Salalah Again

November 2010

 

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Eid Holidays 2009. A fast drive to the south via the coastal route to Sawqirah, Shaleem and Marmul. An unusual crossing of the Qara Mountains. Finally seeing the Baobab trees in wadi Hannah. On the way back visiting the Frankinsence park at wadi Dawqah, to the unspoilt beaches at Ras Sharbitat, the salt pans at Ras Bintawt and checking the new road from Shana to Al Ashkhrarah through the Al Sharqiah (Wahiba) Sands. Some three thousand kilometres on the clock.   


Our well-used road map of Oman has literally segmented in pieces. Driving over such a distance you keep folding it to get that bit of encouragement on progress that you need. One keeps forgetting that this is a massive distance and that Oman is indeed a big country for European and even more so our own Dutch standards. Having been in Salalah on past visits the main motivation for this journey was the bit before, the last empty and most unknown, at least for us. Road building is progressing fast, but the coastal road from Wadi Shuamiah to Hazik and Mirbat only exists in plans. The main road to the green Salalah plain still is the motorway from Thumrait. Or is it? That's what we tried to verify as several maps show a track through one of the main wadi's from north to south, from Dhahaban or Barzabum to Tawi Atayr and the beaches near Mirbat. Checking Google Earth clearly shows various tracks along that route, but it also shows massive deep wadis which could easily hide difficult surprises. We also received the track of Moelker and Sickler, two Dutch families who managed to find a passage a few years before. We only heard afterwards that there were some hairy bits....

As it turned out we also had to manage this trip with only one car. At planning stage not so much of a problem because we would not deviate from main roads or the beaten track, at least, that is what we thought. With a satellite phone the risks would also be minimal in that respect. So this was not supposed to be "going where no one has gone before", although there were some elements of that.

Five days of travelling through very different parts of Oman; too many impressions to record faithfully, but hidden somewhere in the grey cells of our Oman memory bank. A bit of that we share in this story, written several months later, perhaps smoothened a bit by the passage of time. To give you a feeling of the travelling involved please check the table below. Not something to try with small children or a bigger group.
Kilometres Comments
Day 1 822 Muscat to Sawqirah, via Sinaw, Duqm and Ras Madraka
Day 2 500 Sawqirah, Shaleem, Marmul, Barzabum, Tawi Atayr, Khor Rhori
Day 3 425 Khor Rori, Salalah, Wdi Dawqah, Marmul, Shaleem, Ras Sharbitat
Day 4 491 Ras Sharbitat to Ras Bintawt
Day 5 682 Ras Bintawt, via Al Askharah and Sur to Muscat
Total 2920

Google Earth map. Total distance 2920 km.
Tracks can be downloaded as Google Earth kmz file.


How to get there:
Quite a bit of the travelling is covered by our 2003 trip down to Salalah. You will definitely enjoy the coastal drive beyond Duqm, but the road from Sawqirah to Shaleem still is a bumpy graded road that will take the speed out of the cars and stress the tires and people. A magnificent new road is being built, but most of what we saw were the the many pieces that were not ready yet. Another word of warning for the road up from Sawqirah. It cuts impressively through the cliff, but since 2003 it has seen some massive erosion and is clearly not used anymore. There is a second ascend a bit further along the coast which will take you to a confusing roundabout on the plateau. The best looking road to the right is wrong as it will take you back to the eroded passage. Take the graded road to Shaleem and enjoy the dust.

I do describe the subsequent crossing through the Qara mountains but recommend the Thumrait road. The other one gets to a point of no return (and we feared -no continue- when crossing from wadi Watawb to wadi Saalafan, with a rather steep descend that has deeply eroded. Our Defender has a very high clearance and even that one started sliding rather than driving down. This needs a bulldozer. The area between Barbazum and Jibat does not feature any villages and we did not see anybody for at least 50 km. Not a place to get stuck. The road from tawi Atayr to Mirbat passing Wadi Hannah and through wadi Al Ghazir is currently being built. This will provide an easy route down to the coast, but not for us as we had to return to Tawi Atayr and take the road to wadi Dirbat and Khor Rhori.
 
