Treasure island

Barely known, Masirah may soon be on the map, writes Peter Carty.

THE moonlight stippled the breakers with silver. On the beach a large loggerhead turtle was busy excavating, flipping flurries of sand away behind it. There was a 10-minute pause as it laid its eggs, then, with the moonlight illuminating the barnacles on its shell, heaved its way back to the sea and slithered out of sight. An unforgettable Masirah episode.

Masirah, an island off the south-east coast of Oman, is the latest area of the country to open up to tourism. Visitors who venture beyond the capital, Muscat, tend to take in the jaw-dropping Musandam fiords in the north and the desert landscapes of the Empty Quarter but very few have so far made it to Masirah.

Breezes off the Arabian Sea mean Masirah is 10 degrees cooler than the baking mainland and it has outstanding natural attractions - not least vast numbers of nesting turtles. Getting there, however, involves a 500-kilometre drive from Muscat, followed by a 90-minute ferry crossing. Fortunately, the route down the coast makes for a memorable trip.

The first leg of my journey took me past the al-Hajar mountains, shouldering up dramatically from the coastal plain. At the village of Fins we stopped at a perfect deserted beach where pale sand edged into plate-glass water.

To reach the southern coast and the ferry to Masirah, we had to skirt the Wahiba Sands, 12,400 square kilometres of desert made famous by explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Dunes stretched out of sight, fine sand rising off them like smoke.

The Masirah ferry cast off after sunset and ploughed across the strait under a full moon. Next morning I took stock of my new surroundings: a desert island amid turquoise water. Goats and camels foraged in parched scrub and low acacia bushes, often wandering across the road. There's an interior of barren hills and eerie alien landscapes. Footprints and tyre marks on golden beaches leave black tracks as they penetrate to volcanic sediment below.

The island's tiny town, Hilf, has a few shops and a handful of cafes and restaurants. You can camp on the beaches and there are a couple of small guest houses.

Watersports are a key attraction. "This is a paradise for kitesurfers," said the manager of Kiteboarding Oman, Alex Friesl, who rents out equipment and runs a Bedouin-style camp on the island's west coast. "There's always wind here, the lagoon is very shallow and the water is warm - it's ideal."

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Wildlife is the other lure. During a boat trip, I saw a pod of half a dozen bottlenose dolphins, often curving out of the water in pairs. Flying fish skipped along the surface and, occasionally, a leathery turtle's head protruded before descending again.

In the island's Turkish restaurant, I met Andy Willson, one of Masirah's marine conservationists. "Four species of turtle nest here and the island is No. 1 in the world for loggerheads," he said. "And there's a school of 80 or so humpback whales, unique in that they are not migratory." The government is committed to keeping visitor levels sustainable. "Masirah has a low population and has so far been isolated, so there has been a breathing space for conservation measures," Willson said. "We intend for that to continue."

Trip notes

Getting there

Emirates flies from Sydney to Muscat, via Bangkok and Dubai, priced from $2054. 1300 303 777, fly.emirates.com. Hire a car at Muscat Airport; the car ferry to Masirah leaves Shannah daily.

Staying there

Swiss-belhotel Resort Masirah Island has rooms from 52 rials ($133). + (968) 2550 4274, swiss-belhotel.com.

Kiteboarding Oman has tent stays priced from 20 rials a night. +(968) 9632 3524, kiteboarding-oman.com/.

Further information

October-March is the best time to visit. omantourism.gov.om.

- Sun-Herald