Our trip to Masirah Island (plus some tips)

White sand, fishing boats and turquoise water: welcome to Masirah Island

Over the long weekend for President’s Day we went to Masirah Island and it was amazing. We had a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach mostly to ourselves and the weather was perfect.

We collected shells and M used them to decorate the bushes

You can camp just about anywhere on the island, except on the military bases, and a friend gave us the turn-off spot for the camping area that her friends always use. We drove down a sandy dirt road until we reached a spot that looked good right by the coast, down the beach a ways from some fishing boats, and we set up camp.

The area around our campsite

We spent the days exploring the beach, collecting shells, and building sand castles. M kept himself busy looking for crabs, until he lost his footing on some rocks, stuck his hand into a crevice to keep from falling, and a hiding crab pinched him. My god did he scream, poor kid. The evenings were spent cooking, drinking wine, taking pictures of the sunset, and reading around the campfire. It was a lovely two days and I just wish we’d had more time.

When the red wine’s been sitting in a hot car and you’re out of ice, you have to improvise to cool it off

Campfire spaghetti and meatballs: some of the best I’ve ever had!

Sunset at the “crab rocks” by our campsite 

We spent some time driving around the island and exploring a little, but mostly we just stayed on our stretch of beach. As usual, I have a few trips to help you make the most out of your time there:

  • You can drive around the island in a sedan, but to really explore it you need 4WD. Only count on being able to drive on the paved roads in a sedan. We definitely would have gotten stuck several times if we hadn’t had 4WD.

Good luck exploring this “road” in a sedan!

  • The west side is less windy than the east side.
  • There are several options for sleeping other than camping on the island. There’s a kite surfing camp plus a number of other hotels.

The colorful tents at the kite surfing camp

They even have rules

  • Bring everything you anticipate needing with you. Chances are you’re not on the island for more than two or three nights and you’ll want to spend the time enjoying the beaches or exploring, rather than driving 45 minutes one-way back to town for supplies

The thriving metropolis of Hilf

  • If you take the road from Sinaw to Mahoot, you might see some camels practicing racing or some actual camel racing! You will also see an amazing sign in Mahoot for a “tire puncher” shop. I think they meant “tire puncture.”

Practicing camel racing!

If you’re thinking about making the trip to Masirah, do it! We loved it, and we are really bummed out that we don’t have the time to make another trip there before we leave. Once again, Oman never fails to impress us with its natural beauty.

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How to get tickets for the National Ferries Company

The NFC ferry to Masirah Island

We recently returned from a trip to Masirah Island, and the most difficult part of the trip was getting the ferry tickets with the National Ferries Company (NFC). Today I am here to explain exactly how to make a reservation, pay, and, importantly, actually get the ferry tickets with step-by-step instructions so you don’t make the same mistakes we did!

NFC ferries are labeled with the destination on the side

It’s a catamaran ferry!

I will make one caveat: maybe there’s an easier way (and I’m missing something huge). If there is, we are completely unaware of it. However, if you follow these instructions, it should be a relatively painless process.

  1. Email reservation@nfc.om with the ferry dates and times you want, round-trip. Ferry schedules can be found here. Attach copies of the front and back of your vehicle registration license and copies of the passport biodata page for each traveler. Also give them your phone number. They responded to my email quickly, giving us the reservation the following day.
  2. Print a copy of the reservation and go to the office in Muttrah (by the flour factory) to pay. You must pay in advance of the trip.
  3. Now you are ready to drive to the ferry dock, with your payment and reservation confirmation in-hand. When driving to Shannah port, you have to turn right to drive down the long narrow jetty to the pier. Rather than turning right, turn left first to go to the National Ferries Company office to get your actual tickets. This should not take long. [Side note: ferries usually start boarding about 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time and I’ll tell you now that there is not a lot to do at the dock other than take photos and roast in the sun.]
  4. Board the ferry and give your tickets to the NFC employee. Make sure you keep your reservation and payment confirmation papers.
  5. When you are ready to board the ferry to come back from your trip, once again you need to get the actual tickets. On Masirah Island, the NFC office has clear signage and is almost directly across from the ferry dock.

