It was all soaked when we hit the tarmac of an old port town – Salalah, the land of frankincense. Pretty late into the night, we were held captive in the Embraer 175 flight of Oman Air, making us impatiently wait for our air-stair. The delay, thanks to the calming drizzle outside, was in no mood to cease. The endless wait evoked mixed emotions. The sight of rain brought in immediate happiness. However, this unexpected wait not only frustrated us but also triggered in us a slight fear of our car rental company, Budget, closing before we make it past passport control. The khareef season as we learnt later, sees regular and additional flights full, hotel rents quadrupling and car rental companies working round the clock allaying our unwanted fears.
Khareef (Arabic: خريف, autumn) is a colloquial Arabic term used in southern Oman, southeastern Yemen, southwestern Saudi Arabia and Sudan for the southeastern monsoon. The monsoon affects Dhofar Governorate and Al Mahrah Governorate from about June to early September. Towns such as Salalah depend upon the khareef for water supply. An annual Khareef festival is held in Salalah to celebrate the monsoon and attracts several tourists.
The air-stair arrived and we maintained our decency to not butt in to rush for the door. As usually seen, passengers from the Indian subcontinent have a premature evacuation problem that ends up tugging their co-passengers in the ribs and occasionally spilling cabin luggage on to their heads. If you are travelling into the region for the first time and have plenty of the sub-continent’s men in your flight, beware to take care of your head.
Once we exited the shuttle bus, we hurried to get our passports stamped. The frantic thought of the rental company closing only resulted in longer strides to the immigration desk. I was the first passenger to reach the counter. I held my 50 dirhams tight and ready to shove it into the officer’s hands. However, upon turning behind saw no signs of Shahid. I forgot that as foreigners we have to fill forms which Shahid had the presence of mind to.
GCC residents are granted on arrival visa at Oman’s entry points via road or air. If you are a dependent, please ensure that your sponsor joins you or permits you a solo trip via written NOC. Entry charges are OMR 5 per person. For land crossings, the exit charges are 35 AED except at Hatta Border. Also make sure your car has Oman insurance for the period of stay and a No Objection Letter in case you are using a rent-a-car service. Finally and most importantly, your passport and resident visa should have a minimum of 6 months validity.
The car was a spotlessly red coloured 1.6L Nissan Sunny. One look at all neighbouring cars told us of the fate that awaited our Nissan. Most cars, if not all, were covered in thick monsoon mud that their registration plates could be hardly traced.
With no internet access, relying on a nearly primitive method we enquired our way to Hotel Darbat. Booking.com facilitated securing a comfortable and spacious twin bed at 40 OMR a night though a better bet (for cheaper deals) would be to call the hotel directly said the concierge. Booking sites buy rooms at rates one third the price which in turn is sold to us at fancy rates depending on the demand. It’s a win-win for both the customer and hotel if they talk to each other directly during the high season. Already past midnight we crashed into our beds winding the alarm for a 5am rise.
After a quick breakfast at the Pakistani restaurant nearby, we headed southward for Shaat. During the khareef season, it drizzles as usual throughout the day. Windshield wipers constantly sway to and fro while the car’s body amass mud.
Dense fog, hairpin curves, a military check-post and 80 kilometres away, Shaat isn’t a popular tourist spot. Even our hotel staff wasn’t aware of the location. The deviation to Shaat from the highway features as M100 on Google Maps. One should be careful about speeding 4x4s and camel herds crossing. An unfortunate sight was a broken Corolla that rammed into a camel whose belly burst open with its blood staining the road red. The Toyota’s roof evidently suggested reckless speed, that too in dense fog, which sent the camel flying above it.
Just after the check-post, before Shaat, is a cliff on your left hand side that overlooks a gorge. Look down and one could see fluffy clouds almost floating by your feet. A place above the clouds perfect for photo enthusiasts including narcissistic selfie takers.
Deviating into Shaat, the signboards promised the sea view point we were in pursuit of and a bonus sink hole that we didn’t plan. The view point as seen in photographs was a cliff which like the earlier place has clouds floating in mid air. The place was covered in dense fog that reduced vision to less than 10 metres. We waited for nearly an hour for the fog to clear but to no avail.