From Salalah we took the main road to Thumrait and back to Marmul, Shaleem to Ras Sharbitat, which provides some marvelous beaches and beauty spots for camping. Still a long drive back to Muscat, which we split by another stop on the beach, this time ar Ras Bintawt, after a long drive through a completely flat sabkha. From Ras Bintawt to Hayy, checking the new road through the Wahiba Sands to Al Askharah. This road is almost finished. We tried to find its start at An Nakoah and only found it by following the big trucks and the bulldozers. Some 8 kilometres of gravel track, but beyond there is a beautiful tarmac road all the way to Al Askharah. Already discovered by many people as a good opportunity to experience a bit of the desert-sand feeling without too much of the risk. Also with many trying their shiny 4WDs without any experience and getting stuck. Day-tourism also has its negative elements with many dumping their picknick remains along the road. A nice road, but it should not become a day-tourism disaster. 

Tracks can be downloaded as Google Earth kmz file.

All coordinates and tracks are with reference to WGS84, UTM zone 40.

More detailed Google Earth Map of South Oman, showing the crossing of the Qara Mountains from Barbazum to Mirbat. Tracks can be downloaded as Google Earth kmz file.
Day 1: Little to report on the long drive from Muscat to Sinaw and Hayy. Things start to become interesting when reaching the Huqf, with limestone ridges breaking the monotony of the flat desert plateau. Duqm has transformed into a huge building site. Job opportunities have attracted people and there is now also a school near the junction to Nafun and Ras Sidrah and many more homes. The mountainside shows a huge scar, where limestone blocks are quarried to be taken to the new Duqm harbour. Another endless stream of heavy trucks emerges from the sabkha near Duqm, carrying gravel and fill materials that are needed for this huge project. On the way back from Salalah we decided to check Ras Duqm and managed to get close to the building site, using an old gravel track. Too close, as the area is now no-go, fenced off and behind secrity gates. Thousands of labourers living in camps and hundreds of huge trucks. For the time being that's the end of Ras Duqm for visitors; a price to pay for development.
We continued from Duqm down south, passing Ras Madraka. The good progress encouraged an attempt to drive further even south beyond Sawqirah, where we knew from the last time that the tarmac would end. Without other cars the breaks are short and nobody else to discuss what to do.
To our surprise the road from Sawqirah up the cliff was deeply eroded. Carefully trying we got through, happy that we did not need to go back another route. With the poor condition of the road ahead it was an ea
sy decision to call it a day. Another advantage in that quiet camping on the cliffs above Sawqirah would be no problem as there was no traffic at all. 

Camping on the heights above Sawqirah. Sheltered between the rocks, yet a cool breeze from the sea and the muffled sounds of Sawqirah below.  

The road to Shaleem, a few years ago new and shiny, now looking totally devastated with deep ruts and big boulders at the bottom of the slope. If this would have been the only way up there would have been a problem.
Day 2: An early morning with the sun rising above horizon beyond our sheltering cliffs. The plan of the day to drive south, to Shaleem, next Marmul and from there in the direction of Thumrait to find the track to Barbazum and from there deep into the Qara Mountains. Many sights of the new road being built on route to Shaleem, but we still had to do with the dusty and bumpy old one. Slow but steady progress and at around 11:00 hrs we reached the junction to Harweel and the other new petroleum facilities being built by Petroleum Development Oman in that area. With that much time to spare we decided for a short detour to check-out wadi Andhur, with possibly some ancient ruins. Some 25kms driving, but the new oil facilities are now the most prominent features in the area, with the old sites probably still around, but difficult to find in the maze of new roads and tracks. Nothing left but to return, back to the junction and on to find the trak to Barbazum. Not difficult as this is a brand-new road in a straight line to the village. A good start. A maze of tracks beyond Barbazum, all heading south. Taking the best one we steadily drove southwards, deeper into the mountains and also steadily deeper into the wadis. No more settlements, no more people, but beautiful rock formations defining the steep flanks of the wadi. No more gravel road, but a narrow track winding its way through the wadi. Plenty of trees. How far the track would continue became more and more questionable and we started thinking about camping somewhere right there. Yet the track continued gradually further southwards approaching the place where we would have to cross from wadi Watawb to wadi Saalafan. Right at this point we noted plenty of Frankincense trees. A hopeful sign as that generally indicates approaching the watershed. Leaving the wadi and climbing up, still no real problem until above on the pass and looking down, seeing a good track in the wadi below, but the remains of what may have been once a track steep down. Once you start going down on such a track there is nothing but continuing. The boulders and ruts guided the car down, but certainly without a comfortable feeling that everything was under control. What to do if the good-looking track below would end in a similar way? No option but to continue. No further surprises and our hopes increased, seeing the signs of many bedu camps along the wadi. Another turn of the wadi and the very welcome sign of civilization in the shape of a police checkpoint high above. Another steep ascend and we happily drove into the checkpoint, through what appeared to be the backdoor. We found ourselves at the back of a barrier, with a gun pointing in the other direction. Expecting having to explain a lot we of course stopped immediately, but to our surprise the guard opened the barrier immediately waving us friendly through. We could not imagine many to come from the side that we did. 