You have to get camels to the island somehow…

Overall, we were really impressed with the NFC ferries. They were good-sized catamaran ferries with separate air-conditioned cabins (with clean bathrooms!) for families and men. M had a blast running around in the cabin with all the little Omani kids. The sun deck is bare-bones, and has no shaded areas and only benches to sit on. And the thin cables under the railing weren’t enough to keep me from worrying about M falling overboard.

The roof deck

I’d definitely rather take the NFC ferry than any of the other options! “Safety first,” indeed.

Some of the other Masirah ferry options available

SAFETY FIRST

You couldn’t pay me enough to get on this boat

 

Tips for visiting the Salmah Plateau

The setting sun behind the Salmah Plateau, from Fins Beach

There’s a lot to do between Muscat and Sur: Wadi Shab, Bimmah Sinkhole, Wadi al Arbaeen,  and Fins Beach, just to name a few favorites. The Salmah Plateau is  easily over-looked for those low-lying and easily accessible attractions, but everywhere you look, there it is, in the distance. It’s a beautiful, desolate area in the Eastern Hajar mountains, with barren vistas spanning for miles. The plateau is dotted with beehive tombs and herds of camels, and you will come across some small villages and goat herders, but that’s pretty much it.

The Salmah Plateau in the setting sun

I can see for miles and miles…

We recently had a five-day holiday weekend, and we wanted to go camping and escape the crowds. With the sheer size of the plateau and its relative inaccessibility (compared to someplace like Fins Beach), we decided to spend the night amongst the beehive tombs at 1,500 meters above sea level.

The view of the sunset from our campsite

It was an incredible journey and something I’d highly recommend for anyone who wants to truly venture off the beaten path and experience Oman at its best. It’s also a surprisingly short drive: only about 90 minutes to the first turn-off to go up the plateau and then another 1-2 hours to the tombs, depending on how much you stop.

Dirt roads, sunshine and mountains

While planning your trip to the Salmah Plateau, here are some things to think about:

  • Only 4WD vehicles can make the trip. On our way up we passed a vehicle coming the other direction, and they stopped and told us their rented little AWD Mazda was unable to make the ascent. You need a vehicle with some power (and good brakes).
  • It gets cold at night. I think it probably got down to 15C while we were there, if not colder.
  • Bring snacks and water for the people who live on the plateau. We passed an old shepherd who asked for food, not to mention countless children and other villagers. Next time we’ll keep water bottles, a bag of dates, candy, and snack packs of Oman chips in the car.
  • Download a map that you can use on the plateau ahead of time. There is no cell reception on the plateau. I recommend maps.me but with some serious reservations (more on that in my next post).
  • Fill up on gas by Bimmah Sinkhole. There are no gas stations on the plateau.
  • Bring a buddy in another vehicle and walkie-talkies. We joked about needing walkie-talkies, but it turns out they actually would have been really helpful. It’s also good to have people in another vehicle in case something happens to one of the cars.
  • Take road at the Fins exit on the Muscat-Sur highway to go up the mountain. There is another exit a few miles down the highway that also goes up to the plateau, but it is paved and incredibly steep which makes it less-than-idea for the ascent.

Because any real Oman adventure has to include camels

It would be possible to take a day-trip up to the Salmah Plateau, but I would recommend camping and staying the night. Watching the sunset up there is a magical experience, and you do not want to drive down from the plateau at night. We lucked out and found an amazing camping spot that already had some cleared areas for our tents and a fire pit. You will need to make sure you bring all your own firewood, food, and water, plus cots or thick mats for your sleeping bags.

Next up: what we did, what we saw, and what went wrong!

Our plans for the next several months

Turquoise waters of the Daymaniyat Islands

We only have about 8.5 months left in Oman. That fact honestly truly breaks my heart. If we could stay here longer, we would in a heartbeat.

A perenial favorite: Wadi Shab. This time with an extra foot of water thanks to recent rain!

We’ve had some awesome adventures here in Oman over the past 15 months. We’ve gone hiking; explored mountains, deserts, wadis and beaches; gotten two scuba certifications; camped from here to Salalah; visited forts, markets, abandoned villages, and castles; and lots of other stuff I’m undoubtedly forgetting. It’s been incredible.

