A Travellerspoint blog

City tour in Salalah – and home

Oman days eleven and twelve

View Oman 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

From our hotel window

I took some photos of the view from our bedroom window this morning, with the Al-Nahdah Clock Tower on the roundabout immediately opposite the hotel and a long tree-lined street stretching away from it. This is Al Matar Street which leads to what used to be, until just a few years ago, Salalah's airport. The clock tower is something of a landmark in, and symbol for, the city.

Our last morning for sightseeing in Salalah, and indeed in Oman. At breakfast I noticed that the hot dishes had made a reappearance but they didn’t look especially appetising so I settled for fresh fruit (melon, apple, pear) which was delicious, and a rather dry croissant, which wasn’t.

After breakfast we packed our suitcase and checked out, leaving the bag to collect later in the day. Before that we had a half day city tour planned, and we were happy to see that, as he and we had hoped, Hussain was allocated as our guide again.

Salalah’s markets

Dried shark

The first stop on our tour was scheduled to be the Grand Mosque, but Hussain proposed going first to the produce markets in the centre of the city. He took us through the fish market, where we saw dried shark which he told us is a very popular food in this part of Oman. We had seen fishermen with their catch of small sharks, destined for drying, in Mirbat two days earlier and here now was the finished product.


In the fish market - big tuna, small cat!

From here we went to the camel meat market. Hussain explained that each meat had its own section of the market - camel, beef, goat. Apologies to vegetarian and vegan readers for the next two photos!


In the camel meat market

We also saw the fruit and veg market. There were lots of herbs, spices and grains for sale as well all the usual, and some unusual, fruits and vegetables. A man was grinding coconut on what looked to be a rather dangerous machine!

In the fruit and vegetable market

The Grand Mosque

When we arrived at the Grand Mosque it was very quiet - we had beaten the relatively few other tourists and had it to ourselves!

Sultan Qaboos Mosque

I was surprised to find that we were to go inside as I'd read that the Grand Mosque in Muscat was the only one that permitted non-Muslims to visit. But on the contrary, we were welcomed by a friendly man who gave us a leaflet about the Islamic religion, ‘100 tweets about Islam’, and was happy to pose for a photo. He also tried to sell us a book about Islam, which we declined.

Welcoming visitors to the mosque

Like Muscat’s Grand Mosque this was a gift to the people from Sultan Qaboos and is named for him. From what I observed elsewhere, for instance in Nizwa, the sultan may have paid for the construction of a mosque in every major city – no doubt another reason why he is held in such high esteem.

The mosque opened in 2009. Although not quite on the same scale as Muscat’s Grand Mosque this is still an impressive structure. Hussain told us that the main hall holds 3,200 worshippers, while overall the mosque can accommodate 14,000. Much of the craftsmanship is the work of Moroccans, and the wood for the huge doors came from Indonesia.

Main prayer hall with chandelier and doors

Inside the dome

Inside the dome - chandelier and stained glass window

The handwoven carpet has 115,000,000 individual knots and weighs 20 tons. Its delicate pale green shades are broken by bands of rather jarring royal blue, marking the path that non-Muslim visitors should stick to – or, as the sign outside said, ‘Visitors to the prayer halls must bind oneself to walk on the particularised carpet’.

Main prayer hall

The 'particularised carpet'

I liked the elegant carved and painted stonework which somehow manages to be both restrained and yet ornate at the same time – perhaps because of the subtle colours and overall pale tones.

Carving detail, and window

I commented on the electronic screen above the minbar (where the imam stands to lead the prayers) and Hussain told me the significance of the times listed there – the times on the left, in green, are those of the daily prayers for today (although I am not sure why there are six rather than five) and those on the right, in red, are the times when the call to prayer will start.

Minbar and Mihrab

As had Said in Muscat, Hussain showed us the ornate pages in one of the copies of the Quran distributed around the prayer hall.

Hussain with a copy of the Quran


And outside in the courtyard he was happy to play the role of photographer’s model!

In the courtyard with Hussain

The old city

We drove through an older part of the city and stopped briefly by a small mosque which Hussain said was one of the oldest in Salalah. This is Aqeel Mosque, built in 1779. Although it has been restored, that restoration was faithful to the original design and it therefore looks quite different to modern day mosques. The angular white outline to the roof reminded me a little of Navajo motifs, somewhat to my surprise.

Aqeel Mosque

Many of the houses in this part of the city are in a poor state of repair. As elsewhere in the country people had chosen to abandon their old homes and move to new ones with modern utilities (electricity, water) rather than renovate what they had. My guess would be that this is a sign of the rapid leap forward Oman made from feudal to modern society in a single generation. Homes weren’t slowly adapted and improved over time as they have been elsewhere but instead were suddenly found wanting in all the ‘mod cons’. It was easier to simply leave and start again. Today, however, people are starting to realise the tourist and aesthetic values of a restored older house and are slowly starting to invest in their restoration.

Old houses and a mosque

Ruined house

Al Haffa

We drove through the plantations area of Al Haffa, and stopped to take a short stroll through one of the farms.

Walking through the plantation

The main crop is coconut, but they also grow papaya, bananas and other fruits. Hussain told us that the taller coconut palms were the native ones but in recent years they have introduced shorter ones from Sri Lanka. These are easier to harvest and their yellow fruit is especially sweet.

Green papaya, yellow coconut

The road here is lined with fruit stalls - all looking much the same and all selling the same products. It seems surprising that they all make enough money to survive but Hussain told us that as well as selling to the general public many also supply shops and restaurants. He also said that the plantations mostly belong to Omanis who in the past would have farmed them themselves and worked at the stalls, but today many employ workers from abroad - mostly from the sub-continent.

Roadside fruit stall

Price lists

We enjoyed a drink of coconut water at the roadside stall and Hussain also bought some small bananas for us all to share, which were excellent. I was rather less keen on the slimy pieces of fruit cut away from inside the coconuts when we had finished our drinks!

Coconut drink

Al Baleed Archaeological Park

Next we visited the Al Baleed archaeological site and the Museum of the Frankincense Land which is located there.

On the far side of the lagoon we could see the archaeological site – what remains of a medieval trading port. This is the fourth site included in the UNESCO Land of Frankincense listing that also covers Sumhuram, Wubar and Wadi Dokah, all of which we had already seen. The frankincense trade flourished here between the 8th to 16th centuries AD, so the port is much more recent than that of Khor Rori at Sumhuram. The most significant building here is a large mosque. It had 148 pillars surrounding a courtyard, of which only a few stumps were preserved. The missing pillars have been replaced by new, half-height stone columns which are visible in my photo below.

Al Baleed Archaeological Park

There is also a citadel and residential houses. The whole site is so extensive that it’s possible to hire a golf cart in which to tour it, but a lot is yet to be excavated. Those excavations are on-going – you can see a bright yellow bucket being used by the dig team in this photo.

Al Baleed Archaeological Park

There was no real harbour at Zafar. Instead goods were loaded and unloaded in the shallow water of the lagoon using small boats. Besides the car park are some replica boats with information boards. One, with a rather striking prow, is described as a ‘Fishing Battil’. The sign says that, ‘This Omani boat is built exclusively in the Musandam Governorate where it is used principally as a fishing vessel, using vertical nets.’

The planks of another of the boats are lashed together in the traditional way, using rope. The sign says that this is a ‘Kambari’ and goes on to say that, ‘This traditional Omani boat represents the last generation of the well-known woven sambuq. It is used in Dhofar strictly for sardine fishing or for off-loading cargos from large ships anchored offshore.’

Kambari detail

Prow of the fishing battil

Museum of the Frankincense Land

As we walked towards the museum I was surprised to be told by Hussain that photography was allowed inside, as I had read otherwise. He explained that it was only this year that the no photos rule had been withdrawn, so we were lucky with our timing!

The Museum of the Frankincense Land

There are two main halls here. We started in the Marine Hall, which explains the importance of sea trade for Oman, particularly in the context of the frankincense trade. Everything is well signed, in English as well as Arabic.

Replica sailing ship, a baghla

There are several model boats on display. Most are small but there is also a large replica of the stern and part of the deck of a sailing ship – big enough that you can climb on board. A sign describes this as follows:

Gabbro statue

Virtual Sea Life
This model of Baghla represents one of the two prestigious long-distance sailing boats used on voyages from Moan to the east coast of Africa (Zanzibar and Mombasa) that lasted for several weeks. The voyages were full of danger and required determination and skill to complete. Departures and arrivals were joyful celebrations, especially for the sailors returning home.’

Since I found it hard to believe that only two ships were used to make these voyages my assumption was that there were two kinds of ship, of which this is one. Wikipedia confirms this: ‘A baghlah, bagala or baggala is a large deep-sea dhow, a traditional Arabic sailing vessel.’

Other sections focus on navigation (sextants, compasses etc.) and on the goods other than frankincense that flowed between Oman and its trading partners. One display in particular caught my eye, the one about a stone known as gabbro. This igneous rock was an important export from the ancient land of Magan, thought to have encompassed modern-day Oman, to Mesopotamia where it was a favourite of Sumerian sculptors.

A sample of the rock taken from Rustaq in northern Oman (near Jebel Shams) is displayed alongside a replica of a gabbro statue of:
‘Gudea, king of Lagash (2144-2124 BC). On his dress is written, in cuneiform, “from the country of Magan he – Gudea – ordered black stone and had it sculpted in the shape of his statue.” The original is housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.’

In the second room, the History Hall, we watched a short film about frankincense which showed us examples of the different grades and how it is collected – something we had already seen ‘out in the field’ yesterday. The ancient burners displayed here didn’t look so very different in design to the present-day ones, and brought home to me how rooted in the past is the present-day custom of burning the resin in every Omani home.

10th century column

The rest of this gallery focuses on the history of the country from early times to the present. Among the items included are finds from the archaeological site here – this column is dated to the 10th century AD.

There were some beautiful illuminated Qurans – this one is three hundred years old, but some were even older.

Three hundred year old Quran

We were most interested in the displays about recent history, since 1970, covering the coming to power of Sultan Qaboos, his approach to ruling the country and its modernisation. I particularly liked the speech he gave on the day of his accession:

'... With increasing concern and profound indignation I observed that my father was no longer able to handle the affairs of state. My family and my armed forces pledged allegiance and loyalty to me. The previous Sultan has left the Sultanate. I pledge that the first task I undertake will be to make this Government a modern one as quickly as possible. My first aim will be to relieve you of the unnecessary strain you are living under...'

Recent Omani history

Al Hosn Palace

From here we drove to the Royal Palace, Al Hosn, and stopped to take a few photos. It was in an older fort on this site that the Sultan was born.

Al Hosn Palace

Gardens in front of the palace

The palace mosque

While we took our photos, Hussain told us more about life in Oman prior to the bloodless coup in which the Sultan overthrew his father. In the last five years of his reign, 1965 to 1970, according to Hussain, the old Sultan became increasingly strange, creating bizarre laws which prohibited, for example, the wearing of sandals and dictating in which exact position caps should be worn, i.e. not tipped forwards. Life in Salalah revolved around this palace – the souk was inside its walls, and people queued here daily for permission to work or to marry, for instance.

