When I say southern Oman, I’m referring to the governorate of Dhofar which borders on the Arabian Sea, Yemen and Saudi Arabia to the east, south and west respectively. This region includes the country’s second largest city, Salalah, which has a more tropical climate than the north, complete with coconut palms and a summer monsoon season known as the ‘Khareef’.
Salalah draws thousands of summer visitors from other Gulf countries who enjoy picnics surrounded by lush green (shades of which I’ve never seen before!) mountain landscapes and waterfalls, along with cool temperatures and misty, overcast skies. I lived and worked in Salalah for two years and must admit this region’s weather, white-sand beaches and unique variety of plants and animals, more akin to East Africa than the north of the country, made it my favorite.
This southern region is separated from northern Oman by 500 kilometers of barren, mostly flat and featureless sand desert. Making the torturous 10-hour drive across this moonscape between Salalah and Muscat multiple times alone (which surely places me high on the list of potential candidates for a mission to Mars!), gave me plenty of time to ponder both the geographical and cultural differences that spring from such isolation.
Teaching in Salalah presented a different set of challenges from the north since I had almost equal numbers of students from northern Oman, the city of Salalah and the mountainous areas just outside the city where a unique group of people known as the Jabali live. This latter group has their own unique culture and spoken language but no written form.
Both inside and outside the classroom, these three groups remained mostly in their own little cliques which made interaction within the classroom difficult. In addition, most of my classes in the north had consisted of a larger percentage of females, while in the south I had predominantly male classes since it wasn’t deemed proper for girls from the north to study so far away from their northern families.
Khareef arrives in Dhofar
The misty skies and green hills covered in wildflowers draw international visitors (mostly from neighboring Arab countries) to Salalah by the thosands for the Khareef Festival during July and August each year. Dhofar governorate’s unique geography and location create this weather anomaly that sets it apart from most other areas of the Arabian Peninsula (including Oman’s other regions) that are sweltering under a relentless sun and temps that often reach 50 degrees centigrade (more than 120 degrees fahrenheit) at this time of year.
A vast expanse of nothingness
Here’s a shot of the almost featureless desert that a driver must face for hundreds of kilometers on the trip between Salalah and Muscat. This desert region contains much of Oman’s oil wealth which means the workers (both Omanis and expats) must endure long stretches living in air-conditioned caravans isolated in these remote areas. Unless you’re starved for solitude, I suggest taking one of the regularly scheduled 90 minute flights Oman Air provides between the two cities.
Jinn and other local folklore
One of the most enjoyable learning experiences I had during my time in Salalah was during the production of a video about jinn (ghosts or supernatural creatures who often live in mountain caves) with a group of eight students from the college. And, no, that isn’t me in the costume; I’m the one taking the photo. Many of the Omanis I encountered were fascinated with the ‘idea’ of jinn and they feature prominently in local folklore. I had close Omani friends who tried to convince me that their stories of jinn causing havoc in human lives was indeed true. Besides causing physical accidents, jinn are said to sometimes possess an individual in which case a local healer may intervene to exorcise the evil spirit. The town of Bah’la in northern Oman is reputed to be the place with the greatest connection to jinn. Having studied the syncretic nature of many world religions, I understand that Islamic beliefs too can be quite different from one culture/country to another and accommodate the local folklore and customs of a specific region. Fascinating!
The Great Outdoors, Dhofari Style
The mountain range that hugs the coast to the east and west of Salalah creates a haven for challenging hikes as well as a beautiful backdrop to some of Oman’s finest beaches. This photo looks to the southwest toward Yemen and features the rocky bluffs just past Al Mughsayl Beach and the popular tourist site of the Blowholes beyond. These clear waters are rich in sea life and on my many visits I always spotted turtles swimming near the rocks here.
Al Mughsayl Beach
The long stretch of pure white sand that creates Al Mughsayl Beach is the perfect spot for swimming, having a cookout and picnic in one the shelters that border the beach and for bird watching. It’s very normal to see pale pink flamingos here and at other estuaries and beaches near Salalah. During the Khareef, the swimming at any of the area beaches is extremely dangerous due to the strong undertow created by the change in sea currents. There are signs posted on all the area beaches warning both tourists and locals to avoid swimming in the months between May and October. Unfortunately, each year there are a number of drownings, especially of locals who don’t heed this warning.
Besides a bounty of nature, Dhofar also offers a variety of historic sights of interest. This was once the land of frankincense and there’s even a Frankincense Museum to visit, but I prefer the sight of Sumhuram, on the coast just east of Salalah. It was an important ancient frankincense trading post and port that’s been excavated and partially restored. The area to the east of Salalah is also home to the quaint towns of Taqah and Mirbat which make nice day trips, but also host impressive resorts that cater to international tourists. This photo features one of the many decaying mud-brick houses that dot the landscapes to the east of Salalah.
One last photo of this area’s amazing natural phenomena
Wadi Dirbat Falls is a seasonal cascade that thunders over rust-colored cliffs east of Salalah. The photo above was taken in early September just after the end of the Khareef rains. When I heard that the falls were at their best for at least seven years, I rushed there immediately after work to experience the magic of an Arabian Gulf waterfall. I wasn’t disappointed, and in fact returned almost every afternoon for the following week, understanding that this was a transient phenomenon and must be enjoyed while it lasted.
Watch a short video of Wadi Dirbat Falls