Salalah, Oman: a lush, green oasis that’s supposed to be a desert

Salalah

Flag the sweltering desert heat and head to Salalah for the green, cool climes and WATERFALLS…

Before we actually ventured to Salalah, I was on the understanding it was a relatively well-known spot to holiday. That was, until the SOMETHING pounding I took from my friends in the GCC after I posted a couple of pictures. Most were simply asking where on earth on the Arabian Peninsula could it possibly be so green in the middle of summer. Some just thought I’d taken off to Sri Lanka and was passing that lush, green oasis off as somewhere far more accessible.

In reality, Salalah is the lush, green resort town that belongs to everyone in the GCC come Khareef season. For, from June to September, monsoons bring rain to the southern tip of Oman which fills up the wadis, transforms the entire landscape into a bright shade of emerald, and causes water to cascade over cliff faces that are usually bone dry. It’s an especially great place if you’re sick of that vicious big orb in the sky too, as the entire region is basically enshrouded in a thick cloud of mist in this season and you’ll be lucky to see the sun on your holiday at all.

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If you’re driving, well, good luck to you. While it’s not a particularly difficult drive, it is long and arduous with little to look at aside from 50 different shades of clay (see what we did there…!). Then again, you’ll probably come across several other holidaymakers with licence plates from the likes of Kuwait and Bahrain, and then basically you’ll lose all rights to complain anyway.

However, if like us, you are dumb yet determined, read my guide to driving the 2500 kilometre round-trip here [link coming soon!].

Prepare to perhaps not see a European face in several days, and spend some time instead with visitors from all across the GCC. And if you’ve a penchant for a waterfall or two, or are simply down for not heeding any of TLC’s warnings, then we’ve got a treat for you…

DO:

THE FALLS

Did I mention that there are waterfalls in Salalah? Desert waterfalls? Well, let me explain…

The water floweth from just about every crevice in Salalah in Khareef season. What is at all other times of the year a barren, brown landscape, suddenly teems with natural springs and impressive, gushing waterfalls. (On that same note, due to aforementioned lushness and greenery, it also seems to be raining giant spiders much of the time. But that’s another story..).

Wadi Darbat

Perhaps the most obvious – both visually and touristically – Wadi Darbat is a definitive behemoth of a waterfall system. Starting right at the top of the valley, you’ll find a veritable lake (which is actually a spring, right up the end of the road that leads in through the valley) where you can rent a boat and paddle about, or picnic by the water. Following the spring down, you’ll find various spots where the water courses over a decent drop, creating some impressive waterfalls – at which we can’t pinpoint the exact location but other people will be parking their cars haphazardly and clambering over said waterfalls so it’s fairly obvious.

If you take the access road to the left as you come off the main road to Wadi Darbat, you’ll get to the mother load of all Salalah’s waterfalls – the Wadi Darbat fall. This one is accessed either through a near vertical slog up a hill for your poor Pajero, or a short jaunt up said hill on foot (saving yourself the embarrassment of stalling or slipping backwards), and then down a near-suicidally slippery access track to the bottom of the falls. Though, if you thought the track was suicidal, you’re probably yet to meet the idiots clambering across the falls at a rather intense height, in which an untoward gush of water would knock them down and cause them considerable pain as they pin-balled to the pool at the bottom.

There will always be a number of people splashing about in this pool, and we did so too, unknowing if it was actually kosher or not. Nonetheless, it’s pretty important for women to remember that Salalah is a really conservative place, so if you’re planning on getting wet, do so modestly. Cue me walking around for the rest of the day with sopping wet garments due to obsession with jumping in water, no matter what the cost.

Ayn Athum

This one is relatively close to Wadi Darbat, on the eastern side of Salalah, and while it’s not as big – it’s nothing if not charming. The water falls from quiet a height at this fall, against a backdrop of green, and pools neatly into a turquoise pond at the bottom. Head for the bottom and jostle with a few selfie sticks, a few awkward Insta-boyfriend photo shoots with half-naked women and a family posing in the pool as the Dad loses his balance and drops his phone in the water. It’s a busy spot, and ain’t nobody gonna give their social media spot to you easily. Hike up to the top for an amazing panorama over the green, thicketed countryside, and to overlook the waterfall cascading down below.