Lamppost and minaret at the palace

It seems clear that even prior to this period of strangeness the old Sultan wasn’t an especially good leader. Most Omanis lived in poverty and were way behind much of the world in terms of technical developments. There was no real infrastructure - few roads, hospitals or schools. It is little surprise that the people now hold his successor, who transformed and modernised the country in just a few years (helped it has to be said by the discovery of oil), in such esteem and affection.

Al Haffa souk

In Al Haffa souk

In nearby Al Haffa souk we learned more about frankincense and incense. The latter is used exclusively by the women, who burn it to scent their clothes. Frankincense is used not only for its fragrance, to make the home smell nice, but also to keep flying insects such as mosquitoes at bay and for its perceived medicinal qualities – inhaling the smoke is said to be good for asthma, for instance, and the best quality frankincense is steeped overnight in water which is then drunk at breakfast time to treat a number of ailments.

The best frankincense, for medicinal use

Everyday frankincense, for burning

We realised that if we wanted to buy frankincense to burn at home, we also needed to buy the charcoal that provides the flame, so we bought a small packet of both and a little burner at one of the stalls.

Incense burner, and incense

Along the Salalah coast

Hussain thought that the fishermen on nearby Al Haffa beach might be landing a catch of sardines, so we drove over across the sand to have a look - I think he was hoping to perhaps buy some for his dinner! But no, they were simply at work mending their nets and getting ready to go out to sea later. They agreed to let us take photos while Hussain had a chat with a couple of them.

Mending the nets on Al Haffa beach

It would have been good to have watched the fishermen in action I reckon. Sardine fishing is still done the traditional way here, with a huge net dragged around a school of fish using two boats, and then tightened around them. I found a good video of the process online: The dwindling Omani sardine catch.

Fishermen on Al Haffa beach

After watching the fishermen for a while Hussain drove us slowly along the white sand beach, fringed with palm trees. Although attractive, this is definitely a working beach, and signs warn against swimming here for reasons of safety - although Hussain couldn’t explain why it might be unsafe and said his cousin swims there daily!

Palm trees on Al Haffa beach

He showed us the next beach to the east, A’Dahariz, which is more of a resort beach, lined with holiday apartments and a few restaurants. The nearby lagoon of the same name had a few flamingos and herons, but too far away from the road to get good photos.




A’Dahariz beach and lagoon

The beach has a number of attractive shelters which Hussain told us were provided by the government. When his family wants to spend a day on the beach one of the men is sent ahead to ‘bag’ a shelter and hold it so that when the women arrive they have somewhere to sit out of the sun.

Shelter at A’Dahariz beach

We had already seen and done more than was in the official tour but Hussain was keen to suggest further stops. We drove through another area of mostly ruined old houses and he offered to take us to some shops, but we knew we had already taken more of his time than was scheduled and in any case had no interest in further shopping. So we asked him instead to drop us somewhere in the city centre where we could get lunch before returning to the hotel in time for our afternoon airport pick-up.

We decided to try a well-reviewed Turkish restaurant not too far from the hotel, Marmara. So Hussain dropped us off there and we said our good byes, rather sadly. He had already been so generous with his time, and now added to that generosity with gifts - a book about the significance of frankincense to the Dhofar region, and a burner with both frankincense and incense to burn at home as a memory of our visit to Salalah. This was larger and nicer than the one we had bought ourselves, so I immediately decided to gift that one to my sister and keep Hussain’s present as our own souvenir!

Presents from Hussain

We decided on a rather lighter lunch than those included on the tours, which had mostly been tasty but far more than we are accustomed to eating in the middle of the day. So we enjoyed Turkish bread with various dips, including hummus and moutabel, with delicious mango juice to drink.

We intended to walk the four blocks back to the hotel, despite the heat, but a passing taxi driver tempted us. I told him our destination but when Chris asked the price he offered to take us for free as it wasn’t far! Of course, however, we insisted on paying him something, but this was yet another sign of the hospitality of the Omanis.

Back at the hotel we retrieved our case from the store and rearranged our bags for the journey. We then had some time to wait for our transfer driver who, when he came, proved to be rather pleasanter and friendlier than the one who had met us.

Flying back to Muscat

Salalah Airport

As always in our experience, the tour company had arranged for us to get to the airport far too early – well over three hours ahead of our departure time. Salalah Airport is very new, very clean and attractive, and was very very quiet! We were the first to check-in for our flight and were given the boarding passes for tomorrow’s flight to London in addition to those for today’s to Muscat. Fortunately the assistant queried whether we needed our bag for the overnight stop in Muscat (we did!) rather than check it straight through to London - it hadn’t even occurred to us that might be an option. He also helpfully moved us to better seats on tomorrow’s flight.

Salalah Airport

We were equally speedily through security and then settled down in a deserted café to wait for boarding. Luckily the airport had free WiFi so we could use the time to check emails and connect with friends as well as sort photos, read and (in my case) draft this blog entry!

Our Oman Air flight passed quickly and reasonably comfortably, and we landed five minutes early in Muscat. There was a bit of a wait for the luggage - long enough for me to start to wonder if it had maybe been sent straight through to London after all! But our case appeared eventually and we were pleased to see Assad waiting for us in the arrivals hall.

Last night in Oman

We had decided to stay in an airport hotel tonight rather than drive into the city centre as it didn’t seem worth it when we were flying out again tomorrow. So Assad drove us to the Golden Tulip, one of the older hotels in the cluster on the fringes of the airport.

Our bedroom at the Golden Tulip Hotel

We had a decent sized room, quiet despite the location so close to the airport. We freshened up and headed for the roof top bar, keen to have a beer night-cap after several alcohol-free evenings in Salalah. The bar seemed to be slightly confused about its identity - the sign above the door looked like that of a discotheque, while the serving area looked like an English pub bar, but with seating only at counters around the edge, all facing outwards and the centre completely empty. TV screens in the corners were showing European Champions League football. Next to this bar was a small room with a few sofas and a pool table, and beyond that a larger room with the same soft furnishings and low tables, obviously used mainly by shisha smokers. This led out on to a roof terrace with conservatory style seating, a big screen showing the football and bland Euro-pop on the speakers. We chose to sit outside watching planes taking off and the football on the big screen.

After just one beer we retired to our room, ready for an early night. Tomorrow would be a long day.

Postscript: time to go home

Our bed at the Golden Tulip was comfortable and we would have slept well had a very angry-sounding man not chosen to have an argument at two in the morning just below our balcony! Fortunately he didn’t go on for too long and we were able to get back to sleep.


Views from our room
- yes, that is part of a rusty old airplane!

We had a few hours to spare before Assad would return to take us back to the airport for our flight home, so we had a large leisurely breakfast and took a few photos around the hotel before going back to our room to finish packing and take advantage of the free WiFi.

Hotel lobby
Mynah bird at breakfast

Assad arrived promptly at 11.30 as arranged and drove us the short distance to the airport. We were impressed all over again by the newness, attractiveness and quietness of Muscat Airport!

Muscat Airport

Airport seating

We dropped off our bag and were quickly through security. With time to kill (as always the local tour company had got us here far earlier than necessary) we had a coffee in one of the cafés - for me a last chance to enjoy Arabic coffee with dates, beautifully served.

Traditional Omani coffee

There was another security check at the gate, and I noticed that they were confiscating bottles of water, even those bought airside, which must have annoyed the passengers concerned!

We took off on time and for the first time on the trip I was able to see, and photograph, Oman from the air - all our previous flights, both take-offs and landings, had been after dark.

Taking off from Muscat Airport

The return flight went as smoothly as the outward one had done. I enjoyed a lamb kofta dinner, watched a forgettable film, and managed to get some photos of the mountains as we flew over Iran.

Flying over Iran


Later we had one of those seemingly endless sunsets you get when flying west at this time of day. It started somewhere over eastern Europe and was still going strong as we flew in over the Thames estuary to land at Heathrow.

Sunset from the plane

Arriving over London

There was a frustratingly long queue for the e-passport gates at immigration, but it did mean that our bag was already on the luggage carousel when we finally got through. And as on so many previous occasions we were grateful to live so close to the airport and be home, courtesy of the Piccadilly line, only 30 minutes or so after picking up that bag. Another great holiday had, sadly, come to an end.

Posted by ToonSarah 04:21 Archived in Oman Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches planes fishing mosque coast history ruins market flight airport palace shopping fruit oman muscat frankincense salalah Comments (18)

The Empty Quarter

Oman day ten

View Oman 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

On the road to Ubar

Our last full day of sightseeing in Oman! I slept rather better, having adjusted to the traffic noise outside. And despite its eccentricities, it has to be said that the Haifa House hotel provided us with a very comfortable bed and efficient air conditioning - the latter a must in the more tropical climate of Salalah.

Talking of those eccentricities, arriving at breakfast ten minutes after the appointed start time of 7.30 we found all the containers for hot dishes empty and cold. They were never filled during the twenty minutes or so we were in the room, nor was any explanation offered. Omelette was however offered, and very nice it was too.

The same man we had met yesterday was at breakfast today, and when he greeted us we discovered that he was Australian – although the Vegemite he brought to put on his toast should already have given us a clue! We concluded that he was here on a business trip. Amazingly a young French couple also appeared towards the end of our meal. Over the three nights we were here these were the only other guests we saw – just five of us in this large hotel! But Hussain told us that in the summer it would probably be full with visitors from the north of the country.

We had a different guide today for our tour to the Empty Quarter – I had the impression from Hussain yesterday that he doesn’t drive the necessary 4WD. So today we were with Issa, who was pleasant enough but no Hussain!


We left Salalah on a good road that climbed quite quickly and dramatically into the mountains.

On the road between Salalah and Thumrait

Yes, that is a camel sign hanging from the rear-view mirror! Issa told us he had made it from a photo printed from the internet and laminated, as tourists were all so fascinated by these road signs and keen to photograph them. I preferred the real thing!

On the road between Salalah and Thumrait

We needed to change a bit of money, so Issa helpfully stopped in the Bedouin town of Thumrait which was on our route. Of course we also seized the opportunity to take a few photos, not realising that we would be back here again later in the day.

In Thumrait


Our first ‘official’ stop was at the small archaeological site of Wubar, also known as Ubar or Shisr, which was a former resting point on the frankincense trade routes and is included in the UNESCO listing of ‘Land of Frankincense’. These ruins were only discovered in 1992 when they were picked up by satellite imagery. The satellite images also reveal ancient trade routes converging on the site, apparently made by the passage of hundreds of thousands of camels.

Looking into the history of this place it is hard sometimes to separate fact from fiction. The original discoverers of the site, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Nicholas Clapp, suggested it was Ubar, the so-called ‘Atlantis of the Sands’ – a legendary city said to have sunk beneath the dunes of the Empty Quarter much as the other Atlantis sank beneath the sea. But even if such a city exists, some historians dispute Wubar’s claim to be it, and argue that its role was more that of a caravanserai than a complete city, a trading post where caravans of camels laden with frankincense would load up on water and other supplies before heading into the daunting Empty Quarter on their way to the ports of the Mediterranean.

