x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Salalah: monsoon magic

From now until September, the southern Omani city of Salalah transforms into an oasis of green fields, coconut plantations and rolling mists. Anna Zacharias drove all the way to bathe in the khareef.

A mist descends on Mughsail Beach, one of Salalah's most popular. Its biggest attraction is a blowhole which throws water nearly nine metres into the air.
A mist descends on Mughsail Beach, one of Salalah's most popular. Its biggest attraction is a blowhole which throws water nearly nine metres into the air.

Born on Canada's wet west coast, where the sky drizzles for no fewer than 10 months of the year, I never thought I'd be a rain tourist. But after my first full summer in the inferno of the UAE and humidity that made me sweat from my fingernails, I was craving some cloud. And that was how I found myself driving through the barren terrain of central Oman with my childhood friend Bill and his fiancée Joelle in the blistering heat of late August last year.

Our destination was Salalah, the tropical southern city in the Dhofar region that rose with the frankincense trade. In the Middle Ages, its position on the Indian Ocean drew trade from Africa, Europe and China. A-list explorers to visit Dhofar include Marco Polo in 1285, Ibn Batutta in 1329 and 1349, and the Chinese fleet admiral and explorer Zheng He in 1421. Today, tourists are drawn here by the simpler pleasure of finding a few summertime raindrops in the Arabian Peninsula. During the khareef (south-east monsoon), licence plates from the all over the GCC flash along the highway to Salalah.

After an eight-hour drive from Ras al Khaimah to Oman's palmy coastal road, we cut into the mountains towards Nizwa, the former capital of the Imamate of Oman. Shadows flickered across its brown mountains. We had found our first grey skies. For people with the time and money, Nizwa makes an excellent base to explore the neighbouring mountains. European tourists are drawn by forts in Izki, Bahla and Rustaq at the base of the Jebel Akhdar highlands.

Witchcraft is big business in Nizwa and Gulf visitors seek out sorcerers for love potions and business solutions. The region's fame for the occult is such that Joelle's colleagues had made her promise not to camp in the mountains for fear of djinn, or supernatural creatures. The next 850 kilometres was a void limestone plain notable only for an absence of landmarks or colour. The bleached grey of its gravel blurred into the bleached grey of its sky. Occasionally, we would pass a signpost that pointed to the nearest village, three or four hundred kilometres down a bumpy track.

"It's a state of mind," said a friend. "You can see all the colours, the different hues of the gravel changing. It just goes on and on." And on and on. Clearly, I had not reached a point of zen with nature where I could see the beauty in gravel. The sculpted orange sands of the Empty Quarter finally appeared on the horizon. It was our first landmark in hours. But still no sign of green. On our map there was just one centimetre between us and Salalah's fabled tropics. Clearly the stories I'd heard had been overblown. Maybe the photos I'd seen were a hoax or one of those cold-weather anomalies, like snow on the RAK mountains. Or maybe we had come too late and climate change had returned Salalah to the desert.

Mountains appeared at the town of Thumrayt, the gateway to Dhofar. As we began to climb, my doubts crystallised. There was rock, yes, and a few more shrubs than the plateau of nothing we'd just passed, but it was hardly the coconutty paradise I'd been promised. "Is this it?" said Joelle. "I thought it would be more, um, green?" "I heard it was a dry year," I mumbled. And then, the Mercedes passed over the crest of a mountain and there they were. Fields. With grazing sheep. And cows. It wasn't that short, synthetic grass of the UAE that itches when you sit on it. It was a dark green, with weeds and the earthy smell of damp soil.

The next crest brought into view another landscape. Thick mists swept across dark forests before us. Beyond the forests we saw Salalah on the sea, a city of coconut groves and papaya plantations. The legend was true. We checked in at the central Haffah House, which was ageing but clean. It suited our budget and offered a hot breakfast for the people not fasting for Ramadan. The next day we did something impossible in the Arabian summer: we went for a walk. Half an hour later, we arrived at the Al Bilad Archaeological Park, which contains the remains of the ancient city of Zafar. The settlement dates to 2000BC and enjoyed a renaissance from 12th to 16th centuries, when its port linked India, East Africa, the Gulf and the Far East.

