Through the Empty Quarters, via Butabul and Qarn Sahmah to Ras Madraka

October 2007
(English only)

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A round trip via the Umm As Samim, the northern Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarters), Butabul, Qarn Sahmah -Oman's largest surface piecing salt dome- via Haima to Ras Madraka. Two nights in the desert and two on the beach. The story of Butabul, salt at Qarn Sahmah, and the beaches of Ras Madraka protected by ophiolite cliffs, capped by Tertiary chalks.

Keywords: Umm As Samim, Rub Al Khali, Empty Quarters, Butabul, Qarn Sahmah, salt dome, Haima, Ras Madraka (also spelled Ra's Al Madrakah).


A tour of about 1820 km (taking the roundabout at Seeb airport as starting en end point) as shown on the satellite map below.

Added January 2008. I have been told that the military checkpoint in the Empty Quarters near the Saudi border now blocks cars driving south unless you have a permit. I can not advise how to obtain permits. 

Eid holidays 2007, together with the Forbes and Rovira families, departing from Muscat at 8:00 in the morning of the 11th of October for a long drive via Fahud and Yibal to the northern gateway of the Rub Al Khali through the sabkha of the Umm As Samim.

Satellite map showing detailed maps 1 (Qarn Sahmah) and 2 (Ras Madraka)

Google earth Track file (contains track and waypoints as shown on map in zipped format). On opening this will start Google Earth if installed on your computer and will show the tracks. Google Earth can download these files to your GPS and many GPS devices can upload Google Earth file. Otherwise there are handy conversion tools to check.


The tracks are also linked from our Map interface that holds all stories and tracks explored in Oman. Just zoom and click on the icons of the map to see the links to web-pages and Google Tracks


How to get there:
To Fahud: take the motorway to Nizwa and subsequently in direction of Salalah, turning-off right to Fahud just beyond the village of Izz (22 39' 11.3982" N - 57 33' 8.5844" E) signposted to PDO's main oil fields, Natih, Fahud and Yibal. Stick to the max speed and be aware of heavy oilfield traffic. For many kilometres you will be impressed by the whaleback of Jebel Salakh dominating the southern horizon. The excellent tarmac road will take you to the Natih roundabout ( 22 26' 28.2559" N - 56 43' 13.0124" E) some 92 km further. Turn left to Fahud, which is only 24 km away.

From Fahud to the Empty Quarters: Fuel-up at the petrol station at Fahud (next to the shops and restaurant in a fenced area @ 22 18' 55.1419" N - 56 31' 12.2078" E). Take the road to Yibal and Lekhwair (junction left @ 22 22' 43.0710" N - 56 22' 16.1974" E) and in the Yibal Field turn left to Al Huwaisah (@ 22 9' 35.7052" N - 56 2' 20.5488" E). This gravel road bends south-westwards around the Yibal field and subsequently south again (@ 22 7' 31.6189" N - 56 0' 51.3062" E) to the Al Huwaisah oil field. Just before this field turn right (@ 21 57' 25.4868" N - 56 1' 45.8486" E) signposted Abu Tabul) at the edge of the Umm As Samim. Turn south (left) @ 21 54' 41.6494" N - 55 56' 53.2625" E and left again @ 21 53' 14.0920" N - 55 51' 36.8206" E. As from here the track leads through the emptiness of the Umm  As Samim sabkha, a traverse of some 40 km before the first dunes at the edge of the Empty Quarters at the other side (@ 21 36' 52.2075" N - 55 38' 54.8595" E). From now the gravel track winds between the dunes of the Rub Al Khali, overall in southwest direction. A good track, sometimes crossing the edges of the dunes. Be aware for the sometimes large potholes (punctures). It leads close to the border with Saudi Arabia. You will see several wells (Malih-1, and Malih-2, drilled by Elf) and there are many places to camp in protected areas next to the dunes, which is what we did.

The Empty Quarters or Rub Al Khali. An area that would still be difficult and inaccessible if it would not have been for tracks built to access exploration wells. Even Bedouins avoided traveling though this vast desert of some 1000 km long and 500 km wide, with an area of some 600,000 km2. Roughly 100,000 km2 of this sand desert is in the western half of Oman, straddling the boundaries with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Bertram Thomas and St John Philby were the first Westerners exploring this vast emptiness in the 1930's followed by Wilfred Thesiger between 1940-50. His account of these traverses "Arabian Sands" first published in 1959, became one of the world's best known desert-travel stories, documenting this rapidly vanishing world.

