South of Muscat stretches Sharqiya (“The East”), a generous swathe of sea, sand and mountain spread across the southeasternmost tip of the Arabian peninsula. Scenically, Sharqiya is the most diverse region in the country, offering a beguiling snapshot of Oman in miniature, from the sand-fringed coastline, through the rugged Eastern Hajar mountains to the rolling dunes of the Wahiba Sands. Culturally, too, the region retains a distinct appeal. This is the most traditional part of the country, with a long and proud history of tribal independence – and occasional insurrection against the authority of the sultan in Muscat. The interior of Sharqiya is also one of the few places in Oman where you’ll still see evidence of the country’s traditional Bedu lifestyle, with temporary encampments dotted amid the rolling sands – albeit the camels of yesteryear have now been largely replaced with Toyota pick-up trucks and 4WDs.
Sharqiya divides into three main parts. The first is the coast, with a string of attractions including the historic town of Quriyat, Qalhat and Sur, and the turtle beach at Ras al Jinz. Running parallel to the coast, the craggy heights of the Eastern Hajar mountains (Al Hajar Ash Sharqi) provide numerous spectacular hiking and off-road-driving possibilities, including the celebrated ravines of Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi. On the far side of the Eastern Hajar, the Sharqiya interior boasts a further swathe of rewarding destinations, including the magnificent dunes of the Wahiba Sands and a string of interesting towns, notably the personable market centre of Ibra and the staunchly traditional Jalan Bani Bu Ali.
It’s possible to make a satisfying loop through Sharqiya by heading down the coastal highway to Sur and Ras al Jinz, and then returning along the inland route via Ibra described (or vice versa), passing virtually all the region’s major attractions en route.
Something of a backwater nowadays, Sharqiya’s rather sleepy present-day atmosphere belies its illustrious past, when its boat-builders, merchants and mariners made the region one of the most commercially vibrant and cosmopolitan in the country. Sharqiya’s prosperity was founded on the sea, with a string of bustling ports and entrepots, most notably Qalhat, whose fame attracted visits by both Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, as well as Quriyat up the coast. The pivotal moment in Sharqiya’s history was the arrival in 1508 of the Portuguese, who sacked both Qalhat and Quriyat – an event from which neither town ever completely recovered. The demise of Qalhat, however, spurred the growth of nearby Sur, which subsequently became the major town in the region, growing wealthy thanks to its dhow-building yards and lucrative trade in arms and slaves, while inland, Ibra also became rich for a time thanks to passing trade. Increasing British restrictions on slaving and arms smuggling during the nineteenth century led to a gradual eclipse in the region’s fortunes, however, and during the early twentieth century Sharqiya became a major crucible of rebellion against the sultan in Muscat, usually spearheaded by leaders of the powerful Al Harthy tribe, based in Ibra.
As with many of the country’s other leading ports, Sur’s fortunes have been revived since the accession of Sultan Qaboos by the construction of a massive new industrial complex, while the opening of the new dual-carriageway coastal highway in 2008 has further reinvigorated the region’s economy – albeit at the cost of some of the area’s former sleepy, slow-motion charm.
Oman’s largest island, remote MASIRAH remains largely off the tourist radar. Development here is muted, infrastructure basic and the whole place still sees far more turtles than tourists, offering plenty of unspoiled coastline and beaches to explore for adventurous and well-equipped travellers with time (and a 4WD) on their hands. The major attraction of a visit here is the chance to go turtle-watching, while the island’s somewhat end-of-the-world ambience may also appeal to idle beachcombers and birdwatchers. If you’ve got camping gear and a 4WD, the island’s pristine beaches offer numerous opportunities to sleep out under the stars.
Not that Masirah is entirely untouched. The northern tip of the island has already been swallowed up by industrial and military installations, while ambitious plans for the construction of a 40km bridge linking Masirah with the town of Mahut on the mainland (scheduled to open in 2014 at a cost of US$1.5 billion) are likely to massively accelerate the pace of change, assuming it actually ever gets built. For the time being, however, Masirah remains a pleasantly sleepy sort of place, bordering on comatose.
The ferry from the mainland deposits you at the small town of HILF, the only major settlement on the island and home to a trio of petrol stations, a couple of ATMs and a pharmacy, plus a modest selection of shops in the town’s small centre. There are no facilities elsewhere around the island.
Tucked away in the military area at the northern end of the island (and therefore out of bounds, although pictures can be found online) stands a touching memorial to the unfortunate crew and passengers of the Baron Innerdale (or “Inverdale”, as it’s often incorrectly called, including on the monument itself). The Innerdale was travelling from Karachi to Liverpool in 1904 when she ran aground amid the Khuriya Muria islands. After three days, crew and passengers abandoned the ship in two lifeboats. One disappeared; the other (with 17 people aboard) made it to Masirah.
What happened next remains unclear. Probably a misunderstanding led to a fight, during which the stranded passengers were massacred – although there’s no basis for the outlandish rumours that they were subsequently eaten by the islanders. Sultan Faisal responded by visiting the island, banishing the local ruling sheikh and having nine of the murderers executed. He also razed the village of Hilf and forbade the islanders to build permanent houses for 100 years – a ban which wasn’t lifted until 1970.