A heavy mist clung to the remains of the grand mosque and crumbling tombs. It was hard not to imagine the spirits of history rising. That afternoon we headed for Khor Rori, an ancient port connected to the frankincense trade, 40km east of Salalah. Dating back to at least the first century BC, legend holds that the Queen of Sheba made Khor Rori her summer home. I'd heard many stories of magic from Khor Rori in books and blogs and was curious to see what landscape had inspired this djinn hyperactivity. The area is said to be guarded by a spirit in the shape of a red fox, but he had no need to make an appearance. Bill's Mercedes baulked at the bumpy road that led to the sea and we turned inland to Wadi Darbat, another known djinn hotspot.

The wadi's ivy-covered forests were once a hideout of British SAS troopers during the 1962-75 Dhofar uprising. Today it's a popular picnic spot for families during the khareef. Much to my disappointment, I found no sign of djinn or magic. All we found were abandoned kites caught in the branches of twisted trees. With Ramadan under way, the kites were all that remained of the khareef party season. That night, the women at the Haffa frankincense market informed me that I had come at the wrong time of year. Djinn, they explained, were seasonal creatures.

"No djinn in Ramadan," they said, adding that for the rest of the year, the burning of their frankincense could keep djinn at bay. Only one riyal for a ziplock bag of genie protection. Another merchant advised that, when mixed with water, the translucent green granules cured flatulence. I bought a jar for my friend, whose nightly noises kept me awake on camping trips. This, to me, seemed magic worth paying for.

Though Ibn Battuta described the bazaar as "one of the dirtiest, most stinking and fly-ridden of the bazaars", the air was fragrant with frankincense. Many of the stalls, each stacked with jars of bukhoor and clay incense burners, are owned and operated by Omani women, something Ibn Battuta remarked on nearly 700 years ago but which visitors from the Gulf may find unusual even today. The souqs near by sold traditional embroidered Omani caps and "Father of the Tail", the sequined velvet gowns worn to weddings.

At midnight the city was still in the throes of Ramadan celebrations. Impromptu football tournaments were under way in all parking lots. We stopped for a late-night shisha and watched Ramadan TV specials. As it was the holy month we felt obliged to visit one of Salalah's holy sites, which include the sacred camel footprint of the Prophet Saleh, the tomb of the Prophet Omran and, our pick, the tomb of the Prophet Job in the hills outside Salalah.

Heavy mist obstructed our view of any breathtaking vistas below but, once safely at the tomb, Joelle and I marvelled at the length of the six-metre grave, swathed in shimmering green cloth with gold inscriptions. Bill, the son of scientists, could hardly pull himself away from the enormous beetles he had found in the soil outside the mausoleum. From the tomb, we headed west to the mountains that lead to the Yemen border, a drive of spectacular beauty. Or so I'm told. The mist had grown so thick that we could hardly see the road, let alone the mountains.

We gave up and turned back to Mughsail beach, where we spent a relaxed afternoon with sea turtles. The fog lifted on the drive back but we were caught in a traffic jam of a different sort: a herd of camels led by a sprightly man guiding them down the left of the highway. Motorists, be warned, the density of camels deepens as you head south in Oman, as does their colour. We left mid-afternoon on our final day to start the 14-hour drive home, skipping the over-priced hotels on the gravel plain and driving through the night to arrive home at dawn.

Though we had gone there by road, the journey gave me an idea of what Salalah must have meant to the Gulf sailors who travelled there over the centuries. The long drive to Salalah is still popular with Emiratis and, now that I've done it, I understand this is not just the UAE passion for burning petrol. We had gone in the wrong season for genies and missed the heaviest rains, but the colour and magic of the monsoon mists after so many hours on barren plains swept me away. azacharias@thenational.ae

The trip The drive from Muscat to Salalah via Nizwa is slightly over 1,000km. Once in Oman, it's advisable to top up your fuel tank whenever possible as petrol stations are some distance apart. Oman Air (www.oman-air.com) flies to Salalah via Muscat from Abu Dhabi from US$448 (Dh1,645) return, including taxes. The airline also has khareef packages including flights and three nights at a five-star hotel from Dh1,724 plus taxes The stay Double rooms at the Haffah House hotel in Salalah (00 968 23 295 444) cost from 50 rials (Dh477) including taxes