What better than to enter this vast area through an even more desolate place: the huge sabkha of the Umm As Samim.

The Umm As Samim, translated as the "Mother of Poisons" is a low (58m, compared to the surrounding deserts at +100m), essentially flat area comprising a huge inland sabkha. This is a place with extreme arid conditions where no normal life exists. Water flows occasionally from the Al Hajar mountains into this depression and subsequently evaporates, leaving a hard crust consisting of a mixture of salt, gypsum and sand on top of soft mud. Water flowing through the Umm Er Rhaduma limestone aquifers from as far south as the Dhofar Mountains also feeds this depression and evaporates continuously. The evaporitic crust expands as salt crystallises causing space problems with the creation of large polygons (50-100 cm across) that push against each-other and hard ridges of push-up salt and sand form in between. The ridges shred tyres like nothing.  Truly soft Sabkha only exists along the eastern side where the main wadis enter the sabkha. When Thesiger first described the Umm As Samim he expressed the fear and awe the Bedouins hold for this area very well:

From Thesiger, Arabian Sands, 1959:
“There you are. That is the Umm as Samim. I remembered my excitement two years before when al Auf had first spoken to me of these quicksands as we sat in the dark discussing our route across the Sands. Now I was looking on them, the first European to do so. The ground, of white gypsum powder, was covered with a sand-sprinkled crust of salt, through which protruded occasional dead twigs of arad salt-bush. These scattered bushes marked the firm land; farther out, only a slight darkening of the surface indicated the bog below. I took a few steps forward and Staiyun put his hand on my arm, saying, ‘Don’t go any nearer – it is dangerous.’ I wondered how dangerous it really was, but when I questioned him he assured me that several people, including an Awamir raiding party, had perished in these sands, and he told me once again how he had himself watched a flock of goats disappear beneath the surface.”

Certainly a place where nature forces respect by its forbidding environment and sheer dimensions, showing the curvature of the earth at the far horizon. Deep ruts show where oil explorers crossed the flats to shoot seismic. Even their huge trucks regularly getting stuck, breaking through the hard crust and being sucked in the soft mud below. Certainly not a place to deviate from the beaten track. In the far distance the first dunes appear low above the horizon, like mirages, shimmering in the hot air. The sabkha looses its rugged surface towards the west, nearing the dunes, but its presence is still clearly visible between them, partly hidden by sheets of sands. Between the dunes the track starts winding, like a meandering river, finding its way through the lower saddles between the dune ridges that extend in a northwest-southeast direction, with thin, almost north south connections. A huge mesh of sands covering the flat sabkha below. A pattern set-up by the dominating winds. The track approaches the border with Saudi Arabia very closely before bending south again. Nowhere else seems such a man-made boundary more artificial than here. From between the dunes everything looks looks the same and it is, except for that boundary. The ideal place to find a secluded spot between the dunes to enjoy the scenery and prepare for the night and that is exactly what we did. During the day we measured 40C in the shade. With the sum disappearing behind the dunes the temperature rapidly dropped to a reasonable 25C under an unspoilt ceiling littered by stars. There is always a shooting star somewhere to be seen. No man-made sounds, except our own, and a bit of light of our campfire. Early in the morning the temperature even dropped to 17C, quite chilly, but what a place to sleep. No wonder why people like Thesiger lost their heart to the desert.

A very dry night, with the sun waking us the moment its rays pushed the protecting dune shadows away. Time to eat and pack to continue with our drive south, with an intermezzo at Abu Butabul to check British Gas activities developing a gas field between the dunes. 

Crossing the Umm As Samim. Salt/mud polygons

The Umm As Samim. A view of some 30 km around, all flat, dried-up salt/anhydrite/mud plates seperated by push-up ridges delineating a regular looking pattern of polygons

Camping in the Rub Al Khali, close to the border with Saudi Arabia

Large sand dunes with knife sharp ridges defining the upper edge of sand slip faces

The track south to Abu Butabul winds through the most scenic area of Oman's part of the Empty Quarters, with regular linear dunes some 2 to 3 km apart. Each dune very different, yet the pattern of dunes remains fairly regular. The junction at the Butabul water well is a good place to have a stop. A nice barasti hut (built of palm leaves) invites with shadow. Its dark interior is relatively cool because of the fresh breeze that can access the interior through the palm-leave walls. There is even the possibility to have a warm water shower or splash with water coming from the deep water well, flowing into a pond. A smelly splash that is, as the water from the well has a strong smell of rotten eggs characteristic for H2S.

