The Adventures of Henry J. Ruffington – Oman 2015

Well, it has been far too long since I updated this, and far too many exciting things have happened to not share with you. So, for a Friday afternoon we take a little step back in time to March of this year and an 8-day roadtrip around our lovely country of Oman. Since we had a leaving date set (end of May) for moving back to the UK, we thought it was high time we headed further south and made our way down to Salalah and the Dhofar mountains. Our plan was to start in Muscat, head down the highway past Nizwa and Adam, before turning off the road and heading into the Empty Quarter the way we’d come out of it on our February trip. Niall and I headed out of town on the Thursday night straight from work, stopping off at the big Lulu in Nizwa to stock up on food for the next week or so. It was pretty windy and dusty south of Nizwa as there seemed to be a lot of building works etc. being done near the roads. We turned off along a little track and sheltered behind the perimeter wall of an un-developed plot of land just off the road. Tent popped, samosas and onion bhajis from Lulu, a cup of tea in hand and we were all set for night one.

In the morning we hit the road for the last hour or so of driving down to where we had arranged to meet up with Gab and Liz in their car. Not driving an old car, they can cover the distance on the main roads a hell of a lot quicker than we can! First things first, stock up on water and fuel before heading into the desert. We’d established that we’d have plenty of diesel for the distance that we were planning to cover, with our main tank, sub tank and additional tank. However, Sheba the Jeep wouldn’t have enough range on her one tank of petrol, so needed an extra couple of jerry cans, just in case. Our 50L water tank was filled, plus several 5L water bottles stashed away in the back of the car just in case. Off we went!

Hiding from the heat for a lunchtime break in the desert

Hiding from the heat for a lunchtime break in the desert

Nice to be back in the desert again, especially being with people that hadn’t been out into the Empty Quarter before. We stopped for lunch and rigged up the awning between the two cars….. it was HOT. Such a change already in the space of a month as to how hot it was in the desert. More epic desert scenery (and hundreds more photos of dunes!) as we drove into Rub Al Khali, and headed west towards the Saudi Border and some of the bigger dune systems. The ground in a lot of areas is really quite hard compressed salt/gravel/sand in between the big dunes that is quick and flat to drive on, especially if you happen to follow any of the myriad tracks that criss-cross the desert. Trying to take a bit of a short-cut across a more sandy area resulted in our first sandpit situation, with Henry J as the lead car getting stuck in the sand. Out came the shovels and sand mats…. Gab drove past about 2 metres on our right, on totally solid sand!

Driving conditions in the Empty Quarter

Driving conditions in the Empty Quarter

We camped at the bottom of a huge dune system, about 2km or so from the Saudi border. After a delightful dinner of burgers and greek salad provided by Gab and Liz we settled around the campfire with cups of hot chocolate before calling it a night. I don’t think I’ve ever camped (or been) anywhere quite as silent as it was that night. It was SO quiet it felt like something was missing, like someone had blocked my ears and I’d gone temporarily deaf. I’d never really understood the phrase “the silence was deafening” before – I totally get it now. In the morning Niall (with much encouraging needed) and I climbed the dune and were treated to some absolutely stunning views. Well worth the climb!

Epic views from the top of the dune by our campsite.

Epic views from the top of the dune by our campsite.

One of the more random things that you find in the desert is the airstrips. I guess they’re used for flying in personnel and supplies to remote oil camps etc. rather than driving them through the desert every time. Anyhoo, seemed like a good idea to have a drag race up the first airstrip we found. Obviously we had a headstart, because Henry J doesn’t move as quickly as he possibly used to, but even so, Sheba went flying past us and off into the distance in what seemed like a nano second :)

Drag racing on an airstrip in the desert, Liz showing off her cartwheeling skills

Drag racing on an airstrip in the desert, Liz showing off her cartwheeling skills

Eventually we got to the end of the road, and into the desert proper. Time to let down the tyres and go exploring! Niall had plotted a rough track for us on the GPS using Google Earth and looking where the dunes were – turned out to be spot on! Amazing how many other tracks criss-cross the desert – some obviously from geological / prospecting vehicles, lots of tracked vehicles, and lots of car tracks. Interesting to wonder how long they’ve been there for without being disturbed though. Camped out for a very hot sweaty lunch under the awning again, before carrying on for a tough afternoon’s driving on alternating soft sand or hard rutted tracks that rattled the car apart (the dashboard fell off at one point).

