Wild camping—that’s the Omani term for what we call primitive camping, Americans call dispersed camping and New Zealanders call freedom camping.
We’d been wild camping in Oman in a Land Cruiser with a Hannibal rooftop tent in the Hajar Mountains, at Jabal Shams and in the Cinnamon Desert. Now we were heading south toward the Empty Quarter. Ahead of us were two nights of camping on the Arabian Sea. Water!
Oman is a country of vivid contrasts. Its mountains come in shades of barren camel-brown while others nearby are a lush forest-green. Some of its people live in condos in the lively metropolitan capital city of Muscat while villagers on the Wadi Manakhir dwell in nature’s condos: caves.
Highway 32 to Ras Madrakah reminded me of the dinosaur-stomping grounds around Drumheller, Alberta, the endless flatlands of Saskatchewan and the wind-swept emptiness of Patagonia’s estancias. Camels outnumbered cars. Needing ice, we stopped at Duqm, where our guidebooks said we could buy supplies. Not so. It was Saturday, their religious day, and not even the blowing sand had a chance of getting into the stores. With the temperature hovering around 27° we knew the food in our cooler was in danger of spoiling.
Off the main highway near the town of Ras Madrakah, we passed a fish plant. “Do you think they’d sell us ice?” I asked Magellan. We drove in but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. We carried on past the town for two kilometres down to the beach.
Wild it was, but not isolated.
A small flotilla of white, half-ton Toyota trucks was parked down at the water’s edge. The trucks’ fenders were roped to brightly coloured dhows bobbing in the sea, each one captained by a dark, sun-creased, bearded fisherman. Arms waved, men shouted and with a vRoom, truck engines roared, tires spun into wet sand and the dhows were snapped onto the shore and whipped 180° in preparation for the next day’s fishing. Fishermen jumped out of their dhows and began hurriedly transferring their tubs of fish into smaller trucks with white-boxed backs that were parked higher up on the beach. “I know where they’re headed,” said Magellan.
Fishing is second only to oil as the largest industry in Oman. It employs 35,000 people with plans for advancement. “The government aims to raise production from 257,172 tons a year in 2015 to 480,000 tons by 2020, creating 20,000 new jobs in the process. The five-year plan envisages a return of OR739m (US$1.9bn) from fishing and fish processing facilities by 2020.” Unlike many countries in the world that still practice bottom trawling, Oman banned it in 2009.
After watching the men finish up their fishing duties for the day, we went for a walk along the beach.
Wild was the beach, but as I said before, not isolated.
On the eastern edge around our spot of sand we were surrounded by plastic water bottles, disposable diapers, frayed fishing rope, rusty tin cans, faded shirts… It took us almost half an hour to clear the debris into black garbage bags. But after we were done, the scene was just like this beautiful poem, “Camping on the Beach” by Dunstan Thompson.
At moments when the tide goes out,
The stones, still wet and ringing with
The drained-off retrogressive sea,
Lie fresh like fish on market stalls
And, speckled, shine. Some seem to float
In crevices where wavelets froth
Forgotten by the watery
Departure towards the moon.
Why do Omanis dump their garbage on a sandy, seaside, public beach? I found a possible answer in the book On Trails by Robert Moor. “The Berbers, meanwhile, having avoided the worst ravages of industrialism but having suffered the inequities of colonial rule, never rebounded into a romantic love of wild nature.” Remember Canada in the 1960s when tossing beer bottles out the window in the countryside was normal? Remember the picnic scene in Mad Men when Don and Betty dumped everything from the tablecloth onto the grass and drove away?
I wished we’d asked one of the wiry fishermen if we could buy dinner from his catch. But our chicken tandoori, chapatis, raita, pickles and grilled eggplant was pretty delicious. Anxious that the food in our cooler was soon going to spoil in its warming pool of water, we ate our cumin cheese for dessert.
No sooner had we finished eating when two young guys fish-tailed to our campsite in their SUV. Before we had time to wonder why, they introduced themselves and the spokesman for the two, wavy-haired in a T-shirt and shorts, asked, “We wondered how you like this place and if you need anything?”
We told them how much we loved their country, careful not to talk about the garbage-strewn beach. (Magellan had read that when conversing with Omanis, it’s impolite to criticize their country.)
Turns out the young man has a degree in IT but is underemployed, checking gas pipelines to ensure there were no leaks. So he and Magellan had lots to talk about.
“Do you need anything?” he asked again. That’s when I chimed in about the ice.
“No problem. We’ll get you some,” he said.
In no time, they roared up again. Opening the trunk, the spokesman brought us a burlap bag bulging with about 20 pounds of ice. They would accept no compensation. “It’s free. From the fish plant. No problem.” When we thanked them for their kindness, the spokesman said, “It is special when people come to special places like my home in Ras Madrakah.”
Our campsite the next night at Ras Shuwaymiyah with its soft, plush sand the colour of ochre, had a nicer beach. There, we dug a pit and built a roaring fire doused with frankincense we’d bought in the Old Souk in Muscat. We had a long, moonlit walk on the deserted beach and in the morning, I did yoga on the sand.
But now, back at home when the sultan of sleep arrives, it’s Ras Madrakah I dream about.
Info about fishing in Oman came from this source.
Moor, Robert. On Trails. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. For my birthday, Lynn bought me this wonderful book by a “sagacious walker and writer” who happens to live nearby, at Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia.
An exhibited photographer, Sayyid Asaad bin Tariq Al Said, deputy prime minister for international cooperation and the special representative of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, said in this interview that his three favourite places to photograph in Oman are Ras Madrakah, the Empty Quarter and The Hajar Mountains.
Thompson, Dunstan. Seascape with Edwardian Figures, Poems 1950-1974.
Thanks to Jerzy Wierzbicki, we were forewarned about garbage on the beach.