If nothing else, hopefully you’ll get some decent Insta-fuelled entertainment like we did. We give you, who posed it better:

Ayn Khor

Salalah
Yes, this basically is just a weird TLC-inspired montage of me in various waterfalls

This guy  is supposed to be only for the more adventurous, as most of the information we read up on said it was only accessible with a 4WD. Just tell that to the various dudes driving Nissan Sentras and the odd Toyota Yaris we saw heading in, such was their determination to see this waterfall. Without overplaying it, this access road is one of the more gnarly, as it cuts straight through a dry riverbed, and there’s plenty of loose rocks to contend with. Nonetheless, none of the sedans we saw actually succeeded in getting themselves stuck, so there’s something to be said for that.

This waterfall is another one with raw power, coursing over the side of a high cliff and pooling at the bottom. However, be careful about jumping in at this location. We did, and no less than five minutes later had three policeman turned up and told us under no uncertain terms to get the eff out. Apparently, in 2017, two people drowned at this fall, and as such, they’d prefer you didn’t splash about in it either.  I was also told to cover up pretty smartly here, too (I’d really tempted fate here and jumped in in a sports bra and yoga pants), but the policeman told me afterwards it’s usually fine, but he was just being careful. So again, err on the side of caution and appease everyone by being modest.

Wadi Ayn and Ayn Razat

Ayn Razat
Glorified puddle

PSA: unless you’re here at the height of the monsoon season,  these are a waste of time. There’s not enough water to make them anything more than a glorified puddle, and your time will be better spent at the above three than bothering with these.

CULTURAL SITES

Did you know Salalah was one of the most important cities to the incense trade, and that it was traditionally where the Sultan of Oman lives (until incumbent Sultan Qaboos bucked that trend)? Neither, in fact, I thought the only reason I was heading here was for the colour green and a bit of swimming.

In actual fact, Salalah used to be the capital of Oman – and was a super important trading port, meaning a bunch of the remnants from the 13th century, when it was at its peak, are still littered around the countryside.

Here’s a few to check out if you’re game enough to pull yourself away from the green.

Al-Baleed Archaeological Site

This UNESCO site is the remains of the first incarnation of Salala, the Middle Age settlement from which the modern city was birthed. This sprawling site is still being developed into an archaeological park, and is actually still being excavated.  One of its crown jewels is the remains of a large court mosque. The site contains also the Museum of Francinsenseland, which is highly regarded.

Khor Rori / Sumhuram

Another spot on the coast that harks back to the Middle Ages, this fortified town was believed to have been established in the 1st century to control the production of frankincense. This site is also still being excavated, and what can be seen today is the ground plan of the settlement and the remains of various buildings. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Al Hafa Fort Market

Ever wanted to own frankincense, or (supposedly) Amouage incense? This souk is where to get it.

When we’re travelling, we love a good souk, but most of the time in the Middle East we’ve found ourselves leaving bitter and twisted after being called ‘Angelina Jolie’ one too many times. Not here. The people in these stores are (on the whole) affable and not too pushy. And the wares are fantastic. Here’s where you can get your frankincense and myrrh, beautiful perfumes and amazing incenses. We walked away with a bunch of incense, frankincense, two burners and some perfume for 5 rials. Haggling is a must.

OTHER THINGS TO SEE

Mughsayl Beach and blowholes

Mughsayl Beach is a 20 minute or so drive from Salalah. Considered one of the prime attractions in Dhofar, this beach is a sandy bay hemmed in by the mountains, and is pretty photogenic. It also makes for a good patch of calm ocean for swimming. Further along the beach are the famed blowholes and Marneef ‘Cave’ which upon inspection, is more of an overhanging rock but we’re not here to pass cave-based judgement. On a rough day, the blowholes are rather majestic in their water spouting, with the waves pounding up against the cliff face and spitting out of the holes towards the sky. Children visitors are quick to tempt fate in standing over the ones within the path area that now have grates around them, and play an ever-losing game of chicken. The tourist infrastructure here is actually great, and there’s always a few food stalls nearby and a pergola and some seating if you need a sit down.