The Butabul area is at the verge of a big change. 35 km to the east roads are being built and concrete poured for wells and a campsite to support the development of a gas field. We have now seen the area before these big changes and it will never be the same again. For better or for worse? Natural resources are now needed more than ever. Yet, one gets a bit of the feeling of the sentiment expressed by Thesiger already some 50 years ago with pristine desert disappearing because of the relentless push of the modern world.

A clear reminder that this is a desert after all as this almost mummified camel testifies with a bent neck in death spasm.

Alban standing next to the wellhead of exploration well Abu Butabul-1 (1998). In the background the containers of the BG camp that has been temporarily set-up to house workers building new access roads and drill sites.

Butabul development In 2006 the BG Group signed an Exploration and Production Sharing Agreement (EPSA) with the Government of the Sultanate of Oman for a 100% interest in and operatorship of Block 60 onshore Oman. Block 60, covers almost 1500 square kilometres, contains the Abu Butabul gas and condensate discovery which was made in 1998. The Butabul discovery well revealed the presence of gas and condensate in a tight reservoir contained in a structure that is mapped over an area of approximately 560 sq km.

BG has acquired new seismic over the area and is soon to start a comprehensive appraisal drilling programme to assess fully the reserve potential.

We returned and continued the track south towards the Sahmah oilfield, neatly tucked away between the dunes, and from there to the east, towards the Qarn Sahamah Salt Dome where we had planned our second night in the desert. The last part of this journey deviating from the now familiar gravel track, first along a pipeline and after the Anzauz oil field a direct drive through the desert in eastern direction. Often plowing though sands, but leaving the main dunes safely to the north. All happy we got there without getting stuck.

Qarn Sahmah is a high dome sticking out some 60 metres above the surrounding plains and dunes, visible from far away, but the direct approach blocked by dunes. Hence our bit of sand blasting. Still amazing how long it takes to get to what seems very close.

Alban found us a nice spot in the western flank of the dome, protected from strong winds. Somehow we forgot that this thing is also huge. Trying to find the salt we had a stiff walk climbing and descending the many ridges just making it back to camp before total darkness.

Again a peaceful night, this time with a lot more moisture, soaking sleeping bags and tents. An early morning but a relatively late start, waiting for the sun to dry our gear before continuing.  The last stop in the desert, continuing to Haima.


To Qarn Sahmah: The next day we continued to the water well at  Abu Tabul (@ 20 59' 48.9098" N- 55 30' 28.1179" E) where warm sulphuric  water flows through the old wellhead. It is used as water well for Petrogas. You can't miss the Barasti-shelter, which is nice cool and good for picnicking away from the burning sun. At this junction we turned west to check exploration well Butabul as this is an area that will see a lot of activities with the development of the gas field by British Gas. The Abu Butabul-1  exploration well is some 35 km east of the junction. BG are currently building new access roads, a permanent campsite and platforms for development wells. We returned to the water well junction and continued westwards, signposted Sahma, tracking the now overall ENE-WSW trending linear dunes (uruq). The track will lead you along some abandoned oil wells to the Sahma Oilfield camp @ 20 42' 50.0265" N - 55 25' 43.8727" E. From here the track turns overall southeast and the dunes gradually decrease in size, with more and more space in between. To quickly leave the are you best turn south at the junction at 20 33' 53.3350" N- 55 54' 43.8546" E, but we continued eastwards in the direction of the Anzauz oilfield. Contiue straight at all junction until you meet the oil pipeline at 20 35' 13.7703" N - 56 18' 5.2448" and follow the track due west next to the pipeline. This is difficult driving as large parts of the track are covered by soft sand. Some 11 km west you will cross a low dune ridge and see the Anzauz field right in front. In the far distance you can see the outlines of the Qarn Sahmah dome. Drive straight through Anzauz, following the main track. At 2032' 37.1841" N - 56 24' 57.3519" turn left, following the pipeline crossing the dunes. The track takes you to the last Anzauz well at the other side of the dunes. From here there are no tracks anymore and we followed the wadi south of the dunefields in overall eastern direction, meeting a track leading to Qarn Sahmah some 11 km further. at 20 30' 40.2248" N -  56 31' 14.2665" E. From here the track leads northwards through soft sand, straddling a NNE trending linear dune. Plenty of nice campsite at Qarn Sahmah (with strong winds you may prefer to hide in the interior area). We camped at 20 36' 27.2309" N - 56 35' 0.0116" E and continued the next day to Haima.

