Masirah Island

This story was compiled first in November 2003 and has been updated following a visit in April 2006.

The main change in that time has been the surfacing of the main graded road that circumnavigates the island. This time also a bit of an expansion on what you could call  'Landrover Paradise'


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Geographic Description

Masirah is Oman's largest island. It is located some 15 km from the coast of Al Wusta in Central Oman, just south of the Wahiba Sands and east of Bar Al Hikman. The island has a length of some 65 km from its most northeastern point, Ras Oudufah to its southwestern point, Ras Abu Rasais. It has an hour-glass shape with a width varying between 6 and 18 km. The highest point on the island is 275 metres above sea level. The census of 2003 counted a population of some 9300 people.

Masirah is truly a Desert Island, with a rocky east coast facing the strong northwestern winds and a protected western coast with large bays and muddy sabkha's (salt-flats). The main income is from the fishery (a vivid trade with the emirates) and the military base in the north (see It used to have a BBC radio station (see

The island is a surfers paradise with strong summer monsoon winds. The word Monsoon is derived from the Arabic word ‘Mausim’ for ‘season’. Oman’s summer monsoon is locally known as ‘Khareef’.

The steady Khareef winds blowing from the Southwest along the coast of Oman set up ocean currents that flow to the northeast (the East Arabian Current). As the warm surface waters are blown along by the winds, cold nutrient-rich water wells up to the surface explaining the abundance of marine life off the Masirah coast.

The geological backbone of the island are black ophiolites (oceanic crust, basalts, gabbro's and ultramafic rocks), capped by Tertiary limestones. A 'white on black' picture. The contrast between white and black is even more pronounced by white lichens and intense karstification of the limestones,

Masirah reportedly hosts a population of 30,000 loggerhead turtles nesting in its sandy beaches.

Colin Richardson's 'Masirah, Tales from a Desert Island' and a description by Mooney & Palsson in Oman Today (2001) are the best sources for a exploratory visit to the island. Descriptions of the beauty of the island are notoriously absent from any of the existing Oman Guidebooks.

Practical tips

(A must to read if you want to visit the island):

The crossing to the island is via a ferry connection from Shana (or Shanna) on the mainland to Hilf, on the northern half of the island. It  takes about 1 hr and 45 minutes (a bit dependent on the wind), but it takes more time waiting on the barge and the complex manoeuvring to get all cars in. There are 5 or 6 barges (more like military landing crafts), varying in capacity between 20-40 cars (depending on the size of the cars), with rather variable maintenance, but all depend on high water to make the landing. Rates are 10 ORE per car one-way (April 2006). You can check the ferry by calling  99012043, but be prepared for a difficult conversation and in the end not knowing for sure either..... What they will probably tell you that they will leave when a barge is full or when another barge arrives from the other side. Dependent on the tides? That was what we found as information before making our own crossings. We did no notice any during our visits as the ferries round the shallows. If you want to be sure check the tide tables and to be on the safe side plan your crossing some 2 hours before to 1 hour after high-tide....  ( and select on world map Oman etc...).

If you can't make the crossing (as we did because of a serious storm on the day we tried) you have a choice of camping out in a flat unprotected plain at Shana or staying overnight in the Shana Rest House, a stone's throw from the jetty. There is what appears to be a phone number on a big sign above the entrance: 6/03922/7, but the interpretation of these numbers is not certain as so many things in this Rest House. The sleeping rooms are basic, with en-suite bathroom (a bit sandy) and TV! The TV turned out to be one single TV for all in the main entrance hall. At the time we visited, the other facilities were under construction (they may have been so in the last couple of years already), but we were allowed to use our camping gear in what will eventually probably become the kitchen or dining room. A shower is already unexpected in the middle of this vast sabkha and who cares when the alternative is a sandy night and an early wake-up call to pack everything again to get on the boat? Do not despair if the place looks closed. Park your car in front and just wait for the guy cycling like a mad-man from the jetty. Official rates are 10 ORE/room. Power supply is by diesel generator and is limited to early evening and early morning. So much for the TV.....

