Kayaking

Published on July 6th, 2000 | by Alan Pimm-Smith

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Zighi Beach Rendevouz

Tim was due in from Muscat at 6.30 p.m., too late for the Wadi Lueb hike, so Mark came up with an alternative plan. He and Annie would set off for Wadi Khab Al Shamsi around midday where they would climb the 2 000-foot east ridge that overlooks the sea just north of Dibba (see satellite image above). This was a climb we had done several times, but this time, instead of walking along the ridge and then climbing back down to Wadi Khab, they would make an exploratory descent on the other side to the 100-metre beach where I made a spectacular exit from my kayak last August. Having spent five hours trapped there on that occasion, I knew it was a lousy place for camping, so the idea was they would then swim southwards along the cliffs to the northern end of Zighi beach, floating their gear with them in a couple of dry bags. It was essential that they got down the ridge while it was still light, but the swim could easily enough be done in the dark. They would simply have to kick alongside the cliffs clutching their dry-bags until they reached the first bit of sand, which would be the end of Zighi beach. And it was there that Tim and I would meet them. I estimated that we could make it there in our kayaks between 10 and 11 p.m., provided Tim’s flight arrived on time.

As it happened, Tim got in an hour earlier than planned, and by 7 p.m. he was at my place in his Cherokee jeep on to which we promptly loaded our two 17-foot sea kayaks along with an assortment of dry bags stuffed with sleeping bags, thermarests, kettles, food, pieces of string, pen-knives, sun cream, swimming goggles and sundry other items of kayaking equipment, in addition to which were a large number of bottles of Masafi water. Two hours later – having caught up on the latest in Tim’s complex domestic arrangements and discussed the Gulf’s prospects in a post-oil economy – we were lowering the pressure in the tyres in preparation for the run along Karsa beach in Omani territory just north of Dibba.

Karsa Beach, DibbaIt was swelteringly hot. The sea, looking like lukewarm lead, thumped sluggishly on to the sand; stars twinkled overhead, but in a weak, watery sort of fashion, unable to pierce their way precisely through the water vapour laden atmosphere. Within seconds of stepping out of the air-conditioned jeep, I felt my shirt stick to my back as beads of sweat trickled from head downwards. There wasn’t a breath of wind, the body’s cooling mechanism was thoroughly thwarted; unable to evaporate into the water saturated air, the beads of sweat simply served to make my tee-shirt sodden. But it was the weekend, we were out of Dubai, there was no one around, just sea, sand, the night sky and a backdrop of mountains, and an adventurous paddle in the offing.

The moon was out, not yet at the quarter, though was soon to drop out of sight behind the mountains, but it meant we could load our kayaks without the aid of torches. I had a new neoprene spraydeck which took some time adjusting, but  by about 10 p.m. both of us were ready to go with our gear stowed and hatches strapped. A quick push up off the sand with both hands to let an incoming breaker lift the kayak and I was off. A few swift strokes got me through the first and only breaker. As I held my paddle horizontally over my head the wave broke against my chest.  It was warm and wet, and fluorescent: tiny stars, sharper and brighter than those overhead, cascaded down my chest, with a few odd ones sprinkling over my spray-deck. This was the life!

In fact, the water was thick with algae, one of whose properties is that it lights up when stirred. With every stroke one took through the smooth, gently undulating water, a magical cold light swirled around ones paddle blades, while the kayak bow formed a streaming V of light. We paddled in silence out of the bay and alongside the cliffs. My kayak seemed lit up, but looking across to Tim, barely visible against the backdrop of rock, I only saw the occasional swirl of light.

It was an easy paddle of only about an hour to where we were to rendevouz with Mark and Annie: first along the cliffs to the point that marked the start of Zighi bay, then across the bay to the point where the long beach ended and the cliffs resumed. The lights of  the tiny fishing village of Zighishone brightly, while the crescent moon stayed up long enough to faintly illuminate the stretch of beach running north from the village. As the moon dropped behind the mountains, I marked a dip in the outline of mountains above where dim light of the beach ended, and headed for it. Once or twice, to let them know we were coming, I flashed my headtorch briefly. As stealthily as any Indian raiding party we crossed the bay unheard and unseen. Presently one heard the sound of breakers, then the beach came in to view. I executed a stylish stern-rudder stroke to hold my kayak at an angle to the wave and slid swiftly on to the beach. This was fun. Would I never grow up? Where were they? Had they made it? After pulling our kayaks clear of the waterline, Tim and I headed into the dark towards the rocks at the very end of the beach. And there they were, each with a small dry-bag in hand, having recently emerged from the sea.

