x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A beachside adventure on Oman's Indian Ocean coastline

Off The Beaten Path The seemingly endless stretch of beaches between Sohar and Muscat offer much to explore.

The long and largely deserted beaches of Oman’s Indian Ocean coastline are perfect for exploring and overnight camping. Paolo Rossetti for The National
The long and largely deserted beaches of Oman’s Indian Ocean coastline are perfect for exploring and overnight camping. Paolo Rossetti for The National

Having been a UAE-based motoring journalist since 2004, I'm acutely aware of the two questions I get asked all the time - and I have my answers prepared:

Q: What is the best car you've driven?

A: 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser

Q: And what car do you drive every day?

A: 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser

In fact, the best car is the one that comes closest to suiting your needs and, for my family use, camping, off-roading and everyday city driving, nothing beats our "Elsie" - our trusty, 18-year-old Land Cruiser FZJ-80, the model that made the Land Cruiser famous.

In this edition of Off The Beaten Path, my family and I take Elsie to the Omani coast, where we drive to the beach for a night's camping, and then battle tidal conditions through a salt-water estuary to resurface by the Sohar Fort Hotel and the adjacent public park.

February, March and early April are our favourite beach months, as the daytime sun is not too severe and the waters of both the Gulf and, in this case, the Indian Ocean have shaken off the icy grip of winter and not yet reached the soup-like temperatures of summer.

Old is gold, as they say, and this certainly applies to our Elsie, who actually turned her 300,000th kilometre on this trip: Elsie runs the venerable 4.5L in-line six cylinder engine that powered generations of Land Cruisers. But what made the 80 Series special was that it was the first to turn the vehicle into a comfortable driving machine, which meant its popularity exploded.

Consider that, for an 18-year-old car, Elsie came fitted with dual-zone A/C, a fridge and an ice-maker, front and rear differential lockers, dual petrol tanks, electric winch, sunroof, CD player with sub-woofer, seating for five and four more on benches in the cavernous back. Not bad, eh? No wonder I get stopped regularly by people ready to make an offer for her.

Plus, Elsie is basically indestructible. Last year I had the first mechanical hiccup, with a "check engine" light on. I realised that a spark plug wire needed replacing. Then I noticed the manufacture date on the wire I was removing was 1994, meaning they were still the original set of spark plug wires from the day Elsie had rolled off the factory floor. But on to the beach. Whenever we have the chance, the Indian Ocean is our beach destination over the closed waters of the Gulf and its ever-diminishing access to public beaches. From the seaside town of Sohar, it's practically open beach all the way to Muscat.

We prefer to enter Oman via Al Ain, but you may also make your way in from Fujairah if you prefer. From the new Danat Resort in Al Ain (previously the Intercontinental) at waypoint 1, we head towards the mountains and then left to the UAE border post, where we are stamped out (waypoint 2).

Straight through the next roundabout, following the signs to Sohar (waypoint 3) and you will soon reach the Omani border post in between ranges of sharp, craggy mountains (waypoint 5). After the border processing, which requires visa fees and valid car insurance for Oman, there are numerous roads off the main highway entering the mountains, and these mostly lead to villages close to water sources, so if you have time to spare and are feeling adventurous, you are almost guaranteed an interesting exploratory side-trip. You could also plough ahead on the new dual-carriageway that will have you in Sohar in around 45 minutes.

At the intersection with Highway One, which would take you south towards Muscat, I simply go straight (waypoint 6) feeling my way through the residential suburbs and the various palm and banana plantations towards the sea. Waypoint 7 is a quick turn right through a group of white houses and waypoint 8 is past a white mosque. At waypoint 9 I follow the road left, as at waypoint 10, even on to dirt tracks, such as at waypoint 11. No matter which way you follow, the bottom line is that there is a beautiful, sandy beach somewhere in front of you (to your east) and eventually you will reach it whatever path you take in that direction.

We emerged onto the sunny beach at waypoint 12, which saw us crossing a tarmac road and bounce onto an expanse of dark sand colonised entirely by marauding flocks of seabirds.

From there - waypoint 13 - we had some sort of port facility to our left (north) and so we turned right and drove along the beach at leisure. Omani beaches tend to be open to the public and used daily by fishermen. As a "working beach", we always find interesting work going on, and there are few people friendlier than the Omanis, so do feel free to interact with the people you come across - many of them are descendants of generations of fishermen and they know a thing or three about the sea and conditions locally.

On this trip, we marvelled at the home-made boats that were beached up high above the tide line. They were constructed entirely of sturdy palm fronds and a natural fibre rope, probably quite similar to boats built in that fashion centuries ago.

As you make your way along the coastline, be aware of the tide, especially just before waypoint 14. At that point, there is a creek that fills at high tide, rendering passage impossible. That is not quite a problem, since you can simply go inland and around; the issue is after high tide, when the water recedes enough to tease you with the possibility of safe passage, only to entrap your eager 4x4 in the very wet sand. Without differential locks, which I doubt your modern vehicle is equipped with, it will be very difficult to extract yourself. Elsie managed just fine, though.

Even worse, and now a serious threat, is just before high tide. Be careful of approaching the creek estuary at this time as the tide is creeping up to its high point. Water will have seeped up and under the sand, turning it into a hidden quicksand trap and, if you get caught out and stuck, the inexorable rise of the sea will swamp your vehicle, and there is no escape from that force of nature without a winch.

Seriously, I've seen it only twice before, but it is heart-wrenching to watch in powerless despair as your car gets pounded by the sea. And when the tide retreats, don't think yowu can just drive out - it will be buried - no, sucked down into compacted sand, so you'll have several hours to battle to extract it before the next tide comes back for a second hit.

If in doubt, take the high road, and swing around inland, which requires you to backtrack a few kilometres.

Just beyond the creek estuary, at waypoint 14, will be a lovely public park, and just beyond it will be the Sohar Beach Resort, at waypoint 15, and a less-busy expanse of beach with plenty of camping spots, or you could head out to highway one, where you can turn right to return back to Al Ain or continue due north towards Fujairah.


View Sohar in a larger map

Click here to download Paolo's kml file.