In all the landscape around me nothing moved but a single skittish little dust-devil, last testament to a 500-metre-high wall of sand that had blasted through here the day before. The horizon stretched in all directions, merging eventually into the hazy sky. This region is called Rub’ al-Khali (the Empty Quarter) for very good reasons.
Oman is about the same size as the United Kingdom but with 20 times less inhabitants. Most Omanis live in, or around, Muscat and apart from a few ultra-tough camel-rearing badu nomads nobody in their right mind has ever tried to carve a living out of the Rub’ al-Khali.
One early writer described this region as “hell with the fires put out” and it did not seem like the most promising place to come looking for surfable waves. Our little convoy of four heavily-laden Land Rovers was carrying a cargo of 18 surfboards, 10 days’ worth of provisions and an elite strike force of what were certainly the best professional surfers ever to hit the Empty Quarter.
This had originally been planned as an old school, grass-roots, back-to-basics desert surfari. We had left our expedition HQ at Muscat’s five-star Grand Hyatt Hotel far behind and for the next week or so our accommodation would simply be on bedrolls under the billion-star desert skies. But, even apart from a fleet of brand-new Discoveries, our mission had a high-tech side that would give our quest a serious advantage over earlier surf expeditions.
Every surfer worth his salt knows that you rarely score truly “gnarly” waves by working on sheer luck. Oman has only been surfed by perhaps a few dozen people and was reputed to boast, at best, mediocre waves. For almost six months surf journalist Drew Lewis and photographer Sergio Villalba had been researching Oman’s thousand miles of south-east facing Indian Ocean coastline. They had made countless virtual recce trips on Google Earth, until they had scoured every beach and point in fine detail. They had studied the swell charts and weather reports for previous years, watching the buoy reports and shifting weather patterns in the way that only the most meticulous of seafarers would ever do. They had been trying to predict just when and where the swells and wind directions would coincide to produce the perfect wave on the point of land or section of beach that was best oriented to catch it. The perfect wave is hard to come by but intelligent surfers understand that, if you watch carefully enough, once in a while all the variables will come together with almost prophetic accuracy and the surf gods will smile upon you. Inshallah!
Of course the weather – especially in the wild parts of the world – can often have a habit of throwing the unexpected at you. And this is what happened on the night before our carefully coordinated surfari was due to depart from Muscat.
None of our four-man, one-woman team of roving surf nomads had even vaguely imagined that in Oman they might be signing on for a big wave trip. Drew and Sergio were confident that there would be decently ride-able waves if we could track them down but they were thoroughly unprepared for my text which reached them during their brief stopover at Frankfurt airport: “Big changes to plan for. Cyclone Phet has hit, Muscat is battening hatches and there are reports of nine-metre waves on the south coast! Looks like surf’s up!”
Within a matter of hour the entire northern coast would be cut off by raging wadis that would be foolhardy to approach even in the Land Rovers. So, in a desperate attempt to outflank the feisty Miss Phet we decided to make a quick overnight dummy run over the Hajar Mountains before cutting south to charge 1000 kilometres across the Empty Quarter. Near the Yemeni border we would then turn north again to travel up the coast chasing the waves that would be spinning off the tail of the storm.
We rolled out of Muscat towards the glowering mountain sky with Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now throbbing out of the stereo and, 18 hours later, we crossed the last of the wadis to the optimistic tune of Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm. Somewhere in the immensity of the Empty Quarter we stopped to refuel and the attendant pulled out his cellphone to show me the footage he shot the previous day of a monstrous sandstorm – a 500-metre-high wall of sand – crashing through the service station.
The mercury climbed through eight degrees in a single hour as we chased mirages down the strip of bubbling blacktop. The gauge in the air-conditioned cocoon of the Land Rover told me it was now 44 degrees outside. It was easy to believe that without the vehicles we would be lucky to survive until sundown.
It was already dark when we stopped to camp, parking our vehicles in the lee of the dunes and crawling into our surfboard bags as extra shelter from the shifting sands.
The next day we finally had our first sighting of Omani waves. We were now in the region where the Indian Ocean trade-winds and driving currents that once carried Sinbad collide with the foothills of the spectacular Dhofar Mountains – in an area that we believed was way beyond the influence of Phet. The cyclone was still battering the north coast, where it had already carved Muscat into a series of islands and had claimed 48 lives (though the final reckoning would be many more).
Down here in the south however the powerful breakers we were seeing were more likely to be the spin-off effects of the seasonal rains beginning to sweep up through Yemen. We were only just beginning to grasp that what we would be harvesting over the next week was not the effect of a freak storm but just a normal part of Oman’s impressive crop of fine waves. It was our first inkling that Oman was actually going to prove to be a far better, and infinitely more consistent, surf destination than anyone had ever imagined.
French surfer Damien Castera was the first to paddle out on his longboard to reap the fruits of the Omani harvest at a point-break that came to be known as Baguette Point. Spanish champion Pablo Gutierrez was next into the water to drop into a series of long, hollow tubes. Damien’s American O’Niell teammates Brett Barley and Jesse Hines followed the English nomad surfer-girl Raine Jackson.
All later agreed with Drew Lewis’s comment that we had scored Oman’s first high-quality wave.
“This was probably not much more than a decent afternoon here,” the ex Surfing editor said, “but, from its setup, this place looks like it could be truly world class on the right day.”
There followed a week that went far beyond any expectations for a Middle Eastern surfari. At “Turtle Point” we surfed long righthand rollers in the company of a solitary local who bobbed a scaly head up from time to time to see what was going on. At “Shark Right” the visitation was, thankfully, shorter and at a beachbreak in Hasik village the fisherfolk turned up en-masse to watch the first surfers they had ever seen. Blonde, blue-eyed Raine Jackson (respectfully clad in the black wetsuit that would, by that evening, have brought on a bout of heat-stroke) immediately built up an impressive fan-base among the shrouded local women.
We camped for two nights on a headland that we called Dead Bird Point for the hundreds of seabird corpses that had been battered here by 90-mile-per-hour winds. At night scavenging desert foxes skirted our little nomad camp, their eyes flashing bright in the firelight. Southern Oman remains largely uninhabited and much of the coastline farther north had been frantically evacuated in the hectic 24 hours before the storm hit and the fishermen and their families were yet to return.
Surfing is now one of the world’s fastest growing sports and uncrowded waves are becoming a thing of the past. To most surfers they are mere pipe-dreams.
Paddling out for a last sunset session on my 1970s style balsawood Kun Tiqi fish I spared a thought for the pioneer surfers of an earlier era. And I gave fresh thanks to the surf gods that I had been privileged to be one of just a handful of surfers who had been able to enjoy the fruits of a thousand miles of spectacularly wave-washed coastline. Bismillah!