Monday, 20 August 2007

A cool break in Salalah, Oman

Salalah is the second largest city in Oman and the birthplace of Sultan Qaboos. Its in the south of Oman a couple of hours drive from the border with Yemen. I was there last year and have been so looking forward to returning this year. As Salalah is effected by the monsoons during June-Sept, a period known as the Khareef, many tourists from around the Gulf head to the area to enjoy the resulting cooler climate. The town is very conservative with 99% of the local ladies wearing burqa (face covering) along with the usual abeya and hijab (black gown and headcovering). Like last year, there seemed to be very few Western tourists around and, aside from a pair of American couples, we seemed to be the only non-Arabs staying at the Tourist Village.

Thursday - A three hour trip turned into an all day journey because of delays with Oman Airways and we missed our connecting flight for Salalah - a slip on the keyboard turns Oman Airways into Moan Airways and after 4 hours waiting at Muscat airport that's what you feel like doing - but we eventually arrived in the cool air of a balmy Salalah evening. We picked up the car at the airport, a manual Landcruiser, and I'd learnt from last year that the rental company cars have tape players only so I was ready with a handful of tapes.

Friday - Out into the mist for the drive to the Muqsayl blowholes then up the Safayl Road which is a huge construction where the road rises 1200 metres in just 8 hairpin bends. We had a picnic lunch in the fog like the locals then drove to the Ayn Razat gardens. Heading back to Salalah township we stopped at the Al Baleed archaeological park which was fascinating. Al Baleed was original known as Dhofar, the name now given to the entire region of which Salalah is the capital and was a major harbour in the 9th-13th centuries for trade in gold, frankincense and horses with much business being done between Oman, India and China. Marco Polo visited the town in 1285AD. There is a wide path through and around the archaeological site with seats under large sunshades along the way for a break from the humidity. You can sit in the shade and watch the world go by while enjoying the mountains in the distance (if you can see them through the fog), the sound of the sea and the views of the banana plantations nearby. There's also a very interesting maritime museum on the site that's well worth a visit.

In the evening we went over to the Global Village held on the same site as the Tourist Village where we were staying. Lots to see and buy, a local dance troupe to watch and the latest style of hijab and abeya for sale (I was told that Salalah ladies lead the fashion trends and Dubai ladies follow, so I bought a couple of 'new look' hijabs for a friend at work).

Saturday - Out to Taqa to see the castle which, while small, is beautifully restored. From there to Mirbat where I was dismayed by the amount of damage done to the castle by the recent storms. Mirbat was a once thriving town but is now run down and neglected. It was the site of the Battle of Mirbat in July 1972 during the Dhofar Rebellion. For more on that go here. I took a few photos of one of the old merchants' houses that must have been gorgeous in its prime. Later when we visited Salalah museum I was amazed to see exactly the same building in a photo taken by Wilfred Thesinger on one of his early expeditions. From Mirbat we went up to the 'magnetic road' where The Engineer shattered my illusions and proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the road isn't magnetic, its just an optical illusion. Boohoo, I want to believe! Moving right along, our next stop was Khor Rori and the ruins of a town known in the past as Sumharam. The town was a major frankincense trading port in Roman times. It was also a crucial point in the internal trade towards south-eastern Arabia and the northern coast of Oman which was rich in copper. Carbon dating of pottery fragments found at the site has proved however that the town existed as early as the 4th century BC. The final stop in our packed day was the beautiful, lush greenery of Wadi Dharbat where chlorophyll rules. Looking up the valley covered in vibrant greenery with low clouds looming, it could have been anywhere in the Waitakeres and I got all nostalgic for a second. The storm damage was very much evident here as the force of the flood water has in somes places lifted the entire tarmac road surface like the skin of a custard and slide it sideways dumping it on the side of the road further on. Its very strange to see the pieces of the road, some with the centre line painted on, lying in jumbled piles or caught in the roots of trees.

Sunday - My birthday today and a day of contrasts. We drove from Salalah up to Lost City of Ubar, DH Lawrence called it the "Atlantis of the Sands". We started the day at sea level and headed up through the mountains behind Salalah. On the way we drove through fog so thick that we couldn't see the car in front and even 19kph seemed like a breakneck speed. Then, like magic the fog cleared and we were on the plateau above Salalah where the terrain was dry desert like Dubai. We headed to the small town of Thumrait for coffee (made with sweetened condensed milk, no need to ask for extra sugar). The restaurant was the same one Sabine and I stopped at last year, with the family rooms divided by plywood sheets that have at least 2 ft of clear space under them so you can see the bottom half of the people in the next cubicle. Jess rang to wish me H/Bd and I sat talking to her outside the restaurant watching the long haul trucks fill up at the petrol station and the local guys driving into the carpark, parking anywhere they liked and then heading to the mosque on the edge of the carpark for noon prayers. Next a 70 km drive out to Ubar on metal roads through the Middle of Nowhere, Desert Division. Ubar was a major resting point on the Frankinsence Trail as it contained an important water source. According to legend, Ubar was destroyed during a disaster about 100AD and was buried by sand and, as you can see from the photos, a large part of what was the town has fallen into a sinkhole created when an underground limestone cavern collapsed (possibly earthquake, or subsidence due to a change in the water table level). We could walk right into the cavern. The city probably had fewer than 100 residents, but was surrounded by numerous campsites used by camel trains. Next we drove back down into the fog to visit the tomb of Prophet Job. In the evening Colin took me to the Hilton for dinner. We ate at the bbq restaurant is open air and overlooks the ocean, a lovely evening. Shukran habibi.

Monday - Drove around town trying to find the Tomb of Nabi Imran, it isn't marked on the road and the maps provided were totally confusing. Anyway we eventually found it, thanks to the hire car guy who thought we were picking him up to check the mileage and return the car, but was surprised to find that he was coming with us on a scenic tour of the Islamic sites of Salalah township. Back to the tomb, Nabi Imran was, depending on who you ask, either a local holy man or the father of the Virgin Mary or maybe the father of Moses. The grave is nearly 60 feet long because, depending on who you ask, either they don't know exactly where he is buried so the tomb is a person wide by extra long to cover all possible places or the Koran states that in the beginning humans were 60ft tall.
There's an excellent site with details of many of the sacred sites in the Middle East here.

With the hire car guy still in the back of the car, we did a short drive to see the Prophet Saleh's camel footprints. The rock containing the footprints is guarded by a security bloke wearing dishdash and with a rifle over his shoulder. It’s believed that the Prophet Saleh's she-camel was killed at that spot by the Prophet's opponents and afterwards her footprints were miraculously left imprinted in the rock.

We eventually headed to the airport, released the car hire company guy and caught our flight back to Dubai.