Another lovely morning at the Nizwa Goat Market

But now it’s time to kick it up a notch and go even further afield. For the remainder of our time here, we’ve got some big plans! Here’s what we’re planning before we leave Oman next August:

  • Camping at Jebel Shams. I want to camp along the rim of the Grand Canyon of Arabia. How this can be done safely with a 3-year old remains to be seen, but we’re going to make it happen.
  • Trip to Masirah Island. Those beautiful desolate beaches are so idyllic and picturesque. The perfect spot for a long weekend camping trip!
  • Back to the Sugar Dunes. This time we’ll spend more than one night, and take more time to really enjoy the beach. Hopefully it won’t be as windy next time around, but if it is, we’ll be better prepared for it!
  • Trip to Musandam. Did you know there are fjords in Oman? There are in Musandam! There’s also apparently the clearest, bluest water you’ve ever seen, so I’ve been told. We don’t know if we’ll fly or drive or take a ferry, or whether we’ll camp or stay in a hotel. But if I had to guess, I think we’ll both drive and take the ferry, and then camp, with maybe one night in a fancy hotel at the end.
  • Camping on the Salmah Plateau. The Salmah Plateau is home to the biggest caves and some of the most well-preserved beehive tombs in Oman. Plus clear night skies, stunning views, and cool temperatures. It should make for the perfect weekend trip!
  • Glamping at Desert Nights. This is supposedly the place to camp in the Wahiba Sands. I didn’t love 1000 Nights, so I’d like to give this spot a try. I’m listing this last, though, because we’ll have 3 years to explore the desert in Namibia, so if we don’t make it back to the desert here I won’t be heart-broken.

Rather than more international travel, we’re going to take some vacation days so that we can really experience all that Oman has to offer. This is such an incredible and interesting country, and who knows when or if we’ll ever have the chance to explore this area again.

The view along the Village Walk at Jebel Akhdar

It’s time to replace our Jeep’s fender (which blew off the car while on our Salalah excursion) and go adventuring!

Driving around Dhofar: camels and cyclone damage

Camels everywhere!

While we were driving around Dhofar and Salalah, I was struck by three things: how green it was, the extraordinary number of camels everywhere, and the amount of remaining damage from Cyclone Mekunu.  I was prepared for, but still surprised by, the first two, but I was shocked by latter.

Waze tried to make us take this road

We drove down some roads that probably shouldn’t have been open, and Waze tried to take us over a bridge that had been completely washed out.

Close-up of the photo above. See how the bridge is washed out?

Cyclone Mekunu struck Oman (and Yemen) in May earlier in the year, and apparently dumped over 10 inches of rain in Salalah in one day, and more than 24 inches over a 4-day period. It was the biggest natural disaster that Oman’s seen in some time, and the water rushing down the mountains caused a lot of damage. I guess I thought that they would have made all the repairs and so forth by now, but it was only 3 months ago.

I’m surprised this road wasn’t closed.

Also, I don’t think it’s possible to write about a trip to Salalah without mentioning the camels. They are everywhere. In the traffic circles, the highways, the hillsides, the ruins, you name it. I read that during the khareef the camels come down off the mountains and into the plains closer to the coast to escape the biting flies.  Whatever the reason, there are camels all over the place and they give zero shits if they are in your way. They will literally walk out into the middle of a freeway without a care in the world. It definitely makes for interesting driving!

Camels in the road

Camels don’t care

We tried to drive down this road, but we gave up (and got yelled at by the camel herder)

“WTF are you guys doing here”

Ruins and a camel

I tried to convince M this was a two-headed camel. He didn’t believe me. He’s no fun.

More camels

That one’s a non-conformist.

Our summer in Oman

How can you say no to water like this?!

Oman in the summer gets kind of a bad rap. It’s too hot, there’s nothing to do, it’s too hot, blah, blah, blah. Lots of expats leave during the summer, but we stuck around. We took a few vacations, but for most of the summer we were here. And you know what? It was pretty great.

Oman knows how to do a nice coastline

We spent a lot of time in the water. We explored some new beaches and returned to our old favorites, where the water was cool and the temperature wasn’t unbearable as long as you avoided the mid-day heat. M finally got used to wearing his arm floaties and now he loves being in the water. Before he liked the sand and splashing in the waves, but now he can actually swim. He’ll jump off the side of the pool and swim to whichever adult is closest, and he doesn’t freak out when he goes under water.