A large group of camels heading south at Barbazum; trying to find more green? 
 
The track beyond Barbazum. A myriad of such tracks winding southwards. Is this a main through-going connection?

Frankincense trees in the wadi. A sign that we were approaching the watershed finally. 

Looking back on the crossing between wadi Watawb and wadi Saalafan. No way back, but clear signs of life in this new wadi with abandoned bedu huts. The first ones in some 50 kilometres.   
   
Getting into wadi Saalafan meant a major change. Here there were many signs of habitation. The remains of vegetation increasing, albeit looking very dry and dusty. The checkpoint was clearly delineating the outsikirst of green Salalah as beyond it we ran into good tracks, fields and villages. A rolling, empty landscape, with many animals still trying to find a living between the dry vegetation. We had made it.
Finding a track to Tawi Atayr was not difficult and we had hopes again of reaching the beach early in the afternoon. From Tawi Atayr in the direction of Mirbat. Somewhere on the slopes there would be the famous Baobab trees, which we still had on our wish list to visit.

The road to Mirbat was under construction, but we could partly follow the old track down, more or less ending in wadi Hannah, right between the Baobab 'forest'. Gigantic trees, looking like an upside-down carrot. They originate from Africa and those growing near here could point to age-old trade connection with eastern Africa or they are the last ones of a a once much wider population (Wickens, 1982)? Baobabs can live for thousands of years, but grow very slow. Their horizontal roots extend for tens of metres from the tree. What would these trees have seen besides huggy Lilian? For more on plants in Dhofar check out Arnhem, 2007 and our visit in 2010 with more information (Wadi Hinna story)

Gigantic Baobab trees, looking like an upside-down carrot. Roots extending for tens of metres horizontally. We did not see the largest one, which is reported to be some 30 metres high and with a trunk diameter of 15 metres.

One concern. The new road will open this area for easy day tourism, which can be more destructive than thousands of years battling the elements. Many of the trees already show the signs of carved names.
Enjoy these giants. Take nothing but pictures and leave them in peace.
 
For the time being that road is not finished and we had to return to Tawi Atayr and from there to the road along wadi Dirbat to get down at the coast. A bit of a disappointment after a long day of driving, but less than one hour later we had found a good spot to camp near Khor Rhori, in the shelter of some old rocks. Noticeably warmer and even muggy compared to the cool and dry places of the past days.

Camp near Khor Rhori. Wadi Dirbat and its famous dam in the distance. Zoom shown in next photograph.

The travertine dam blocking the end of wadi Dirbat, already described very well by Theodore Bent and his wife Mabel, some 100 years ago.
Day 3: Early morning exploring the views near Khor Rhori from the area where we camped higher on the plateau at the back of Khor Rhori. An ancient landscape where every boulder is part of an old story that still needs to be told.

With the main target of our journey achieved we had no clear plans for the rest of the days. Perhaps spoiling ourselves in a 5 star hotel in Salalah? As it turned out the Crowne Plaza in Salalah had plenty of space, but we would have to wait for five hours before booking into a room. It seemed the front desk lady was not caring too much missing potential customers. Still a bit to learn in terms of customer opportunities I would say. One hour later we stopped at wadi Dawkah (Dawqa), a Unesco Heritage site dedicated to the Frankincense tree. To our surprise we could not find a caretaker and therefore the only information we can provide is a picture of the information sign at the entrance. The site is part of the Land of Frankincense, described by Unesco as:

"The frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah and the remains of the caravan oasis of Shisr/Wubar and the affiliated ports of Khor Rori and Al-Baleed vividly illustrate the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries, as one of the most important trading activities of the ancient and medieval world"

Wadi Dawkah is one of the north draining wadis that starts about 80 km north of Salalah just behind the mountain belt . The upper lands behind the north facing cliffs, in which the wadi has its origins, receive little benefits of the monsoon rains, and are scattered with trees of Acacia Ethaica, Commiphora Habessinica, Euphorbia Baldamifera and Grewnia. Moving toward the desert, the vegetation becomes gradually sparser. The vegetation of Wadi Dawkah frankincense park is mainly represented by frankincense trees growing in its flat bed. The portion of the Wadi Dawkah identified as a cultural landscape for nomination to the World Heritage List, falls approximately between latitude 17 20' - 17 23' N and longitude 54 03' - 54 05' E. Other species, as Acacia Tortilis, Merua Crassifolia, Acacia Ethaica and Silvadora Persica are found in the northern part of the wadi and on the edges of the surrounding slopes.

