Long Road South - Traveling to the Bottom of Oman

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November 23rd 2011
Published: January 9th 2016
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Oman Nov 19-26, 2011

Traveled by car from Dubai to Salalah in the south of Oman to the Yemeni border and back up again, part 1

Prayer time in the United Arab Emirates started at 12:30pm, just as we sauntered up to the passport control window located on one side of the tiny box of a building on the border with Oman. No one was there; a stamp and ink pad lay haphazardly to one side of a stack of unfinished paperwork, the one light bulb dim, a ballpoint pen dangling half off the countertop. Then we spotted the body on the far side of the little room. He was on his knees, facing Mecca and deep in prayer. We had to wait to be stamped out of the country – a classic Arab wait – for the one man inside this building to finish his Salat, the obligatory Muslim prayer. A few minutes later, the officer rolled up his mat with practiced precision, stashed it in a corner, breathed deeply, and sauntered over towards us. He slid open the window and continued the process of stamping us out of the UAE, as if no time had passed at all.

We gassed up my friend Natalie's car in Oman, since the gas was much cheaper than in the UAE. We filled up her thirsty tank for a mere US$15.00.

There was no time to dilly dally as we had a long drive ahead of us before getting to our first stop for the night, a CouchSurfer’s house in Sur, a few hours south of Muscat, Oman’s vibrant capital. We did, however, have time for a mid afternoon lunch stop in the sizable city of Sohar, an ancient capital of the country, at which time I asked a local how far it was to Muscat. “Ooooh, how much you speeding?” he asked me, straight-faced. Good answer, I thought.

We finally reached Muscat around 5pm. Driving through the city we managed to take a wrong turn (yup, I was the navigator and failed miserably); doubling back turned out to be more of an adventure than we bargained for as we had to drive miles and miles and miles and miles out of the way before finally finding a place to flip a U-ey. Did I mention we had to drive miles out of our way? In all, it took about 1.5 hours to get out of the city and back on the road south to Sur.

Wadi ShabWadi ShabWadi Shab

My CouchSurfer and me on our way back from the cave waterfall
ended up on a brand new, quiet yet very dark road leading all the way down to Sur, and finally reached the city about three hours later. We had lost precious time and arrived much later than expected but thankfully were received warmly by our kind host, who was waiting up for us and only just getting slightly concerned.

We spent the next day exploring nearby Wadi Shab with our new friend (our host). We walked endless kilometers deep into the canyon, on the mostly-dry pebbly riverbed, above the water on a narrow, well-marked path, as well as scrambling over a number of slick boulders. We finally reached the crystal-clear aquamarine waters of an inviting swimming hole and, without dawdling, jumped in, relieving our bodies of all the relentless perspiration from our sticky, sweaty walk. My CouchSurfer and I swam up a narrow passageway surrounded by a steep rock face on both sides of the water until we reached a cave. Somehow I mustered the courage to squeeze through a veeeery tight opening into the cave, but once inside was rewarded with a view of a magnificent cave waterfall tumbling down in front of me. Succumbing to peer pressure, I made use of a well-used rope, hauled myself up the slippery rock and then, standing above the waterfall and after a bit of hesitation and nervous contemplation, closed my eyes, said a little prayer and, in a not so lady-like fashion - but typical for me, I’m afraid - flailed my arms and jumped into the refreshing waters below. Only later I was told how close to rocks I actually came when I landed in the water.

The next day we left Sur for Salalah, a city in the very southern reaches of Oman, near the border with Yemen.

On the drive south, the ever-changing landscape never failed to impress, no matter how mundane or barren. It was mostly a flat terrain adorned with a plethora of low scrub brush and not much else, although we were occasionally rewarded with a delightful change: the road took us alongside beautiful, sandy and deserted beaches, rocky outcroppings and canyon-like cliffs. We passed small yet beautiful golden as well as red sand dunes. The variety of low growing shrubbery springing up out of the red dirt was plenty and the little clumps of greenery
I see some hills coming up.....ooooh.....I see some hills coming up.....ooooh.....I see some hills coming up.....ooooh.....