Camping on the island is easy and the best way to appreciate its beauty. You can also stay in  the Masirah Hotel: MASIRAH HOTEL LLC , PO Box 19, Masirah, Postal Code 414, Tel: (968) 25504401 , Fax: (968) 25504411 GSM 99335553 e-mail

November 2003, April 2006

This is a trip that requires at least three days and that is pushing it. We did it over the 2003 Eid Holiday and in April 2006 in four days and felt that to be the minimum. The drive from Muscat to the Shana Jetty is about 490 km and will take a 6 hours drive, depending on sanitary stops. For both visits we left at 8:00 hrs from Muscat and arrived at the Jetty at 13:30-14:00 hrs.

Route description and points of Interest

Follow the Motorway from Muscat to Nizwa. Turn-off in Izki to Sinaw (or take the BidBid road to Sur, turning-off to Sinaw). Near the village of Mazraat Shuway, 30 km north of Sinaw, and 188 km from Muscat, is a good picnic spot, signposted 'natural park' to the right of the road (N22 46.068 E58 00.521), which is the site of an ancient copper mine and associated settlement. Climb the little hill and enjoy the scenery. The ruins straddle the northern side of the hill and the most prominent, an arch-gate, is right on top. Do not forget to turn right (to the south) at the large roundabout (with Shell Petrol station @N22 30.273 E58 01.982) in Sinaw. From here it still is 200 km to the next 'landmark', the petrol station at the turnoff to Hayy (Al Maha, N20 52.713 E58 11.667). 

Most of this is monotonous driving through a  featureless flat desert along a straight road (may be handy to know the Shell petrol station in between @ N21 27.335 E58 14.631). Take extra coffee and increase the volume of your radio! At Hayy/Mahoot is the last petrol station before the ferry (@ N20 45.818 E58 17.038, also with tire repair shop). From the junction it is some 75 km to the jetty at Shana, all tarmac. To the left of the road is the southern tip of the Wahiba's and to the right are the Sabkha's of Bar Al Hikman  Do not forget to turn right @ N20 46.699 E58 37.844.

The last part of the drive is almost level with the sea and sabkha at either side. Watch the white salt crust and if you are lucky you may see some locals collecting salt in bags.

Getting on the ferry is an experience. The barges resemble military landing craft with a loading bridge at the front (entry and exit) with a bit of maneuvering (backward) required to get on in one piece. The crossing takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes, but waiting on the barge and loading easily doubles that. The landing point on Masirah is at Ras Hilf, close to the military base at the northern side of the Island (N20 39.501 E58 52.090). That is also where the three petrol stations (Al Maha, Shell and Oman Oil) of the island are located.

Driving on the island is easy in terms of navigation as the sea is almost always in sight. The roads on the island are in the process of being 'tarmaced'. In 2003 only the roads near Hilf were tarmac, but in 2006 the road down south, along the eastern side, was almost completely tarmac as well, with work going on at the western side. I guess the whole island will be completed in 2007, which makes for an easy drive, but takes a bit of the adventure away. The drive from Hilf to Ras Abu Rasais, the southernmost point, is about 80 km. Just south of Umm Ar Rusays  is a junction (@N20 27.961 E58 47.070) that connects to the western side of the island, to Quaryat Umq 6 km further (@N20 25.310 E58 48.899).

