From the Northern Huqf  to Barr Al Hickman

December 2007 (English only)

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With six cars, three families and a lot of teenagers  through the Northern Huqf (Gharif cliffs) and beaching at Barr Al Hickman (Hikman). 

Thanks to the extended Wassing and De Kruijf families for joining us on this trip.

The Plan

Spending some quality family time and exploring two of the nicest areas in Oman: the uninhabited Huqf area and the magnificent flats and beaches of Barr Al Hickman. Areas that we have visited before but remain very attractive and different each time we visit.

How to get there

Google earth KMZ files with actual tracks that we covered (and can be seen / downloaded in Google Earth)

See our earlier trip to the Northern Huqf. This area is part of the Oryx reservation. It takes some four hours driving to the Ghaba resthouse and subsequently some 100km off-road, first on gravel tracks, tracks and finally through soft sand / sabkha. You need at least two 4WDs in good condition and all recovery gear for soft sand. The area is outside reach of mobile networks and a satellite telephone can therefore be useful.

Geologically as well as environmentally it is a sensitive area. Take everything, leave nothing but your footprints.

WARNING. Never travel in these areas alone and prepare yourself properly (check out what you need here). Leave your itinerary with friends and make sure that somebody knows when to action if you do not return in time. The desert is an unforgiving environment. It looks easy from a modern air-conditioned 4WD car, but if that fails you are suddenly back to basics!

The Northern Huqf ; a bit of Geology.

This area is named after the Al Huqf escarpment that forms its western boundary with the flat desert plain of the Jidat al Harasis. The plateau itself is underlain by Tertiary limestones and the first scarp takes you down this part of Oman's geological succession. From west to east the rocks progressively get older, with the most pronounced scarp being capped by Permo-Triassic Carbonates of the Khuff Formation and the base of the cliff exposing the red sandstones of the Permo-Carboniferous Gharif Formation (some 270-290 million years old). These are the same rocks that oil is produced from in Oman's interior.

The rocks in this area have been studied by geologists on their quest for oil since the early 1950's; a story that is very well covered by  Quintin Morton's book "Into the heart of the desert", summarised in GSO Al Hajar December 2006. If you want to know more about the geology of the Huqf, check-out the "Northern Huqf Geology" and the website of the Geological Society of Oman covering the Huqf.

The topogrpahy of the area is one of modest rock ridges stepping down from the limestone plateau in the west at an altitude of some 125m above sealevel to flat sabkhas in between the rock ridges at some 30m above sealevel. Backstepping erosion has left "islands" of rocks in flat sabkhas isolated from the main rock outcrops along the erosional scarps. Embayments in the scarps make for some nice protected campsites surrounded by spectacular geology. Linear rows of sand dunes cross the area in NNE to SSW direction. The combination of soft sands, dunes and sabkhas hamper access to the area and that is of course one of its attractions to the kind of modern 'explorers' that we are. .

Left: our campsite in the northern Huqf cliffs, surrounded by Gharif sandstones, capped by Khuff limestones.

Gharif cliff with in distance the Gharif pinnacle.

Between the sandstones are organic-rich clays (right); fossil soils with abundant plant remains and sometimes even complete silicified trees.

See also Broutin et al, 1995 and Berthelin et al, 2006

Leaves of the Glossopteris - a Late Permian tree once widely distributed around Super continent Gondwana

Stem fragment (lower left) and flower-head of fossil plant (fern?) - scale in cm.
Silicified tree trunk (completely converted to silica) sticking out of Upper Gharif sandstones just above the hammer.

Top; Defender fully loaded, leaving the Gharif campsite.

Left: The Kruiif Nissan blasting away.

The Kruijf Landcruisers. PDO spec and therefore speed-delimited to 100km/hr. Not a problem off-road, but a bit slow on the motorway.

The Wassing Landcruisers approaching through the soft sands.
A long drive from the Gharif campsite to Barr Al Hickman. First plowing through sabkha and soft sands, crossing sand dunes and finally via the old access road of well Saiwan-1 to the new tarmac road to Mahout. A few problems to cross the dunes as the old track has completely been swamped by huge dunes. We managed to cross the sands with a bit of pushing and pulling.
The new road to Mahout is an easy drive where a few years ago one would need a solid day of struggling to get to the coast. There is a petrol station and even a guesthouse at the junction with the road to Duqm. There is also a petrol station in Mahout where there are also plenty of shops and ice factories (for fish-transport). 

There are a number of tracks from the main tarmac road between Mahout and the ferry to Masirah. It is difficult to follow a single one as they keep splitting and merging to avoid the bumpy parts, but they will all go southwards and at the end meet with tracks along the coastline (see also Barr Al Hickman 2002  and 2003).

Barr Al Hickman Geography and wildlife

The large peninsula of Barr Al Hickman (also spelled Hikman) juts some 30 to 40 km southwards into the Arabian Sea just west of Masirah island. It has a width of some 30 km and its essentially flat area covers some 1200 km2. The waters around the peninsula are very shallow and there is a fringing reef (mainly Montipora -cabbage- coral) a few km offshore from its southern beaches. Most of the area consist of sandy sabkhas, just 1 or 2 meters above sealevel and some of these are salt-covered. Extensive surfaces are covered with shells, indicating that they have been below sealevel in the recent past. The rocky flats in between the sabkhas are only at most a few meters higher.  The whole area is therefore essentially dead flat and the wind has free game. Not a place to be when there is a storm brewing. The only protection is between low sand dunes covered with low bushes along the beach-front. There are beach barriers with lagoons behind them all along the southern and western coastline.

