Southwest Oman: Into the Empty Quarter

Hundreds of miles from sparkling Muscat, southwest Oman offers a glimpse of the sultanate's traditions and history — and a vast expanse of desert

By Nigel Tisdall
Published 24 May 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 13:10 BST
Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve

Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve

Photograph by Pete Goding

Now this is hot, hard work. As I struggle to climb up a mountain-sized dune in the Empty Quarter of Southwest Oman, it feels like I'm doing the step aerobics class from hell. My feet sink deep into the sand, and the summit, framed in a cloudless blue sky, just seems to get further away. I give up and collapse into the warm, golden grains. It's hard to believe, but the area I'm in — Dhofar, in the far southwest of the Sultanate of Oman — is actually famous for its rain.

They call it the khareef, an intriguing phenomenon in which the annual monsoon that sweeps up the west coast of India briefly kisses the southern shores of the Arabian peninsula. Between June and September the coastline bordering the city of Salalah, just 120 miles south of Arabia's great desert, turns green. Thick mists descend, along with some 50,000 tourists from the Gulf, escaping the 45C summer heat that chokes the rest of the region. "It's just like you Europeans go skiing," Ali, an Omani resident, explains with a shrug, and while the idea of picnicking in soft rain amid mud and mosquitoes hardly appeals to me, the khareef means peak season for Salalah's growing band of hotels.

One benefit of this unusual ecosystem is flora and fauna not found elsewhere in the country. Just 100 miles east of the Yemen border, the wadis (valleys) around Salalah are home to portly baobab trees and colourfully plumaged birds such as the African paradise flycatcher and grey-headed kingfisher. Dhofar's rugged mountains are home to striped hyenas, honey badgers and the Indian crested porcupine, while in the east, the Jabel Samhan Nature Reserve is a sanctuary for the rare Arabian leopard.

Expectations are further subverted when I meet a 30-year-old South African, Brandon King, who explains how Salalah is an in-the-know spot for fly fishing. Really? I've heard of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but… Brandon tells me how he and his wife spent six weeks driving thousands of miles up and down the coast of Oman looking for its richest waters. "Salalah is the best place," he says, "because you have a unique chance to land two species of permit by casting from boat and beach." Permit is an easily-spooked fish that resembles a gleaming silver shield, and is one of the trickiest of all to catch. Brandon's company, Arabian Sport Fly Fishing, now attracts a stream of hardcore anglers chasing what many consider the holy grail of the sport.

Arriving in mid-November, when clear blue skies and balmy nights are assured and the khareef is but a faint green memory on the desert landscape, I discover a tranquil, low-rise, whitewashed city that only recently decided to engage with the modern world.

"My home village received electricity in 2003," Hussain, a local guide, explains as he takes me on a tour. Visiting Dhofar's restored 19th-century Taqah Castle, I catch a glimpse of the bygone days when life revolved around catching sardines and shopping bags were made from the skin of goats and lizards. We pass bountiful roadside stalls selling locally grown tropical fruits such as bananas, papayas, carambolas and coconuts. Inevitably, the large plantations bordering Salalah's seemingly endless white sand beaches are being nibbled away by development. In 2015 a new international airport opened and the city outskirts are now dotted with huge, gaudy mansions — most Dhofaris reside together in large, extended families.

Six hundred miles away from sparkling Muscat, life here feels far more traditional. Boarding my connecting flight from the capital, everything turned to black and white. Nearly all the male passengers sported the traditional Omani dress of immaculate white dishdasha — complete with tassle for dipping in perfume — and a kuma, an embroidered cap that harks back to the days when Zanzibar was part of the sultanate. Most women were likewise shrouded from head to toe in jet black, smartly accessorised with designer shoes and handbags.

Oman's much-loved ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, was born in Salalah. His name graces a gleaming white, modern mosque that's the star sight on city tours, and since taking power in 1970 he's transformed his country into the most safe, scenic and culturally stimulating getaway in the Middle East. Unlike in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, with its eye-popping skyscrapers and overbearing expat scene, here I meet local men and women who work across all levels of society. It feels like a place with a tangible past, not a glossy whirl of architectural fantasy and ostentatious wealth.