Points of interest are all over the place. Below is a listing, far from complete, but what can you see in one day?
N20 42.423 E58 53.603 Shipwreck northernmost tip of island, Panamanian, a 425 m, 4963 tons British cargo ship (oron ore), that ran aground in 1960.
N20 41.616 E58 54.022 Site of former BBC station at Masirah (now moved to mainland Oman)
N20 41.272 E58 54.620 Monument of the Baron Innerdale massacre, 1904. There are a few conflicting stories about what happened here. Richardson's seems to be the best documented. The Baron Innerdale was a 3340 tons steamship loaded with grain and timber from Karachi on way to Liverpool. She ran aground at Hallaniyah, the largest island of the Kuria Muria islands, in bad weather in August 1904. After three days the captain ordered abandonment of the ship in two lifeboats.  Three days later the ship was found by the SS Prome that took off the eight remaining crew. The Baron Innerdale was refloated and made it to Bombay. The missing crew was searched for by the steamer Dalhousi from Aden. The smaller lifeboat, with six crew was never seen again. The bigger one, with 17 crew and the captain apparently made it to Masirah. What happened remains unclear, but most likely an incident resulted in a fight between crew and locals, which resulted in the massacre of all of the crew, except a boy passenger. Reports of the slaughter of the crew resulted in Sultan Faisal to visit the island and investigate the incident. The search uncovered evidence and a number islanders were subsequently tried and convicted in Muscat. They were shot at the site of the massacre and the sheikh was banished from the island. The monument was built in 1943 close to where the incident took place. The inscription incorrectly lists the Baron Inverdale rather than Innderdale. A popular story claims that the sultan punished the whole population by razing the village of Hilf and forbidding them to build permanent housing for 100 years; myth rather than reality as local people were unaware of the ban and permanent buildings were definitely constructed. 
N20 28.073 E58 53.320 Wreck of a 250 tons Dhow, 1993
N20 14.998 E58 43.999 Urf, abandoned village, close to modern village
N20 10.692 E58 40.087 Sheba, 47 m, 1976 Bombay, 433 t, UAR, Sharjah, final tour from Aden to Abu Dhabi  (source Lloyds register, courtesy A. von Blomberg)
N20 10.442 E58 39.690 Sheba pieces?
N20 17.000 E58 36.997 Kalban, abandoned fishing village with water wells. The story goes that a visiting paramount sheikh was offered fish instead of goat. The offence cuased the population to be banished from the island.
N20 17.812 E58 44.657 Site of abandoned copper mine. Remnants of circular dwellings. Veins with azurite (blue) and malachite (green). To get there follow wadi Al Ghabah (west side of island, junction @ N20 17.860 E58 46.519), for 3 km, take left branch where it splits (surprisingly signposted) and drive around a deep erosional gulley (marked by stones). At 2.9 km from the junction is a small cone of stones. It is best to park the car and walk the remaining 150 metres. Watch for the ruins and check-out the tailings (dumps) for interesting colors.
N20 10.997 E58 39.805 'Grotto' with water well at contact between heavily karstified limestones (above) and ophiolite (below).
N20 10.003 E58 38.426 Our campsite near Ras Abu Rasais
N20 29.276 E58 47.473 Umm Ar Rusais, large settlement halfway down the island. Many shacks built of driftwood and empty petrol barrels. In the early days (1930's) local people were 'paid' for services (refueling sea-planes) in natura by empty petrol cans that were re-used as building materials.
N20 26.803 E58 46.515

Intact Bedan (type of Dhow) just off the main road between Umm Ar Rusais and Safaiq. A Bedan is an old type of Omani fishing and trading vessel. They were used in the 19th century and perhaps even earlier, all the way from Oman to Zanzibar, sailing along the coast. This vessel, known as Al Khamman, belongs to a Sheikh Khalifa bin Khamis al Majaali and was built in 1938.

N20 23.966 E58 41.133 Weird structure made of corrugated plates, looks like the top of a small tower???

Copper mine locations are also found at Sinfah (in south), Jabal Maythil (south central), south of Sur Masirah (central west, wadi Mahasi) and just west of Ras Al Yah (central east). Puzzling ruins at Ras Al Yah (eastern cape, ancient cairns and forty two stone shelters), Jebel Shabbah (on the Tertiary plateau, chest high fortifications)

A bit of History

Prehistoric sites on the island indicate early habitation, going back at least four thousands of years. The joint excavations of the Department of Antiquities and the German Mission in 1983-84 (the Mission is sponsored by the German Mining Museum and the Institute for Prehistory of the University of Heidelberg) centred on the sources of and production of copper in the prehistoric period on the island of Masirah. This expedition offered a first archaeological look at this island. Finds and sites documented date to the second millennium (Wadi Suq), first millennium (Lizq/Rumaylah), and perhaps the Late Iron Age. One context is neolithic. Large shell middens (big heaps of sea shells, thrown away by people after eating their contents) have been found between Safaiq and Sur Masirah along the large bay at the central-eastern side of the island. Nearby were flint artefacts used for scraping the shells.

The island is probably the equivalent of the island of Orgyris / Orgen  visited by Alexander the Great's admiral Nearchus, who sailed through the Gulf between 321 and 324 AD to locate the best ports for trading. The island is probably also described as 'Sarapis' in the 'Periplus of the Erythrean Sea', a Roman merchant guide of the coastal route from Egypt to India. Not much has changed as the inhabitants are described as fish eaters and the main export is listed as turtoise shells.