I slept precisely two hours that night. First, I’d chosen to lay out my new bamboo-weave mat across some deep four-wheel drive tyre tracks, which meant a lumpy, contorted night; secondly, the bamboo mat didn’t keep out the sand so was as good as useless; thirdly, (as I learned later from Weather Underground) the temperature stood at  90 degrees with the dew point at 85, which meant the humidity level was very nearly at saturation point. The air was about to break out into a hot mist. So I simply sat there in my shorts for most of the night, sand sticking to my back, with my hands clasping my knees, looking out over a dull, leaden sea. But that was OK by me. At least I didn’t have to answer a business call on a mobile phone as Tim did, for I saw him walking off, hand to his head, talking into the night. And, much more positively, earlier on we had all seen a truly amazing sight: a meteor no less, an orangy-yellow ball of fire tearing through the night. It had a tremendous tail and seemed to be breaking up as it went, burning up or possibly hitting a mountainside somewhere near Jebel Qiwi. Of course, there’s no way one could tell. Possibly it was thousands of miles away. At any rate, though I am the least superstitious and most rational of men, it seemed a good omen. As Mark suggested to me later, it would interesting to investigate why it is that we place such value on rarity. Something to do with feeling oneself distinguished and special, no doubt.

We were all up at first light, which was well before five. I had a kettle and tea bags, but didn’t feel energetic enough to collect wood for a fire. In any case, in that motionless, warm, moist air, a steaming kettle would not have made a particularly attractive sight. By 5.15 a.m., Mark and Annie were ready to go, bright red plastic dry-bags in hand. They departed whence they had come, returning to the sea. I chuckled at the sight; it was comically surreal. Mark and Annie going home: two heads bobbing slowly out to sea.

When kayaking with Tim, I have only two slight worries. One is that I won’t be able to keep up with him, and the other – the much greater of my two worries – is that I won’t be able to get my kayak packed in time. I don’t know what it is; I can paddle as fast as him on occasion, but I seem totally incapable of getting my camping gear stowed in any where near the time that it takes him. It was the same again this morning. While Tim wandered off for a stroll leaving his ship-shape kayak all ready for launching, I was left, as usual, struggling with dry bags, kettle, camelback, thermarest, groundsheet, bottles of water, tea bags and bits of string.

Kayaks-Zigi Beach

Zighi Beach. Khor Haffa in the distance. Tim, packing his kayak efficiently.

When we eventually got going, there wasn’t a breath of wind. The silken grey-blue sea stretched to a hazy white sky at the horizon in which rose, ominously, a glaring white sun. My new, black, rubbery neoprene spray deck which stretched half way up my chest had my lower half sealed in tightly. Having left my hat behind the previous night in the jeep, I had to make do with a spare tee-shirt wrapped round my head for protection. It was just after six in the morning and I was already sweating profusely. We paddled along easily nonetheless, passing the beach where Mark and Annie were by now just beginning their 2000 foot climb. Three gulleys led up the mountain to the top of the ridge. I scrutinised the middle one, but could see no sign of movement. I later learned they had taken the one to the left, a mistake that might have made things difficult for them.

I knew the beach well, having somersaulted on to it last summer in an unusually large swell. Technically, the manoeuvre is known as an ‘ender’ or ‘endo’. It is one that is always executed inadvertently and comes as a complete surprise. Basically what happens is this: when there is a large swell out at sea you paddle in at right angles to the waves, in blissful ignorance, on to a steeply shelving shoreline. The six foot swell then converts itself in to a six-foot dumping breaker. You then find yourself hurtling towards the sand and rocks on a craft that is rapidly being lifted on to its nose. You lean back as far as you can and think to yourself in complete disbelief, “My God, the nose of my kayak is about to dig in.” At which point, the nose of your kayak does precisely that and you find yourself catapulted out of the cockpit, in tandem with your cartwheeling kayak, into only a foot’s worth of surging sand and surf just three feet from the rocks.

