dune it drops into the void, creating a much steeper slope. Mark reviewed the technique of descending the slip face with me as we sat on the crest of the dune.
First, put the vehicle into low 4WD, select an appropriate gear and without braking, drive the car down the slope using the engine alone to control the speed of descent. As the vehicle approached the edge, I could see nothing below me out of the windscreen and only by looking out of my side window could I gauge my progress over the edge. The bonnet suddenly dipped and the descent had begun. This turned out to be quicker than I had anticipated, since I had inadvertently selected 4th gear instead of 2nd but the soft sand had also acted as a brake. We continued over the sand dunes and wherever possible along the beach passing the villages of Qurun and Ghudayran as we went. Along the way we had to perform another of our routine tasks, that of collecting potable water. Since Mark is employed by a company which manufactures Desalination plants, the location of these facilities was not a problem.
However even to the passing visitor, the large green tanks that are typically present tend to give their presence away. The majority of these plants employ the Reverse Osmosis principle to convert brackish formation water, or more often seawater, into drinking water. The central unit to the process is the cylindrical pod approximately 2 metres long which contains a finely packed bundle of hollow fibres sealed in a resin block at one end. A slice is cut at the beginning of the resin block which creates millions of separate fibres, each with an open end. The raw water is then forced into these fibres which effectively "filter" out the salt, and the low salinity drinking water is sucked out. Once the bundles become choked with salt, a small amount of fresh water is flushed in from the discharge to wash out the salty deposits in the fibres.
We were always welcomed at these plants, invited in for coffee and because of Mark's professional interest we were usually given a guided tour. Mains water is still not common in Muscat, therefore at these remote locations it was total unheard of. Alternatively, tankers come to fill up at the desalination plants and deliver the water to the individual header tanks which every house has. The Bedouins normally have a small tanker that they hitch onto a Land Cruiser and tow from one location to the next.
Noon found us at the town of Al Ashkara which gave us an opportunity to inflate our tyres and get the cars washed. A phone call to my wife on the coast confirmed that Terry had arrived the previous day in Muscat, with no problems to report except a puncture picked up en route. Our final section of beach driving almost proved very costly for Mark. Small rocky outcrops which obstructed our route along the beach gave us 2 options; either wait until the tide ebbed and drive across the rock pools to the beach on the other side, or abandon the beach for a short while as we drove around the outcrop. Obviously the latter would only be considered as a last resort. From a distance it was apparent that the next outcrop was going to cause us difficulties as it would have to be driven over rather than around, therefore it was decided that I should remain a safe distance back, ostensibly to be able to effect a recovery if required. Or alternatively, to photograph and record for posterity the traumas of your fellow traveller, desperately trying to rearrange boulders to prevent being trapped in a particularly deep rock pool, as the waves began to run up the side of the vehicle. Unfortunately my photographic ability failed me at this crucial moment, and instead the photograph below shows Mark cruising around one the outcrops, just before he was almost trapped.
The beaches soon after became impassable to vehicles and we were left with no choice but to take the tracks along the edge of the cliffs which afforded us spectacular views of the rugged coastline and Arabian Sea. Further up the coast are the beaches of Ras Al Junaz and Ras Al Hadd which provide a large variety of turtles with one of the last undisturbed nesting areas in the world. Normally October and November are the best times to witness the thousands of female Green turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs, although the beaches were all covered by craters excavated more recently by another variety of turtle.
The beaches are in coves located around the headland, and once off the track some demanding hills, small wadi courses and rough ground had to be negotiated to get from one to the next. Since camping is strictly prohibited at all of the locations where turtles' nest, with the exception of a designated camp site at Ras Al Hadd, we carried on towards the town of Sur. It was late in the afternoon and the light was beginning to fade, therefore we pulled off the track driving into the shale covered hills, most of which were no higher than 20 metres, and finding a flat area to pitch the tent on we made our last camp.