Ruins at Wubar

Ruins at Wubar

Archaeological evidence is inconclusive. From the ruins it appears that there was a fort here surrounded by an eight-sided wall, with a tower at each corner – a description which matches that of the legendary Ubar in ancient documents. It seems that part of this fort collapsed when a sinkhole formed underneath it, and several feet of sand eventually covered all the ruins, so it did sink into the desert sands as the legend describes. While some say that it appears far too small to have ever been described as a city, others argue that people quite likely lived in tents at that time, and it would not have been uncommon for a fort to be the only permanent structure in a city.

So far however excavations at the site have revealed nothing old enough to verify the claims, and some of the items found indicate a much later period of habitation.

As with Sumhuram yesterday we watched a short film which explained the significance of the site, related quite effectively through the voice of an old man telling tales of the past to his grandchildren. But unlike Sumhuram we found the ruins themselves rather uninspiring. Issa had left us to walk round alone and the various information boards were faded to illegibility so we had little idea what we were looking at, although signs of the sinkhole seemed clear.

The sinkhole

I also found it hard to pick out interesting angles for photography, but the small modern whitewashed fort, built in 1955 using stone from the older fort, was much more photogenic, although I didn’t realise at the time what I was photographing owing to the lack of signs.

The 1955 fort building

Brownie points though for the clean loos here which were very welcome, and for that film in the information centre. I am sure that as interest grows in visiting the south of Oman, and excavations here continue, the visitor experience here will be enhanced. Maybe too, one day someone will establish categorically whether or not this is the lost city of Ubar!

Coffee pots on the admissions desk

Al Nejd

While we had looked around Wubar, Issa had let air out of the tyres and soon afterwards we left the tarmac and were driving on gravel across a vast empty plain, the huge gravel desert of Al Nejd. This huge plain stretches for 800 kilometres between the Hajar mountains in the north of the country and the Dhofar range in the south. There is little to see here but I found the landscape mesmerising.

The road through the Al Nejd desert

This region is famous for its black camels. Near Thumrait we had passed the place where, Issa told us, each year camel competitions were held, with prizes for the fastest, best yield of milk, and best-looking - a camel beauty contest. Apparently the black camels of Dhofar win all three contests every year, because of their larger size. Now as we crossed the plain Issa spotted some, and left the track to drive over so we could take photos.

Black camels, Al Nejd desert

The original intention had been to visit a camel farm but Issa declared this sighting out in the open to be a better experience. He may well have been right, but on reflection (and given that our day ended early) it might have been nice to visit the farm as well.

Black camels, Al Nejd desert

Into the sands

Near a small Bedouin camp the gravel track turned to sand and we were among the dunes of the Empty Quarter. A fence more than half buried in sand showed just how much the landscape here shifts with the winds.

Buried fence on the edge of the Empty Quarter

Empty Quarter map from Wikipedia

The Empty Quarter, otherwise known as Rub’ Al Khali, is the largest contiguous sand desert in the world, and effectively separates the southern countries of the region, Yemen and Oman, from the rest of the Middle East. This public domain image from Wikipedia shows its extent.

The desert is 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) long and 500 kilometres (310 miles) wide, so of course in an outing of a few hours we could barely penetrate at all. Nevertheless we did get a sense of being in the middle of nowhere, even just a few kilometres into the desert, and even here the sands seemed endless. I tried to imagine what it would be like to cross another 990 kilometres, on a camel as in the past!

Dunes, Empty Quarter

Issa drove in among the dunes and part way up one of the largest. There was just one other car in sight - another tourist guide with a French family whom we had already seen in Thumrait and Wubar - and whom we would see again at lunch-time!

In the Empty Quarter

Issa and the other guide

Another tourist group - the only other people in sight

Up on top of the dunes there was no vegetation but in the lower parts there were small bushes and grasses. Issa explained that there was more vegetation than usual because they had a cyclone a few months ago and a lot of water flowed in the desert for a while.

Desert self-portrait

Desert vegetation

As we drove back down through a dip between the dunes we could see the cracked sand where it hardened when it dried out again. It must have a high clay content I reckon because it was just like broken pots!

Cracked earth, Empty Quarter

In these dips there was a lot more vegetation because of that rain. One was this plant which Issa called the storm apple, with a melon-like fruit which he explained was poisonous to the animals. A bit of digging on the internet has revealed this to be Citrullus colocynthis which is related to the watermelon but, according to Wikipedia, ‘bears small, hard fruits with a bitter pulp’. In addition to Issa’s storm apple (presumably because it only appears here after a rainstorm) other popular names, and again according to Wikipedia, include bitter apple, bitter cucumber, desert gourd, vine of Sodom, and wild gourd.


'Storm apples' in the Empty Quarter

Another plant seemed even more striking in this desert environment, perhaps because it was in flower or perhaps because we only saw this one. I spotted it in one of the dips as we drove out of the dunes and called to Issa to stop for photos, which he did.

Desert hyacinth

When I posted this on Facebook during our trip my friend Ann did some research on my behalf and found out that it is Cistanche tubulosa – popular name the desert hyacinth. This is a parasitic plant which grows on the roots of other desert shrubs. It is often used in Chinese medicine with a whole range of claims made for its benefits including improving memory, improving the immune system and preventing fatigue.

Leaving the desert

At my request Issa stopped again by the Bedouin camp on our way out so we could take photos of the small shop selling ‘Food stuff and luxuries’.

Bedouin shop

We then drove back along the gravel track, across the plain, with mirages giving false impressions of green-fringed lagoons and oases on the horizon. Just after we re-joined the tarmac Issa stopped at a small roadside workshop to have the tyres re-inflated - another opportunity for photos, naturally.

Instructions for visiting the Empty Quarter

Where the tarmac ends

Into the Empty Quarter

Vehicle workshop on the edge of the desert

Car mechanic

Restaurant sign

Farms nearby grow plants for animal fodder and need almost constant irrigation.

Irrigating the fields

It was now after midday and the sun was beating down. Although we were back on the tarmac, the landscape continued flat and almost empty, apart from the regular mirages.


Lunch in Thumrait

We stopped again on our way back in Thumrait, this time for lunch which we ate at the Palace Restaurant. A palace it wasn’t but we enjoyed the meal, which was the usual mix of rice, dhal and vegetable curries, with the addition of the spicy chicken dish ‘chicken 65’ which we had come across in Rajasthan. The accompanying lemon mint juice was refreshing on this hot day.


Thumrait Palace restaurant

While we were eating fighter planes roared low overhead
- there is an Omani airbase on the northern edge of the town

After lunch we had time for a few photos outside while Issa went to fill the car with petrol.

In Thumrait



Our last stop, partway back to Salalah, was to get another close look at the frankincense trees, Boswellia sacra, for which the region is famous. We parked first on a bluff overlooking Wadi Dokah, an area which has been planted with young trees in a project to replace those being lost through over-exploitation (their yield is reduced if the bark is cut while still too young or if the tree is not rested every five or six years), animal grazing and climate change. This is the third of the four sites listed by UNESCO as the ‘Land of Frankincense’ (we will see the fourth tomorrow). It is from this Dhofar region of Oman that the best frankincense is said to come, growing in a narrow climate band just beyond the reach of the summer monsoon but still under the influence of coastal winds.

Here, as everywhere we went in the south (and to a lesser extent in the north too) we were to hear how frankincense is an intrinsic part of Omani life. Everyone uses it to fragrance their homes and their clothes, and they steep it in water to drink as they believe it has a variety of medicinal benefits. Hussain had told us how it had become more expensive in recent years as people around the world are discovering (or should that be re-discovering?) its value, but he talked of it as you would of a basic necessity for which he now had to pay more, not a luxury he might have to give up.

The frankincense plantation, Wadi Dokah

A large group of Italian tourists, exploring the desert in a convey of 4x4s, were gathered around one small tree, reminding us why we prefer to travel alone!

Italian tour group round a frankincense tree

Issa then drove us to a spot where more mature trees were growing and demonstrated the tool, known as a managaf, that is used to shave the bark and release the precious resin. The scarred trees have to be left for a week or more while the sap oozes out. This is a labour-intensive process, which explains in part the high value placed on the end product. Furthermore, After the little drops of resin are scraped off, the same spot is re-cut. The process is repeated several times until the final harvest which yields the palest and most valuable resin.

Lone frankincense tree

Issa scraping a frankincense tree

Frankincense resin

Frankincense tree

Issa gave me a small pellet of the resin to rub between my fingers, and I carried all the way back to Salalah, enjoying the scent it released. From Wadi Dokah we drove straight back to the city, where we arrived around 3.00 PM, a little disappointed that our ‘full day’ tour had ended so early.

The tomb of the Prophet Imran

As we still had time to fill this afternoon, we took a short walk down the road from our hotel to the nearby tomb of the Prophet Imran. He is said by some to be the father of Noah, by others the father of Moses, and believed by yet others to be the father of the Virgin Mary. It seems unlikely to be that all three beliefs can be true, but whatever his lineage this is an important place for believers. Anyone can visit however, as long as you are respectful, dressed appropriately and remove your shoes.

In the tomb-house

The tomb of the Prophet Imran

The tomb is an impressive 33 metres long. I asked Hussain when we saw him the next day why the tomb was so long and his answer was that in the past, when the prophet was alive, people were far taller than today!

Searching online after returning home I found that there are several theories which are usually given. Either, as Hussain said, that it is possible that it is actually the grave of the prophet, because according to Islamic writings and belief people in the past used to be incredibly tall (Adam is said to have been 90 feet tall, for instance). More prosaically, that they made the graves long because they didn't know the exact place where they were buried, so somewhere in the middle lies the prophet’s actual grave. Or possibly other family members were buried with the prophet in the same tomb.

A photo on the wall inside shows how the tomb looked at one time, left to crumble it seems, before being restored and protected in this ‘tomb house’.

The building sits in a small peaceful garden which it shares with the mosque that bears the prophet’s name. The frangipani trees were in full bloom and looking spectacular!

Minaret and frangipani tree

Cat at the tomb of the Prophet Imran

We took a few photos in the streets around the hotel on our way back, which are lined with small auto-repair enterprises. Then it was time to sort photos, catch up with messages and reorganise the suitcase ready for our departure from Salalah tomorrow.


In the streets near our hotel

Back to Baalbeck

We had enjoyed Baalbeck so much last night that we went back again this evening. We booked the same taxi as we had appreciated the good service yesterday, and even had the same table, with a view of the mosque opposite and all the activity on busy July 23 Street.

Ahmed bin Ali Al-Mashani Mosque at night

This time we sampled the stuffed vine leaves as well as hummus and moutabel. I had the kebab of chicken marinated in yoghurt that Chris enjoyed so much yesterday while he had the version with lamb. Another nice evening, and our last in Salalah.