A change in scenery about to take place - yes!
we spotted livened the mood on the otherwise long, monotonously flat, straight road. I immediately took to the changing scenery and was quick to put Oman in the #3 spot of countries I had been to with such diverse terrain. As one often encounters in a desert landscape, we both also saw a goodly amount of mirages, enough to keep us alert, awake and intrigued.

Occasionally we experienced sand drifts and little whirly gigs of sand springing up on our left side and crossing up and over the road to the right side only to race across the desert and soon disappear from sight.

For being the only main north-south road in the country, I was quite surprised at the lack of cars and trucks traversing the route. Certainly there are far fewer vehicles here on this major artery than a comparable one in a more populated country. There was, however, at least one car making an appearance every minute or two on average, although passing us at speeds of 160-180 KPH they were more of a blur than anything. We traveled the unfamiliar roads at a more respectable 100-120 KPH.

The deserted Crown Plaza beach areaThe deserted Crown Plaza beach areaThe deserted Crown Plaza beach area

We had the sands all to ourselves -- too bad we didn't stay long

At one point, in the pitch dark, on a lonely stretch of quiet road, we pulled over, got out of the car and stood in the middle of the deserted road, looking up, instantly mesmerized by all the stars overhead. Surrounded by this sea of stars above, I was in utter wonderment at such beauty, such peace, such silence. There was not a peep for miles around; no cars, no headlights or town lights, no birds, no people, no waves crashing, no wind, no light pollution, no nothing. Silence. Perfect and utter silence. It was magical, if only for a few fleeting minutes. The stars we could see measured in the zillions. Or more.

We finally reached Salalah and drove around until we found it: The Crown Plaza Hotel. Okay, so we didn't actually stay in a room at these fancy digs, but that's beside the point. Shortly before midnight, we hunkered down in the two front seats of Nat's car for a good night’s sleep....in the hotel's parking lot. We decided this was one long-ass country to traverse in one day and were both absolutely exhausted! It’s endless, really, but we were both so happy just to have made it to southern Oman. We cracked the windows and sunroof for air and closed our eyes, so ready for sleep to take over. And that it did.

Early the next morning, after using the facilities and brushing our teeth in the hotel's bathroom we took a quick wander along the deserted beach to the water’s edge, where I dipped my feet in the cool waters of the Arabian Sea, this being my first time touching the Omani waters. We had to press on as today we were taking a drive along southern Oman to the Yemeni border, only a bit over 100 kilometers away, but with winding roads and up and down coastal mountains, and lots of stops for photographing along the way, it was sure to take awhile.

We traveled west along the coast, coming across an old mausoleum we had read about. What we found, however, turned out to be a rather uninspiring “attraction.” An overgrown grassy fenced-in enclosure housed an empty mosque, a toilet room and an empty mausoleum. Yup, that's it. At least it was free. There were only three buildings there and one was locked. The locked one being the toilet room. We didn't waste any more time there than necessary and continued to follow along the coast road again, eventually ending up at Murnif Cave (which was more of an overhang than an actual cave). The most exciting thing at this cave site, besides the view of the water, was a lovely young blue/green kingfisher posing for me on a nearby railing. The little guy allowed me to get at least one good picture before he fluttered away.

Immediately after leaving the cave we started heading straight up Jebel Qamr on steep curved roads carved into the side of the mountains. The scenery got more and more captivating the higher we climbed, with so much to capture the eye: deep canyons, vertical cliff faces, green shrubbery and trees growing out of the rocks alongside the road. We got to the crest of the mountains and stopped to take photos of the deep blue waters below us. The air was cooler up there, the silence a welcoming change. We had a bit more climbing to do, and soon we saw camels along the side of the road. Since we were nearing the Yemen
Looking down to the dark sea belowLooking down to the dark sea belowLooking down to the dark sea below

As seen from the top of some vertical cliffs
border, we soon came to one of many checkpoints. The area around the checkpoint was mist-shrouded and cooling with a welcome breath of fresh air. Off to our right it looked like a mini Grand Canyon. The Omani guard had to look at our passports and car insurance, but quickly returned them and told us we could continue on. The rocky landscape turned barren past the security checkpoint.