Although flat this does not mean it is easy driving. The sandy sabkhas are fine, but the salt encrusted ones are difficult and require careful driving to spare the tires that can easily rip on razor-sharp hard salt edges. Count one hour to get to the southern lagoons from the tarmac road.

The white dunes between the lagoons and the sea are marvelous and popular places to camp. Chances are that you will not be alone in this remote place. There will also be the regular fisherman cruising along the beach, trying to sell some fish or just curious for visitors. There is generally quite a fleet of dhows anchoring near the southeastern corner of the peninsula and that's where you can see pick-ups with big cool-boxes loading fish on the beach.

Because of its popularity for camping there is generally little driftwood left on the beaches. If you want a campfire it is wise to take your own wood.

The mudflats and shallow waters are an El Dorado for a wide variety of wildlife, notably birds. Even the inexperienced will recognise the flamingos in the lagoons (for more details check-out the BirdLife IBA Factsheet on Barr Al Hikman).

The area has been the focus of recent sedimentological studies as a modern analog for carbonate/evaporite reservoirs in the subsurface (see Homewood et al, 2007). Remote sensing and ground-sampling along the southern coasline show a few km wide belt that has been accreted as a result of a regression (outbuilding) of the coastline. Most of the sediments in this belt consist of reworked coral debris, and fragments of bivalves, gastropods, red algae (rhodoliths), and foraminifers. The coral debris consists mainly of Montipora foliosa (cabbage coral) fragments derived form the fringing reefs that grow close to the shore.

Relaxing at Barr Al Hickman

What can you do in this vast emptiness?

We stayed for two nights and had a whole day on the beach. A bit of swimming, reading, fishing and of course beach-combing. First setting-up the big shade for sun-protection. This needs 8 people to hold the poles, certainly with the strong winds we were facing. The construction is almost storm proof and homed easily our combined / extended families.

At night huddling along the campfire to stay warm. The thermometer indicated 19 °C, but it definitely felt colder in the wind. Our most popular game for the evenings is a card game called werewolves of Wakkerdam. A complex game, but quite enjoyable with a big group from young to old as everybody can participate and anybody can win.

Luckily no wet nights, but occasionally some strong smells from the lagoon at the back. Sleeping outside needed the shelter of cars or bushes because of the strong wind. No problems with snorers as the continuous sounds of the sea hide anything else.

We roamed around a bit, driving to the eastern coast but first found our Discovery with a flat tire. It also turned-out that our air pump had broken down, but with pumps in the other cars it shows again that it is better to be all prepared. That became even more evident when the Discovery broke down in the middle of a mud flat. It appeared that we had a leak in a small tube to the engine. With a bit of improvisation we could fix this with a rubber hose from the broken air pump and this construction took us all the way home. 

A bit further on the beach was the campsite of the Droste family. They were celebrating the 50 year marriage of the grandparents and had taken them on the 'grand tour' of Oman, fully supported by Shuram, providing cars, drivers, cook and tents for the whole family. An impressive and unique way to celebrate and the grandparents who had never camped before must have some great memories.

What else is there to tell, except showing pictures of this lovely place.

There is only one real drawback and that is the long drive home.....

Salt-sabkha as far as one can see. Big polygons of salt struggle for space and pushing-up sharp ridges in between.

Our ladies enjoying the shallow water

Water games of our teenagers

And relaxed parents enjoying the view

An early sunset makes for some great views

Wessel kept trying to catch some fish. He actually got one and a few that nibbled and escaped.

Shells in a flat sabkha showing that this was shallow sea in the recent past

A fleet of dhows anchored at the southeast corner

Our campsite on the narrow dunes between the lagoon at the back and the sea in front. A surprising green lagoon with salt resistant bushes and full with algae
A dune barrier between the sea and the shallow muddy/algal lagoon at the back.

Panorama view from beach to lagoon with our campsite already cleaned-up for the journey home.


Berthelin M, E. Stolle, H. Kerp,  J. Broutin, 2006,  Glossopteris anatolica Archangelsky and Wagner 1983, in a mixed middle Permian flora from the Sultanate of Oman: Comments on the geographical and stratigraphical distribution. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 141 (2006) 313–317.

BirdLife IBA Factsheet on Barr Al Hikman

Broutin J., J. Roger, J. P. Platel, L. Angiolini, A. Baud, H. Bucher, J. Marcoux and H. Al Hasmi, 1995. The Permian Pangea. Phytogeographic implications of new paleontological discoveries in Oman (Arabian Peninsula). Géosciences de surface/surface Geosciences (Paléoenvironment / Paleoenvironment) (Paléontologie/Paleontologie) (Paléobotanique/Paleobotany) C.R. Acad. Sci. Paris t. 321, série IIa, p. 1069 à 1086.

Homewood,P., V. Vahrenkamp, M. Mettraux, J. Mattner, B. Vlaswinkel, H. Droste, and A. Kwarteng, 2007. Bar Al Hikman: a modern carbonate and outcrop analogue in Oman for Middle East Cretaceous fields. First Break, V. 25, 55-61


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@ J. Schreurs January 2008