Night comes quickly to this part of the world and since there was a clear sky with a huge full moon, I decided to wander off a short distance and take an extended exposure photograph of Mark sitting at the camp fire. As I was setting up my tripod and fixing the exposure etc, there was a flurry of activity and some shouting which culminated in Mark performing something resembling a tribal rain dance around the fire. I hastily ran back to find out what all the commotion was about and was shown a large camel spider, which in its now flattened state, occupied the surface of the shovel. It transpired that the camel had jumped onto Mark's leg before being beaten to death with the aforementioned shovel. I should mention that camel spiders have the endearing habit of jumping onto an animal's skin and by injecting a chemical which has similar properties to an anaesthetic, can then gnaw away at the victim's flesh. They can range in size from an inch in diameter to the size of a dinner plate. After ensuring that the tent zips were all closed, we listened to the "Voice of America" before settling down for our last night under canvas.
DAY 8: SPECTACULAR WADI TIWI
We had refined the time taken to break camp down to less than 15 minutes, usually preceded by 10 minutes, allotted to giving the Range Rover a tow start.
Then it was along the graded road to the sizeable town of Sur which we approached via the adjacent village of Ayja. The streets of Ayja were built in the traditional Arabic style to be as narrow as possible, which cast a constant shadow on the facade of the houses and promoted a breeze through the street. Both factors considerably assisted keeping the houses cool in Summer.
From a derelict fort watchtower we viewed the bay filled with the large sailing Dhows which had until the mid 20th century been used to trade with neighbouring Gulf countries, India and East Africa. Sur, which had once represented Oman's principle trading port with East Africa, lay across the bay.
Driving out of Sur, the graded road follows the edge of the cliffs for 26kms until the ruins of Qalhat, which date back to 200 AD, are reached. The only remaining structure of this ancient town is the mausoleum of Bibi Miriam. This was once a major settlement as is indicated by the extent of the town wall. A particularly steep and winding mountain track, provided a brief diversion before we continued our way along the dusty and undulating route which links Sur to Quriyat, 126 kms along the coast.
Sudden turns and unexpected dips, compounded by the blinding dust thrown up from vehicles heading in the other direction, meant that driving along the edge of this barren rock strewn landscape, was demanding for driver and car. The starkness of the drive from Qalhat, made the scene which met our eyes upon our arrival at the opening into Wadi Tiwi all the more spectacular.
A massive cleft in the mountains had created a gorge through which flowed a healthy stream, densely populated on both sides by a variety of trees. The gorge was only just wide enough to accommodate a few houses scattered either side of the stream, which were barely visible behind date palm, mango and banana tree orchards. A track running on one side of the stream, and then the other, permitted access for a few kilometres into the wadi, but this presently comes to an abrupt end in someone's back yard, although he appears to be anticipating neighbours since a squad of labourers were extending the track.
As we sat on the grassy bank of the stream, exchanging greetings with the children playing in the house on the opposite bank one of the elder children stood outside the house and recited the mid-day call to prayer. His lyrical chant echoed up the valley creating an air of serenity that appeared almost tangible. Only a short distance along the coast from Wadi Tiwi is Wadi Shab, which literally translated means "ravine between cliffs". It is not possible to drive up into this wadi, and the only means of entrance are via a boat which is operated by some of the local children to ford the large shallow pool of water at the entrance.
Only 82 kilometres separate Wadi Shab from Quriyat, where the start of the main metalled road to Muscat effectively ended our journey. How appropriate then that the last place of interest we were to visit on the route to Quriyat should be a sinkhole. Not perhaps as spectacular as the one we visited on our first day after leaving Salalah but an interesting geological phenomenon nonetheless.
As I drove up the blacktop road over the mountains towards Muscat, my mind drifted back over the last eight days; breathtaking scenery, a way of life almost Biblical in its simplicity and an indigenous people who appeared industrious, proud and always friendly. Travelling with good friends also immeasurably enhanced the experience, but lest it all get forgotten and the photographs lost in a shoe box in the attic, I resolved on the blacktop to Muscat that I would write an account of our experiences. Throughout this account I have repeatedly referred to "my" Range Rover, however my last mention must belong to my wife Diane, for allowing me to borrow, what is after all, her Range Rover. By the way it needs a new starter motor.
Author Raymond Stirton
Photographs : Raymond Stirton, Mark Powell