Friday, January 20: We wake up in Salalah, capital of Dhofar, in the far southern reaches of Oman. The city’s colorful subtropical character derives from Oman’s former territories in east Africa, offering a taste of Zanzibar in the heart of Arabia.
Salalah is famous for its plantations of coconuts, papayas and bittersweet tiny bananas. Colorful fruit stands line the roads, offering refreshment for passers-by. Everyone has told me it is “so green” in Salalah, but others warned us that we shouldn’t bother coming here in the winter. The time to come to this part of Oman is apparently during khareef, or the southeast monsoon, from mid-June to mid-August in Oman. Numerous Omani friends warned me not to waste time coming to Salalah in the winter: “Wait till khareef!” I heard too many times to count. But frankly, this is the last time I will have off during this school year in Oman. And when my summer break comes, a full 6 weeks of vacation time, I plan to spend two weeks in Greece and four weeks in America. I won’t have time to come to Salalah during khareef!
Another colleague encouraged me to go during this break. She said, “Who wants to go during khareef? It’s like a steamy sauna, wet, hot and sticky. The Omanis love it, but it’s much nicer in the winter.”
So, we are here now, in the midst of winter and it is most definitely NOT green! Surprise, surprise! The plantations are of course green, and there are smatterings of green here and there, but it doesn’t look like all the pictures I have seen. I have to say I’m a little disappointed, as are the boys. But the idea of being in a place where there are beautiful beaches smothered in rain and drizzle and fog, well that doesn’t appeal either. Solution unknown.
So, if we can’t enjoy lush greenery, the next thing to do is partake in the fruit. The boys do just that. Every time we encounter a breakfast buffet, here in Salalah or elsewhere, the boys demolish whatever fruit is offered, much to the dismay of the hotel staff. Breakfast at the Salalah Beach Villas is no different. The boys load up their plates with ALL the bananas from the buffet and gobble them down in minutes. The other guests sadly have to do without.
After demolishing the fruit, Adam goes up to our 3rd floor room and, looking over the balcony, sees that it is directly over the pool. He wonders if he can jump into the pool from the balcony and the hotel staff tells him he can jump, but he should do so from the 2nd floor. They provide him with a key to a second floor room, and Adam proceeds to jump off that balcony into the pool. Alex decides he wants to try as well, so they both go up together to the balcony and jump off into the deep end.
We then pack up our stuff because the boys have decided they want to camp tonight. I am not thrilled about camping although I have purchased a bunch of camping gear here in Oman that I’ve yet to use. I know if I’m going to get used to camping in Oman, now is as good a time as any to try it, while the boys are here. Honestly, I would prefer to stay in the Salalah Beach Villas another night, but the boys are really pushing for the outdoor experience. :-(
We are going to explore east of Salalah today, but first we stop at our favorite fruit stand where the guy takes a machete and chops off the tops of three coconuts and serves them to us with straws. The boys buy a huge bunch of small bananas, none of which are ripe yet. On our way out of Salalah, Alex yells, “Oh, *#@*! There are ants all over these bananas!” We stop the car while the boys take the entire bunch of bananas and wash them off with bottled water, one by one.
First stop, Ayn Razat, a garden and springs, described in Oman Off-Road as “the best pools and gardens in the area.” We are all decidedly unimpressed. All I can think of are the gardens I saw in Korea, especially the elaborate gardens on an island near Geoje-do, written about in my blog: geoje: rough seas & caressing grasses (& random thoughts on memory, sensuality & friendship). Or the gardens I saw in Japan, which are artistic masterpieces: golden pavilions, rock gardens, bamboo groves and white-gloved train conductors. The Omani gardens pale in comparison.
We are quickly bored with this place. The springs, which look inviting in this heat, are inaccessible because of a parasitic snail that lives in the water. Signs are posted: “This area harbors the snails which can transmit the disease bilharziasis. Swimming and defecation (!) in the water is strongly prohibited to control the infection with bilharziasis.” Eek!! There is also a cave at the top of some steps that is covered in grafitti. Overall, a kind of shabby place. And BORING.
We hop in the car and go in search of a pitted 150-meter-high cliff face called the Travertine Curtain. Travertine is a type of rock formed when carbon dioxide-rich water dissolves limestone underground and carries it away in a solution. Upon reaching the surface, the carbon dioxide is released, as in a fizzy drink, and the limestone recrystallizes, forming the huge stalactite features on the cliff.