We also completed our Advanced Open Water scuba diving certification. Of all the times we went scuba diving this summer, the heat was truly terrible only once.

When you do more than one dive in a day, you have to spend a certain amount of time on the surface between dives, and this is called the surface interval. Standard practice is to have a 60-minute surface interval, and luckily we were diving someplace with decent snorkeling because I was about to either pass out or start vomiting, I got so hot. So I jumped in the water and snorkeled for the remaining 45 minutes of the surface interval.

I also learned early on that when it’s hot outside and you have to wear a wetsuit, the best thing to do is to put your wetsuit on and immediately jump in the water. Pull it away from your body so that water gets inside, and you’ll be so much cooler while you’re getting your BCD and everything else ready.

Air tanks and Fahal Island. We spent a lot of our summer here.

We went camping at a beautiful white sand beach near Fins towards the end of August. We arrived around 3:45 pm, and it was surprisingly pleasant out. Athena came along with us, and she immediately found a shaded spot under a rocky outcropping in the sand. She loves swimming and playing fetch, and she tired herself out running around in the water and swimming through the waves. The next morning, the minute the sun crested over the horizon it got boiling hot out. We were rushing to pack up camp by 7 am, and I think we finally left around 8:30 after we took a break to go swimming and cool off.

Athena living her best life

Campfire and the moon, with the lights of Fins in the background

Athena protecting the beach tent

In August we went on a snorkeling trip to the Daymaniat Islands and on the way there we saw whale sharks! Swimming with whale sharks is on my Oman bucket list, and finally getting the opportunity to snorkel with them was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. There’s nothing like jumping off a boat into the water when a 20-foot long shark is swimming straight at you with its mouth open. That was really something else.

A whale shark!

You’ll almost always see turtles at the Daymaniats

An enormous Arabian Angelfish

Another big thing that happened this summer was that a lot of our friends departed Muscat. In the Foreign Service, lots of jobs end in the summer, so you get lots of folks departing from June to August. It sucks and it can be really hard. Luckily, the world is a surprisingly small place and I know that we’ll see them again! It’s easy to get bogged down in how much it stinks when friends leave, but it’s also fun to meet new people and welcome folks into the community.

We did an overnight trip to Ras Al Jinz, and we took several trips up into the mountains. Then we capped the whole thing off with our trip to Salalah. All in all, it was an awesome summer, and I’m glad we stuck around. I’m glad we still have one more summer left before we have to leave next August. There are lots more fun times to be had, even though it will be hot out!

Exploring the abandoned villages of Jebel Akhdar

Oman’s Grand Canyon, Jebel Shams, on a particularly overcast day

Camping in Dhofar (and Oman beach camping notes)

Our campsite at a random beach in Northern Dhofar before we cleaned up all the trash

For our second night of camping on our Salalah road trip, I had pre-selected a spot that another blog said was nice, but we would have arrived later than we would have liked to have time to set up camp and make dinner. Instead we drove to a beach that looked promising and not too windy, let the air out of the tires to 15 PSI, and kept driving until we found a good spot.

Once again, Nate got started on the fire while I set up the tents and M buried his plastic dinosaurs in the sand. One of those dinos is still buried, and luckily M is too young to care or realize that it’s gone forever.

The tide when out and a patch of pink shells appeared

The temperature on the beach was perfect, and I actually had to wear long sleeves and sleep inside my sleeping bag. There’s nothing like eating a yummy campfire meal and watching the sunset over the ocean, and then falling asleep with a gentle breeze to the sound of waves on the shore.

It was cold enough that I actually had to sleep inside my sleeping bag!

We’re not beach camping experts by any stretch of the imagination, but we have some wisdom to pass on to others planning to go beach camping in Oman. Here are some of our tips:

  • Bring a table. We also bring plastic bins, one for cooking gear, one for other stuff, and they also function as tables. There are no picnic tables here.
  • Buy firewood ahead of time. You can buy it reliably at the Sultan Center in Muscat (one bundle costs 2.500 OMR), and apparently at the OmanOil on the freeway by Quriyat. Do not plan on being able to find firewood or kindling at your campsite.

