Oman Recon

I’ve mentioned before that our newly established College within the University is a combination of previously existing departments and a research entity on campus. For example, the Geosciences Department has been at KFUPM since 1973. The College of Petroleum Engineering and Geosciences (CPG) has melded the departments of Petroleum Engineering with Geosciences, of course, and also includes a research arm, the Center for Integrative Petroleum Research. New Bachelor’s-level curricular programs in geology, geophysics, and petroleum engineering were developed and codified during 2017.

With a focus on integration of these three disciplines, CPG students enroll in an identical freshman-year course sequence, culminating in a summer-long course known as CPG 199 Summer Camp. In this course, all the post-freshmen are together for eight weeks in the summer. We’ll have right around 60 students for summer 2018. Lucky me, I’m coordinating the course. We are splitting the course into three segments, with one in the mountains of Oman for two weeks, another two weeks in southeastern Poland (working out of Krakow and in the adjoining Carpathian mountains), and the rest of the summer program will be in-Kingdom (mainly in conjunction with Saudi Aramco).

Since I’ll be leading the Oman and Poland legs, I went on a recon mission in late December to Oman with my colleague, Khalid, and also with the Dean of CPG. We’ve contracted an adventure company, Husaak Adventures, to run the trip. The intent of this first leg is for team building, camaraderie, cooperation, and self-confidence. That there is spectacular carbonate geology everywhere we go is definitely a plus, but studying geology, geophysics, and petroleum engineering is not the focus of this module. Of course, it will be extremely difficult to contain my excitement for the geology (and I think my students know this…).

The Sultanate of Oman is in the southeast of the Arabian peninsula, bounded by the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The areas that we’ll be principally located are in the eastern and western Al Hajar Mountains that prominently jut inland from along the northeastern margin of the Sultanate.


The Arabian peninsula with the Sultanate of Oman along the east-southeast.


A closer view showing the location of the Omani capital, Muscat, and the splay of the Al Hajar mountain range paralleling the coast of the Gulf of Oman. The dark “blobs” indicate locations of the Semail Ophiolite (see text).

Well, I won’t bore you with all the great details of Omani geology, but I need to mention a couple things. First, yes you can see that it’s quite arid (like most of the peninsula), but the SE Asian monsoon does bring moisture to Hajar Mountains. Vegetation grows in the wadis (intermittent river courses) draining the mountains. Second, abundant Cretaceous and Paleogene limestones that outcrop in the Oman mountains form important petroleum reservoirs in the subsurface of Oman, UAE, and Saudi Arabia (e.g., the prolific Thamama Group). And third, Oman hosts the famous (well, in geological circles anyway) Semail Ophiolite. During tectonic closing of ocean basins, in general, the denser ocean crust gets subducted below the more buoyant continental crust. In rare cases, however, slivers of the uppermost mantle and oceanic crust get thrust up onto the continents (obduction, rather than subduction). These pieces of former seafloor basalt that are obducted onto the continents are called ophiolites. Named for the town of Samail/Semail, the ultramafic (mantle) and mafic (seafloor basalts) rocks of the Semail Ophiolite are dark grey to black on fresh surface, and they weather slightly reddish brown (iron) upon exposure. The dark blobs in these Google Map images are (mostly) ophiolite successions.


Area of the western Hajar Mountains. The town of Nizwa is at the bottom of the photo, just to the east of two ophiolite sections. We’ll be camping, hiking, and canyoneering around Jebel Shams (the highest point in Oman, at just over 3000 m).

Our two and a half day field excursion covered basically all the areas that the students will be exposed to over the span of two weeks. So, there was a lot of “windshield time”, interspersed with quick field stops, overviews, short hikes, one long hike, and two nights camping in the cold, high mountains. The cooler temperatures afforded by the mountains will be welcome when we’re all camping out there during the summer, when lower-elevation temperatures will be in the 40s (°C) or low 100s (°F).

We’ll start our adventure touring in the western mountains, using a camping area near Jebel Shams (location in the image above). One of the activities that the group will do is a 8-12 hour round-trip hike to the summit of Jebel Shams, the highest point in Oman, at 3028 m (just under 10,000 ft).