The end of the road; the last drilling point, letting the tyres down, scouting the way and tracks in the dust

The end of the road; the last drilling point, letting the tyres down, scouting the way and tracks in the dust

We called it a day approximately 20km from the next marked section of road, that would get us back to the main road by lunchtime the next day so that Gab and Liz could hit the highway and head back to Muscat for work on the Sunday morning, whilst we went the opposite way and headed down to Salalah. Found a lovely little dune area that we had to cross first (aka have a little play in), before pitching camp, chilling out, cooking a curry and having a game of banangrams. Ooh yeah, rock n roll. Sunrise revealed an extraordinary array of tiny animal tracks around the campsite, a lot of beetle tracks, but some adorable small rodent tracks too.

playing in the dunes

playing in the dunes

Beautiful sunset in the dunes

Beautiful sunset in the dunes

What was due to be an easy 20km the next morning inevitably wasn’t as straight forward as it could have been, with a few small dune systems between us and the road. Not big enough to make it worth doing a major detour to avoid, but just big enough to make it hard work getting through without getting stuck! And then sure enough, we were back out on the south eastern edge of the Empty Quarter, at the southern end of the Omani area. Time to put some air back in the tyres, and head out towards the main road (along the most vehicle-rutted road I think we found in our whole time in Oman!).

getting stuck again, putting air back in the tyres and the rutted road!

getting stuck again, putting air back in the tyres and the rutted road!

Back at the blacktop we said goodbye to Gab and Liz, and we turned right towards Salalah, aiming to get a good way down south before stopping for the night. First things first though, time to find a nice place to stop for lunch after stocking up on a bit more fuel and some biscuits. Muqshin didn’t disappoint on this front, and we found a lovely little spot by a wadi (with water in!) for lunch. In fairness, not a lot else to be done in Muqshin. For our campsite that night we simply pulled off the main road and drove perpendicular to it until the cars were just little moving ants in the distance. For the first time since we’ve owned the car and rooftop tent, we also put up the annex to the rooftop tent as a bit of a test. It’s ginormous. Room to cook, eat and hang the laundry up!

expanding the mothership. Lunch breaks in Muqshin and sunset and laundry on the road

expanding the mothership. Lunch breaks in Muqshin and sunset and laundry on the road

Heading towards Salalah the next day it was amazing how quickly the scenery changed from dry sandy rocky areas, to mountainous (almost) green scenery, with fields and even…. Wait for it…. Cows! Ok so at this time of year it looked more like the Med rather than the UK, this place is lush and green during the summer monsoon months. The Dhofar mountain range comes almost all the way down to the sea, making for some incredible coastal scenery and cliffs. We drove past Salalah, and stopped off at Marneef cave near Mughsail (70km from the Yemen border), to see the blow holes and enjoy the scenery. Despite the sea looking beautiful, we didn’t go in on this occasion. The camels seemed to enjoy the beach too.

The south coast of Oman - beautiful!

The south coast of Oman – beautiful!

Still heading west, this was when we hit the start of some really incredible mountain roads. Hairpin bend after hairpin bend as we slowly made our way up and down the mountains (apologies to anyone who was travelling behind us). Up and over one hill, we took a dirt road that wound its way back down to sea level, to a beach that looked so perfect from the top of the cliff it was hard to believe there was nobody on it. Couldn’t resist a dip in the sea on this occasion. One of the most enjoyable beach visits I’ve ever had I think – amazing scenery, perfect white sand, perfect temperature, clear water…. Lovely jubbly.

Being totally spoilt by beautiful beaches and coastal views

Being totally spoilt by beautiful beaches and coastal views

To escape the humidity at sea level we drove back up the hill and camped out on the top of the cliffs, enjoying the slight breeze and the amazing views along the coastline. I took an AWFUL lot of photos on this trip. Beautiful scenic view after view.

Enjoying the scenery from our evening campsite

Enjoying the scenery from our evening campsite

Waking up to views like this - what a great way to start the day

Waking up to views like this – what a great way to start the day

We were treated to a beautiful sunrise, with golden light bouncing off the rippling sea as the fishermen headed out for their morning fishing. After a quick brekkie we drove back through Salalah and this time out to the east of the city, to pick up the coast road for our slow journey back to Muscat. Along the coast we passed more beach camels, a little palm grove and the little town of Hasik, before happening on some cool looking rocks in the cliff. We stopped to take a closer look and discovered a natural little waterfall and ponds that had been built up around the bottom of it. Lovely. Oh, and some more spectacular coastal beach/cliff combo views.