Al-Nahdah Tower (right outside the hotel), and moon over Salalah

Posted by ToonSarah 08:35 Archived in Oman Tagged trees night desert mosque restaurant history ruins views hotel tomb oman customs street_photography frankincense salalah Comments (14)

East and west of Salalah

Oman day nine

View Oman 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Camels on the road near Mirbat

Despite my tiredness I had taken some time to fall asleep last night, partly at least because of the noise of city traffic from the road outside which was quite busy even at that late hour. But eventually I did sleep, and slept quite well, although woke up earlier than necessary and than I would have liked.

Walking to breakfast along the hotel’s wide marble-floored corridors only strengthened our first impressions that it was rather a strange place. It reminded me a little of the old Soviet hotels we had stayed in many years ago in Moscow and what was then Leningrad - I half-expected to see a floor attendant at the table near the lifts! The decorative details however definitely owed more to the Middle East than to Eastern Europe, and unlike those Soviet hotels this one was very new, clean and shiny.

Corridors of the Haifa House Hotel, with decorative tiling

And when we arrived in the restaurant on the third floor it was to find it deserted, although breakfast should have been well under way. There was a Marie Celeste air about the place, with all the tables set and plentiful hot and cold food on offer, but no diners! One other man did appear when we were half way through our meal, but no one else. Disappointingly the coffee was instant, and the mango juice canned, but we both found something that appealed to us to eat.

The deserted breakfast room

At 8.30 we met up with our guide for the day, Hussain, and what an excellent guide he was to prove to be - very flexible and eager to give us a good day out that matched our interests, and full of fascinating bits of information.


The plan was to explore sights to the east of the city in the morning and to the west in the afternoon. Our first destination was Taqah, a sardine fishing village, where we stopped briefly to take some photos of the beach.

The beach at Taqah

Nearby Hussain showed us some replicas of the type of home used in this region in the past. I asked him when these homes would have been in use and was surprised to be told that it was as recently as 1970, the year which brought such significant change to Oman. This was the year when the present sultan, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup and set about modernising the country.

Replica of a typical old home

Animals would have lived in a shelter like this

Boat at the replica dwellings site

Although oil had already been discovered here in the 1960s, under the old sultan’s repressive regime the people of the country did not get any real economic benefits from the early years of oil production. At the point when Qaboos assumed power, Oman was considered one of the most technologically and educationally deprived countries in the world. In the first 25 years of his reign it moved from a largely feudal society (hence the primitive huts) to a rapidly developing modern one. In 1970 the country had just three schools (all private) with a total of 900 students (all boys). By 1995 it had more than 1,002 schools with 481,100 students, of whom nearly half were girls. Literacy climbed from near zero to 41% (much higher among the under 30s). In 1970 Oman had six miles of paved roads. By 1995 there were 22,800 miles of paved roads, including multi-lane highways making it possible to drive in a single day from Muscat to Salalah – a journey that would have necessitated two weeks by camel caravan a quarter of a century before.

It was only now that we had travelled to the south ourselves and started to talk about Oman’s recent past with Hussain (who like ourselves is old enough to remember the 1960s, prior to the coup), that I began to really appreciate how rapidly and radically the country had changed.

Taqah Castle

The entrance to Taqah Castle

We visited the small and nicely restored Taqah Castle. This was built in the 19th century as a private residence for a local tribal leader, Sheikh Ali bin Taman Al Ma’shani – grandfather of the mother of Sultan Qaboos. It became the property of the government in the first half of the 20th century, under the previous sultan, although it continued to be used as the office and residence of the Wali of Taqah until 1970. It was expanded during the 1960s with the addition of an outer wall with four towers, and fully restored to be opened as a museum in 1994, to mark the Omani Year of Heritage.

The museum here documents traditional life in Oman – farming, cooking, home life and costume etc. The entrance room is known as the Barza – this is where visitors would wait for an audience with the sheikh. Here Hussain pointed out the traditional burner for frankincense, upon which much of the economy of this Dhofar region is based. He explained how every Omani home burns this fragrant resin daily, and also talked about the rather different purpose of incense, which traditionally is used by women to fragrance their clothing – they burn the incense and drape their clothes on a wooden framework directly above it.

In the Barza

Hussain with frankincense burner

From here we went into the courtyard where an old Indian Almond tree grows, along with a number of palms. The various rooms opening off this courtyard on the ground floor house displays on themes such as ‘crafts’, ‘costume’ and ‘farming’. Of these I enjoyed the costume displays the most.

In the courtyard

Green almonds

But what I liked much more were the rooms on the upper floor, furnished as they would have been when this was the sheikh’s home. In the Wali’s bedroom we saw the traditional curtained bed and displays of pottery that would have been collected, through trade, from places such as China, India, Europe and Zanzibar. Clothing hung from a peg on the wall next to the bed and Hussain persuaded me to dress up as an Omani woman and pose with him!

The Wali's Bedroom

With Chris, with Hussain and alone!

Also on this floor is the children’s room with a covered cradle. Chris asked about the large number of almost identical peacock pictures on the walls of all the rooms, but all Hussain could tell us was that it is a traditional image often seen in palaces etc.

The children's room

In the women's room

In the women’s room there are chests use to store clothing and more pottery and peacock paintings. Jewellery was hung on the walls to act as an ornamental feature when not being worn.


Sumhuram from the entrance gate

Our next stop was at the archaeological site of Sumhuram, also known as Khawr Rhori or Khor Rori. Before visiting the site itself we watched a short video, in English, which really brought the history of this former port alive. There has been a port here since the 3rd century BC, which from the 1st century BC onwards became especially significant in the export of frankincense from Oman. This site, along with two other archaeological sites in Dhofar and the reserve of Wadi Dawkah, are jointly listed by UNESCO under the title of ‘Land of Frankincense’ for their outstanding universal value. The listing states that, ‘The four components of the Land of Frankincense dramatically illustrate the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries. They constitute outstanding testimony to the civilizations in south Arabia since the Neolithic.’

Among the ruins

The fortified town of Sumhuram was built to guard the port which lies just below on a natural inlet from the sea. Today that inlet is separated from the sea by a sand bar and is home to flamingos and many migratory birds. After watching the video we walked around the partially restored city walls with Hussain, enjoying views down to the lagoon.

View of the lagoon from Sumhuram

Flamingos in the lagoon

View from Sumhuram

Inside the old walls archaeologists were at work, led by a team from Pisa in Italy. Only last week, we were told, one of them had found an old coin here.


Archaeologists at work

We saw the small gate which led down to the port, and the much larger main gate which faced inland and had several right-angled turns to make it easier to defend. Inscriptions have been found on this gate which have helped historians piece together the story of the city and its importance to the frankincense trade. It was, as the leaflet we were given describes it, ‘a global trade hub’, a significant link in the network that linked the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Mediterranean.

The main gate

We walked through this gate to the former residential area. Only the foundations of the houses remain, but they would once have stood two stories high.



In the residential area

After exploring the ruins we drove down to the small museum near the gate where various finds from the site are exhibited. We both found the whole place fascinating - even Chris who is not often especially interested in the past!

The museum

Museum exhibit
- a little bronze lion from the 1st century BC, found in a small shrine in Sumhuram

The Tomb of Bin Ali

Our next stop was at this small white tomb, tucked into the hillside and surrounded by the tombstones of an old cemetery.


At the Tomb of Bin Ali

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Ali al Alawi, to give him his full name, is said to be descended from a son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. He was born in Yemen from where he emigrated to the nearby town of Mirbat, where he died around 1160. His tomb is a place of pilgrimage for Sunni Muslims in particular, because of this connection to the Prophet.

The Tomb of Bin Ali

Hussain had warned us that the man on duty here was often unwelcoming and barred visitors from entering the tomb. But he must have been having an exceptionally good day, as not only did he allow us to enter (shores off, naturally) but even to take a photo, despite several signs forbidding this. I was surprised when Hussain indicated that permission had been given, as we hadn’t even asked, but perhaps not as surprised as Hussain himself moments later when the man invited us to drink a coffee and offered us halwa to accompany it. Hussain had never received such a welcome here!

Inside the tomb

Signs banning photography!

Outside Hussain explained that the cemetery was still in use, despite the appearance of great age, and that many wanted to be buried here because of the proximity to the saint. He pointed out a very new gravestone as that of a lady who had died recently at the age of 115, a noted Islamic scholar.

New gravestone, Tomb of Bin Ali cemetery

About Dhofar

As we drove to our next stop in Mirbat, Hussain told us a lot about some more recent history, when British forces supported the then-sultan in overcoming revolutionaries in a battle here in 1972. Dhofar, although part of Oman, has always had a distinct and separate identity, due in part perhaps to the very different climate. We had been surprised when Assad had driven us to the airport in Muscat yesterday to catch our flight to Salalah, when he told us that he, like many residents of the capital, takes holidays here in the summer because it is much cooler. My assumption would have been that being further south, and a few degrees hotter in winter (it was close to 30 degrees today, for instance, rather than the mid 20s we had been experiencing in and around Muscat), that the same would apply in summer. On the contrary, the mountains of this region, Jebel Dhofar, are shrouded in cloud from June to September and monsoon rains fall. Those who live on the mountains are known as jibalis and have their own culture and languages. Hussain told us he himself was from a mountain village and grew up speaking no Arabic.

On the road with Hussain

All of this is by way of background to what happened in 1962, when a tribal leader, Mussalim bin Nafl, formed a rebel group known as the Dhofar Liberation Front, supported by Saudi Arabia. They started to attack oil industry sites, government posts and also the British base in Salalah. Following an assassination attempt on the sultan in 1966 the latter took refuge in his palace in Salalah and more or less left his British allies to provide the resistance to the rebellion.

Camels near Sumhuram

The fighting was still on-going four years later when the current sultan, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew his father. One of his first priorities was to try to bring peace to Dhofar. He declared an end to the archaic status of Dhofar as the Sultan's private fief, incorporating it fully into Oman. He offered an amnesty to all who had opposed his father, but military action against those who did not accept that offer. The greatest resistance continued to be in Dhofar, so the British SAS was drafted in to help bring the rebellion to an end. They worked effectively with the sultan to win over local people by building hospitals and schools and providing access to fresh water.

While some rebels were won over and defected to the sultan’s army, forming units known as firqa. Fighting continued for some years until a decisive battle here in Mirbat, in 1972. A small group of firqa fighters and SAS troops held the British base against an attack from over 250 rebel troops (some sources say 400), who suffered heavy losses. After this they were never as effective and lost more support. Over the next few years many surrendered, while others sought sanctuary in neighbouring Yemen. The rebellion was finally declared at an end in January 1976.

Frankincense tree near Sumhuram

All of this was new to us and was very useful context for our visits to some of the places around Salalah, as well as to our overall impressions of Oman.


Our first stop in Mirbat was at the old port, no longer much used, where a few rusty canons point out to sea.