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Dark ophiolite along the drive to the western Hajar Mountains.


These pillow basalts represent seafloor lava outpourings as new oceanic crust is created at the mid-ocean ridges (oceanic layer 2A), here exposed in the Semail Ophiolite. The distinct “pillow” at center-right is about a meter and a half wide.

The roads in Oman are quite good, but there’s no easy route to get to some of our locations. Husaak has new badass Land Cruisers that will get the job done. We scaled and descended some very steep routes and the vehicles were simply monsters.

Husaak’s Toyota Land Cruiser workhorses got it done!

The western Hajar Mountains have low-grade metamorphics as underburden, with thick stacked sequences of carbonates as a mantle. Steep-sided canyons descend from the high mountains, and date palms adorn the wadi floors. Streams appear and disappear. We have several mountain and canyon hikes for the students lined up.

Majestic peaks, valleys, and canyons of the western Hajar Mountains.

After five nights camping at the high Jebel Shams camp, the group will move to the town of Nizwa as a base for two nights. We have a geological excursion to Jebel Madar planned and there will be another day hike. However, while in Nizwa, we’ll have a chance to clean up and sleep in beds before heading to the eastern Hajar. Our plan is to stay at the Golden Tulip hotel, the same hotel I stayed in when I visited Oman for a post-AAPG field trip in 2002. The students (and faculty, and Husaak guides) will be happy.

Somehow, the Golden Tulip allowed this group of grubby guys to tour the facilities.

We swung the vehicles back toward Muscat and headed through the valley on the back side of Jebel Akhdar before turning into the eastern Hajar Mountains. Here, crazy dipslope Eocene nummulitic limestones plunge toward the Arabia Sea. Wadis follow obvious large-scale fracture/fault patterns that are perpendicular to the coast. We spent a fair amount of time in the Tiwi Wadi south of the town of Fins. Road winds up the wadi through dense date palm stands and small villages. All along the wadi, “plantations” of dates, mangos, and crops are terraced along the wadi walls.

After hiking down to the river in part of the wadi, discovering waterfalls, rapids, and limpid pools, we exited the wadi and made for camp by way of a steep climb up to the Salmah plateau. Again, elevation will be high enough in the summer time to have comfortable nighttime temperatures for camping. For us, the December time frame, lack of clouds, and the elevation made for some rather cold-weather camping. We slept under the stars and close to the campfire. We saw some shooting stars streaking across the sky, likely the last remnants of the Geminids meteor shower.

Not only is the plateau dissected by steep-sided wadis, but there is a complex network of caverns throughout this limestone terrane. Husaak is in the process of exploring and mapping the cave network. The size of some of the caves is simply remarkable – one cave entrance we saw was nearly 200 m high.


Google Earth image of the Salmah plateau area of the eastern Hajar Mountains. Narrow wadis dissect the Eocene limestone (full of large nummulites forams) because of dissolution and erosion coincident with a large-scale fracture/fault system.

Limestones of the eastern Hajar slope down to the azure waters of the Arabian Sea.

Waterfalls, emerald pools, and plantations make Wadi Tiwi a must-see destination in the eastern Hajar Mountains.


Early morning slumber on the Salmah plateau. No one was excited about climbing out of warm bags into the morning chill.


Entrance to an enormous cave atop the Salmah plateau requiring a 150 m rappel into the massive cave network below.


Ali, Khalid, and I with a cave entrance in the background. The cliffs here are several hundred meters high and a helicopter can easily fly into the cave entrance. Ali is founder and president of Husaak Adventures. A Colorado School of Mines petroleum engineering grad, he spent many years with major oil companies as a top engineer before turning to adventure tourism. And we’re glad he did!

Many thanks to Ali and his crew (especially Hassan and Bader) who helped us on this recon trip. We were well taken care of and we have full confidence in Husaak to deliver a memorable experience for our students in CPG 199. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about this upcoming summer…

Incidentally, you can follow Husaak Adventures on Instagram @husaak. Believe me, you’ll want to join their adventures.


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