Some people have wondered about the size of the copper mining activities in ancient times. The scale of the mining operations appears to be only small and it may be that they were mainly after the azurite, malachite and turquoise as gemstones. These were the favorite colors of the ancient Egyptians. Large scale smelting of ore such as in wadi Jizzi in northern Oman has certainly not taken place. 

The famous Arbian chronicler Ibn Batuta described Masirah as '... a big island where the inhabitants live on fish only...'

The British surveyed the island in the early 19th century by Captain Steafford Bettesworth Haines of the survey ship Palinurus (Memoir of the South and East Coast of Arabia, Journal of the Geographical Society, 1845), followed by Captain Saunders again with the Palinurus. Carter, the assistant surgeon on the ship described most of the copper locations. At that time the island had not changed much from Batuta's description.

Photograph courtesy Eugene Robinson: unmistaken British presence in the 1970s. The military base (operations building).


Masirah got onto the world map in 1933 when RAF surveyed the island to use it as a transient airstrip, fuel dump and seaplane anchorage in support of the British air route to India. It saw its bit of second world activity with the establishment of permanent RAF occupation in 1942 (244 Squadron) mainly  in the battle against submarines. To handle the large quantities of supplies landed by ship a narrow gauge railway was built, serving dispersed fuel dumps and supply compounds (the railway continued in this role until the mid-1960s, then fell into disuse. Resurrected by the British servicemen as a spare time activity in 1969, trains continued to run until 1977, when the airfield was handed over to the Sultan of Oman`s Air Force, W J L Corser, 1994, RAF MASIRAH RAILWAY ISBN 1899231005).

In the late 1950's the British helped the Sultan to suppress a rebellion in the interior (see the green rebellion) with some 1700 sorties of both Venom and Shackleton planes. In the early 1960's the RAF  infrastructure at the island was strengthened to cover a new RAF route to the Far East. A BBC world transmitter was established on the island in 1967.

The British withdrawal from Aden, the Arabian Gulf and the Far East left Masirah stranded as the very last RAF base east of Suez. It was retained due to another Omani conflict in the southern province of Dhofar. British Forces assisted the Sultan, and Masirah was again involved.

Eugene Robinson (ex RAF) contacted me in July 2008 and commented on the base and the island: "Except for the Military base a only few permanent buildings were built in 1974/76. The majority of the local Omani population lived in shacks with oil drums for walls - stacked 2/3 high. Sometime after Sultan Qaboos replacing his father in 1970, he relaxed a ruling that Masirah Omanis could not visit the Mainland. They were then allowed to take fish over to the Mainland to sell and work during the Harvest season picking Dates. It is possible that when the Sheikh was banished from the island the remaining population were banished from visiting the Mainland. The story in 1976 was that the local population had been banished from the Mainland for 100 years for some misdemeanor (the Baron Innerdale story?).

The railway was built to carry supplies from the jetty to the camp. Ships had to anchor offshore. At other times it ran in the afternoon taking personnel to the beach and Yacht club. The camels on the island were trained for racing then sold on the Mainland"

Ray Flint who served in Masirah in 1968 '69 snet me the following memories:

"When we were there the reason for the locals living in houses made out of oil drums was that around 1900 a ship was wrecked on the island and the crew were all killed by the locals as they were suspicious of them. The story was that the Sultan decreed that they would not be allowed to stay in one place and had to live a nomadic life. We used to got to the village a lot and helped them “move” house    it involved pouring water onto the new location and flattening the ground then the house was broken up and moved to its new location. We had tea once in one of our office cleaners house and they kept them very neat and tidy. We also used to patrol the beaches at night during the turtle season and used to gather the baby turtles up and put them into old oil drums full of sea water until they got stronger and then released them to the sea.   In those days it was a very dusty and hot place to live and for us there was not a lot to do during quiet periods"

Links to RAF Masirah websites:

After the Dhofar War the RAF withdrew from Masirah and the airfield was sold to Oman as an air force training base. Most of the personnel were RAF or ex-RAF.

After this the base was once again expanded and modernised to accommodate a new Omani Jaguar fighter squadron.