By chance, my visit coincides with the celebrations of 47 years of His Majesty's rule, and out on the lawn of my hotel, 2,000 of Salalah's top dignitaries and military personnel are assembled for a formal banquet. Later, under a star-dotted sky as the waves crash in from the Arabian Sea, the warm night air thunders with the sound of bagpipes and drums played by the band of the Royal Army of Oman. As a young man, the sultan received military training at Sandhurst and joined a Scottish regiment, developing an enduring passion for military music and all things tartan.

Connecting with the eternal

The Skye Boat Song wafting through the deserts of Arabia? Such incongruities seem typical of the modern Middle East, but there's a simple way to transport yourself back to Oman's ancient ways — and it lies in a smell.

Frankincense trees don't look up to much — short and contorted with scarred trunks and a few green leaves clinging on like medals on a war veteran's chest — but they are, literally, the essence of Dhofar. Local tribes have been harvesting their sap since the end of the Stone Age, while the first written record of the trees being traded dates back to 2300BC. Once crystallised then burnt, frankincense releases a heady aroma that is pure time travel.

"It reminds me of guilt," says an American expat with a Catholic upbringing, who I meet in a hotel. But in fact, frankincense belongs to pre-Christianity, from the days when the Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans used large quantities for religious rites and as cosmetics and perfumes.

Today, most visitors to Oman get their first encounter with burning frankincense in a hotel lobby, and souvenir kits including a few crystals and a cheerfully painted clay burner are widely sold in Salalah for as little as one Omani rial (£2). (Warning: if you must try this at home, turn off the smoke alarm.) In the city's small and sleepy souk, where almost every shop seems to sell incense and perfume, trader Qamar Jamal tells me how the lightest-coloured Hojari crystals are considered the best, costing around 20 Omani rials (£40) a kilo.

"People regularly burn frankincense to keep insects away," he explains. "They also use it in homemade perfumes, as an antiseptic and as a medicinal drink to treat asthma." Frankincense is having a resurgence as a beauty product — you can buy bars of soap containing the aromatic resin, and have spa treatments that involve smelling, drinking and being massaged with the stuff.

It was frankincense that put this region on the world map. The Arabs established overland trade routes north from here to Mecca, Petra and Damascus, while the Romans shipped it from Sumhuram, once a major port where the Queen of Sheba had a palace. Today the restored ruins of the port are one of four Omani sites that make up the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Land of Frankincense.

The one not to miss is the Al Baleed Archaeological Park, which runs beside the sea for a mile and preserves another ancient port, Zafar. Tramping round old stones can be tough going in the desert heat, but the joy of this site is that you can visit in the evening. Strolling under the stars, with a warm breeze and soft lights illuminating the 12th-century walls that once welcomed travellers such as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, is a magical experience made all the better because there's no one else here. The private view continues when I move on to the excellent Land of Frankincense Museum, with its exhibits that range from 6,000-year-old fish hooks fashioned out of shells and Iron Age incense burners — found at Sumhuram as recently as 2008 — to a 15th-century sandstone chess set discovered in Ubar, Arabia's enigmatic 'Atlantis of the Sands'.

Most travellers visit the ruins of this fabled lost city and frankincense trading post, some 100 miles north of Salalah, on a day trip, but it's the perfect excuse to camp for a night amid the vast dune desert of the nearby Rub' al Khali (Empty Quarter). I do this with Twenty3 Extreme, a local tour operator whose name is a play on Muscat's latitudinal position. My guides are a genial pair of British and Omani adventure lovers, Justin and Hamed. As they bundle me into a Land Cruiser, it's a relief to know that if I'm heading into the middle of nowhere, at least I'm with experts who appreciate the importance of safety and good coffee — our minimal equipment includes a stove-top pot to ensure a fine breakfast brew.

The modern search to find Ubar began in earnest in 1984, when American filmmaker Nicholas Clapp used satellite imagery to trace ancient caravan routes that are now buried beneath metres-thick sands. Teaming up with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, they mounted two expeditions that eight years later discovered Ubar was located at Shisr, now a nondescript hamlet northwest of Thumrait. At some point this city, which is referred to in the Qu'ran, collapsed into a sinkhole that is today crowned with the restored remnants of its ancient walls and towers. It pays to do some background reading before you come here, but it's easy to imagine the long camel trains laden with goods that would have emerged from the desert to find succour in this remote oasis.