The view from Mirbat Castle


Canons at Mirbat Castle

Next to the canons is Mirbat’s castle, which was at the heart of the battle. Like Tarqa it has been well (and only very recently) restored. This was another interesting visit, and a further example of how Oman is developing its tourist infrastructure. The castle, which is free to visit, displays its artefacts attractively in a series of themed rooms, while an audio guide in multiple languages can be triggered in each room to give you as much information as you might want, or left silent according to preference.

Model of a dhow


Chest and coffee pots

Displays focused on life in the region, as at Tarqa, but there was more of a museum feel here, with jewellery displayed in glass cases, for instance, and none of the rooms furnished as they might have been historically, as we had seen there. But there were costumes showing the variations among the different tribes of the region, a beautiful model dhow, colourful cushions piled high in a storeroom, household goods such as pottery and coffee pots, and a lot of information boards covering topics including Oman’s wildlife.

Costume and cushions

We didn’t spend long here however, as we had already seen similar objects at Tarqa, and had heard explanations about them there from Hussain. Instead we drove through the deserted village, stopping in the centre for a few photos. This village was abandoned after the battle but a few houses are now being restored. Most of the villagers however now live in modern houses nearby.

Old houses in Mirbat

Building details, Mirbat

The gate to the village has been restored and I think may have had Dutch support as information boards on its supporting columns describe how Mirbat was selected by an open-air museum in Nijmegen as the model for its Arabic village. I think the signs must refer to the Museumpark Orientalis which started life as a Christian museum bringing the sights of the Holy Land to people unlikely to ever visit it but has since expanded to cover Judaism and Islam too.

The restored gate, and Hussain in Mirbat

After a short walk in the old village Hussain drove over to the newer part and its fishing port, where we had a pleasant stroll along the jetty. Here we saw fishermen landing their catch of small sharks and lots of sea birds. I was rather taken by the attractive Sooty gulls.

Sooty gulls


We had good views across to the old town and beach from here.

Views of Mirbat from the fishing port

Mirbat fisherman

Hussain explained that the smaller boats were used by Omanis, while the larger dhows, although owned by Omanis, were usually crewed by Bengalis who were happier than locals to be at sea for days on end.


Traditional dhows in Mirbat

Catch of the day - shark

Dhofar’s Desert Rose

In the museum at Sumhuram I had spotted and commented on some photos of an unusual plant, and Hussain now offered to take us to see some growing, in a break from the planned itinerary. He explained that he had only recently learned where they grew, after driving a Swiss botanist to the spot when he came to Salalah expressly to see them, and that the botanist had considered them rare enough to be an exciting sight. While knowing nothing about botany, I do love flowers (who doesn't?!) and photographing them, and we were both intrigued to be able to see such a rarity.

Adenium dhofarense

Hussain didn’t know their name, but he did take us straight to the right spot, just a little way off the main road west of Mirbat. I have since searched for information about this plant online and believe this must be Adenium dhofarense which is endemic to the Dhofar coast of Oman and the adjacent mountains of Yemen. It is related to Adenium obesum, the Desert Rose, but considered different enough to be a distinct species. And not only was it exciting to see this endemic species, the plant also proved to be very photogenic, with stumpy bulbous trunks reminiscent of a baobab tree and very pretty flowers.

Adenium dhofarense

Wadi Darbat

We were learning that Hussain liked to be a bit flexible with the itinerary and suggest places that might interest us, and we were happy to go along with his suggestions as he clearly knows this area well. The newer fishing port in Mirbat had not been on the programme proposed by our tour company, and of course the detour to see the Adenium dhofarense was also an extra. Now he suggested another detour, to Wadi Darbat, which he said it would be a shame not to see while in the area. As before we agreed, and found ourselves being driven up and over a ridge in the mountains to a surprisingly verdant valley, although Hussain told us that in the summer months, when the Dhofar region experiences monsoon rains, the mountains all around these parts are cloaked in green.

Wadi Darbat

We soon saw the reason for the relative lushness here, even in these winter months, as a river runs through the valley. We stopped at a spot where it had formed a beautiful blue-green pool ringed with small waterfalls, its waters then feeding a larger waterfall below. The pool was fuller than is usual at this time of year, said Hussain, because of heavy rains two months ago.

Waterfalls at Wadi Darbat

After taking our photos here we drove on to the head of the valley, but although the scenery was pretty it couldn’t compete with the pools lower downstream so I took relatively few photos here, although I was struck by the lovely yellow flowers growing in abundance.

At the end of the drive, Wadi Darbat

This is a popular destination for Omanis visiting Salalah in the summer monsoon season, known as Khareef, as the lake offers swimming and boating in a pretty setting along with facilities such as restaurants and picnic places.

Lunch in Salalah

From Wadi Darbat we drove back to Salalah, avoiding the camels!

On the road back to Salalah

We had lunch at a restaurant in town, confusingly named both China Palace and The Curry. The décor was pure Chinese, the food mainly Indian but with one Chinese dish to add to the confusion - rice, garlic naan, vegetable curry, chicken masala curry and (the Chinese touch) beef with vegetables. Despite, or perhaps because of, the culture clash, the food was excellent – the best lunch we ate in Oman for sure, and one of the best meals.


China Palace / Curry restaurant

I worked out later that a Chinese restaurant called China Palace had recently been taken over by another one elsewhere in town, called The Curry, hence the double branding!

A controversial highway

After lunch we saw something of the area west of the city. We drove out past the port which is run by Danish company Maersk, and along the coast.

The coast road west of Salalah

A detour into the mountains to see frankincense trees was part of the agenda, but Hussain first took us further along the road in order to show us the engineering achievements of the British company which built it. He told us that company belonged to Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark, and that this project was cited as an example of how he benefitted unfairly from association with his mother. Hussain added however that Omanis were grateful for the British engineering skills that had made this road possible.

The major road project

I did some searching after our return as I hadn’t been aware of any involvement by Mark Thatcher in Oman, although I of course knew about his reputation in general. I found that there was indeed some scandal involving him in the awarding of a construction contract in the early 1980s, although that appears to have been for the building of a university in Oman, not a road. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this project too had been somehow connected! And our detour certainly gave us an opportunity to not only admire the engineering of this road but also enjoy another spectacular Omani landscape.

Mountain landscape near Salalah


On the way back to the coast Hussain stopped by one of the frankincense trees (Latin name Boswellia sacra) so we could get a closer look, and showed us how the valuable resin seeps from the trunk once the bark has been (expertly) stripped back.

Frankincense trees

Hussain by a frankincense tree, and the resin oozing out

The story of the Dhofar region is inextricably linked to this one tree and the wealth that flowed from trading its resin – a historical precursor to the more recent history of oil in this part of the world perhaps?

Landscape with frankincense trees

Coastal views

As we drove back towards the coast Hussain stopped once more and invited us to follow a short track up a ridge. Camels were grazing on the rocky slopes around us, and at the top we were treated to a view of a beautiful cove below us. Its white sand and turquoise waters would not look out of place on a Caribbean island!

Camels by the sea

Looking down on the cove

Looking in the other direction, towards Salalah, we could see Mughsail Beach and the coastline beyond, while inland were more of those stunning mountain views.

The view east

And looking inland


Our final stop of the day was by the white sand beach of Mughsail. It is famous locally for the blow-holes in the rocks below Marneef Cave at its western end, although at this time of year they don’t do a lot of blowing! We did hear the sea roaring below us when we walked up to the point, and felt the rush of air into the passageways, but no water appeared during the time we were watching.

Cliffs at Mughsail

Mughsail coastline

The main attraction here for me was the beautiful line of cliffs beyond the point.

Coastal views near Mughsail

After spending a little time taking photos, we rejoined Hussain who had waited for us in the café near where he had parked. He suggested a drink so we both enjoyed a lemon mint while he had a coffee. We wanted to treat him, but he insisted on treating us, as his guests. We sat for quite a while over our drinks. It was a really pleasant way to round off our day out, sitting in a place with such a beautiful view and chatting about this and that – the rapid changes in Oman in recent times, the benefits of travel in promoting tolerance, his time living in England and more.

Chris and Hussain in the cafe at Mughsail

When we said goodbye to Hussain back at our hotel, both he and we were hoping that he would be allocated as our guide for our city tour the day after tomorrow (spoiler alert - he was!)

Dinner at Baalbek

After a week of hotel buffets, it was a bit of a treat this evening to be able to choose a restaurant to visit and to choose from a menu once there, as our stay at Haifa House was on a B&B basis. On reading online reviews I had picked out a Lebanese restaurant, Baalbek, as a promising option – the prices seemed reasonable and the food sounded good. It was just a little too far to walk, so we asked the receptionist to order a taxi for 8.00 PM. Our driver was prompt and tried only half-heartedly to charge more than Hussain had told us was the going rate. Incidentally, when we had consulted him about taxis earlier, Hussain had offered to come and pick us up to take us to the restaurant this evening, but we had of course declined as we had no intention of putting him to that much trouble!

Baalbek Restaurant

The restaurant proved to be as good as I had heard. We sat on the terrace outside and enjoyed starters of hummus and moutabel followed by lamb kebab with thyme for me, and one of chicken marinated in yoghurt for Chris. There was a complementary plate of watermelon and small cups of sweet Omani tea for dessert, and the bill for the two of us was just around £18.

Yoghurt marinated chicken kebab

Hummus and moutabel

The taxi driver who had brought us here turned up on spec just as we were paying the bill, so of course we rewarded his business endeavour by choosing him for our ride back to the hotel – the end of a full and excellent day!

Posted by ToonSarah 11:57 Archived in Oman Tagged mountains people birds boats castles food fishing mosque flowers restaurant coast history ruins hotel village museum camel oman salalah Comments (13)

From Muscat to the south

Oman day eight

View Oman 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Shia Sur al Lewatia Mosque, Muttrah

Although our room at Al Falaj Hotel was comfortable, we were woken far too early (just after 5.00 am) by the noise of the TV in the room next door. Some people have no consideration for others! As on our first day in Oman we had breakfast outside by the pool, enjoying the warm sunshine. At 8.30 Said picked us up for our city tour on what was to be our last day with him as our guide.

Breakfast at the Al Falaj hotel

Muscat city tour: Muttrah

We started our city tour in the district known as Muttrah, its commercial heart – home to the city’s port and a number of sights.

The first stop on our tour was at the fish market, a modern building down by the waterfront at one end of the Corniche. I liked the design - the roof looks a bit like fish scales, and although not obvious from ground level, when I looked at the building later on Google maps (satellite view) I could see that the shape echoes that of a fish – very clever!

Muttrah fish market

Muttrah fish market on Google maps

Muttrah fish market

Sign in the market
- English on this side, Arabic on the reverse

We strolled through, taking photos of both fish and fish-sellers - some of the latter were happy to pose, other shots had to be grabbed surreptitiously.


In Muttrah fish market



I think these are red mullet

In the next-door vegetable market too we found most people tolerant of our cameras, although we didn’t spend long here as we had already been in the one in Nizwa a few days ago.