Traversing to the sink hole opened up scenes as in fairytales. Trees of the same species but never the same character stood lost in time. They were moss-covered and had a thick undergrowth of grass. Their pristine beauty looked like it was the first day of creation of planet earth, inspiring you to pen poems even if you don’t have the taste or ability for such literary hardships. Pictures and words only tell half the story. In the midst of this heavenly experience, we were in no mood to photograph or talk but to soak in it completely. The characteristic symphony of little birds chirping and tweeting in the mist elevated the feeling of being inparadise. Not a decibel of noise. If there was a paradise, here it is in Salalah, what probably resembled Eden garden, where the leaves are fluorescent green, fresh as how mint would taste while the morning dew slowly drenches you. Never making you shiver in cold but yearning for more and more and more. One could spend hours, perhaps even days, simply sitting and staring into yonder without even without the typical company of a book and its partner - the tea glass.
On our way back, the highway runs on the edge of a cliff that overlooks a beach. The signage read Fezayah. Let’s say it was chance that made us stop at the cliff. The beach looked interesting, and even better was the route, a winding dirt track, that offered to take us to the turquoise waters. Downhill the track, contrasting images were to unfold. At least a hundred camels were grazing in the green forest which had been a desert mountain until a few weeks back. A pleasant mismatch. The ship of the desert now anchored in an amazingly different terrain. Further downhill, we saw a herd of cows nibbling grass off a carpet of green. Negotiating all this, we finally reached the beach. An unexplored shore, rich in pebbles and fossils of fish, whose only visitors were us and a bunch of Saudi men who drove 2500 kilometres from Riyadh. They generously offered a share of their lunch which comprised of grilled fish, khuboos and some superb tea under the shade of a large balancing rock. Even in the absence of a common language, we exchanged our Instagram profiles and vowed to stay in touch there. We bid goodbyes to our new friends and the beach. As we left, we dawned on an inner conflict - whether we should make Fezayah popular to our immediate world or not. Disturbing images of plastic waste leave in us a fear even as we share the virgin beach here.
Our next stop was Mughsayl, a popular beach on the southern side of the Salalah governorate. Abundant with pebbles and abuzz with the season’s tourists, we decided to not venture into the beach, instead focus on having our late lunch as quickly as possible. After sampling fruits and sweet corn, we lay our order for chicken roasted in an oven that was fuelled by hot granite chips. Dressed chicken is laid to rest upon a mixture of burning coal and stones. The entire process takes about an hour with no oil or any other spices added. While the taste isn’t unique, the method is. It is best consumed with rice or khuboos which normally is sold extra. The total damage to the wallet was roughly $8 for the two of us.
An Omani Riyal is approx 9.51 AED or 2.59 USD. Each Riyal constitutes 1000 baisa. Food for the car and fuel for the body are relatively (compared to UAE) cheap in Oman.
Turned off by the crowd, we didn’t visit Marnif Cave and Mughsayl’s natural fountain. These are very close to this beach. We were told that underground gush of water jets out of a blow hole creating a splendid fountain. Pictures on the internet confirmed the same. The cave opens to majestic views of the Arabian Sea. We regret not going there and all travellers are advised to make these destinations an essential part of their itinerary.
Our first day was coming to a close and we had already got our airfare’s worth though Wadi Darbat was yet to be experienced. Having spent considerable time basking in nature’s glory at Shaat and Fezayah, we had to drop Nabi Ayoub’s Tomb which apparently stood on the top of a hill. In the Bible, he is referred to as Prophet Job. In and around Salalah are tombs of holy men who seem to be of gigantic build much like how folklore goes about the height of those men from ancient days. After Maghrib prayers at the Salalah Grand Mosque, we went back to the hotel for a quick shower. Already exhausted but with still a couple of hours left to hit the sack, we decided to visit the local souq.
Husn Souq is typical Middle Eastern market aplomb with scents of spices, food, barber shops, handicrafts, garments and most things tradable. A strong aroma of frankincense, bukhoor and perfume hit you as one enters the market. Bargaining skills are a prerequisite if you intend to purchase. While buying frankincense, we learnt that only Omanis are allowed to sell this merchandise. This nationalization must be due to heritage reasons. Frankincense, a resin obtained from its tree, is considered to be Oman’s gift to the world. By leaving it to burn with charcoal, it produces an incense smoke that is normally used in traditional households and establishments. It is also believed to ward away microorganisms and germs thereby keeping the air purified.
