On April 1 we were in Salalah, the largest city (175,000+) in the southern part of Oman, not far from the border with Yemen (I know it was April Fools Day, but this really happened). Salalah is the capital of Dhofar province, which is separated from Muscat by the huge desert called the Empty Quarter. In ancient times this area thrived as the source of frankincense, which was shipped from here to Africa, Europe & Asia. Most of the frankincense today comes from Somalia & Yemen, but Omani frankincense is considered the highest quality. This was also a major source for Arabian horses in the 19th century. The Omani court was located in Salalah under the last Sultan, who rarely left his palace here. But when Sultan Qaboos overthrew him in a bloodless coup in 1970 the court was moved back to Muscat.
In Muscat we were told that the people there (and really all over the Arabian peninsula) consider Salalah a “paradise” because of its substantial rainfall & moderate temperatures. In July & August, when the temperatures in Muscat & Dubai hover well above 100 degrees, the annual Khareef (monsoon) keeps things fairly cool here. As a result, tourists from the north stream to Salalah during that time of year for a beach holiday.
The port is a long way from Salalah, there is nothing of interest near it and a taxi to town is quite expensive. So we signed up for a HAL tour of the area. We drove into the city to visit the Sultan’s palace, where the coup was staged in 1970. But there is a high wall around the palace so you can’t see very much. The area is nice though, with palm trees & lots of green.
In back of the palace is the Al Husn Souk. It was Friday, the Muslim sabbath, so more than half of the shops in the souk were closed. But most of them sold mainly the same goods so that wasn’t really a problem. The souk is atmospheric so it was interesting to walk around even if you weren’t interested in buying anything.
We next stopped at a row of fruit stands in front of a plantation. Salalah’s ample rainfall makes it possible to grow coconuts, bananas & a variety of vegetables here. There are a number of plantations growing this kind of produce, with extensive irrigation. Notable at the fruit stands were the tiny & flavorful Lady Finger bananas, coconuts & okra.
We drove through town & up into the mountains. The town has a lot of buildings with pointed or round topped windows, giving it a character often lacking in cities with a lot of modern square buildings. As mentioned last time, we were told that Oman has a policy requiring some traditional Arabic features in new buildings, so they aren’t just concrete boxes. Here are a few examples, taken from the bus window.
In the mountains we visited the supposed tomb of Job, the character from the Bible who never lost his faith even though God deprived him of everything & everyone he loved. In front is what is supposed to be Job’s footprint (it’s big, so he must have been a huge guy). On the grounds was a great variety of colorful flowers. This is a Muslim holy place, so there was a mosque.
We saw a great many camels in this area, mostly wandering by themselves or in small groups. Our guide told us that all of these camels are owned by someone, but they let them roam free because camels form a strong attachment to their homes & will always return on their own. He said that in the past there have been camels stolen by Yemenis and Saudis, but their owners didn’t worry & a year or two later they showed up back home. Camels were in the mountains, some wandering up to folks at Job’s tomb, & they were in the valley as well. Our bus was held up a couple of times by camels very slowly crossing, or walking along, the road. One group of camels being led by their owner had to move out of the center of the road to let the bus pass & the owner was none too happy about it.
We came down from the mountains and drove along the plain past Salalah. We passed several villages in the desert.
We finally reached the hilly area where Boswellia trees, which produce frankincense, grow wild. These trees are short & gnarled, but very tough, & have a peeling bark. It appeared that the trees were just beginning to grow leaves when we were there (makes sense, since it was April). These trees begin producing the frankincense sap when they are about 10 years old & can be tapped (by making a small incision) several times a year. Just about all frankincense is taken from wild trees because they are very difficult to cultivate. Frankincense smoke is aromatic (if you like that sort of thing) & supposedly repels mosquitos. The sap can also be eaten, which reputedly gives a very clean feeling in the mouth. Research is being conducted to use it as a medicine for several diseases, including cancer.
Our last stop was at Al-Mughsail Beach. The beach is beautiful but was pretty deserted the day we visited. Next to it, though, is Marneef Cave, which was well attended. It is more a rock formation on the side off a hill than a cave, but it is quite nice. A little down from the cave are some blowholes. During the summer when the tides are heavy water shoots up through these holes for about 20 yards. At least that is what our guide said; all we saw was a little mist coming from the holes. Oh, well.
After leaving Salalah Amsterdam headed southwest, to round the southern point of the Arabian Peninsula & head into the Red Sea. Through this period we had Yemen on our starboard side; this is also one of the areas where pirates are most active. We found out later that a second security team was on board all the way to Aqaba (the deck lights were turned off so they could watch the seas at night) but fortunately there were no incidents. Last year this part of the trip came just after the war in Yemen began & we were told that Yemeni planes were often overhead, but there was nothing like that this year. We entered the Red Sea through the very narrow Strait of Tears, at which point you can see Yemen on the starboard side & a couple of islands belonging to Djibouti on the port side. We also passed some fishing boats in this area.
The day after leaving Salalah we attended the Lebanese dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. It was really good & was accompanied by a couple of performances by the belly dancer on board.