Georgia Lewis embarks on a windswept trip to Masirah Island, off the coast of Oman.
Gone with the wind
No matter how much research one does before travelling, there will always be at least one surprise. In the case of a late summer road trip from Dubai to Masirah Island, 20km off the south-east coast of Oman, the surprise was just how powerful monsoon winds can be when one is trying to pitch a tent. In hindsight, the fact that summer is the time of year when windsurfers descend on the island should have been a clue.
On Masirah Island, campers can pitch their tents almost anywhere apart from a few military zones. We set up camp on our first night on the island on a flat expanse of hard ground a few hundred metres from a stark, bare beach and attempted to use the car as a windbreak. It didn't work. Miraculously, after more than an hour of wrestling with bendy poles and cheap Carrefour canvas, we finally had somewhere to sleep. Sadly, it was a lean dinner and lights out at 8.30pm; after experiencing winds so ferocious, the disposable barbecue would not stay alight.
Despite a broken night's sleep while the tent walls violently pulsated, it was the start of a marvellous island escape. With temperatures seldom climbing much higher than 30C, fresh air and a thrashing turquoise sea making every swim an adventure, Masirah Island provides much-needed respite from the UAE's summer heat.
Outside the summer months, the average top temperature hovers around a pleasant 25C and rainfall is rare, making it a year-round destination.
The drive from the UAE to Masirah Island is an exercise in endurance. It takes around 10 hours to drive from Dubai to Shanaa, the tiny, salt flat-bordered coastal town from where untimetabled ferries take cars, livestock and people back and forth from the Omani mainland to Masirah.
We broke up our journey by venturing as far as Muscat on the first night, where we stayed with friends and then got an early start, set the satellite navigation - a triumph of practical German technology in our borrowed Mercedes G500 - and headed for Shanaa.
Being a nerd, I kept the map handy to cross-reference the primly demanding sat nav voice. It worked well as we left Muscat behind and the pretty cityscape gave way to rugged rocky mountains, until we accidentally exited the main road early, veered into a half-built housing development, ran out of road and braked on a gravelly construction site. The electronic voice of our navigator sounded frustrated as she constantly urged us to "make a U-turn if possible".
As the spectacular mountains flattened out, we passed through the lively town of Sinaw where a busy Friday market was taking place. This is where I first noticed that the G500, the boxy, retro-inspired off-roader, was a good car for attention-seekers. People waved at us and stopped to stare at the still-shiny luxury box.
After Sinaw, the sat nav should have said: "Prepare to go straight, dead straight, for 200km across the flattest, driest terrain you may ever see." According to the display on the dash, the outdoor temperature had climbed to 50C.
In fairness to the technology, we made it easily to Shanaa and luck was on our side when we boarded the ferry, a hulking old blue troop carrier. Ferry departure times are governed by the tides and whether there are enough people and cars on board to make it worth their while at 10 Omani riyals (Dh95) per car.
We pulled up as the boat was about to set sail and were the last car on board. In my haste, I drove forward on to the deck whereas every other car had reversed. Facing the opposite way to the other cars, we stood out for the 90-minute lumber across 20km of Indian Ocean.
On the other side, impatience ruled as I was the only driver who had to reverse off the boat. The driver of a Toyota Dyna truck stalked me as I carefully backed off the boat, keeping the front of his vehicle less than a foot from my grille.
It was almost 4pm when we escaped the throng and drove into Hilf, the one town on Masirah Island and home to an army base, a street of shops and cafes and traditional Arabian houses squashed cheek-by-jowl along parallel streets up a hill.
The town has a daily siesta from noon to 4pm, so shops were slowly reopening as we arrived. We found the biggest little supermarket in town to buy provisions for our ill-fated attempt at camping.
But after our wind-ravaged sleep on the first night, we got up early and started to explore. Masirah Island is ringed by a good road from which we easily accessed the many beaches with sand so hard there is no need to deflate the tyres.
The terrain offers plenty of opportunities to leave the main road and follow the tracks inland worn by previous adventurers. Here we traversed rocky terrain, either in vain search for a sheltered campsite or to enjoy the mini mountains congregated at the centre of the island.
With no strict itinerary, we spent the three days relaxing, aimlessly following the roads and off-road tracks, and chilling out among the camels and goats who have the run of the island. On the exposed, breezy beaches, we would set up folding chairs in the open boat sheds that are empty by day as the fishermen go out to sea. If you take an off-road vehicle, there are plenty of beaches where you can drive up the small, rocky plateaus and pause for photo opportunities.
On one drive, we stumbled upon a group of windsurfers taking advantage of the conditions that made our camping unbearable but their sport thrilling. Yet for reasons best known to ourselves, we tried to camp again on our second night. Hampered by further howling breezes that turned tent-pitching into an exercise in extreme origami, we upped tent pegs and checked into one of the three little hotels in Hilf. At the Masirah Hotel, there was room at the inn and the windsurfers we saw earlier were wisely staying there.
For $55 (Dh200) a night, we had a clean, comfortable, Eighties-style room with a little balcony overlooking the water. In a bid to recapture the camping experience, we moved the chairs and table to the balcony and cooked up beef burgers on our gas camping stove, reflecting that this was something we could never do in a five-star hotel.
We had become perhaps a bit too relaxed on our last day on the island and accidentally drove into military territory. In a bid to explore as much of the island as we could before leaving, we strayed off the road towards the centre of the island and lost sight of our path. Taking a different route back to the main road, we added some unintentional excitement when we realised we had been driving about behind an area marked by a red sign indicating a firing range. The bullet holes in the sign were worrying.
After the three-day island sojourn, we took two days to drive back to Dubai. We arrived at the Hilf dock around 9am and were one of the first on the ferry. It was a rough crossing back to the Omani mainland and I was thankful the cars all seemed to have good parking brakes.
Back on dry land, we drove back to Muscat, treating ourselves to the comparative luxury of a $190 (Dh700) a night room at the Park Inn before heading for Dubai via the mis-named coast road, the same direct but not terribly thrilling road we took at the start of the trip.
The road is built a little too far from the coast for the water to be seen from the car. Roundabouts adorned with everything from horses to Qurans to treasure chests are the main points of interest, along with little towns featuring shops with precise names such as "Sale of food stuff" and "Hair beautification for ladies".
But it didn't matter. It is not often you can get away for six days and spend a grand total of Dh1,100 on accommodation, plus Dh129 on the ill-fated Carrefour tent. Indeed, feeding the G500 gallons of petrol was the biggest expense. Masirah Island is a very easy place to relax and enjoy a calming Arabian escape - provided you don't try to pitch a tent there in August.