Map 1, satellite image of the Qarn Sahmah Salt dome (Google Earth). The largest and most southern surface piercing salt dome in Oman.

Qarn Sahmah

The largest (8 km across) and most southern surface piercing salt dome in Oman. It can be easily recognised on satellite imagery (left) as a large brown bump with a radial drainage pattern at the southeastern edge of the fist linear sand dunes of the Rub Al Khali. Its highest point at 165m is some 65m above the surrounding plains.

The salt was mined by the Duru tribe who sold it in the oases markets or traded it for dried fish on the Arabian Sea coast.

Qarn Sahmah; a bit of history

Thesinger mentions Qarn Sahmah (Qurn Sahma) in 1949 after visiting the Umm As Samim, linking-up with an earlier traverse (Arabian Sands, 2000, p 262-263). According to local Duru tribesmen the area would be full of Oryx, but he found only their tracks and did not provide any further details of the area.

The following valuable reference to Qarn Sahma is from 1959 IPC activities which was kindly provided by Alan Heward following his archive research in 2007:

The Jebal Sahma area was part of the province of Sheikh Ali bin Hilal the effective leader of the Duro tribe and part of the economy was based on the export of salt blocks to Africa where it was used as ‘currency”. Sheikh Ali used the gathering of salt as a punishment and, wrong doers were sentenced to a salt party. Hard labour indeed, because they were obliged to cut and load a given quantity within a limited space of time. The journey from lbri across the desert took them about four days, i.e. arriving on the fourth day and starting work immediately. There being no water holes en route, all their water had to be carried in goat skins, which supply left them only about 72 hours for cutting and loading. The holes in the salt dome had obviously been in use for centuries. The salt rock is hard, so hard that the CAT. D8 bulldozer blade which I expected to make short work of the stuff, only succeeded in chipping off a small sliver.
The salt miners only equipment was a small primitive iron hammer with a chisel end. With this the operator chipped away making an oblong groove into one of the steps measuring about three feet long down to a depth of seven to eight inches. When the groove was deep enough, usually after about three hours of backbreaking work under a pitiless sun, the front of the step was struck repeatedly with a large flat stone weighing about six pounds and held in both hands until the rock fractured and the block broke free. The salt blocks, incredibly heavy, were then wrapped in palm leaf mats ready for loading onto the camels.

Qarn Sahmah Geology

Peters et al. (2003) provide a comprehensive geological description that is summarised below:

The Qarn Sahmah salt dome (Qarn is Arabic for ‘horn’) is located about 18 km ENE of the Anzauz oil field. The nearest subsurface control points are exploration wells Qarn Sahmah-1 (1979) and Qarn Sahmah North-1 (1983), situated 7-16 km from the diapir (both failed to find hydrocarbons). More recently Encana (2006-2007) drilled another exploration well on the flank of the dome, again without success.

This salt dome is the southernmost and largest of the six domes in Oman, and forms a roughly circular outcrop with numerous prominent ridges.