A few more minutes of driving and we came across a pile of massive flat rocks, looking as if they had been previously carved and now lying on a hilltop on the side of the highway. They looked like an Omani version of Stonehenge, or something similar. We parked and got out to view said rocks and it turned out to be a pretty magnificent scene, especially with all the dark clouds in the canyon below. Behind the rock formations, we were rewarded with spectacular lighting when the sun actually shone through the clouds. Wow – it was picturesque, desolate and so lovely, with nary a soul was around. It felt as if we had this country to ourselves.

We moved on again, still determined to
Camel congestionCamel congestionCamel congestion

Not an a-typical sight for Oman
get to the Yemen border before the day finished. We drove through small villages, complete with slowly decaying mud houses, dirt roads and smiling locals waving as we drove past. No hamlet was complete without a centrally located pristine white mosque. We drove to land’s end, to a cliff face with a spectacular vista of the azure waters of the Arabian Sea glimmering up at us. The mist was rolling in fast so we enjoyed the last of the warm sunshine despite the fast-moving light fog below us. On our drive back to town we saw some camels by the side of the road in the scrub brush as well as three dromedaries behind a fenced wall enclosure, closer to the town limits. Many villagers own camels for their milk, their meat, for hauling heavy loads, for riding - and they are ideal in place of a lawn mower to clear the lands. Some Omanis even keep racing camels, each worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars.

We lunched in the one spartan restaurant in this very small town and since we ate the meal with our hands, it required a handful of napkins after we finished. The only thing was....there weren't any on the table. Or, as it turned out, in the entire establishment. The one man working at the empty one-table eatery had to go next door to the convenience store to buy a box of tissue for our hands. He reappeared and instead of napkins, produced a small box of granulated laundry detergent for me to wash my hands at the sink! How thoughtful. It’s funny; in lieu of a plain ole bar of soap, last night’s dinner stop had dish detergent at the hand washing station and today I got laundry detergent. It did the trick and with clean hands we were ready to press on.

We were soon on some great roads: smooth and wide, with zero vehicular traffic. Camels became our only traffic – observing the slow-moving, without-a-care-in-the-world beasts crossing the road have now become commonplace. We came across another security checkpoint where camels wandered aimlessly down the middle of the road and the officers, ignoring the humpy behemoths, couldn’t have been more curious about us when we pulled up; they were all friendly, with wide, genuine smiles and glimmering, pearly white teeth. After this checkpoint we found
Hungry beastsHungry beastsHungry beasts

The hungry herd gathering around the dinner trough
ourselves on hairpin turns heading down through a gorgeous, picturesque canyon.

Unfortunately, shortly after this last checkpoint we had to turn back. The road continued downward but it had turned gravely and was now at too much of a perilously steep angle for us to comfortably drive it. Besides, heading back up would be the hard part and we were soon going to lose the afternoon light. We later figured out we were about 9 KM from the border, which may be the closest I will ever get to Yemen.

On our way back, we saw some trotting camels alongside the shoulder of the road and followed them to a small village. Turns out, they were heading home for dinner. When we got to the village, I got out of the car and instantly struck up a conversation with a friendly Omani chap named Toman, who told me he owned 25 camels; as it was, most of the ones coming down the road at that time were his. He asked if I wanted to see them being fed. Yes, absolutely! I watched the crazy feeding frenzy, after which the camels watered themselves and then
Salalah mosque at nightSalalah mosque at nightSalalah mosque at night

The front, as seen from across the lawn
put themselves “to bed,” wandering over on their own to one of two concrete barns of sorts. Toman himself lived in a house in a different part of town. He was a nice man and I will forever be grateful for the small chitchat and the camel education I got that evening.