Salalah scenery, date palms, camels on the beach at Hasik, waterfall pools

Salalah scenery, date palms, camels on the beach at Hasik, waterfall pools

From there, the road went up. And up. And a bit more up. So much up in fact that we had to stop for a little bit and let Henry J have a bit of a breather. Dropping down briefly on the other side we found a beautiful little wadi, complete with palm grove and reedy grass. Would have been an awesome place to camp, but we decided to carry on heading up away from the humidity and the mosquitos. The view was definitely worth it at the top. Mountains, the sea, clouds forming below us in the valley, clear blue skies above us and apparently not another soul in sight. Another tick on the campsite location list.

Wadi scenery and date palms, the view from the top

Wadi scenery and date palms, the view from the top

Further up the coast we came across an old boat, grounded in the shallows. There were obviously people living on it, but it sure as hell wasn’t going anywhere. Interestingly I wonder how they fared during this year’s Khareef (monsoon season). There were a lot of police and army road checks around Salalah and heading towards the Yemen border (unsurprisingly!). Our fave was when one bored policeman asked to see inside all the cupboards in the back of Henry J. When Niall opened the tea and coffee cupboard, he was heard to exclaim “Masha’Allah!” We stopped off to try and see the flamingos at the coastal lake on our way past, but the tide wasn’t right, they weren’t there, and it was blowing a hoolie at this point. Which is not ideal when there’s sand around too. So we ate our lunch in the car enjoying the view, then carried on! We made it as far as Duqm, and were hoping to visit the rock garden there as Niall hadn’t seen it before. Sadly though, whilst they’re in the process of building new main roads in and out of Duqm, they’ve put a new perimeter fence around the rock garden, seemingly with no entrance, despite it being signposted as a tourist attraction!

Boat living, coastal inlets, splashing around

Boat living, coastal inlets, splashing around

Seeing as it was in the right general direction, we swung by the salt flats at Shannah, which sadly weren’t looking their best as the tide was in. The coastal road soon turned into the boundary between the edge of the Wahiba sands and the beach, and we found ourselves driving alongside dunes again, this time with views of the sea and multiple Bedouin camps as well.

The wind picked up all day, and by the time we got to Ras Al Hadd in the evening, it was blowing an absolute gale. We wanted to be somewhere really close to the sea so we stood a chance of being able to go and see if there were any turtles nesting, but this did mean being in the wind. We managed to find a spot that was a little more sheltered than the rest, but I don’t think either one of us slept for more than about an hour at a time because of the noise the wind was making, and how much it was shaking the rooftop tent (turns out it was a good test for some windy nights in Mongolia to come though!). The plus side of this was that as we went down onto the rocks just after sunset to eat our camping meals, an enormous mama turtle waddled up out of the surf directly in front of us, illuminated by the moonlight, looking for somewhere to nest. Unfortunatley she’d come ashore just where the rocks went right down to the sea, with not very much sand there, so after a while she disappeared off into the surf again. Awesome. I was awake early the next morning and got down to the shore again just in time to see the last of the turtles making her sandy way back to the ocean after a hard night’s nesting work.

wind across the road, battening down the hatches for a windy night at Ras Al Hadd, mummy turtle heading back out to sea

wind across the road, battening down the hatches for a windy night at Ras Al Hadd, mummy turtle heading back out to sea

Driving through Sur we stopped to climb to the top of the hill overlooking the boat building yard and the suspension bridge before heading on up the coast into more familiar territory. We decided to abandon the coast road, as by this point we were back on roads that we’d explored before, so we took a left turn, and headed up a previously unknown to us road towards the Salmah Plateau. We’ve been up onto the Salmah plateu from the coastal side many times, with some epic off-roading to get up there, but never from this road, which takes you up around the back of the plateau. It was still pretty dusty up there, but once we dropped down into some of the villages the dust and haze at ground level was starting to settle a bit.

Sur, dust gathering on Henry J., village goats and mountain views

Sur, dust gathering on Henry J., village goats and mountain views

A final night of camping below the villages, and on the way out of the mountains on the other side, we thought it was only right that we should give Henry J a bit of a clean, Omani style in the first wadi we came across with a decent amount of water in. And what a beautiful wadi it was too! Trying to take one last off-road shortcut to avoid another stretch of tarmac, we were at last foiled by a track marked on the GPS. The track definitely existed, but for once (and very unusually for Oman), this was clearly a track that wasn’t travelled anymore. There had been sever water / landslide damage and it was totally impassable, even for Henry J. Saw some fab rock formations though. With no choice but to hit the highway we did at least stop off for lunchtime samosas and fresh fruit juice before we headed back to Muscat to unpack, clean and relax after an EPIC roadtrip round Oman. Highly recommended.

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