Beach sunset and the campfire

  • Bring an axe or hatchet to split your firewood. In the absence of an axe/hatchet, bring some fire starter.
  • Bring garbage bags. We always try to leave the campsite cleaner than when we arrived, and unfortunately in Oman you’ll find a lot of plastic garbage on almost every beach.
  • Bring a tarp or mat to put on the ground. You’ll want someplace where you can set things and they won’t get covered in sand. You can buy one of those large plastic mats at Lulu for less than 2 OMR.
  • Be prepared for late-night parties. The As Sifah beach is notorious for this. People will go to bed around 10 pm and then around 2 am the partiers will show up, playing music and making lots of noise until the sun comes up. We prefer to camp in difficult-to-access or off-the-beaten path areas for this reason.

Essential beach camping gear: beach tent + sleeping tent, plastic mat, plastic bins, cooler and water bladders

  • Embrace the sand. You’ll never get rid of all of it. It’s impossible. We keep a towel inside the tent by the door so we can wipe off our feet, but when we get home everything is still covered in sand.
  • Bring a beach tent. If it gets hot, you’ll be grateful for the shade, and if it’s windy, this is where you can prepare and eat sand-free meals.
  • Close your tent zipper fully, with both the zippers pulled up as high as they will go together (rather than pulling the two zippers together along the bottom of the tent). You don’t want scorpions in your tent!

Pork sausage and potatoes for breakfast

  • Don’t plan on finding ice anywhere after you leave Muscat. We bring a cooler with ice packs and we freeze what we can to help keep everything else cold. There is ice at the convenience store/gas station next to the freeway right by the Bimmah Sink Hole exit, and that is the only place I have ever seen ice.

Do you have any other beach camping tips? Let me know!

Ras Al Markaz

Ras Al Markaz: where you feel like you’re on a different planet

Ras Al Markaz feels like the setting for a seaside Mad Max movie. With the wind-blown cliffs, expansive beach, rust-colored water, and abandoned fishing boats, it’s otherworldly.

Ras Al Markaz is so insanely windy, the South Asian fishermen wander around wearing pants and jackets, with fabric wrapped around their heads and faces, for protection from the blowing sand. The wind blows so hard, the sand stings any unprotected skin.

Post-apocalyptic looking fishermen

We drove down to the beach, and while Nate was letting the air out of the tires, I got out of the car to take a few photos. Almost immediately, my hat and sunglasses blew off my head and my camera got covered by blowing sand. We had hoped that it would be a nice stopping point where we could have a picnic and M could get out of the car and run around, but instead he stayed strapped into his carseat while I hesitantly ventured out every few hundred meters to take more pictures (leaving my hat and sunglasses inside).

Rusty water at Ras Al Markaz

Fishermen’s boats at Ras Al Markaz

The wind blows the tops of waves in the other direction, and the beach is littered with fish skeletons. The mineral deposits in the cliffs along the beach make the water in the nearby stream run red. There are definitely lots of interesting and fun photography opportunities!

Waves actually blowing backwards

To get to Ras Al Markaz, take highway 32 south from Duqm towards Ras Al Madrakah. Before reaching Ras Al Madrakah you’ll see a sign pointing to the left for Ras Al Markaz. I would not recommend this beach for anything except for photography. I’d only drive down the beach with a 4WD vehicle. It’s far too windy and the sea is too rough for camping, swimming, picnicking, anything. The views are scenery are stunning and it’s a nice beach to drive along!

I half-expected War Boys to be driving those trucks

The Duqm Rock Garden

Rocks. Yes, this is actually a tourist attraction.

Duqm, a coastal town in the middle of Oman, is an interesting place. And I mean interesting as in “Hmmm… that’s, uh, interesting….” Not “Wow, that’s so interesting!”

Oman is marketing Duqm as a “special economic zone,” and a bunch of fancy new (by which I mean expensive) hotels have been recently constructed there as they try to build up the shipping industry. I’ve been trying for a while to get a full picture of what exactly is the big deal with Duqm, and I guess the objective is to turn it into the port that everyone stops at on their way up towards the Strait of Hormuz or the Indian Ocean. Right now Dubai is the big hub, but Duqm is centrally located in a strategic position closer to shipping lanes.  That’s my understanding of it, anyways. I could be wrong.