Since the mid 1970's the Americans have a strong presence in the military base on the island. The base was the jumping board in the failed rescue attempt of the American hostages from the Tehran embassy in 1979.

In 1990-91 the Americans used the base during the eviction of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.  It was also active during the Afghan war in 2002 and undoubtedly also during the Iraq war in 2003.  

Our trip in November 2003

We joined two other families (Rienja and Piening) in our trip to Masirah

Tuesday, the 25th of November, started as a rather cool windy day, not too bad for driving. Near the Wahiba sands, around noon, the wind had picked up significantly and the first drifts of sands were blowing across the tarmac. That got seriously worse while crossing from Hayy to Shana, south of the Wahiba's. The air was filled with sand, blasting against the cars. We met several families escaping from Bar Al Hikman because of the strong winds. We were hoping to get less sand closer to the seashore and therefore pressed on. Indeed, close to Shana the air cleared and we left the drifting sands behind. At Hayy we had tried to phone the ferry and got a confusing statement about when the last ferry would cross. It got even more confusing at the jetty when some locals told us the ferry would still come soon, some said it would come in the evening and one voice even said it would not come at all because of the strong winds. The latter proved right.


Waiting with the families would be difficult and we did not want to cross at night, facing all the difficulties driving on an unknown island in darkness. A building near the jetty looked like a lodge and we decided to give it a try. The place turned out to be the new Shana Rest House and they opened their doors to us.

Half of the Rest House is completed, the other half is still under construction (at least the inside). We negotiated 4 rooms and got our stuff inside. The rooms were advertised with TV, but we could only discover an old one in the main corridor, which indeed turned out to be the one coming with all rooms. Our caretaker returned with a bike and two big jerry cans with diesel to start the generator at the back.

Time for a nice afternoon walk along the beach, enjoying the view of many dhows parked because of the Eid holidays. We could even use our camping gear inside to cook a nice meal (take-away Chinese from Muscat). A check after diner reveal a long queue of waiting cars and still no ferry in sight -stronger indications there would be none that day-. Later that night a number of waiters followed our example and checked into the Rest House. We had a good sleep. It turned out that we had made the right choice as the first ferry only turned-up and 02:00 hrs in the morning.


Sand storm en route from Hayy to Shana

Shana Rest House, where we spent the first night

At 6:00 hrs we were packing our cars again, heading for the ferry and were one of the first on the barge that arrived at around 7:30 hrs.

A great crossing in a small vessel, closely packed.


We got into a conversation with one of the Omani's on board who  explained that he was on his way to his wife's family to celebrate Eid. He was very keen to leave us with a good feeling about Masirah and even gave a small Islamic prayer-necklace as a token of his friendship. It remains always amazing how friendly the Omani's are; embarrassing for us Westerners.

Heading for Masirah on one of the ferry-barges

 Disembarking at Hilf on Masirah

An early arrival on Masirah with plenty of time left to find a good place to stay. Driving southwards along the western seashore we passed the large lagoons and sabkha's that dominate this protected side of the island. It is sometimes difficult to see where the land ends in the sea or where the sea ends in the air.

We soon concluded that for once we were in good company as the most dominant car on the island appeared to be the good old Landrover Good to know that we would not have any problems repairing our car if that would be needed.

Further south the ophiolite ridges form headlands with protected bays. We found a beauty spot at the southernmost point of the island, with a magnificent beach, protected between two jutting headlands from the still strong winds.

The beach showed some signs of turtle nests, but they seemed to be old. In any case it is better to check and to extinguish any campfires at night in case a turtle (big or small) gets sidetracked by the light and ends up in the fire. We did not see any signs of live turtles on 'our' beach.

Our beach at Ras Abu Rasais

Camping just above the high water line, still protected from the strong winds by a ridge of ophiolites


Remnant of the wreck of the Sheba (?) See above.

Spring at the contact between ophiolite and limestone near Ras Abu Rasais

In the afternoon we even managed to explore a bit of the southern point of the island, trying to locate the copper mine at Sinfah. The scenery with white limestones capping the black ophiolites is beautiful.

