Wadi Dirbat

April 2009

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Wadi Dirbat (Darbat); a garden of Eden, a real Arabia Felix in the Qara Mountains, Dhofar, South Oman.

Google Earth map view of Wadi Dirbat. An easy drive some 35 km east of  Salalah. 
Google Earth Track File (from Salalah) linked here. Includes viewpoints below and above dam, as well as drive into the wadi. To use this file you will need to have Google Earth installed on your computer.

Arabia Felix

Wadi Dirbat is marvellous bit of beautiful nature within easy drive of Salalah. Nature at its best. Beautiful because of surprising lakes with donkeys, camels, cows, goats, plenty of birds and many different kinds of trees. Beautiful also because all of this depends on a surprising natural dam of travertine blocking the wadi and trapping sediments and water behind; a rare geological feature. Let's not forget the caves surrounding the wadi; special because the erosion of wadi Dirbat opened the caves, revealing now 'half' caves that provide shelters for animals and people. When entering the wadi watch for example for the arch high-up on the right side. Many of the caves feature ancient drawings of animals and humans (check-out details described in "Caves of Oman, Hanna & Al Belushi, 1996).  If you want to know more about the variety of plants (which includes the weird Baobab) in this area you need to check-out Radcliffe-Smith (1977).

How to get there:
An easy day trip form Salalah, which can be combined with Tawi Atair, Khor Rori and Mirbat, but one can easily spend days in wadi Dirbat alone. From Salalah take coastal road to Taqah and Mirbat to the east. A few kilometres beyond Taqah take junction left, signposted Wadi Dirbat and Tawi Atair. Here you have a choice going a few km north to the base of Dirbat Dam where the road ends or taking turn to right on road leading up the scarp with magnificent views back across the coastal plain and Khor Rori. Just before the top is a junction left, signposted Wadi Dirbat taking you up and subsequently down into the wadi. Check the view from above the dam.

A bit of Geology

Fox (1947) explains the Dam, to which he refers as the "Dahaq" as a "natural dam of tufa, and the valley above it is now also filled up with this material". "The emerging spring and seepage water from the limestone rocks carries much carbonate which is precipitated, as calcareous tufa or travertine."

To continue with Fox: "The natural dam of this tufa is to be seen in the cliffs over 500 feet, known as the Dahaq in the main valley, and the Murgha in the side valley to the west. These cliffs -the Murgha abyss and the Darbat abyss of Bent-represent the precipitation of upwards of 50 million tons of travertine"....  "It has been deposited from water which has cascaded over an obstacle and become aerated and precipitated' calcium carbonate. In this way a lake was impounded and the overflow continued to build up the dam (as is the case at Band-i-Amir in the Hindukush in Afghanistan today). After a time the lake spilled through the lateral valley to the west until another natural dam was built up there, and then both dams were built ',up and the lake bed. itself also largely filled up with tufa. The lake of Darbat is a remnant of what it was, and the Dahaq must be between 500' and 600 feet high where seen as a wall (up valley as you come from Takah)".......

Setting of wadi Dirbat, stepping down the Dirbat Dam in the far distance, leading to Khor Rori, an ancient landscape with a surprising natural variety and human history going back to ancient times

The travertine dam blocking wadi Dirbat. Notice the conical hill splitting the dam in a narrow, western and wider, eastern side. One can just see the green swath of palm grooves on top.

Dirbat travertine dam seen from below with the middle conical hill to the left. Overflowing water has deposited layers of limestone (travertine) precipitating from the water, creating a overhanging curtain or draperies of limestone with plants growing in profusion in the crevices and cracks on this frozen waterfall

The Dirbat dam seen from above. Notice the cave in the middle hill above the green swaths of palm grooves that extend to the edge of the abyss; the hanging gardens of wadi Dirbat. Easy to imagine a huge waterfall in the rainy season (Khareef).

Wadi Dirbat "Dam" Picture taken from Bent, 1900.

Theodore Bent and his wife Mabel more than 100 years ago (Bent, 1900) gave a description that can't be improved, capturing very much the feeling of the wadi as it still is despite modern road and cars. Let's start their story from Taqah where they first explored Khor Rori. Traveling with the local people they heard stories as were told at that time. This provides quite a bit more background than more recent tourist guides:

".....Leaving the harbour behind us we again approached the mountains, and, after journeying inland for about eight miles, we found the valley leading up to the mountains choked up by a most remarkable formation caused by the calcareous deposit of ages from a series of streams which precipitate themselves over a stupendous wall in feathery waterfalls. This abyss is perfectly sheer, and hung in fantastic confusion with stalactites. At its middle it is 550 feet in depth, and its greatest length is about a mile. It is quite one of the most magnificent natural phenomena I have ever seen, and suggestive of comparison with the calcareous deposits in New Zealand and Yellowstone Park; and to those who visited this harbour in ancient days it must have been a familiar object, so no wonder that when they went home and talked about it, the town near it was called the City of the Abyss, and Ptolemy, as was his wont, gave the spot a fresh appellative, just as he called the capital the Oracle of Artemis....."

