Thursday 23rd October 2003 - Camping at sifah

With the weather finally starting to cool down a bit from the highs of summer, the camping season begins. With thousands of kilometers of unspoilt coastline (apart from the odd oil refinery or liquified natural gas plant), and little else to do apart from drive the 5 hours to Dubai, camping is a popular way to get out of Muscat and into discover the country.

Sifah is a 2 hour drive from Muscat and is located bang-on the tropic of cancer. To get there, the road from Muscat takes a climb up to a plateau, down to a lagoon at Yitti where the tarmac road ends, then is a graded track for the rest of the way. Although some graded roads are passable in a saloon car, a 4WD is needed to get to Sifah, mainly because of some of the steep sandy sections of road. Although you do see 2WD cars in some of the villages on the way. How they get them there I do not know.

On arrival, there's a steep dune behind the beach. This was my first time taking a 4WD onto soft sand, and you can see the results below. The secret is actually to get a very long run up and let your momentum take you up. With the soft sand, the car sinks into the sand, then the bottom gets grounded on the sand. You have to dig the sand from underneath to free the axles, engine and suspension, let some air out of the tyres and preferably give the wheels something to grip with like sandboards. But not having a foot-pump to reinflate the tyres for the home journey, or sandboads, we managed to get out with a tow from a friendly fellow camper.

After digging the car out in the heat, it was nice cooling off in the warm sea (if that isn't a contradiction). It was dead calm and you could see near-perfect reflections. If you lay back with your arms behind you, you could float and almost fall asleep.

I slept out the first night because it was too hot to sleep in the tent. The stars are incredible as there's no light pollution. In fact, there were so many stars that its almost impossible to see any of the familiar constellations. I saw the biggest meteor (and only meteor) I've every seen which streaked across the sky and down behind the mountains, like burning magnesium. I also saw countless shooting stars. What a place to fall asleep in!

The next day was spent on the beach. A call home for my Dad's 60th birthday (yes, there is mobile phone reception), swimming in the sea, reading the Guardian Weekly, swimming, drinking lots of water, and a toilet stop in a very exposed place. Good job there aren't many people around.

At night, all the hermit crabs come out scutter around looking for food. Once we finished the barbeque and put the grill aside to cool down, they would find it and if you shine a torch on it, you'd see tens and tens of the things scuttling all over it trying to get some lamb or chicken stuck to it. There was even one hermy who had inhabited a black rubber stopper which had fallen off something. Seeing a black stopper running around the beach is a bit weird.

The second/last night, I went for a night swim to cool off. The plankton in the water flashes green when you disturb it, so when you swim, you lots of tiny flashes around your hands and in the little wave which goes ahead of you when you take a stroke. Beautiful.