The eastern part of this large outcrop area exposes recumbent, commonly dismembered folds, defined by well-exposed white anhydrite breccia, dark, laminated or stromatolitic Ara dolomites with associated bedded anhydrite and poorly exposed red-white banded halite . Individual stromatolite domes are generally unoriented, but locally show possible current-influenced alignment. Stromatolitic layers are very finely laminated and laterally continuous, suggesting growth through in situ precipitation. Dark carbonates appear to form a high-relief, outward-dipping ‘rim’ constituting the eastern and the west-central flank of the dome. Here the carbonates overlie an approximately 20 meter-thick sequence of white, brecciated, gypsum/anhydrite which in turn overlies red, grey/green mottled, silty shales . The layered anhydrites are stratigraphically interbedded with the stromatolitic dolostones and halite, which indicates a primary evaporitic origin. In contrast, the irregular anhydritic breccias are regarded as an insoluble residue, or ‘cap rock’, which formed during rise of the salt diapir and dissolution of halite in the presence of percolating groundwater . Many of the carbonates have a strong fetid (sulphurous) smell when freshly broken. In the centre of the Qarn Sahmah dome, finely laminated and fetid dark limestones and dolostones are well exposed in large, coherent exotic blocks, up to several hundred meters long along bedding strike. Within these blocks the intact stratigraphy forms successions at least 15-20 meters thick, in contrast to the thinner carbonate units mentioned above. The bulk of these units consists of finely laminated carbonates, with irregular textures comparable to the ‘crinkly laminites’ described recently from one of the stringer carbonates (unit A4) in the Ara Group in the South Oman Salt Basin . The upper parts of these carbonate units are more obviously microbially laminated, showing some evidence for development of small stromatolites locally. These carbonate blocks appear to have bedded anhydrite at their base, as well as interbeds of thin anhydrite commonly overlain by laminated carbonate facies, suggesting a cyclic pattern at 10-30 m scale. The finely laminated, fetid limestones were collected and analyzed for source rock potential by earlier workers (Parker and Wessels Boer, 1968). The results indicate very low pyrolysis-fluorescence values and only low to marginal maturity (in the order of 0.5-0.7 VRE). The center of the dome also exposes boulder conglomerates, containing clasts of rhyolite, foliated granodiorite and sedimentary rocks , as well as beds of highly immature, red to grey sandstones and deeply weathered reddish brown siltstones and clays with angular clay clasts. These sedimentary rocks represent typical diamictites of the Permo-Carboniferous Al Khlata Formation, a rock unit well known from numerous wells in Interior Oman as well as spectacular outcrops in the Haushi - Huqf High along the eastern margin of the Ghaba Salt Basin. A deformed sequence of much better sorted, mostly red coloured sandstones and greyish-brown siltstones and immature clays, possibly belonging to the Lower Palaeozoic Haima succession is present in the north-central part of the salt dome. These siliciclastic rocks are faulted against the Ara carbonates described above. In addition, relatively small outcrops of red-grey volcanoclastics and dark-grey weathering olivine basalt are present in the north-central part of the Qarn Sahmah dome.

Right: Picture taken from the highest point in a northern direction with the first dunes of the Rub Al Khali in the distance.

Below left: The high ridges consist mainly of Precambrian dolomites and limestones. Qairn on top of the highest point of Qarn Sahmah.

Below right: Sunset over Qarn Sahmah

From Qarn Sahmah to Ras Madraka (Ra's Al Madrakah):  Encana built a new track to Qarn Sahmah, which eases the driving markedly. Their new track starts at 20 35' 33.2027" N - 56 34' 33.3103" E and passes well Qarn Sahmah-1 at 20 32' 26.3460" N - 56 34' 25.9796" E, joining the Salalah road at 20 25' 16.1784" N - 56 43' 46.7463". From here it is 71 km to Haima where you will find petrol stations and shops to re-stock.  At Haima (@ 19 57' 23.1228" N - 56 16' 22.4508" E) we turned east in the direction of Duqm. This new tarmac road leads you through the Jidat Al Harasis (with the Jaaluni Oryx Sanctuary). At 19 29' 23.2180" N - 57 34' 49.7625" E is the junction with the Ras Madraka - Duqm coastal road. Turn right (south) and continue to the junction at 19 9' 31.5495" N - 57 39' 20.8157" E where you turn left (east) towards the coast, signposted Ras Madraka; a 25 km drive. In the village, tucked agains a mighty cliff, you have a choice to turn left at the roundabout (18 58' 46.6808" N - 57 46' 50.9015" E) or continue straight to the beach in front, where we had camped before (see Salalah trip). Left takes you through the many huts of the village and into a narrow wadi cutting NE through the dark Madrakah ophiolite rocks. From here it is about 7km to a number of sheltered beaches between headlands and you will find plenty of secluded spots to camp. You can even get very close to the island in front of Ras Madraka (a bumpy drive along narrow tracks).

Haima is rapidly developing from a few huts near a junction of roads, built to drill wells,  only a couple of years ago, to a real hub with many shops, schools and even a motel. A place to stock-up on frozen bottles of water to get the cool boxes cold again and to get some fresh food. Bristling even more so on this first day of Eid, with happy people, eagerly  expressing their "Eid Mubarak" to all in sight.

