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!

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.

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

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

The Great Salalah Road Trip of 2018

The Wadi Darbat waterfall near Salalah

When you go on a trip, it falls somewhere on the vacation-adventure spectrum. During a vacation, you have not a care in the world, and ideally you’re lying on a beach in the middle of nowhere with a good book in one hand and a drink in the other. When you’re on an adventure, you hit the ground running, and you don’t come up for air until the whole thing is over. Most trips are somewhere in the middle, especially when you have kids (because, let’s be honest, taking a proper vacation with small children is impossible).

We recently took a road trip down to Salalah, Oman’s largest town in the south, and it was 100% an adventure. We drove on beaches and off-road, camped in beautiful remote areas, hiked, lost part of our car on a windy mountain plateau, got chased by wild dogs and camels, explored ruins and waterfalls, got nearly blown over by wind, waded through parasite-laden streams, took thousands of photos, and had an awesome time.

Salalah during khareef: mountains, muddy roads, greenery, and clouds

Every year there is a monsoon season in the southern part of Oman, called the khareef, and it turns Salalah into a desert oasis. Plants spring out of the ground, streams and waterfalls with bright blue water appear out of nowhere, and the entire area becomes Oman’s #1 tourist destination.

So much greenery and turquoise water!

The khareef runs from June to August, and we were initially planning to visit over the long 4th of July weekend. But Nate went to Salalah for work in April, and the hotel receptionist told him that the best time to visit is actually September. It’s less rainy, the mountains are at their greenest, and there are less tourists. That receptionist was spot-on 100% correct: September was a perfect time to visit the region.

We took the coastal route to Salalah rather than the inland route, and we spent two nights camping on the way down, followed by 2 nights at a hotel in Salalah. Rather than drive back to Muscat, we opted to fly home and ship our car back with a vehicle transportation company. The total cost of shipping the car and plane tickets was less than $260, which was very much worth not having to drive 12-14 hours back.

Camping at the Sugar Dunes near Al Khaluf

I’ll write more about where we camped and what sites we saw on the way down, plus what we did and where we went in Salalah. For now, here’s a color-coded map of what we did, with the red pins marking camping spots and the blue pins indicating places of interest.


Here is our general itinerary:

Day 1: depart Muscat around 10 am, arrive at Al Khaluf at 3:45, reach campsite in the Sugar Dunes by 4:30

Day 2: depart campsite by 8:30 am; stop at Duqm Rock Garden, Ras Al Markaz beach, and the pink lagoon; reach Dhofar coast campsite by 4:45

Day 3: depart campsite by 8:30 am; stop in Hasik to see waterfall and ruins; stop numerous times along the route to take photos of the coastline; arrive at hotel around 5 pm

Day 4: visit Wadi Darbat: go to hillside viewing point for waterfall and travertine curtain; hike to waterfall; drive up to see ponds, streams and little waterfalls; hike to see travertine curtain from above; drive to see Tawi Ateer sink hole; drive to baobab tree forest; lunch in Mirbat; visit Ayn Tabruk and Ayn Athum

Day 5: visit Sumhuram ruins, Ayn Khor, Al Baleed archeological park and Land of Frankincense museum. Drop car off with vehicle transport guy at 5 pm and take taxi to airport

Also, if you’re planning to do this road trip, you may want to download the maps.me app. You can download the Oman map and it’ll still work well even when you have zero cellular service. Maps.me has all the tiny little tracks through dunes, mountains, and random fields that most people wouldn’t even consider to be roads. But when you want to go off the beaten track, even if you have GPS coordinates, it is very helpful.

Make sure you also have plenty of water, a towing cable, a tire deflator with a  gauge, a battery-powered tire pump, and a shovel. Also make sure you know where your jack and spare tire are. It’s always good to be prepared on a road trip to remote areas!

Camping at a random beach in norther Dhofar

An overnight at Ras Al Jinz

A mama turtle heading back to the sea, with a baby turtle following behind

About a month ago we visited Ras Al Jinz, a turtle nesting and research area on the eastern-most tip of Oman. Ras Al Jinz is a protected nature reserve, and it’s one of the few places in the world where green turtles nest year-round. Peak nesting season is June to August, and peak hatching season is September to November.

We departed Muscat at 10 am, and by noon we’d reached the white sandy beaches of Fins. After a nice lunch and swim, we got back on the road around 2:30. We arrived at the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve and research center around 4:30; after we checked in, we made our way up to our tent. If you do the drive straight through, without stopping, the  trip from Muscat to Ras Al Jinz takes about 3.5 hours.