On our second day, also being the last, after having missed an alarm by an hour, we set out for Wadi Darbat at quarter to seven. Middle Eastern habits tend to encourage staying up and waking up late. With very little trace of cars, in any direction, we cruised at top speed comfortably. Light rain and Shahabaz’s ghazals played in the background while we engaged in some serious conversations disgusting our home state, as usual, for the lack of effort for conservation of nature.
The highway to the wadi runs northward and parallel to the sea. The landscape and its color are very desert-ish along this road. However it was noticed where there was a slight slope or inclination, like the edge of the road, a layer of bright green moss or grass covered it. Perhaps this incline traps water from the monsoon fog which causes the hue. A signage instructed us to turn left for the wadi. From here the uphill drive to the mountains of Dhofar starts. As the road wound and a few curves later, one is taken back by the surprisingly sudden change in landscape. A magical transformation from the desert to an almost tropical forest happens in less than a kilometer or two. The fog thickens, drizzle force the windshield wipers to sway, headlights and hazard-lights signal caution and we roll down windows to breathe in air as fresh as a daisy.
A couple of shops and public toilets inform that you are in the immediate vicinity of the wadi. As we slowly manoeuvred,the sight of lavish green carpets from where emerged trees, on whose branches the season’s creepers coiled, sent us innumerable invitations. A call that is hard to ignore. We finally answered. Lo! The distant wadi silently flowed on the edge of those trees. Invisible birds composed meditative background score to fill in this spectacular scene. An illusion beyond words. I stood like a magnet where the wide slow rider ended. At this point, it narrowed into a little stream that flowed further away into the mountains. After having spent an hour, we sped to the end of the road – the tourist spot where kayaking, boating, hot kebabs and other culinary persuasions awaited. Though restricted (on safety grounds by the authorities) to a small area, kayaking in the wadi is a serene experience even though you are slightly busy negotiating the waterway with other tourists. Be careful not to give into the temptation to swim. Snails harboured in these clear waters are known to cause bilharziasis – a disease which we are told is chronic.
Having spent quality time at the wadi and still not satisfied enough, we headed towards Mirbat. Somewhere in the highway is a road that takes you to the mystery hill also known as magnetic hill. Once again, thanks to the lack of a signage, we lost our way to the old city of Mirbat. We are grateful to our stars for having landed us in a place that froze in time. The old city of Mirbat houses a castle which is now a museum. Further down the road are dilapidated houses, alleys and decades old shops. We even saw stray dogs, a sight we rarely encounter anywhere in Arabia. While some houses were abandoned, the others were still breathing. A walk in this small maze of buildings brings you sounds and sights its past. The Mercedes Benzes and an abandoned Guatemala made GMC school bus suggest modernity and tradition living well in harmony.
Mirbat is a town by the seaside where dhows are anchored in high seas waiting with baits that fetch their daily bread. Being from Dubai, we were only used to seeing these vessels holding cruise parties that served food with blaring music, gleaming light and fizzy drinks.
The magnetic hill is 600 metres away to the left (when driving from Salalah) just before the lone Al Maha petrol station. From this junction, Mirbat is roughly 11 kilometres. There is no signage to mark the exact magnetic point. And again thanks to that, we lost our way to a scenic drive up the misty mountains. On our return, we had to enquire for the magnetic point which is in front a waiting shelter. Shift the gears to neutral and the momentum gathers up to 60kmph as the road flattens.
The last major stop in the trip was Sumhuram, a partially restored port town on a hill that overlooked a lagoon which also functioned as a natural harbour then. History suggests that the town traded frankincense with India, Africa and China. As the sun signalled a close, we could see camels replenishing their water tanks from the old harbour.
It wouldn’t have been complete had we not tasted Salalah’s tender coconut water. Being a Keralite, it was only innate to yearn for this natural drink that is bottled and tamper proof sealed from high rise plants. Unlike Southeast Asian varieties, the Arabian one fizzed a bit. The government owns farms that cultivate in large numbers crops like plantain, coconut and papaya. Kerala, are you listening?
After we parked at the airport and unloaded our backpacks, the sight of heavy dirt on our car signalled a gratifying trip.