x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Driving the green miles

It is a long drive to Salalah, but the lush landscape that greets you makes it well worth it.

There is a market in the city of Salalah selling rifles and knives.
There is a market in the city of Salalah selling rifles and knives.

Who in their right mind undertakes a 1,200-kilometre drive on an evil, tyre-eating, interminable strip of straight tarmac across one of the most barren, flattest, hottest desert landscapes on this planet?

There must be something really special about the destination, an observant reader might venture; and indeed, in this case, there is: the town of Salalah, the southern-most port in Oman. It's the only geographical region in the entire Middle East to benefit from the annual monsoon winds, creating a micro-climate that covers the area in lush green vegetation, unleashes spectacular waterfalls, wraps mountain peaks in thick fog, and transforms what is the second-largest city in Oman into a tropical paradise.

This only happens during the summer months, from June to September. At this time of year the lushness is slowly creeping away, though it would still be worth a trip now, if you're considering some adventure during Eid; though the waterfalls may be dried up, there would still be water in the wadis. From December to June, the grass is gone and the area reverts to dry and barren conditions.

When you go, it's best to make sure your vehicle is up to it, too; the drive is brutal in its monotony and extreme remoteness, and outside temperatures stick to the high 40s in the shade, so it's definitely not a route you want to break down on.

Fortunately, I was driving the new Audi Q7, a machine that was so perfect for the task at hand that we actually got there in one day, thumbing our noses at the slummy guesthouses that trap most travelers half-way. From the Oman border to Salalah: eight-and-a-half hours, and all in the height of comfort.

Salalah during the Khareef season (the monsoons, in Arabic) surely ranks as among one of the most beautiful places in the Middle East, made more special for us here in the UAE perhaps because of the harsh drive to reach it. After eight-to-10 hours of fast but mind-numbing driving, chugging along with all sorts of vehicles zooming past you on the single lane road, you turn a corner and find yourself in a different world.

Having lived in countries that are naturally green has tempered my exhilaration at finding myself immersed in rolling emerald hills, but I assure you the dramatic shift from desert to green paradise will take your breath away.

And Salalah does welcome all. The Khareef season is tourist time, and accommodation is at premium. The government launches the Khareef Festival (with cultural, traditional and modern artistic shows), sales are on all over town, and the holiday atmosphere is pervasive.

In this edition of Off The Beaten Path, we provide a full three-day itinerary. The GPS track can be downloaded here (right click and select "Save as" to download this file to your computer). If you are a first-time visitor, you will find it extremely useful; and if have visited before, it will serve well as the foundation for deeper exploratory trips in the area.

At the centre of our adventure in the Salalah region is the Hilton Resort. I would highly recommend you arrange your accommodation ahead of time, and on several visits we have thoroughly enjoyed the Hilton's fantastic Indian Ocean beach location. This particular hotel also serves as a visitor hub for the area, and so travel experiences can be shared and plans fine-tuned when meeting other travellers or long-term residents. The proposed GPS routes all start from the Hilton hotel.

We begin tracking our itinerary from the Mezyad Border in Al Ain (waypoint 1) - remember your passport. Into Oman you will need to fill out an immigration form to obtain a visa, and also show that you have appropriate car insurance. Total immigration cost was Dh60 per person.

A shortcut that we took advantage of, and which cuts off several hours traispsing through the cities of Bahla and Nizwa, presents itself at the third roundabout in Ibri (waypoint 2), and it is usefully sign-posted. It cuts through small and deserted towns, before rejoining the main motorway to Salalah at waypoint 6. From there, it's one road only, so quite an effort would be required to get lost. However, know that the route is quite dangerous, with its combination of very fast drivers, slug-slow trucks, a badly maintained, shoulder-less road with one lane either side - and fatigue is yours and every other driver's main enemy.

We filled up our petrol tank three times, and the sparse service station locations are indicated on the GPS track (waypoints 7-9). If I had been driving my own vehicle, I would have carried a jerry can of petrol and one of water, and even mounted the second spare wheel. The Audi Q7 basically flew us first-class to Salalah.

In Salalah, after a very good night's sleep, we explored in a few different directions.

The first itinerary took us from the Hilton (waypoint 10) east into the main city area, where we stopped to gawk at the rifles and knives for sale (gun market: waypoint 11). The locals of Salalah, and indeed the entire Dhofar region, are very proud of their traditions, and men are often seen carrying their ornamental dagger, the khanjar. Further down the road, the extensive banana and coconut plantations bring to mind the agricultural richness of the area from a historical perspective, and how fiercely possession would have been defended (waypoint 12).

At waypoint 13, taking a left towards the mountains of Madinat Al Haq will bring you into a delightful circular route, on tarmac, up to the plateau, and around to the cliffs that drop into Wadi Darbat, one of Salalah's most photographed destinations (waypoint 22). Along the way, there are several interesting stops that you can explore on your own, such as a dramatic off-road viewpoint that leads to a drop into the wadi below, a higher viewpoint with parking to soak up the view, and a beautiful tree in a meadow.

The second itinerary also heads east from the Hilton, passing by Salalah's old quarter, which is also the corniche (waypoint 23) and is regularly battered by storms, and we pick up some fresh fruit from one of the many roadside stalls at waypoint 24. We are aiming for the coastal town of Mirbat, but stop for a delightful view opposite the Shell petrol station at waypoint 25, where a track takes us down to the sea. The Mirbat Fort is currently under restoration, but it is nevertheless a spectacular stop (waypoint 27) as are other forts in the area, such as the one at waypoint 28. Continuing east will take you to excellent snorkelling and spear-fishing coral rocks, but due care should be taken during the stormy Khareef season and only those experienced with big waves and powerful currents should take to the water, even on the sandy beaches.

On the way back, I propose you stop for two brief hikes - one at waypoint 30 for the thrilling views along the beach to your east, and at waypoint 31, which is an area of thick vegetation with several clear trails that take you to the very bottom of the Wadi Darbat waterfall. If you are there early in the Khareef season, or if the waterfall is in full flood, definitely avoid this trek.

The third itinerary heads west from the Hilton, where our first stop is an old, lonely frankincense tree (waypoint 32). The incense was one of the sources of wealth of the area and indeed the start of the ancient Frankincense Route, considered one of the main spice trade routes in history. Keep an eye on your children's shoes, and your own, as the rocky ground was infested with hundreds of hungry ticks around the tree.

Further down the road, exploring the cliffs and enjoying the views takes us into the area of Eftalquot (waypoint 33) before leading to the famed Cave of Marnif, where busloads of tourists visit the blowholes and admire the force of the Indian Ocean (waypoint 34).

And that just scratches the surface of what this unique and spectacular region has to offer the explorer - we went off-road as well, as the mountains are criss-crossed with tracks of varying technical difficulty, and for the adventurous (and capable) I have highlighted an exhilarating climb up to a rocky overhang in the Wadi Darbat area (waypoint 021). It's not for the faint-hearted, but there is room up top to carefully invert the vehicle for the descent, should you wish to try it. Whatever you do, don't drive south of that location as there is a sudden 15-metre drop approximately half-a-kilometre wide directly in front of you - the top of the same Wadi Darbat waterfall I mentioned earlier.

Whether you rush out there now or wait until next summer, there's no need to just sit around complaining of the heat here; Salalah awaits.

View Salalah - October 2010 in a larger map