Camels along the road en route to Ras Al Jinz

There are two lodging options: eco-tents and a hotel. I can’t speak for the hotel, but the tents are pretty great.  There are tents for 2 or 4 people, and whichever tent size you pick, they are surprisingly large. We got a tent for 2 people, and there was plenty of space for M’s travel cot, plus a table, chairs, an A/C unit, television, and a minifridge.

Our tent

One strange thing about the tents: there is a long paved walkway leading up to the tents (it’s a bit of a hike), and there are signs saying you’re not allowed to drive on the walkway. But then there’s a large parking area up by the tents. We off-roaded a bit to drive up the tents, keeping to the unfinished area next to the walkway. I don’t know if a low-clearance vehicle could do it, but we had no problem in our Jeep.

A view of the tents from a nearby hill. Note the lovely parking area!

There was some down-time between getting settled into the tents and dinner, but there was space for the kids to run around and play. After spending several hours in the car, M was happy to finally be free, and Nate and I were happy with the bottle of wine and snacks that we’d brought with us.

Dinner at the resort starts at 7:00, and the price is apparently negotiable. It was a decent spread, with Indian and continental options. Nothing particularly special, but not bad either.

When you’re staying at Ras Al Jinz, you have two opportunities to see turtles: once at night, around 9 pm, and again in the early morning, around 5 am. I’ll tell you now that I enjoyed the morning viewing a lot more;  it’s also the best one for taking pictures and kids will find it more interesting too. At night you basically just get to see the turtles laying eggs, and there are mobs of people because the tour is open to people who aren’t staying at the resort, whereas the morning tour is only for those staying at the resort.  In the morning you can see the turtles in nests laying eggs, and also making their way back to the sea.

The resort and buildings are set quite a ways back from the beach, and for either viewing, plan on walking at least half a mile out to the beach on a dirt road or in the sand, tromping around in deep sand once you get to the beach, and then walking half a mile back. It’s not strenuous or anything, but it might be difficult for anyone with mobility issues.

A mama turtle digging a pit in which to lay eggs

Around 8:45 pm we elbowed our way through crowds of people and made our way down to the beach with a tour guide. The guides would message each other with the turtle locations so that we could (ideally) quietly and slowly, in a single file line, walk along the beach and see the turtles laying eggs and flapping in their sandy pits. With that many people, you can’t keep everyone quiet and following directions. If I were one of those turtles, I would have been pretty annoyed. But it was a neat experience, and definitely something I’d never seen before!

Another mama turtle heading back to sea after laying eggs

The next morning we woke up at 4:15 am to make it down to the main building by 4:55 to head back out to the beach. Poor M did not want to wake up, and eventually I told him we were going to see turtles. He leapt up and practically jumped out of bed, wide awake and ready for action!

The sun was rising as we walked back down to the beach, and we spent about 90 minutes at the beach, watching the mama turtles make their way back to the ocean. Our guide also had two baby turtles in his dishdasha pocket, which he set free on the beach. Those little guys frantically made their way to the ocean as quickly as possible, and it was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

Another mama slowly making her way out of her sand pit towards the sea at 5 am

All the turtle tracks leading down to the beach

Our guides on the beach with another mama turtle emerging from her nest

After watching the turtles in the morning, we headed back to the main building for breakfast. It was a good spread, but the definite highlight was the espresso machine. I need a solid 8 hours of sleep to function, and 5 hours just won’t do it for me. Coffee with added espresso shots to the rescue!

The view down towards the beach from the main building. It’s maybe a half mile walk each way.

We trekked back to the tent, packed up, and hit the road by 8:30 am. On the drive back we stopped at Ras Al Hadd, the ancient city of Qalhat, and Wadi Tiwi. Other options could be stopping at Sur, Wadi Shab or Bimmah Sinkhole, or even checking out more of the beaches around Fins. There’s so much to do in that area!

If you wanted to make a whole weekend out of it, you could go to Bimmah and then camp at Fins one night, go to Wadi Shab and Sur on your way to Ras Al Jinz the next day, overnight at Ras Al Jinz, and then do Wadi Tiwi on your way home.

I’d highly recommend Ras Al Jinz, especially to those with children. In fact, we’re planning to go back again later in the year!