But that was last summer when I was a complete novice. I know better now.

After a forty-five minute paddle Tim and I were at the entrance to Khor Haffa. I’m pretty fit and ordinarily can paddle for several hours without a break, but I was already feeling done in. Just inside the Khor on the left is a secluded bay with a beach and palm trees. I guessed that Tim intended paddling on another few kilometres to the end of the Khor, so I shouted to him suggesting we pulled in to the bay on our left. “Let’s go down to the end, and stop there on the way back,” he responded. So I carried on going, after all we’d been paddling for less than an hour. Fifteen minutes later I was really beginning to feel uncomfortable, so I took off my shirt, but still had a thick rubber spray deck half way up my chest. We got close to the Shehhi village of Haffa, now deserted for the summer months, when I called it a day. “I’m going back!” I shouted. So we turned back and made for the bay. The moment we did so a very slight breeze picked up, and almost instantly I felt my self reviving. So it wasn’t lack of fitness; it was the heat that was doing me in.

secluded bay, Khor Haffa

Secluded bay – Khor Haffa

Once beached in the secluded bay we both waded out into the still shallow water where we lay floating for ten to fifteen minutes. It was utter bliss. I stretched my body in a variety of home-made floating yoga positions in the cool water. Only a patch of my face and nose poking above the water still burned under the sun, otherwise it was pure nirvana.

I don’t know whether the body temperature actually rises above normal in cases of heat exhaustion, but certainly my body felt much cooler after fifteen minutes floating there in the water. I also felt considerably revived. I put my shirt on again to avoid sunburn before setting off again. Leaving the Khor, we headed directly across the bay making for Dibba beach, the jeep and home. Again there was no breeze, but I felt cooled and rested, and so paddled easily. Half way across the bay we spotted a pod of dolphins lazily surfacing some way off, so we both picked up speed in order to get closer to them. This was my first sighting of dolphins from a kayak, so I was determined to make the most of it. They moved further into the bay, six or more of them, surfacing effortlessly. We stepped up the pace closing the gap. They showed no concern, lazily revolving in turns out of the water. But eventually enough was enough. They disappeared from sight, diving deep, to reappear again a long way off, leaving us only the whirlpools left from their dives over which to paddle.

Bab MusandamBy now it must have been about 10 a.m. with the temperature at over 1000 F and rising, and more to the point, with the humidity probably over 90 percent. We had been going three hours and another hour’s paddling lay ahead of us. I was hot and now that the dolphins had gone I found my arms much less willing. As time went by, it became harder and harder. I set my targets; first the headland at the end of Zighi Bay, then the next point, then the next and so on. Tim seemed OK, but I was struggling. I had a Camelback strapped under bungees on the deck behind me. I could get the tube to my mouth without stopping paddling, so kept up my intake of water without finding myself lagging behind. But the water didn’t seem to make any difference. My lips weren’t parched, I wasn’t even feeling that thirsty. It was simply the heat and the humidity that were affecting me. Every now and again, and with increasing frequency, I’d let go one hand from the paddle and scoop water over my head, my chest, my neck, my back. I was getting extremely uncomfortable and irritable, almost desperate. I knew of cases of heat stroke, sudden deaths; heat was not something to dismiss lightly. Not that I was near anything like that, but this was certainly a matter of sheer heat exhaustion.

By the time I rounded the last point and the jeep came in sight on the beach, I had nothing left in me. My body was tingling all over, I splashed myself almost frantically, I wanted to fall out into the water, but didn’t allow myself to as I knew I would swamp my kayak. Paddling listlessly, two or three strokes at a time, I let myself just drift in to the beach, mumbling and cursing to myself all the while. Getting out of the boat, I could hardly keep myself upright. After drunkenly tottering around a bit I managed to pull the kayak a few yards up the beach. Tim, as laconic as ever, said; “Hot, isn’t it. Thought you were going to jump in the water earlier on.”

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