Happy to pose

Dates for sale

Our next destination after visiting the markets was the souk, and Said suggested that we might like to walk there along Muttrah’s famous Corniche while he moved the car, to save us walking back the same way afterwards.

Pavilion on Muttrah Corniche

We enjoyed our walk in the warm sun, taking photos as we went. The mosque is the Shia Sur al Lewatia Mosque with a Shia community living in a walled area, off-limits to visitors, nearby – a sign on the mosque also made it clear that non-Muslim visitors were not permitted to enter.

Shia Sur al Lewatia Mosque, Muttrah

A heron on the rocks below caught my eye. He was diving regularly for fish and I managed to catch him in action after a few failed attempts!


Heron, Muttrah

There was a cruise ship in port (just visible in the background on the far left of my image below) and at first I thought the large boats moored nearer to shore were smaller cruise ships, but Said enlightened me when we met up a bit later – these are the private yachts of the Sultan!

The Sultan's yachts

We met up with Said again outside the souk and went in to explore on our own while he waited at a coffee shop outside. I had read that the souk was modern and had expected the rather sterile atmosphere of the one I visited in Abu Dhabi last year so was pleasantly surprised to find that this one has lots more character. There were lots of tourists, in particular from the large cruise ship we had seen moored in the port, but it was clear that locals also shop here, especially when you penetrate a little further from the Corniche entrance.

For the most part we simply enjoyed just wandering around, absorbing all the activity around us. Of course I also took lots of photos and found this easier than in many other similar places. Most of the shop-keepers seemed not to be bothered that they might be in my photos, although a few of these were ‘shot from the hip’.

Muttrah Souk

In Muttrah Souk

Local family

Many of the stalls of course sell quite similar goods, most of them (but not all) aimed at tourists rather than locals. Omani antiques sit alongside tacky souvenirs, knock-off football strips alongside t-shirts adorned with camels and palm trees, cheap bangles alongside rather lovely silver jewellery and so on. Of course being Oman there is frankincense – in fact, this is, according to the Rough Guide, ‘one of the few markets in the world where it’s possible to buy gold, frankincense and myrrh all under a single roof’.


Shops in the souk

I found the levels of hassle from sellers here somewhat less than in some other places we have visited, notably Marrakesh, although a few were rather quick to pounce when I stopped to look, and pressed me to buy something. This had the usual opposite effect from the one they intended as I moved swiftly on! But I did want to get one or two souvenirs and after browsing for a while chose a pretty scarf. The vendor wanted 6 rials, I offered 3 and we settled on 3.500, which I felt was fair. We also got a cushion cover for 2.500 - the seller admitted that, as I suspected, it was made in India rather than Oman, but we liked it and it will go with our décor and with the similar cushion we bought in Udaipur.

For sale in the souk

Leaving the souk we joined Said at the coffee shop but after waiting twenty minutes for them to bring the mango juice we’d ordered we told them not to bother as we were keen to get on with seeing the sights and had in truth wanted the brief rest more than the drinks! Said had done his best to chivvy them along and as we left mentioned that he would probably not take visitors there in the future – there are certainly plenty to choose from along the Corniche.

Muscat city tour: Old Muscat

After visiting the souk we drove to the oldest part of Muscat, which is separated from Muttrah by a headland, Riyam. Said stopped at a spot with a good view of the old houses and forts beyond, so we could take a few photos. In my photo below you can see the two forts on the left – Al Marani nearer the camera and Al Jalali just behind. From this vantage point the two forts appear to be close together but are in fact on either side of the bay. In the middle of that bay is a blue building with white arches and an Omani flag which can be seen on the right side of my photo. This is the royal palace, Al Alam, which we were to visit later.

View of the old city

Al Marani and Al Jalali forts

On the left side of the city as we looked down on it, we could see the restored city gate, now a history museum. Up until the mid 20th century these gates were closed at night, three hours after dusk, and anyone going out after that time had by law to carry a lantern. We were to learn a lot about the restrictive laws under the old sultan from Hussein, our guide in Salalah, so my guess is that this is another example of these.

The restored city gate

We drove down into the old city to visit the Bait al Zubair museum, which is privately-owned but (judging by the large banner outside) government supported. The exhibits are split between several separate and rather attractive old buildings.

Banner, and colourful door at the Bait al Zubair museum

To my frustration no interior photos are allowed so I can’t share any of the exhibits, but those I found most interesting included old prints and photos of Muscat, regional costumes, jewellery and some beautiful wooden doors. I was intrigued by the room layouts of the 1940s and 50s, based on the living quarters of the late Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali (who founded the museum) and featuring furniture that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an English country house during the same era.

There was also a temporary exhibition of paintings by an Iranian artist, Mina Rezaee, called Women and the World of Traditions. You can see some examples of her work on this website: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/mina-rezaee.html. Some of those paintings were included in the exhibition, including several in the series of Middle Eastern Women.

We also liked another temporary exhibition, in the café where we had a cold drink, of rather good photos of owls. Somehow however we managed to miss the garden with a miniature Omani village, which we could have photographed – a very rare example of Said failing to mention something we would have liked to see!

But we did spot a number of painted goats, following the trend started, I believe, by the Cow Parades which began around the turn of the century.

Painted goat outside the Bait al Zubair museum, and attractive wall lamp

From here we drove the short distance to the striking royal palace, Al Alam. The name means ‘The Flag’ in Arabic and this is one of six royal residences in the country – although in practice it is more of a ceremonial palace than a residence. It was built in 1972 on the site of an earlier royal palace, which had stood here for about 200 years.


Al Alam Palace

The design is contemporary Islamic, with echoes of the past in the use of columns, arched windows and tiles, but modern in its lines and very colourful, especially when set among the beautifully planted flower beds. Around the main palace are a number of more restrained white government buildings – also modern but with more traditional elements in their design.

Al Alam Palace, with government building beyond

Coat of arms on the palace gate

Both here and in other conversations with Said, as well as with the guides we met in Salalah, it was clear that the Omani people love their sultan and are full of praise for all he has done to build a modern, tolerant society.

Again Said left us to walk around the palace on our own and met us on the far side with the car.

Side view of the palace, with gardens and egret

This gave us a closer look at Al Mirani Fort and the Al Khor Mosque which stands beneath it. This fort was built in 1550 by the Portuguese in an effort to defend the city against the frequent attacks of the Ottomans. A legend describes how this fort played an important role in expelling the Portuguese from Muscat in the mid-17th century. According to the story the Portuguese commander, Pereira, fell in love with the daughter of a local Hindu merchant, Narutem, who forbade them to marry on religious grounds. When the commander threatened to ruin him, Narutem pretended to give in and agree to the marriage. He spent an entire year appearing to prepare for the wedding, cleaning the fort’s water tanks, replacing old contaminated gunpowder and restocking supplies of grain and other food. However, what he actually did was slowly clear the fort of all ammunition. When all the supplies were removed, he signalled to his ruler Sultan bin Saif so he could attack and easily conquer the defenceless fort.

Al Marani Fort

Minaret of Al Khor Mosque and Al Mirani Fort

After picking us in the car on the far side Said stopped again briefly so we could get photos of Al Jalali Fort on the other side of the bay. This was built in 1587, after Al Mirani had been partly destroyed in an Ottoman attack. It in turn fell to Omani forces in 1650. It later served as a jail, into much of the 20th century, but was restored in the 1980s and converted to become the sultan’s private museum of Omani cultural history, open only to dignitaries visiting the country as it is cut off from the rest of the city by the government buildings attached to the royal palace.

Al Jalali Fort

Said also pointed out the graffiti on the rocky islet across the bay. Traditionally visiting sailors would paint the name of their ship here, forming an unofficial log book.

Rocks and forts near Muscat Harbour

I was intrigued by these and later dug up the following quote from a book by James Morris, ‘Sultan in Oman’, published in 1957:

‘Hundreds of naval names were therefore on the rock, some of them freshly painted, some of them so faded that you could barely make out their letters. There were innumerable good old British names like Teazer or Surprise, and several American and Indian ships were also represented. One inscription records a visit by H.M.S. Hardinge, the ship which hovered so effectively along the Arabian shore during the Arab Revolt and which the Arabs thought must be peaceably inclined because she had only one funnel. I sympathised with the generations of midshipmen who had climbed those rugged rocks with their painting parties, in the heat of the Muscat sun…. I was all very well when the ship's name was Swan, Fox, or teal, but imagine painting H.M.S. Duchess of Edinburgh on the bare rocks in such an inferno! Some people thought the efforts of such resolute sailors had disfigured the captivating harbour of Muscat. I like the inscriptions, for they reminded me of the Greek travellers who carved comments upon the Collosi of Memnon, at Thebes, and of the generations of explorers who cut their names upon the rock of El Moro in Mexico; and anyway an honest British naval name never disfigured anything. The Sultan liked them, too. He called the anchorage "my visitors' book".’

Legend has it that Horatio Nelson, when a young midshipman, himself scrambled up these rocks to leave the name of his ship here. Although most of the ‘signatures’ are old, a few are more recent. The name RELUME on the rocks just above the small fort which guards the entrance to the bay (visible in my photo above) is that of an offshore supply vessel that has also helped in a number of recovery operations in the Gulf. Others in that photo may be harder to make out, but include at least one in a Cyrillic script (right at the top, just left of the watchtower) and several from New Zealand including HMNZS Canterbury.

Other names I spotted in our brief stop here included HMS Perseus, painted just above the water line in the middle of the island with the added detail of a Union Jack. This is probably the signature of HM Submarine Perseus which was built in 1929 and struck a mine off Italy in 1941.

Writing on the rocks

And HMS Falmouth which visited Muscat in 1974. This ship was built at the Swan Hunter yards on Tyneside in the 1950s so Chris can claim some connection to it, having been born just a couple of miles away and in the same decade!

HMS Falmouth

Said also obligingly stopped on our way back to Mutttrah so that I could get some good photos of the enormous incense burner which stands on the Riyam headland at the western end of the Corniche.

Riyam incense burner

Back to the Corniche

By now it was time for lunch. The plan was to eat in a restaurant back near the souk but we had to park some distance away as everywhere was full. On a Saturday there is free parking in the city and everyone seemed to be taking advantage of it! But luckily we found a spot back near the fish market and again walked along the Corniche to the restaurant, Al Rafee. This was on the first floor above a shop. In appearance it was nothing special, even a little grubby looking, but the meal Said ordered was delicious and plentiful - grilled fish, spicy vegetables, rice with lamb, chicken curry, more vegetables in a Thai-style coconut sauce and naan bread. Every time I thought there was surely enough for the three of us on the table, another dish appeared! I have a feeling Said was pulling out all the stops for our last meal together, although he didn’t say so. The meal was washed down with my favourite refreshing lemon mint juice.

Sleepy cats outside the restaurant

Al Rafee Restaurant

As we walked back to the car I took some photos of a few of the older buildings on the Corniche which I believe are merchants’ houses from the 19th century.

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Old merchants' house on the Corniche

Sunset cruise (?)