Picture left: karstified limestone on top of black ophiolite

The next day we stayed put, with one group exploring the island in the morning and the other relaxing on the beach and the other way around in the afternoon. Staying with the camp proved necessary as we had quite some visitors, peeping curiously at our campsite from the rocks above. One can only assume that the island must be pretty deserted for most of the year.

The island is ideal for wreck-visiting (check out the coordinates at the top), but the interior also features quite some beauty spots, such as the ancient copper mines in the ophiolites.

The picture left shows the remaining foundations of rounded houses of the mine at the end of wadi al Ghabah, which reportedly also homes a geocache (a kind of electronic treasure hunting) ( )


Azurite (blue) and malachite (green) veins in the wadi al Ghabah copper site.


Bedan (type of Dhow) just off the main road between Umm Ar Rusais and Safaiq (see above)

One of the weird findings on the beach (for location see above)

Masirah visitors, one big local family, admiring our campsite

Jenny explored the nearby beaches and met a local family who were very interested in her art project collection of materials from the beach. The veiled lady was more than happy she cleaned her beach and even donated some spectacular fishing hooks adding to her collection.


The rest of the children of course were happily digging canals and sea defences as good Dutch children should do. Swimming was not possible as the waves were too strong, but the braking rollers were great for the surfboards and for fun.

Magnificent sunset over our 'private' beach

Preparing the campfire, with Jan, as usual, supervising from a vantage position.

We were not sure about the ferry departure time and with high tide at around 9:30 hrs decided for an early start, packing at 6:00 hrs of the 28th. It generally takes about an hour to get everything back in the cars and it took another hour to get back to the jetty at Hilf. This time we boarded the bigger barge, but discovered that bigger barges also take longer to load. There is always something to see on board and as we hadn't taken breakfast yet this was the time to get the picnic bags and make some sandwiches on deck. Most Omani families did the same. A family with three veiled ladies and three smaller children nested themselves on a blanket next to where we were sitting and must have been looking as interested at us as we looked at them. The younger children will definitely grow up in a world much different from the one of their parents. The mother certainly had more authority than any of us. One subtle movement with a camel stick and the children moved back to their places on the blanket....

Breakfast on the ferry

Departing from the jetty at Hilf

Jan found that it was easier to be on top of the car than trying to move in between the cars.

Disembarking at Shana at high tide. Normal cars needed quite some wood to avoid getting stuck.

One should be able to skip the long drive home, a long 6 hours sit.... Would we do it again?  Sure!!!


April 2006

We have done it again in April 2006

This time with the Wassing and Dedden families and it was flawless. Three families of mainly teenagers and midlife-adults that got along very well. No sandstorm, an easy ferry crossing, but with a tarmac road close too close to our previous campsite we found a more secluded spot with a smashing white beach a bit further to the north. As it turned out almost on top of a rich vein of azurite in the rocks at the back of our campsite. What else does a geologist want?

Typical Masirah scenery

Landrover Paradise

Masirah must contain the largest collection of vintage Defenders in the world, thanks to the long presence of the RAF on the island. The aluminum body survives happily in the salty environment and the car is the clear favorite of the local fishermen.

Talking to the local people they estimate about 300-400 Landrovers on the island. Most of these seem to be of Series III type, but not being an expert at all, I would not be surprised if there were much older types around as well. For those interested check out:

Goats and Landrovers
Being a geologist I know about island populations of plants and animals that developed in different evolutionary directions compared to those on the continents.

It seems that something similar has happened over the last 50 years or so with Landrovers on the island. The cars have certain elements is common that undoubtedly stem from the handicraft of local workshops. Quite a few feature an eagle on doors and a roll-over bar that is probably favored because you can grip nicely to it when standing in the back as many of the local fishermen proudly do. Some have taken this to the extreme as the car below.

Junkyard beauties

Local workshop, sufficient spare parts as it seems

For once our own customised Defender looked like a a fish in the water rather than an ugly duckling. Almost like bringing fresh blood in an aging population and the locals loved it.

A modern description of the Island would certainly call Masirah "the island of the Landrover"


Richardson C., 2001, Masirah, Tales from a Desert Island, Pentland Press Ltd, ISBN 1 85821 801 2.

Mooney, Sean and Johan Palsson, 2001, Shipwrecks , satellites and skeletons. Oman Today feature story.

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@ J. Schreurs November  2003, updated April 2006, July 2008