Abseil trip to 7th Hole

I’m all about trying to conquer my fears, but I’m not quite ready to do that with my fear of heights. A few weeks ago, when Nate decided to hook himself to a rope and jump into a cave on top of a plateau in the Hajar mountains, I said “F*** no” and stayed behind. So I’m letting him take over to write about it:

When the Embassy fun coordinator (she has an official title, but that is a significant part of her duties) announced that there was going to be an abseiling trip into a 120 meter deep cavern, I first looked up what abseiling was, and then I enthusiastically volunteered. I also asked Kathryn if she wanted to come, but she did not seem super interested in hanging mid-air attached to a rope.

We had heard a lot of good things about the company that was guiding the tour, Twenty 3 Extreme, so I was fairly certain it would be a safe, competently led expedition. Our friend had used them for a trip a month or so back, and said all of their equipment was top of the line and in really good shape, which is what you want to hear when you’re going to be dangling over an abyss in short order.

I also liked that they required nine hours of training over the course of three sessions at a local climbing facility. If I need to use a lot of new equipment to do something, I want to get a lot of opportunities to use it in as safe an environment as possible.

We were given a helmet, a harness, an ASAP (a safety device with metal teeth that attaches to a rope running alongside your descent / ascent rope), an ascending device attached to our chest (a piece of equipment with metal teeth that keeps you attached to the climbing rope, but also allows you to move up it), a Jumar ascending device (a device with a foot loop attached to it that allows you to climb a rope essentially by standing up repeatedly), a descender device, and several cables attached to carabiners that could be used as safety devices when attached to anchors.  Most of these devices rely on weight and friction, and if you take your weight off them you can detach them from the rope you’re on. This became necessary when we were transferring from rope to rope mid-climb.

It took a little while to get used to all these pieces of equipment: I still can’t really describe the process of what I was doing as much as I can say it became much easier as I continuously did it. Pretty soon everyone was going up and down ropes with ease, and using the descender to more rapidly go down. The last part of the training was adding an additional 15 kilos of weight to the bottom of the rope we were using to see if we could still feed it through the descender device. This was to simulate having 200 feet of rope hanging underneath us, which we might need to manipulate at some point.

Getting the ropes ready to abseil into the cave (Photo by Stephen K.)

After the final training we packed up our camping gear and headed to the Hajar mountains, overlooking the town of Fins and some very deep canyons. The mountain road was extremely twisty and steep, and our Mitsubishi Pajero overheated twice before we made it to the hole we planned on abseiling into. We set up camp maybe ten meters away from the hole, and our guides Joe and Justin set up the ropes we’d be using the next day. We got a grill set up and cooked chicken and steak under the stars. The view of the sky was amazing. Joe and Justin regaled us with tales of their cave exploring throughout the world. One of their many interesting stories was Justin’s tale of cannibals threatening his life and the life of a BBC film crew while trying to explore a cave in Papua New Guinea.

The next day we woke up at the crack of dawn, ate some breakfast, and started dropping into the hole. I went second so that I wouldn’t psych myself out, though I don’t think I needed to worry. Joe was at the top, and was extremely reassuring, even though I was literally backing myself off the edge of a cliff. I did not look down very much, enjoying the views of the cave and the cliff above me. When I did look down, I mistook the mouth of the cavern for the ground, so I thought I was halfway down when I was actually about a quarter of the way there.  It took about 17 minutes to make it all the way down.

When we got to the bottom we took some group photos, signed the Twenty 3 Extreme cave guestbook they had hidden there, and hiked a short distance through a dark tunnel. We came out on the other side, rappelled down a ten – fifteen meter drop and then climbed up what was variously described as a 40, 50, or possibly 60 meter rock wall. Another short hike found us climbing a final 30-meter high rock wall. As we climbed we saw two huge lizards fighting it out for dominance of the cave by trying to grab each other by the tails and fling each other off the wall.

Climbing through the aforementioned dark tunnel (Photo by Stephen K.)

Climbing out of the 7th Hole (Photo by Stephen K.)

Another view climbing out of the cave (Photo by Stephen K.)

The cave itself was beautiful, deep, and cool. A nearby wadi feeds into it, and you can see where torrents of water have created a series of deep cauldrons. Apparently it goes another 160 meters down, though exploring that part is another expedition. The initial descent alone is worth the trip. I strongly suggest trying it out, and using Twenty 3 Extreme; their guides are excellent, and will make you a successful abseiler no matter how scared of heights you are.