We went back to the hotel for a short rest while Said went to the mosque. The next thing on our itinerary was supposed to be a sunset cruise on a dhow, but when he returned to pick us up Said broke the slightly disappointing news that the dhows were fully booked with cruise passengers (a large P&O ship was docked today and we had been seeing the passengers on their shore excursions everywhere we went in the city). As an alternative we were to go on a modern ‘speedboat’ cruise instead, which sounded like an OK compromise. After all, I reasoned, we would still have the sunset views and it wouldn’t be so very different as once on the boat the views mattered more than its appearance. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Muscat Marina

Said drove us over to the marina and made a fruitless last ditch effort to get us on a dhow while we took a few photos and soaked up the late afternoon sun. Then it was time to board what proved to be a very small boat, along with three German tourists who had presumably also been ‘bumped’.

A dhow - the sort of boat we should have been on!

Our ride took us south down the coast from the marina to the luxury Al Bustan and Shangri La hotels, and past some interesting rock formations.

The Al Bustan Hotel

Coastal scenery

Rock formations

Rock formations

Rock formations

The light was lovely but it was hard to get decent photos from the rocking boat, although the pilot did stop at the most interesting points and turn slowly so that everyone got a chance.

The pilot didn’t speak much English (or German) but Said translated his occasional bits of commentary into both languages so that our companions could also understand. From one of these snippets we learned that this rock is said to resemble a baby elephant. No, I couldn’t see it at first but if you peer carefully you can just make it out, although it’s maybe more like a hairy mammoth than an elephant!

'Elephant' rock formation

Now you see it!

We then returned past the marina and past the old city. We got another look at the ‘sultan’s visitors’ book’ and the forts guarding the bay.

The 'sultan's visitors' book' from the sea

Watchtowers from the sea

We could also appreciate from here the scale of the Al Alam Palace and the way in which it dominates the waterfront here.

Al Alam Palace from the sea
- with Al Jalali Fort on the left and Al Mirani Fort on the right

Wishing again that we were on one of these lovely boats!

In my opinion this would have made a great spot from which to wait for the sunset, with the giant incense burner and several watchtowers to lend foreground interest.



Sunset over Muscat

But we continued on to a spot off the Corniche where we were to wait for the sunset. The backdrop here was not especially scenic - rather than the fort or watchtower that I would have chosen we had the cranes of Muttrah’s port area.

Approaching Muttrah

Also, the speed of the boat on the final leg of the ride had meant that my camera got splashed with salty seawater and I found it hard to get the lens clean enough to get decent photos of the sunset itself. Still, I managed a few as the sun descended towards the mountains beyond the port.


Sunset over Muttrah

But if we had been a bit disappointed in our trip to this point, it went further downhill from here. Firstly, the pilot left the bay before the sun had fully set, so we missed the ‘magic moment’, having turned our backs on it! Secondly, he then got up such speed on the return to the marina that we got drenched in the spray - not ideal given that we had a flight this evening to Salalah.

Luckily there was to be another short break back at the hotel so we would get a chance to fish dry clothes out of our suitcase and change for the journey. But before that we had to say goodbye to Said who had proved to be as good a guide as we had been promised when we booked the tour. We were sorry to part company, but excited to be heading to a new part of the country for more adventures.

Journey to Salalah

Once in dry clothes we were picked up for our airport transfer by Assad, who had met us there a week ago. He reassured us that the problem with tour company drivers picking up and dropping off passengers at the airport had been resolved, and so it had, as we drove in with no police check in sight. We arrived at Muscat’s attractive modern airport with plenty of time to spare for a coffee and muffin before boarding our plane for the one hour 45 minute flight.

At the airport

The flight passed quite quickly, although we were glad we had eaten something at the airport as the quality of the snack served (a chicken pastry) was disappointing after the good food we had eaten on our flight with Oman Air from London last week.

Salalah Airport is as bright and modern as Muscat’s, and much quieter, plus there was no need for border control formalities as ours was a domestic flight. We were soon emerging into the arrivals hall, where we were met by a very taciturn young rep from the local tour company. He wasn’t even there when we first emerged but had passed the sheet of paper with our names on to another man (presumably while he popped to the loo) and on returning seemed surprised that we had appeared and were claiming to be the passengers he was meeting!

Our room at the Haifa House Hotel

But he did the job of driving us to our hotel, Haifa House, adequately, and even broke his silence to welcome us to Salalah as we left his car – suddenly conscious, I suspect, that a tip might be in the offing (it wasn't!).

By now it was well after midnight and we were tired, so we were glad to have a friendlier welcome from the hotel staff and to have them handle our registration with speed. We were soon in our large room where we got the first clue that this hotel has at times its own way of doing things - an ironing board was set up in a prominent corner by the window! Needless to say, we didn’t bother to do any ironing before falling gratefully into the large comfortable bed!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:56 Archived in Oman Tagged birds boats fish architecture mosque sunset restaurant coast history hotel fort market flight airport palace shopping museum seaside photography oman muscat street_photography salalah Comments (10)

A dramatic drive

Oman day seven

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Sunrise over Jebel Shams

Jebel Misht at sunrise

The extra blankets Said had secured for us meant that we were cosy in bed and slept well. Waking quite early I could see, through the crack I always leave in the curtains while travelling, that the sun was just touching the mountains opposite.

View from our room at sunrise

I dressed quickly in the chilly room and went out with my camera to capture the scene.

Jebel Shams sunrise

I learned later from Said that this first mountain to catch the sun as it rose is Jebel Misht, meaning Hairbrush Mountain!

Jebel Misht at sunrise

By the time that Chris, always slower to get going in the mornings, had joined me outside, the sun was just peeping over the mountains behind the hotel, but the ever-changing light meant that photography was still rather special for some minutes yet.

Sun rising over the resort

View shortly after sunrise

Jebel Shams mountain range just after sunrise

Breakfast was simple but more than adequate, with good fresh fruit, bread and jam (I could also have had processed cheese or honey) and reasonable instant coffee. Then we met up with Said, who never seemed to bother with breakfast, wanting only multiple cups of tea to start his day. And we set off on what was to be possibly the most stunning drive of this already amazing trip!

Back down the mountain

We stopped briefly at the Wadi Nakhal viewpoint, where we had been yesterday evening, to capture the scene in the different light of morning.

At the Wadi Nakhal view point

Morning light at Wadi Nakhal


At the Wadi Nakhal view point

Our purchase

And we stopped even more briefly on our way down the mountain to purchase a woven key chain tassel from a young girl selling them by the roadside. Said bought one too, keen to support the local people in this small way.

The road down was as scenic as it had been coming up, but Said promised us that later today we would be on another road which many visitors had said was, along with the desert, their favourite drive of the tour. I couldn't wait!

Jebel Misht, from the road down from Jebel Shams
- it's easier to see in this shot how it got its name of Hairbrush Mountain



From the road down from Jebel Shams

Misfat Al Abriyeen

We reached the main road and turned back towards Al Hamra, the ruined village we had visited yesterday, and Misfat Al Abriyeen, which was our first destination of this morning. This village derives its name from the Al Abri tribe who used to occupy this region of Oman.

On the way up to the village we passed a small group of camels grazing beside the road, two of them black. Black camels are common in the south of Oman but much less so here in the north.

Black camel on the road to Misfat Al Abriyeen

We parked on the edge of Misfat, near some signs directed at visitors, requesting respectful behaviour and dress. So already we could see that this village, although still partly ruined, is ahead of Al Hamra in restoring its old buildings with a view, in part at least, to attracting tourism.

Rules for visitors

Misfat lies in the foothills of the Hajar Mountains on the southern slope of Jebel Akhdar, about 1,000 feet above sea level. As with Al Hamra yesterday, we were reminded a little of the hill towns of Italy as we walked along its narrow lanes and caught glimpses of the countryside beyond. Agriculture is the basis of the economy here, and the steep hillsides are terraced and irrigated by the traditional falaj system.

View from near the parking area

On the hill above the village is a crumbling watchtower, Fort Rogan. These dot the Omani landscape and while many have been restored by the government I found this semi-ruined one more photogenic. Local stories have it that it was built by a Persian general, Rogan Anu Sharwan, but there is no solid evidence for this.

Fort Rogan

We strolled through the village, taking photos of building details and (with permission) some of the people as we went.

Village houses



Some of the locals

The houses are built partly of stone, partly of adobe, and stand on solid rock foundations, hence the constant ‘up and downhill’ of the paths and the frequent need for stairs. Houses are squeezed together wherever space permitted in a haphazard fashion, many overhanging the lanes. Walking here you almost get the impression that you are in the houses, at times, and because many are still inhabited (unlike Al Hamra) I felt occasionally rather like an intruder and was glad that, following Said, I could be confident of being on a public path!

Walking through the village

One section of the village is off-limits to men, and as I was with Chris and Said I too kept away from this part.

Ladies only beyond this point

Some stone steps led down to the falaj or irrigation channel, which at this spot feeds a stone tank. Local boys were enjoying their weekend break from school by jumping and splashing in the water. I think they were getting as much enjoyment from the tourist attention they were attracting with their antics as they were from the water itself. Said assured me that it was fine to take photos, so I did.


Fun in the water tank ...

... and the audience!

I also turned my camera on their audience of smaller boys at a window above the tank, who performed for me by sticking out their tongues, waving water pistols and even spitting!

Everywhere we went in Oman we bumped into friends of Said’s, and here was no exception. In fact, one friend spotted his distinctive car drive into the village and we were barely out of it before he had texted him! Said asked if we would be happy to have coffee and dates with this friend, which of course we were, so after our walk we met him at a shop on the edge of the village which sells honey and date syrup and dispenses coffee to visitors. We were offered some of the honey to try, both acacia and cedar, and bought a small jar of the latter to take home as a gift for my sister.

Bees at the honey shop
Said with his friend

The honey shop owner

As we drove away from Misfat, Said detoured to a viewpoint in the newer part of the village so that we could take photos from a distance of the old houses and surrounding date plantations. Not only did he have a friend (or several) in every part of the country, he also knew a good viewpoint in each.

View of Misfat Al Abriyeen

The Hat Mountains

Now it was time to head back up into the mountains. Said promised us some exciting driving and dramatic scenery, and he delivered! At first the road that took us upwards was of tarmac, winding up through an almost other-worldly volcanic landscape (Oman has no active volcanoes but many of its mountains were formed through volcanic activity which thrust up the ocean bed under the former Sea of Tethys).




On the road to Sharaf al Alamayn

The road led to the stunning vista over the Hat Mountains at Sharaf al Alamayn, at a height of 2,000 metres above sea level.

View from the Sharaf al Alamayn viewpoint

At the Sharaf al Alamayn viewpoint

I wandered out along a little footpath to peer down into the valley below. I could see the aptly named Snake Canyon which we would be following on our drive.

View from the Sharaf al Alamayn viewpoint

At the Sharaf al Alamayn viewpoint

View from the Sharaf al Alamayn viewpoint

Just after leaving the viewpoint the tarmac ended and the gravel road began.