Eat

Before you head out for a meal out expecting Omani cuisine of the same calibre as Muscat, we’ll just burst your bubble now: Salalah is not a culinary city. Nor does it actually have very good food, at all. We tried seeking out decent restaurants and could only come up with one Indian spot and one Lebanese, so we decided to wing it and settled for a mixture of Lulu-sourced meals and street stall-based ones. The latter might make you squirm (not due to food poisoning, mind you), so we’d advocate to sticking to bakeries and supermarkets unless anyone else can give me a good alternative?

Muthbe

Actually, this might be the one Salalah dish we can get on board with. This cooking method uses smooth wadi stones piled high over the embers of a massive fire, which is then used to cook chicken and salted meat. The stones are supposed to naturally pull juices away from the outside of the meat, which creates a crisp outer crust and a moist interior. Get it alongside some flavoured rice for about 1 rial at any of the roadside vendors – you’ll recognise them by the bright orange tarpaulin rooves, and their abundance all over the region.

Salalah
Actual dish of camel

Camel

I physically balked at the thought of eating my dopey friends who kept wandering out in front of our car our entire trip, and yet, I found myself one night at a street stall ordering just that for dinner. Camel, and sometimes baby camel, is a delicacy here and you’ll find it at most roadside stalls. For one small serving, you’ll pay about 2 rials.

My honest take on it? Fecking revolting to tell you the truth. But if you’re into chewy, tough and fatty meats then by all means – this is for you.

Ma’ajeen

As if Dhofari cuisine couldn’t get any weirder, we bring you beef or camel that is salted and hung out to dry before being dried in cubes of fat. This particular high-calorie delicacy will then stay good for up to one month outside a fridge. Now, I don’t know about you – but any food that can stay good outside a refrigerator for anything long than a couple of hours is absolutely not something I want to be ingesting. However, we did try a piece and at a stretch I’ll call it ‘interesting’. If we’ve successfully sold you with this overly complimentary review, then you’ll be able to buy it from the same area as the muthbe grillers – just look out for the stalls with large strips of meat hung out to dry. Yum.

Kak bread

Finally, something that doesn’t involve questionably prepared meat, or meat that altogether just feels weird to consume. Here we have, some simple southern Omani bread. Lebanese kak is a chewy, sesame-seeded breed, but Dhofari kak is rather distinctive. This variation is on the sweet side and flavoured with cardamom and black nigella seeds, and is actually quite enjoyable to eat on its own or with a cup of tea.

Aside from muthbe, we applaud it for its completely unoffensive nature – the same which cannot me said for all cuisine from this region.  You can find it at any bakery, for about 100 baisa.

Fish

We were told on reliable advice, that Salalah has next to no reliable seafood restaurants, and that we needed to head to Mirbat. So that’s exactly what we did. However, driving in, we were almost certain we must have misheard and misread this advice – as Mirbat inexplicably looks like a bomb has ripped through it. Ramshackle buildings have basically been reduced to rubble just about everywhere you look, though as it would appear from the constant traffic streaming through it, it’s still a functioning town. Out by the port, there’s supposed to be a few restaurants serving up cheap seafood; we found one, maybe two, unless the latter was just a large family gathering, we couldn’t quite tell. At Al Meena Restaurant, we bought an entire fish (of which variety, I’m still unsure) for 7 rials, and was served up white rice and the standard carrots and cucumber affair for an extra 1.5. It’s basic to say the least, with white plastic chairs, a questionable kitchen and absolutely no menu to speak of – but roll with it. The fish was utterly excellent, as was the setting on the beach overlooking the ocean, but the resident cat who stalked us our entire meal for fish eating honours we could probably do without.

Coffee

Good luck.

Stay

We lay our heads at Juweirah Boutique Hotel, and while it came well-recommended, we left rather disappointed. The rooms were a bit rough around the edges, and really basic, though they did have a lovely balcony that overlooked the lagoon. However, there’s also no wi-fi in the rooms and a series of unfortunate events meant our sink was broken and our pipe leaked and flooded our bathroom on our first night, so we didn’t exactly kick things off with a great first impression.

Nonetheless, the breakfast was good and the set of pools were in good order – but if we were paying that amount of money again we’d probably go next- door to the Rotana or Al Fanar Residences. This appears to be the start of a little community in this area, a group of hotels and cafes and the likes built around a mini marina and lagoon, and it’s quite the escape from the city.

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