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
Nice article and photos, Henry.
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Thanks for reading and commenting Charles!
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I didn’t know that frankincense was traded here. The trading post is a cool old looking structure. In what form was frankincense traded? I’m curious to know if it is [from] a tree or a bush or something that grows there and whether you can smell it when hiking in the area? I always think of it as incense that one burns, but also know that one can get essential oil made from it. What made it an important trade item them, and is it still an important exported product? Was/is it used for religious purposes, or burnt just because it smells good, or…?
Sorry, I know your post isn’t only about frankincense, but obviously, it’s what caught my eye. But I am intrigued to see the differences between the northern part of Oman and this lusher southern region. Despite the magnificent waterfall and hills with green and wildflowers, I marvel by how arid the country is overall and the fact that people have lived there for so very many years.
Hi Kristy! Frankincense was one of the world’s most expensive commodities in its time and was indeed used in religious ceremonies and for embalming the bodies of rulers in places such as Ancient Egypt. Southern Oman and Yemen were its main production centers due to the unique climates there. You may recall in the Gospel of Matthew (or not 😉 that its one of the precious gifts brought to the Christ child by the Magi who traveled from the East to worship the child. The ancient port of Sumharum dates from that period around 2,000 years ago. However, the photo I posted is not of that historic sight, but of an old crumbling mud brick house I found to be very atmospheric.
Frankincense is a tree–rather scrubby looking as many desert climate trees are–and is harvested by making a cut in the bark on the tree’s trunk and collecting the sap which hardens and can then be burned. The locals in the Gulf still use it for scenting their garments as well as for its medicinal properties. Otherwise, it’s sold in most supermarkets and souks to both locals and tourists. During my 8 years in the Gulf, I always kept it on hand and burned it in an electric incense burner which could be purchased in many shops. Frankincense is really purported to have a long list of practical and medicinal uses. Just google it if you’d like more info. Thanks so much for commenting and asking such great questions!
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Thanks for your reply! All very interesting. At your suggestion, I will look up the Frankincense tree. If I’d been visiting there I would’ve had to attempt to collect sap, just for the experience of it. It fascinates me how mankind has found treasures like this in nature and value it so highly that it is traded. Can you smell its trademark scent when you’re walking near one of the trees, or does the tree need to be bleeding sap?
The trees aren’t that common now and I was never privileged enough to be with a collector when they were bleeding the sap. I didn’t detect a major scent from the tree other than a tiny bit from the bark. I do miss being able to buy and burn it inside as incense. It seemed to be much more pleasant and burn more cleanly (and didn’t make me sneeze) than many of the manufactured incense brands from India and other parts of Asia. I’m glad you find the historical side of this as interesting as I do. Thanks again for commenting!
Hi Henry, Deeply fascinating quests you recount here. Thanks for writing so well about each encounter since I have never had the pleasure to trek the places you frequent. 🙂
Many decades ago a couple Scottish friends taught in Qatar for a few years and wrote about there adventures. Your mention of incomprehensibly long journeys across the desert reminded me of their account on driving from Doha north on a straight-as-an-arrow highway. There was simply no reason for a steering wheel for something like a thousand kilometers. At one point the road took a sharp left — they witnessed a giant junkyard of wrecked vehicles at the very point where a steering wheel was suddenly needed 🙂
Hello Bill–Qatar is a very small country in comparison to Oman which has a great variety of landscapes, both flat with those ribbon like highways as well as high, rocky mountain ranges with snaking curves around every bend. Yikes! I’ve seen my share of wrecked vehicles in Oman too, especially since the Omanis (as is true of many Gulf Arab males) prefer to drive with the accelerator pressed to the floor. The only times I felt unsafe during my 8 years there were while making frequent supply runs to Muscat (2 hours) or to Dubai (2 1/2 hours). Thanks so much for your comments!
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Reblogged this on From 1 Blogger 2 Another.
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You’re welcome AND you are fascinating!
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