During the khareef, this cliff face apparently has waterfalls cascading over it, in effect the entire contents of Wadi Darbat. Guidebooks call this “Arabia’s answer to Niagara Falls.” Of course, it is “winter” in Salalah now. There is none of the lush greenery promised in guidebooks and no cascading waterfalls over the Travertine Curtain. It is still pretty interesting, with its pockmarked face and its sheer perpendicularity. We park the car and hike up as close as we can get, taking pictures along the way. It is hot and sweat is pouring off of me; the boys have removed their shirts, but as a woman of course I am covered with long pants and short sleeves… miserably hot. Oh, the sufferings of being a woman in Oman.
After the Travertine Curtain, we head to Wadi Darbat. We go off-road on several dirt tracks, only to find we are decidedly not at Wadi Darbat. We see multitudes of camels grazing in this valley. We love seeing all these camels in the wild. Camels also roam about in northern Oman, but not in the numbers that we see in Salalah.
We drive through the wadi, which is like a wide valley, unlike most of the other wadis I have seen in Oman. We find a lake and a stream, and more signs about the ominous parasitic snails. Large red signs warn of bilharzias, this worm that can penetrate your skin and then take residence in the veins of your bladder and intestines. No swimming here in the waters of Salalah!
Interestingly enough, some of the surrounding caves in this wadi were used in the mid-1970s by the Sultan’s forces, along with the British SAS, to infiltrate areas of communist insurgency. Adam is tempted to climb the hills into these caves, but he tosses this idea when he finds that neither Alex nor I want to accompany him.
Our next destination is the Tawi Atayr Sinkhole, one of the largest known sinkholes in the world, 150 meters in diameter and 211 meters deep. It is known locally as the “Well of the Birds” because of all the birdsong that emanates from its depths.
Sinkholes are common where the rock below the land surface is limestone or other carbonate rock, salt beds, or rocks that can naturally be dissolved by circulating ground water. As the rock dissolves, spaces and caverns develop underground. These sinkholes can be dramatic because the surface land usually stays intact until there is not enough support. Then, a sudden collapse of the land surface can occur.
We walk to the viewing platform and some Pakistani people are milling around looking a little shady. My Omani friend Moo warned me about places in Salalah where Pakistanis or Bangladeshis try to weasel money out of you; he says you should always be with an Omani guide to avoid being approached by these people. Two of them try to lead us down an overgrown trail deeper into the sinkhole, but ultimately we turn around, not feeling comfortable with them or our surroundings.
The next place we want to see is a Baobab forest. Sometimes called “upside down trees,” they have enormously fat trunks and a spindly network of branches, which often looks like a bundle of roots. We follow the map in my Off-Road book, but at the place where there is supposed to be a dirt track, we find a paved road. The paved road doesn’t match the description in the book, and finally we give up. No Baobab trees in sight. We’re disappointed, but it is starting to get close to sunset. We decide we need to start looking for a campsite, because we don’t want a repeat of the Sur episode, where we couldn’t scope out campsites because it was dark.
Adam decides he wants to stay at a place called Khawr Ruri, where the water from Wadi Darbat empties into the sea. There is an archeological site here which was once the palace of the Queen of Sheba, overlooking a peaceful lagoon. We go to scope it out but the rocks on the plateau above the opening are rocky and hard. Adam wants to drive my car down a very bumpy and treacherous road to the beach, but I tell him I don’t want to take my car down here. It doesn’t look navigable and I don’t want to damage my car.
He complains that I never like his ideas, and he wants to stay here or nowhere. I say fine, they can take me back to the Salalah Beach Villas, which I would prefer anyway. Then they can take the Terrain and find whatever camping spot they want. They can go camp by themselves! We get into a huge argument again, and Alex finally yells at both of us, telling us we are on a family trip and he wants to spend the night all together as a family. After he lectures us, Adam and I are dead silent, each of us fuming inside.
I go in search of a camping spot on the beach, which I had envisioned from the first. Near Mirbat, we find a huge expanse of beach with soft sand, and I pull off the road. Finally, a place we can all be happy with. We set up the tent and some chairs, and I volunteer to stay behind and hold down the fort while they drive together into Mirbat to find us some dinner. They come back with some fruit drinks and some delicious vegetable wraps, which we gobble down in our beach chairs in the dark. We don’t have a campfire or anything, so there is nothing to do but go to bed.
This is why I hate camping. Unless you have ALL the gear to make yourself comfortable, it’s simply not fun. There is nothing to do once the sun goes down. We have a little lantern, but all I want to do is sleep because the light isn’t good enough to read by. We go to sleep at around 8:30; a very long night ahead. I have a fitful night, tossing and turning after another embattled day. So far I’m not too enamored with Salalah, and neither are the boys. I wonder what on earth we will do tomorrow. I’m very tempted to head back to the north, where I find the landscape to be much more interesting and beautiful.