We drove through Duqm on our way down to Salalah, and I’d read about the Duqm Rock Garden. It’s a huge space full of interesting rocks, and it seemed like a good place to stop and stretch our legs.

First, however, we had to figure out how to access it. It’s surrounded by a construction project, and finding our way to the parking lot involved driving through construction sites and turning where it looked like we probably shouldn’t.

Surprise! There is a real parking lot and even a sign.

Eventually we found our way to the parking lot, put M in his hiking pack, and walked into the park. At which point we discovered that the park has been overrun by aggressive feral dogs.

Nate and I are dog people, but these ones were scary. They started barking and running towards us, and we made a beeline for the car. You can drive into the park, so we decided we’d just drive around instead and enjoy the park from the safety of our vehicle.

We reached one particularly interesting area, and I decided to get out of the car for a few minutes to take a few pictures. I was maybe 100 meters from the car and I heard a dog barking, so I started hurrying back to the car. The barking got closer, and I started sprinting. I got to the car and could see I a dog perched on an outcropping, watching my every move.

The second of the two photos I took before I sprinted back to the car.

Between the mess that was figuring out how to access the Rock Garden and the potential mauling that one could get there, I’m going to say that a stop here is absolutely not worth it. But it makes for a good story.

Al Khaluf: The Sugar Dunes

The white Sugar Dunes of Al Khaluf

The white sand dunes of Al Khaluf, also called Ras Bin Tawt or, more aptly, the Sugar Dunes, is one of my new favorite spots in Oman. It is amazingly beautiful.

The Sugar Dunes and the coast on a cloudy overcast morning

We left Muscat around 10:15 am and arrived in Al Khaluf 3:45. The majority of the drive is painfully boring, and it took a lot longer than we thought it would. But once you turn off the main road for Al Khaluf, the scenery changes into rocky dunes and the drive is beautiful.

The rocky sandy dunes of Al Khaluf

After leaving the paved road, we let the air out of the tires down to 15 PSI. We used the route in Oman Off Road to reach the dunes, and even with the GPS coordinates, it would have been impossible without the maps.me app. Luckily I’d downloaded it months ago and when we were getting lost with Waze and Google Maps, maps.me came through for us.

First you’ll drive along the Al Khaluf beach, and then you’ll have to drive inland a little ways. Eventually you’ll hit the coast again, at which point you’ve reached the Sugar Dunes. We drove along the dunes until we reached a spot that looked nice, where we pulled over and started setting up camp. We tried to angle the car a little for wind protection, and we set up the tent as close to the vehicle as we could.

We tried to use the car as a wind breaker along the beach

Nate got started on the fire while I set up the beach tent and the sleeping tent. The beach tent came in particularly handy here as a wind shelter. We could eat meals and prepare food without getting sand blown into everything.

That night I slept like crap. We had to put the fly on the tent because we didn’t want the fine-grain sand getting into everything, which turned the inside of the tent into an un-ventilated oven. Plus, it was so windy, the tent was making tons of noise, and I felt like I kept hearing someone outside our tent. We woke up the next morning and there were little fox prints all over our campsite. Thank goodness we put all our trash and food back in the car overnight!

The sky shortly after sunrise. Luckily that storm never blew our way!

After packing up our campsite we explored the dunes a bit more and then headed out. Oman Off Road said there was a neat fish farm to check out at the end of the peninsula, but it looks like it’s now defunct. And if you get out of the car there you’ll be attacked by a pack of dogs. The dogs came running at our car and kept up with us at 25 mph for several minutes, barking their heads off. So, don’t get out of the car!

We are definitely planning to back to the Sugar Dunes. Camping between the dunes and the ocean is an amazing experience, and the white dunes are just gorgeous. I kept running up the dunes to get more pictures as the light just got better and better. (Although now that I’m looking at the photos, I realize I still have some editing to do with the colors.) I’ve heard that the winter is less windy, and that seems like the perfect time for a return trip!

Sunset over the Sugar Dunes