The long swathe of fertile coastline between Barka and Sohar shows the Batinah at its most untouched, with interminable date plantations meandering along the coast, interspersed with sleepy villages, the occasional fort and endless swathes of beach littered with boats – if you’re lucky you may spot examples of the traditional shasha, an antique style of reed-boat made from bundles of dried palm fronds, which was once common throughout the Gulf. It’s around 150km from Barka to Sohar, a ninety-minute drive along the busy coastal highway (which doesn’t actually run within sight of the sea), although it’s much more enjoyable to get off onto the small roads which run alongside the coast here and there.
The Sawadi and Daymaniyat Islands
The main tourist draw between Barka and Sohar is the Sawadi and Daymaniyat islands (and the adjacent Al Sawadi Beach Resort), one of the country’s leading dive spots, but equally rewarding to visit for a snorkel or swim. The rocky and windswept Sawadi Islands lie just offshore. The largest of the seven islands lies almost within spitting distance of the beach, a large rocky hump topped by a string of watchtowers, while the other smaller islands lie further out to sea. It’s possible to walk across the sand to the main island at low tide, though take care you don’t get stranded when the tide comes back in; at other times boat trips can be arranged by bargaining with the local fishermen on the beach for around 5 OR, while snorkelling trips can be set up through Extra Divers at the Al Sawadi Beach Resort. The beach here is littered with exotic-looking seashells, perfect for a stroll and a spot of beachcombing.
Much further out to sea (30min–1hr by boat), off the coast midway between Barka and Seeb, the Daymaniyat Islands (also spelled Dimaniyat or Dimaaniyat) are one of Oman’s premier dive spots. Virtually everyone who comes here does so to dive, or at least snorkel (see Diving the Daymaniyats). There are nine low, rocky little islets here, strung out in a line from east to west and clustered in three quite widely separated groups, surrounded by coral reefs (you’ll probably fly directly above them when landing at Seeb international airport). The islands have been protected as a nature reserve since 1996 and provide an important nesting site for hawksbill and green turtles, as well as a wide range of migratory birds including the increasingly rare sooty falcon (which can also be found in the Sawadi Islands), one of the few migratory raptors which actually nests and breeds in the region. Given their protected status, access to the Daymaniyats is restricted, and you’re not allowed to land on the islands from the beginning of May until the end of October; the rest of the year you’ll require a permit (4 OR/day), which can be arranged by your tour operator.
Diving the Daymaniyats
Diving and snorkelling trips to the Daymaniyat Islands can be most conveniently arranged through Extra Divers Al Sawadi (t2679 5545, wwww.extradivers.info), based at the Al Sawadi Beach Resort; count on around 30 OR for a trip including two dives. Most dive operators in Muscat also arrange trips here, though obviously it’s a much longer (and somewhat more expensive) trip. It’s a 30min–1hr boat trip from Al Sawadi Beach Resort to the Daymaniyats, depending on exactly which of the twenty-odd dive sites scattered around the islands you’re going to. Contrary to what is sometimes said, diving at the Daymaniyats is technically easy and suitable even for non-PADI-qualified divers. The waters around the islands boast excellent visibility, abundant soft and hard corals, descending in places to depths of 20m, and swarms of colourful little tropical fish and nudibranchs. The main attraction, though, is the islands’ oversized marine life, including leopard sharks, barracuda, shoals of moray eels, rays, turtles and huge sea horses, while you’re almost guaranteed the chance to spot a whale shark between July and September.
Extra Divers also run night dives around the Sawadi Islands, and snorkelling trips to both the Sawadi and Daymaniyat islands; it’s also possible to just go along for the boat trip, without getting in the water. Extra Divers can also arrange various watersports, including kayaking, water-skiing, jet-skiing and wakeboarding.