From Haima it is a long drive to the coast across the flat plain known as the Jidat Al Harasis; homelands of the Harasis Bedouins. You may consider a visit to the Jaaluni Oryx Sanctuary (from the junction signposted HabHab), but in that case you can't make it to the coast anymore and that's where we wanted to be.

On the last bit of the drive to Ras Madraka the scenery becomes interesting again, with the flats giving way to flat-capped ridges and a scenic descend down the scarp at the back of Madraka village. The triangular point of Ras Madraka itself consists of dark ophiolite rocks, very contrasting to the light Tertiary limestones that one has driven on for most of the day. Dark, craggy rocks, without any clear layers. Originally oceanic crust, pushed on the edge of Arabia when India moved north on its collision course with Asia. The coastline to the north of Madraka is accessible through wadi Dil, winding through the ophiolites with the whitish high limestone scarp to the left. The wadi opens to a wide and open beach to the left and to a set of secluded beaches to the right. Driving and bumping up and down you are sure to find a nice spot between the cliffs.

Our first act was a joint effort putting-up the shade to shelter from the still hot sun. As it was the first day of Eid there were no fishermen on the beaches, with all boats high up on the sand. Clouds started building and indeed we even had to hurry putting the covers on our tents when it actually started raining. Not much, but the clouds made a strong contrast with the headlands and beaches and night came a bit earlier than normal. No further rain that night and the clouds disappeared completely the next day.

We put an extra layer on the shade as this was a day to stay put on the beach. With so much geology around,  interesting wrecks on the beaches and shells to find, there is plenty to explore. Exposed to the Arabian Sea and the wide Indian Ocean the waves breaking on the cliffs look menacing even on a quiet day. The wild sea offshore Madraka is dangerous and many ships were lost "off Ras Madrakah" and some are left on the beaches. The most prominent wreck, at least as we had read about -and could be seen on even Google Earth- seemed to have largely disappeared. Its superstructure gone, probably recovered recently. Some photo opportunities less. But what about skulls of dolphins, magnificent shells, including large pectens, and plenty of other wrecks? Even a day can be too short. Expect a few visitors, interested fishermen, just curious, but also trying to sell fish and lobster, but how to cook without a big kettle? Plenty of wood on the beach to build a nice campfire and play a game around it. How many times did we play the wolves-of-Wakkerdam-game in the last couple of days? That's when the last cool beers finished quickly....

Map 2: satellite image of the Ras Madrakah headland; note the large triangular area consisting of dark ophiolite rocks with white beaches between Ras Ad Dil and Ras Madrakah and the backdrop of steep cliffs delineating the ophiolites.

A bit of history and upwelling story

The 5th century Greek historian Herodotus called the coastal inhabitants of the NW Arabian Sea Ichthyophagoi, or fish eaters, an indication of fertile coastal waters.  These people lived on fish, fed them to their camels, and it is even reported that they roofed their dwellings with the skins of whales. Indeed extensive research has shown that Southwest Monsoon winds set-up a huge system of upwelling off the eastern coast of Oman. The Oman upwelling zone is characterized by the entrainment of cold upwelled waters into plumes extending from the coast into the deep ocean unaffected by the steep bottom gradients. The most prominent of these plumes is found offshore of Ras al Madraka. The nutrient-rich cold water supports one of the richest marine wildlife in the world. The same SW monsoon is responsible for the regular dense fog that sweeps ashore. Strong winds and storms have a free game on the exposed coast as witnessed by the many wrecks on the rocky headlands and beaches. The rich sea life of course also attracts a wide variety of birds. It all starts with the winds.

Remains of a large wooden dhow spread over the width of one of the beaches, hammered and broken into big pieces on the rocks by relentless storm waves.

A steel-hulled wreck on the cliffs (welded and therefore likely post WWII).

The fishermen now have fast boats, but the old wooden ones still rest high-up on the beaches, draped by nets and ropes. The frames are strengthened by beams from tree branches that must have been selected for their shape.

Yet another wreck of a shattered lifeboat belonging to the Piraeus high on a beach (or was its mothership registered in the famous Greek harbor of Piraeus). Al Taie, Pickersgill and Al Taie, 1997, mention this lifeboat belonged to a cotton trader.

Remains of one of the most famous (pictorial) wrecks at Ras Madraka. On older pictures its superstructure is still in place but we only found a few rusty plates sticking out of the beach, suggesting the superstructure has been removed.