About a quarter of a mile from the western side of the whole abyss is a small conical mountain, about 1,000 feet high, which looks as if it had once stood free but were now nearly smothered by the petrifaction of the overflowing water. It rises above the level top of the cliffs, and has about a quarter of a mile of abyss on one side, which is only 300 feet in depth, and half a mile on the other. It is all wooded. The larger side and the upper plain is called Derbat, and the smaller Merbat or MergÓ. The three days we spent in exploring the neighbourhood of this abyss were the brightest and pleasantest of all during this expedition. Our camp was pitched under shady trees about half a mile from the foot of the abyss, whither we could wander and repose under the shade of enormous plantains which grew around the watercourse, and listen to the splashing of the stream as it was precipitated over the rock to irrigate the ground below, where the Bedouin had nice little gardens in which the vegetation was profuse. One day we spent in photography and sketching, wandering about the foot of the rocky wall; and another day, starting early in the morning, with one camel to carry our things, we set off to climb the hill by a tortuous path under shady trees which conducted us along the side of the hill, and got lovely glimpses of the abyss on both sides through the branches.

On reaching the summit we found ourselves on an extensive and well-timbered flat meadow, along which we walked for a mile or so. It was covered with cattle belonging to the Bedouin grazing on its rich pasturage. It seemed like the place Jack reached when he had climbed up the beanstalk. At length we came to two lovely narrow lakes, joined together by a rapid meandering stream, delicious spots to look upon, with well-wooded hills on either side, and a wealth of timber in every direction. We lunched and took our midday siesta under a wide-spreading sycamore by the stream, after walking up alongside the lakes for nearly two miles; fat milch cows, not unlike our own, were feeding by the rushing stream; birds of all descriptions filled the branches of the trees, water-hens and herons and ducks were in abundance on one of the lakes, bulrushes and water-weeds grew in them; it would be an ideal little spot in any country, but in Arabia it was a marvel. The trees were loaded with climbing cactus and a large purple convolvulus with great round leaves. We wanted to get some water-plants, easily to be obtained if anyone would have entered the lake in which they grew, but the jinni or ghinni who lives there (our old friend the Genius of the 'Arabian Nights') was so dangerous that the plants had to be hooked out with sticks and branches tied to strings. Sheikh Sehel maintains that he has seen ghinni in that neighbourhood. This wide-spreading meadow can be watered at will by damming up the streams which lead the water from the lakes to the abyss, and in a large cave near the edge of the precipice dwells a family of pastoral Bedouin who own this happy valley; before leaving the higher level we went to the edge and peered over into the hollow below, where, far beneath us, was our camping ground among the trees, and in the sun's rays the waterfall over the white cliff gave out beautiful rainbows. We had to cross much swampy ground, and got our feet wet, without catching the inevitable fever. Imam Sharif camped away from us one night and found that the streams which feed them have their source up in the limestone, about two days' journey from them. The Bedouin are exceedingly proud of them, and in the absence of much water in their country they naturally look upon them with almost superstitious awe and veneration. Perhaps in Scotland one might be more inclined to call them mountain tarns, for neither of them is more than a mile in length, and in parts they are very narrow; yet they are deep, and, as the people at Al Hafa proudly told us, you could float thereon any steamer you liked, which may or may not be true, but their existence in a country like Arabia is, after all, their chief cause for renown. This really is Arabia Felix.

Trees and camels keeping eachother at bay.

Rock arches and caves. Within easy walking distance of the wadi

This is what is so special about wadi Dirbat: donkeys, camels, cows, goats, birds and lush vegetation in a desert setting.
Camels dream away wherever you see them, sleeping under trees or obviously enjoying the water. This is a place where one can sit and enjoy for hours, if there would not the caves and the wadi to explore.


Bent, T. & M., 1900, Southern Arabia. Smith Elder & Co., London

Fox, C., 1947. The Geology and Mineral and other resources of Dhufar Province and other parts of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, South East Arabia. Published by the order of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman and Dependencies

Hanna, S. and Al Belushi, M., 1996, Introduction to the Caves of Oman, published by the Sultan Qaboos University, International Printing Press, Ruwi, Sultanate of Oman.

Radcliffe-Smith, A., 1977. The vegetation of Dhofar. In: The Scientific Results of the Oman Flora and fauna Survey. The Journal of Oman Studies, special report no.2, p 59-87.

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@ J. Schreurs April 2009