Certainly plenty of Frankincense trees, protected by a fence. There are many more bigger trees in the wadi beyond the fence, which we would have loved to see.  For more about Frankincense trees in Dhofar refer to the booklet written by Al Ghassany (2008).

A few hours later we were already beyond Shaleem heading to Ras Sharbitat, a bit of the coast where we had never been before. 

It turned out to be a good decision to regret the expensive room in the Hotel and instead finding a great spot in a beautiful bay. To my surprise we can even see two of the Hallanyat Islands vaguely blurred in the far distance.

View across Khor Rhori. The bump in the middle is the site of the ancient city of Shumhuram. At that time the Khor was an important harbour for the Franincense trade.
 
Wadi Dawkah; a Unesco Heritage Site associated with the preservation of the Frankincense tree.
 
Frankincense trees in wadi Dawkah. More like big bushes, several metres high.

Sunset over Ras Sharbitat, one of the few place in Oman where the sun is setting in the sea (with Shuwaymiyah somewhere below) 
 
Ras Sharbitat (Sharbathat) campsite, next to a large lagoon with clear water, flamingos and plenty of fish. In front a lovely clean, white beach and at the back a sculpted cliff.
 
Opposite Sharbitat we see the vague contours of one of the Hallanyat Islands (Kara Muria Islands) near sunset, but they quickly fade away.
Day 4: Driving northwards, from Ras Sharbitat, now back on blacktop again. The first deviation at Al Kahil, where the coastal plain opens widely, yet with surprising dense woodlands. Because of the soft sand we were obliged to stay on tracks and that does not take you close enough to the sea to enjoy the large lagoon. 

Looking almost like an African plain, low trees with a dense and almost horizontal canopy. Not surprisingly we spotted a few gazelles speeding away. The regular inhabitants appear to be large herds of goats and their bedu owners. No time and no extra car to visit the large "pink" lagoon. 

Another totally different landscape; the coastal area near Al Kahil, south of Ras Madraka.  
Back to the main road, passing Ras Madraka and Duqm. Deciding to get out of the busy traffic associated with the building of Duqm harbour. Then we spotted another road we have not tried yet, signposted Bintawt. No problems with this excellent graded road. Without it you would have to cross a vast sabkha, flat and almost a snow landscape because of the soft white sands. In the far distance appears a radio mast and indeed we discover that the reason for this good road is a huge industry-scale set of evaporation ponds, where seawater enters via a large channel into large ponds where it evaporites, leaving salt that can be sold. No real place to camp. A bit earlier a number of tracks head for the real beach, hiding behind the low hill with the communication mast on top. Some fishermen around, but plenty of space to put up a tent between the low dunes. Again a lovely spot with a gorgeous beach.   

Evaporation ponds and connecting channels at Ras Bintawt.  

A vast sabkha, pefectly flat. Difficult to see where the land ends and where the sea begins.
 

Campsite in the dunes at Ras Bintawt. Our last night out on the beach.

Dendritic channels and lobes develop on the beach with the dropping tide when water flows out of the sands and meets a tighter sand (the black zone). 

Somewhere out there is Bar Al Hikman and Masirah Island.

Sunset at Ras Bintawt. 
Day 5: Heading home. We decide to check the new road from Shana to Al Ashkhara, crossing the Wahiba sands from south to north. Meeting a local football team at the petrol pump in Hayy they convince us that this road is indeed ready. Driving up north we pass the junction to Shana (Masirah Island Ferry crossing). So far so good, still tarmac. In An Nakoah things are less clear. We follow the track north and end up on the track we did a few years ago following the beach. Not something to do with only one car. Turning around we see big trucks and bulldozers between the sand dunes. Heading through the labour camp there is indeed a much better track. Many cars coming from the other direction suggest there is a connection. Indeed some 8km beyond it appears the tarmac road is finished and we blast on between what otherwise would have been difficult sand dunes. From Al Ashkhara to Ras Al Jinz, checking accommodation for visiting the turtle beaches (which we subsequently visited in December 2009). Next to Duqm and the coastal highway to Quryiat and home to Muscat. It did even rain when passing Qalhat.  
The long drive from Al Ashkarah to Sur. Camels in the back of a Toyota truck. This one featured an orange cap which is normally used for skating in the Netherlands. Climate change?

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@ J. Schreurs January 2010