After watching a spectacular purple sunset from the ridge top on one of the mountain passes along the coastal road, we enjoyed a simple dinner at a little shwarma place on the outskirts of Salalah. We then stopped at the big mosque in town, which I must admit was quite an impressive sight at night. By 10pm we pulled into the same spot in the Crowne Plaza parking lot, got our teeth brushed in the bathroom inside the hotel and once again hunkered down in the front seats of Nat's car. We kept the sunroof open this time so we could see the stars.

Before leaving Salalah for good we had a wander to the east this time and then found a road that looped us back up to the main north-south artery, the same one we had driven down just a
No Name FallsNo Name FallsNo Name Falls

We followed a small path on foot to get to these falls
few days before. We found a hilltop fort with a fantastic view of Taqah Town as well as the coast. Taqah turned out to be a lovely and very Omani village by the sea, quite picturesque and I was glad we got a different perspective of the place as seen from up above.

We pressed onwards until we discovered a parking lot, and then a footpath to a non-marked, no-name waterfall. We were looking for Darbat, another waterfall - with a name - but ended up at the no-name one instead. We took a pleasant walk alongside a creek (which might possibly be a river in the real monsoon season) and two beautiful green pools of calm and crystal clear water until we reached the waterfall. As we walked closer it became quite evident of its size and the magnitude of water spilling off from the top of the cliff face. We sat mesmerized by the water for a bit, enjoying and taking in the lush scenery all around us. I doused myself with wet stuff; my head, arms, face, neck, and hair until my shirt was seriously soaked. Although it was pleasant weather outside but not blistering hot (maybe low 30s C/mid 80s F), it felt refreshing and cool, really divine!

Driving on we then got to the waterfalls we had initially intended on seeing, Darbat, which turned out to be quite lovely as well. We didn’t swim but I discovered that the next best thing to actually getting INTO the water is splashing and refreshing oneself with it while standing below the falls on the shoreline of the pool below. We made a few more stops to complete our short time in southern Oman and before we knew it, it was mid afternoon and high time to head north.

With no town in sight, ages since we had last passed one, darkness descending on us quickly and with two rumbling tummies, we decided to stop at the first roadside eatery we came to. We eventually found a Yemeni Restaurant and went in to order dinner for take away. We got baby camel meat and a big bread for 1.2 Omani Rial, just over US$3.00. Yum. While waiting in the front lobby for our food to be brought out, a local man from Salalah called us over and invited us
Camel meat dinnerCamel meat dinnerCamel meat dinner

We shared this meal with a local Omani man at a roadside eatery
past a thick curtain and into a wooden “box” of a room where he was enjoying a meal on the floor. He insisted on sharing his order of camel meat with us and so, sitting cross-legged on the floor, we all so very much enjoyed the meal as well as our impromptu cultural exchange. He bought us both a bottle of water as well as a Pepsi each (neither of us drink soda, but we politely thanked him for it, nonetheless). Later, after much chitchat and exchanges of cell phone numbers, he got up quickly, mysteriously disappeared and, well, never came back. Huh? After waiting an appropriate amount of time we finally went up to the counter only to find out the man had left. Huh. It turns out, not only was he so kind and generous to share his meal with us (and, um, forgetting to say goodbye) he also paid for our take away meals. He had slipped out the front door and left with nary a good bye, avoiding potentially embarrassing and awkward thanks on our part. The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me , no matter where I am in this world.

Ball of fireBall of fireBall of fire

The end of another perfect day

We drove and drove and finally reached our rest stop at 11pm. We pulled into the familiar parking lot of a roadside hotel/restaurant, as we had briefly stopped at this very place on the way south, and within 10 minutes of finding a parking spot in the otherwise empty lot, we both crashed out, sleeping once again in the front seat of the car.

Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27


Camel crossing sign...Camel crossing sign...
Camel crossing sign...

...with a camel in the far distance

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