By car from Dubai to Kharfat, Dhofar, Southern Oman is a very long trip indeed.
1,354 kms to be precise.
Mostly through the barren gravel wastes of Oman’s interior. The sort of trip where seeing a tree makes you want to take a photograph, arriving at a petrol station is keenly looked forward to, a kind of macabre, count-the -burnt out-vehicles game is played, and wondering where a loo stop could happen when there is literally no side of the road privacy.
But there is a certain beauty about the lack of landscape. A feeling of wildness, travelling through the vast empty space that is the backbone of Oman, passing through the few small villages and marvelling at their very existence in this harsh, arid interior.
On our fourth foray down to Dhofar, having been here and done this before, a decision was taken to overnight in the town of Haima, 750 kms from Dubai.
It’s another 4 hours to the town of Thumrait on the edge of the escarpment above Salalah and our planned route was taking us west from Thumrait, avoiding Salalah, heading up across the mountainous interior for some fossil hunting
We booked a room in a Haima hotel via email. On arrival no-one was expecting us. Four hotels in Haima, all 20 OMR per night. Ours had rooms available anyway, there seemed to be only one other taken, so really no attempt at booking is needed. Bed and shower, basic but clean and no room wildlife, it was all that was needed.
Wandering across into the small trucking stop town, the Traveller Bench restaurant looked ok. I’m not too sure many Europeans come to dine, it offers small private rooms with floor seating, Arab style but we were offered the one (only one) with a table. Intricate sliding doors leading to small enclosures, ours was the one with the white plastic table and garden chairs.
An excellent meal, roadside Indian style, Prawn and chicken curry, rice and salad. We were hungry, it had been a long day.
A sunrise start the next morning for the last leg of this long road, and the worst part.
Stopping off in a coffee shop, coffee and egg roll were ordered.
A limited conversation ensued:
Other Half: 2 Coffees and 2 Egg rolls please ( Egg rolls are a single fried egg in a paratha, ideal on-the-go breakfast for road trips)
OH : No, not chicken, Egg roll.
Indian: No roll, sandwich.
5 minutes later 2 coffees and 2 buns were brought to the car, money paid, off we drove.
Opening the paper wrapping, expecting to find a little egg omelette sandwich, we found we had hot buns with mayonnaise filling… no egg anywhere. After some thought of how we ended up with a hot mayo bun, we realised the chicken and egg question had been crucial. Mayonnaise was the result of our language differences, bless him.We had a good laugh and the birds outside Haima had a good breakfast, hot mayo in buns isn’t ideal at 7am!
After Haima there is another 3 hours plus of driving through such desperate white lunar terrain that it always makes me relate to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.
You can’t manage Haima to Thumrait on one tank of fuel and you have 3 choices. Ours was a small village, another truck stop settlement surrounded by white, white sands and nothingness. Coffee and an egg roll to go.This time they got it just right!
Tedious hours later, we rocked into Thumrait. Another roadside town, boasting a small shopping centre. In these small out of the way Omani towns, where women seem to be invisible, the sight of a blond, ok, sort of grey foreigner attracts stares. I’m used to it now, a pashmina always carried to cover up my bare arms, I wear long skirts, and clip up my hair but two Europeans poking around little local supermarkets must be an unusual sight. I do love looking at the plethora of spices and in the cosmetic sections, all full of skin whitening cream. All over this peninsula, the ideal beauty is for whiter skin, sad that that is a desired attainment.
No-one had ice, which was needed to keep the cool box food cool, so fuel topped up, off we headed towards the Yemen border, hoping one of the village supermarkets would have ice. Through more lunar terrain and small villages which were truly the back of beyond, we finally popped out of the wadis onto the top of the Dhofar escarpment.
Having picked up on a fossil trail via the Internet, 18km into this wild interior, via gravel tracks winding through wadis and up over the rolling tops of escarpments surrounded by mountains so impenetrable and awed by the forces that created this inhospitable landscape, we finally reached a point where common sense had to be applied.
Edging around a track, miles in the sky, with a route down a ridge, serious injury drops on either side, we could see that the monsoon rain had torn the track to pieces. I decided to do a walk down first, being the one-half with lesser driving nerves. It was a no-go and the OH agreed, although willing to bash the track ( ex-rally driver history) my voice of reason, no phone signal, 18kms into really bad terrain and also deep into leopard country, won the turn around-argument.
Disappointed not to reach the fossil site, I guided the OH out, a reverse up the narrow track with plunging sides to deep, dark rifts through the earth. Deciding to take a break and walk around a bit, I suddenly spotted shell fossils everywhere.
I was standing amidst an ancient seabed, 1000 metres high. Time for us to stop awhile, search, photograph and stand in awe at nature’s actions.
Time to move on to the night’s camping spot, Kharfat, on the southern coast. A stop in a very small village found us a bag of ice, dinners were preserved.
Kharfat is a beach with a mosque, one or two buildings and camel and cow farms plus many Bangladeshi herders who have been brought over to work in Oman. There is a collapsing road winding down the cliff side for 800 metres, it’s not for the fainthearted. A large rock fall on the road at the top and the condition worsens on the way down, culminating in total road loss where the mountain collapsed. A bulldozed track through mud takes you past the collapsed road corner, a few moments of toe-curling tension as you slide over the muddy track with a long drop below and then out onto the cracked road, round and down the hairpins and the beautiful, wild Kharfat beach is in front of you.
After a shell hunt along the beach, the sunset was drawing close and we needed to find a camping spot. Camel herds and herders had passed us during the beach time and when we set off to find the ideal spot we realised that the herders camped down here in the open. Small brick bothy walls were built and inside were blankets, outside wood and cooking pots. They were living here in the open.
Pressing on to the furthest point of the track under the mountains we found the spot. Working against the fading light, a camp was made and we headed off to find wood for a fire. There was little to be found, the herders live down here during the winter months in the open air and fire is their one warmth as the nights get colder, so spare wood is hard to find and we didn’t want to take much as occasional tourists. It didn’t seem fair, these guys had so little.
Finally, enough wood found for a token warmth, we arrived back and set up the BBQ as the sun went behind the mountains. Now, when we camp, we usually take easy-to-cook food, sausages springs to mind, right? Available in Dubai, at a price, sausage is an ideal BBQ fare.
So, on the BBQ, the sausages sizzling away, chairs out, enjoying the after-sunset glow over the vast Indian ocean with a small GnT, two herders came to visit. As they climbed down the cliff by torchlight and came to join us, gifting us camel milk, a conversation in broken English ensued, we heard of lives we can’t imagine.
From Bangladesh, offered work in this lonesome place, the journey they made to get to Kharfat was in itself, heartbreaking, a plane from Dhaka to Dubai, a quick stopover in Dubai airport which is gilded up for tourists, not for camel herders, transit from a surreal world to Muscat, a 12 hour bus journey to Salalah, then a back of a Toyota pick-up ride to this beach down a collapsing road to a location where they lived outside under the stars. They wanted to talk to us, we were happy but my underlying worry was the food, by this stage charring on the BBQ. A conundrum, we had to offer back and I knew they wanted food. I took a decision to share our meal with them, offering it in good faith.
Eagerly accepted, they then left us in peace, after sharing a warning that there were snakes in the area. It was pitch dark by then so, silently wishing I hadn’t been told that, I perfected a cross-legged sit in the camp chair.Throughout the evening we saw them out on the rocks catching crabs by torchlight for food for the next day.
Time to sleep, it had been a long day, full of many different experiences. All of which are imprinted in my mind forever…