Our journey north unfolds like a fantasy novel. The map bears place-names such as Gogob and Zeek, and we stop to admire Wadi Dawkah, a nature reserve filled with venerable frankincense trees that are now nurtured like some hallowed religious site. Justin boldly leads us into the unforgiving desert on a quest to find triliths — mysterious rows of small standing stones at least 2,300 years old that may have been route markers or places of ritual animal sacrifice. They're an example of how this harsh, flat landscape initially appears to hold nothing of interest, but is actually riddled with surprises. Another surprise comes when we suddenly pull off the road to track down a small plateau littered with geodes — little round, hollow rocks that when cracked open appear to be full of glistening snow. Equally strange are the intensively cultivated desert farms that are kept alive by centrally pivoted irrigation, creating fertile circles of crops that from the air resemble huge pie charts.

The road grows quieter as we progress from tarmac to rough track to sand. At last, a lonely string of power lines leads us to Hashman, a small village where hundreds of camels and goats are corralled beside a row of white government-built houses. Beside each one is a walled courtyard containing a large camel-hair tent that looks like a giant black moth, poignantly encapsulating how modern comforts now cocoon the Bedouin spirit. There's no one around apart from 14-year-old Bader al Rashidi, who's wandering about aimlessly in the 31C midday heat. His older brother, Musalam, is doing the same but in a pick-up truck. "I guess there's not much to do here," I suggest, and while there's a faint smile of acknowledgement from Bader, he's adamant that he prefers life in the desert to that of the city.

The further north we go, the more the elements take control. Dust devils spin around the bushes and enormous sand dunes rise up either side of us in dramatic swirls and arabesques. When you deliberately head into emptiness, how do you know when to stop? Fortunately, Justin has a plan. "We're now driving beyond the end of the road marked on Google Maps," he announces with glee, putting away his smartphone.

It's hard to feel truly disconnected these days, so it's a pleasure to spend a night that feels properly off-map, at least digitally. I have trouble deciding on the best spot to pitch my tiny tent (my hosts prefer to sleep in the open), as all the dunes look so attractive, but in the end I pick one that seems particularly gorgeous: 400ft high with a snaking spine and slopes of unblemished sand resembling orange corduroy. Dinner is barbecued meat served beside a camp fire, with Justin pointing out the myriad stars above.

The next morning I awake before dawn, which allows me time to climb my colossal dune and watch the rising sun send its warm and vitalising light flooding over the undulating counterpane of sand. The peace is like a tonic for the soul, but even in this scorched wilderness you're never alone. Absurdly, I find myself taking care not to trample on the miniscule, overnight footprints that a Cheesman's gerbil has left winding across the dunes like a henna pattern on skin.

Hamed is already up, taking photos from the summit and relishing the beauty of his country. "We're only at the edge of the Empty Quarter," I muse, as I try to imagine a sea of sand that covers 250,000sq miles. "Yes, but it feels like the middle," he responds, sagely.

The great explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed these sands in the late 1940s, wrote of how he found 'a freedom unattainable in civilisation' in such a soul-calming landscape. For most of us life means striking a daily deal with the modern world, but out in this bewitching desert the perspective changes. Suddenly you feel you're connecting with the eternal. It's a powerful sensation that dances before me tantalisingly, then inevitably fades away like smoke rising from an incense burner.


Getting there & around
Oman Air flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Salalah via Muscat. Qatar Airways flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh via Doha.
Taxis are expensive and unmetered so take advantage of complimentary airport transfers and city shuttles offered by hotels.
A half-day private tour with a driver-guide arranged through Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara costs from £113 for up to four people.
Twenty3 Extreme offers tailor-made trips across Oman including to the Empty Quarter.
Arabian Fly Sport Fishing offers fly fishing trips between October and May.

When to go
The khareef (monsoon) generally hits Salalah between mid-June and mid-September. From November to April skies are clear with average temperatures around 26C, dropping a few degrees in January and February.

More info
Oman tourist board
Salalah tourist board
Bradt Travel Guide Oman. RRP: £17.99

How to do it
Original Travel has six nights, including economy flights from the UK to Salalah with Oman Air via Muscat, from £2,560 per person based on two sharing. This includes transfers, accommodation at Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara on a B&B basis, a half-day city tour and one night desert camping.

Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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