Sunrise over the most eastern headland of Ras Madraka with its little island in front.

A battered Toyota landcruiser, the fishermen's workhorse. They pull the boats to the edge of the water, turn around and push it from the back into the sea (hence the metal grid seen on the bumper to the right)

Coolboxes and cooling trucks wait for the return of the fishermen. Ras Madraka has two ice factories. The picture does not reveal the strong fishy smell that comes with all of this. Many birds are waiting patiently on the beach for rejects.

Climbing the scarp behind Ras Madraka. The plain in front is an uplifted beach terrace cut into the ophiolites which form the headlands in the background. The scarp consists of Tertiary chalks, with wide overhangs providing shelters with a great view.

View down on an uplifted coastal beach terrace and the dark ophiolites of the Ras Madraka headland in the background.

On top of the scarp, erosion has sculpted wild and irregular shapes of hard cemented rocks originally enclosed in softer chalks. This one is not unlike the big bad wolf.

Our sun shelter close to the waterline. The wind may be cool, but the sun keeps burning and a good shelter is important.

Exploring the many crabs and snails digging in the sand

The craggy, dark ophiolites at sunset.

A Majiliis in Ras Madraka village; very recognisable with a wooden plane on top between the many huts made of wood found on the beaches. A fisherman with wider dreams?

The pictures above tell the story better than my words can.

There is however one that can't be easily shown and has to be felt. We had heard friends warning about irritating, stinging things on these beaches, and quickly discovered that as well. With the aid of a loupe one can just see the miniscule tiny glassy needles, hidden in the sand and in the sea. We have taken samples of the sand and also a sponge we found on the beach en have checked these under the microscope as shown in the images made by Gordon Forbes below.

Our conclusion is that there must be a possible sizeable sponge colony in the deeper offshore, shedding tiny sharp silica spicula (needles made of quartz) that end up on the beaches. Glass sponges like these thrive in nutrient-rich water with strong currents. Not surprising to have a glass-sponge colony associated with the upwelling nutrient-ricg cold water offshore Ras Madraka.


Now you know why these lovely beaches can be itchy.  For those that want to know more about glass sponges: check out the sponge reef project

Sponge found on beach at Ras Madraka
(Photograph made by Gordon Forbes)

Close-up of sponge and the first glass needles are visible in the sponge network. (Photograph made by Gordon Forbes)

Close-up of sponge with tri-axial sponge spicules.
(Microscope photograph made by Gordon Forbes)

Triaxial sponge spicules found in the beach sand at Ras Madraka, clearly derived from the type of sponge found on the same beach. (Microscope photograph made by Gordon Forbes)

Be aware of stingrays as well. They are difficult to spot as the water is murky because of the strong breakers.

This leaves a long drive home on the last day. I had been expecting punctures all along, after all we have been driving more that 1000km on bad gravel tracks. It therefore seems more than fitting that on the last stretch it actually happened to our car. Thanks to some friendly Omanis who waved from their car, indicating something looked wrong. That way we could prevent a more serious problem, changing it at a safe place near a petrol station.

Of course a messy car to unload at home, but what a treasure of nice rocks, shells, experiences and, last but not least, also friendship to take home.

Photo courtesy Gordon Forbes


  • Al Taie,H., Pickersgill, J. and Al Taie, N., 1997, Oman. Beautiful Oman Series 1, Al Roya Publishing, Oman.
  • Heward, Alan, 2007, personal communication concerning  1959 IPC activities (based on notes from George Laurance -Chief Engineer with IPC in Oman),
  • Peters, J.M., Filbrandt, J.B., Grotzinger, J.P., Newall, M.J., Shuster, M.W. & Al-Siyabi, H.A. 2003. Surface piercing salt domes of interior north Oman and their significance for the Ara carbonate “stringer” hydrocarbon play. GeoArabia 8, 231-270.
  • Monroe, E., 1998, Philby of Arabia, Garnet Publishing Limited, Reading UK.
  • Philby, H. St. J.B., 1932, The Empty Quarter, Contable, London.
  • Thomas, B., 1931, Alarms and excursions in Arabiam Bobbs-Merill Company USA.
  • Thesiger, W., 1959, Arbian Sands, Longmans Green and Co. Ltd,
  • The sponge reef project:

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@ J. Schreurs October 2007