On our pre-flight surface interval after our liveaboard trip we rented a car and decided to explore the area surrounding Salalah.
Our first stop was Jabal Samhan view point, which is at 1300m above sea level and offers a breathtaking view of the Salalah Plain to the sea. It is too bad that Oman does not allow drones as aerial footage from here would be stunning. Salalah is one of those rare places in the Arabian peninsula that experiences monsoon season, known as Khareef (which means autumn in Arabic but when referred to this area it acquires the different meaning). The rainfall on the desert climate and geology (think, sand and limestone) leaves deep marks in the landscape (and roads) even once it has all evaporated, creating intricate paths and patterns on the dry, bare land.
Jabal Samhan itself is a 2100m mountain and nature reserve which is closed to the general public as it is home to the endangered Arabian Leopards. However, the drive to the edge of the reserve to the view point is in itself very interesting as you climb up you see the landscape and flora change: from flat planes to rocky fields of thorny bushes (called elephant plants) to spiky trees dotted over plateau (apparently called dragon trees).
The whole area is full of limestone caves and sinkholes, so our next stop was the Tayq Cave and 1.25km wide Sink Hole, not too far away. From the edge we could make out 5 cows and 2 camels grazing at the bottom of the sink hole. There, we were merrily greeted by a man in traditional clothing, rather stiff-looking sandals and a massive binocular. He was the owner of the two camels and was checking on them.
During the winter months he leaves them to graze there. He was very happy to have someone to chat to, although his English was rather poor, and offered to take us to the Cave, roughly half way down the sinkhole right beneath the car park. We were rather lucky to have met him as the path to the cave is not marked and difficult to spot.
If you are attempting to find the path, from the car park go right around the edge of the sinkhole about an eighth of the way and then you will meet a narrow passage between two boulders with lots of loose rocks on the ground, take this all the way down, you will see camel “souvenirs” along the way and eventually meet a camel gate - a branch with some colored rope at one end), there follow an imaginary path between the bushes to your left and eventually you will get to the cave… maybe!
The entire area is of karst limestone, which provides for water ingress especially during the Khareef period. Over time the limestone dissolves in water and caves form. When caves form below the surface and they get big enough, the roof collapses giving rise to sinkholes.
In June 2018, following a cyclone, the sink hole filled completely, that is 3 million cubic meters of water and in just five days all that water managed to drain via an intricate system of naturally formed canals at the base of the sinkholes all the way into the Arabian Sea. So you can imagine what the Tayc Cave looks like: dry mud and clear signs of where the water gushed over the years.
We then headed to Wadi Darbat, a grassy plateau around a natural permanent lake and a popular spot for locals to go for picnics. As you drive there you can see a high cliff where you can imagine a waterfall during the rainy, green, lush season. But even during the dry months you can see after flowing through a series of limestone pools and attempting shy waterfalls. The water is a turquoise blue with hints of intense emerald green in other spots. However, better not go in for a swim as the snails are bearers of the nasty bilzharia (have a quick read through the Wikipedia page and it will certainly put you off) so better head to the end of the road for a fresh coconut from the half-cafe-half-stall instead!
I am guessing that because here it is a desert they get very excited by fresh water. So we headed to the springs, Ayn Razat, “the most striking of all springs”. I wouldn’t go that far and perhaps would have skipped this other popular spot for picnics with the locals. There is a very colorful and beautiful garden but unless you live in the gulf countries, not really worth a visit!
We then headed North West through the Salalah Plain and towards the Dhofar Mountain Chain to get to the Wadi Dawkah Frankincense Nature Reserve. The drive itself was very interesting as once again you see the change in landscape, from the Rivers and Lakes of Wadi Darbat across the dry, sandy Salalah plain and up the somewhat lunar landscape of the mountain chain. Where is looks as though someone just threw a handful of massive, rocky Hershey's kisses on Southern Oman.
The trees grow in the alluvial bed of the wadi under the extreme heat of this region but still manage to set some water from the rain. The “tears of the desert” are still harvested today in the same way as it has been done for over 6000 years and as described in the 13th-century Chinese writer and customs inspector Zhao Rugua ”The tree which yields this drug may generally be compared to the pine tree. Its trunk is notched with a hatchet, upon which the resin flows out, and, when hardened, turns into incense, which is gathered and made into lumps.” The older trees are protected by a fence but the newly planted ones can be visited. When we got there the plantation care-taker was there and showed us the site and explained how they “milk the trees”.
Another two and a half hours drive north and we would’ve reached the Empty Quarter (follow onto road 31 until Thumrait then left onto road 43 until the end!). I did regret not having a 4x4 and better maps to go off-roading through the Dhofar Mountain Chain.
Renting a car and driving around is very easy. The roads are in good condition and not very crowded, if not for the herds of camels, donkeys, goats and cows that graze along the streets. You will need to be prepared to share the road with the camels, they seem to be unfazed by cars and like to wander on the tarmac. We had a basic paper map which we picked up in Salalah and all the attractions are very well sign posted. So we pretty much managed to drive around with a simple map and didn’t get lost!
Overall we had a great day! We saw a lot of very different things in one day and the landscape, which changes constantly, is breathtaking. I would want to spend more time on land here and perhaps also see it during the monsoon season when it gets very green! People were very friendly and curious. A boy sitting in a restaurant having food, rushed out to just say hi to us! Even as two women we always felt safe.