The tarmac ends

This was serious off-roading, the narrow track clinging to the mountainside with a sheer drop below us. Indeed, Said told us that from time to time a tourist will ask him to turn back at this point, too terrified by the road conditions to want to go further. But I loved it!

View from the road through Wadi Bani Awf

The track (I can’t in fairness call it a road!) led us for about 30 kilometres through Wadi Bani Awf. We climbed and dipped (on two occasions right down to, and into, the water!), twisted and turned. When, infrequently, another vehicle came towards us both that driver and Said needed to manoeuvre carefully to allow the cars to pass. And every dip, every twist and turn, revealed a new amazing view. Some of these photos were snatched from our moving car, some taken when Said was able to stop for me to do so.

Photos taken on the road through Wadi Bani Awf

At one point Said told us to ready our cameras for a surprising sight around the next bend. I was expecting another dramatic vista or maybe an old fort or crumbling building – not a vivid green football pitch! This is the Audi Bilad Sayt Football Field and was provided for the local villages through the sponsorship of the car company of the same name.

The Audi Bilad Sayt Football Field

After this the road went over a ridge, dipped down into the wadi and then climbed again. At one point Said made a 'comfort stop' but while he was happy to pop behind a rock, and Chris felt no need to do so, I decided to hang on as I find seeking such relief in the open air rather challenging! I should perhaps have overcome my scruples however, as there was still a long way to go!

On the road through Wadi Bani Awf

On the road through Wadi Bani Awf
- at the 'comfort stop'

On the road through Wadi Bani Awf
- you can clearly see the folds in the rock that indicate the previous volcanic activity here

The track ran above the dramatic gorge known as Snake Canyon - so named for its shape, not any reptilian inhabitants! At times we could look down into the gorge and see just how narrow it is - very different from Wadi Nakhal, the Grand Canyon of Oman, where we had started today’s drive.

Snake Canyon from the road

Eventually we dipped down again and could briefly look into the mouth of the gorge.

At the far end of Snake Canyon

By now I was starting to regret my decision not to take advantage of Said’s earlier stop and I asked about the possibility of a second one, but the landscape here had even fewer rocks behind which to hide and I had to hang on!

Nearing the end of our drive through Wadi Bani Awf

Then, suddenly, we were back on the tarmac! A newly constructed road took us the last few kilometres along the wadi, still very scenic but a bit less exciting (Said told us that until recently there was an additional 13 kilometres off-road at this point).


The new road brought us to a main road, and that to Nakhal where we parked by the almost deserted souk (deserted because it was Friday). I visited the immaculate public toilets, part of a small and equally deserted shopping mall, with some relief!

We took a few photos of the fort which apparently houses a gun museum, so I wasn’t too sorry that our itinerary didn’t include a visit.

Nakhal Fort

We had a late lunch in a traditional Omani restaurant, Al Barza Heritage Kitchen. The meal was a buffet - I was getting a bit fed up with these, as they are never my favourite form of eating (except at breakfast time) and to this point had been the only options for dinner on this trip. But it was quite nice to be able to choose from the selection of dishes rather than have a set meal put in front of us as we had for previous lunches, and the spicy chucks of tuna, rice, vegetables and traditional bread that I chose were all good, as were the dates and Omani coffee which finished the meal.

Al Barza Heritage Kitchen

Return to Muscat

From Nakhal we took the main highway straight to Muscat, arriving around 4.00 pm. We were spending the night back at the Al Falaj hotel where we had stayed on arriving in Oman last Saturday. This time, disappointingly, there was no upgrade, but our standard room, although compact, was very pleasant.

Decorative detail in our room

Our room for our second stay at the Al Falaj hotel

We spent a couple of hours catching up with the outside world (no WiFi at Jebel Shams), firstly sitting by the hotel pool and later in our room. Our included dinner was as usual a buffet, but better than in most of the hotels we had stayed in so far, with a good selection of starters (I loved the cumin-spiced chickpea and potato salad) and some cooked-to-order noodles. And there was beer! I don’t want to sound over-addicted to alcohol, but somehow soft drinks just don’t go with food, and water gets dull after a while!

Buffet dinner at the Al Falaj hotel

At this point the standard Undiscovered Destinations tour of Oman finishes, but we had booked an extension that tomorrow would see us fly to the south of the country. We were so pleased now that we had done so, as we were certainly not ready to go home!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:47 Archived in Oman Tagged landscapes mountains food road_trip restaurant ruins views hotel fort village camel oman muscat Comments (20)

A return to the mountains

Oman day six continued

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Al Hamra

The tall houses of Al Hamra

After our lunch in Bahla, Said proposed a visit to Al Hamra, originally scheduled on our itinerary for tomorrow, as we had time for an extra stop. This is a more or less ruined village – only one of the houses has so far been restored to serve as a guesthouse, and we noticed another restoration in progress. But for the most part the old houses, many of them 400 years old, are left to crumble.

Here the houses all built of adobe rather than the stone we saw used elsewhere. Many are tall, up to four storeys in height, with ceilings made of palm beams and fronds topped by mud and straw.

Exploring Al Hamra with Said

The village was built on a tilted rock slab and narrow lanes wind up between the houses, reminding us a little of Italy’s hilltop towns. This was possibly my favourite of the several ruined villages we visited in Oman and I took loads of photos during our short walk!

In Al Hamra

Doors in Al Hamra

Because the structures are of adobe there is none of the carving on the walls that we saw in Ibra. The most striking features therefore are the many ornately carved wooden doors and some interesting small windows, some with balconies.

Al Hamra windows

As we left the village Said stopped on the far side of the main road so we could take pictures of the date plantations which lie between the old and new villages, and of the old houses beyond.

Old Al Hamra from the road

The road then ran through a valley, Wadi Ghule, and we stopped again a little further along for views of the plantations and abandoned village ruins of the village of Riwaygh as-Safil opposite – hard to make out against the rocky mountain, apart from where flags had been hung from the crumbling walls.

Wadi Ghule and the ruined houses of Riwaygh as-Safil

The ruined houses of Riwaygh as-Safil

Jebel Shams

Then it was time for a return to the mountains, where we were to spend the night. The road wound up for ages, at first tarmac, later gravel. Jebel Shams is the tallest mountain in Oman at 3,009 metres, and while we didn’t go right to the top (access to which isn’t permitted, as it’s a military area) we did get to over 2,000 metres. The road up was much less developed than the one we had climbed yesterday at Jebel Akhdar but all the more scenic for that perhaps, and I managed to grab a few photos from the car as we climbed.




The road up Jebel Shams

Said parked at the viewpoint for Oman’s Grand Canyon, Wadi Nakhal, which, while not quite on the scale of its US namesake, is pretty stunning. The light wasn’t great for photos - I suspect it rarely if ever is. But it was an impressive enough sight.

Wadi Nakhal vista
- note the figure on the right and lack of fences!

At the Wadi Nakhal vista point

Chris and I walked along near the edge (but not too near - there is no fence for the most part) to reach the highest point while Said drove off to our hotel to check us all in.

Wadi Nakhal vista
- the people standing top right, at the highest point, will give you a sense of scale

At the Wadi Nakhal vista point

Jebel Shams observatory on the far side

When Said returned a short while later it was with the news that he had secured a coveted Sunset Room for us.

Said waiting patiently while we take a few more photos!

But before going to the hotel he had one more stop for us, further along the canyon. From here we could look directly down to the village down in the wadi, almost a kilometre below where we stood!

Looking down into Wadi Nakhal

'Self portrait' with Chris and Said

Jebel Shams Resort

After this it was time to head to the hotel, Jebel Shams Resort. The rooms here are like small chalets, arranged in a circle. Ours was basic but large, with two beds. Outside was a terrace with a picnic table and the promised view towards where the sun would set. There was hot water, but no WiFi, and the room itself was not at all warm, the temperature now having fallen to around 14 degrees (and still an hour before sunset).

Jebel Shams Resort



Our room at Jebel Shams Resort

Once we’d settled in, we put on our jackets and sat outside to watch the sunset, which was pretty special. In an interesting twist, the shape of the mountain opposite caused the sun to appear to set twice! Apologies again for the surfeit of photos to follow!

Taken while waiting for the sunset

Going ...



Or has it?

Wait, it's back!

Definitely gone this time!

After the sunset

We spent the next hour trying in vain to get our room warmer, as the tiny fan heater provided was inadequate to the task and the wall-mounted A/C unit, despite promising 30 degrees, blew out only cool air.

We ate dinner with Said in the restaurant which thankfully was considerably warmer than our room. The vegetable soup was warming too but I didn’t fancy any of the hot dishes on the buffet so I just had some bread and hummus, and a piece of the rather odd bread pudding that was the only option for dessert. Not the best meal we have had in Oman!

We had told Said how cold our room was, and he arranged for the hotel to give us an extra blanket each, both of them very gaudy but soft and warm. We piled these on the beds and sat in them for the rest of the evening to create some warmth ahead of bedtime. This worked, and we snuggled down to sleep quite happily!

Posted by ToonSarah 12:06 Archived in Oman Tagged landscapes mountains sunset views hotel village oman Comments (8)

Souks and castles

Oman day six

View Oman 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.


One of the pools at the Falaj Daris

Breakfast at the Falaj Daris was better than dinner, with a good omelette and reasonable coffee. I took some photos around the hotel before we met up with Said in the lobby at 8.30, with a packed programme of sightseeing ahead of us.

The other pool

Hotel lobby

Hotel sign

Our first stop was in the old centre of Nizwa, where we visited the souks and the fort. Said took us first to a date shop to learn about the different qualities of date (there are 42 varieties in the country) and to sample some of them. I could definitely tell the difference in the quality of the best, known as ‘Khals’.

Entrance to Nizwa souq

Dates for sale

From there we went to a shop making the traditional Omani halwa, a soft sweet made from date syrup and spices, and of course we had to try some of that too.

The halwa shop

We then walked through the produce soup and the spice souk. The latter is the only one that hasn’t been restored and modernised and thus is the only one with much character from a visiting photographer’s perspective. But we left photography till later as first we were to visit the fort with Said.

Nizwa Fort

We arrived at the fort to find a group of singers and musicians performing in the courtyard so stopped to listen and take videos.

Door to the tower

Nizwa Fort is apparently the most visited sight in Oman despite the fact that it is, in my opinion, a little over-restored. I prefer a picturesque ruin, or at least something that feels old. But the restoration has been well done to give a good idea, I believe, of the original structure.

The fort was built in the 1650s on the foundations of earlier defences by Immam BilArab bin Sultan Al Y`aribi (quite a name!) – remember, this part of the country was ruled by the Imams at that time, as only the coast was colonised by the Portuguese (a division that continued into the 19th century and to some extent even the 20th). It guarded a strategic location at the crossroads of trade routes. Its most significant defensive feature is the huge keep or drum tower, which was built when gunpowder was already available in Oman so has many openings for weapons.

It also has the traditional defensive mechanisms common to Omani forts, including narrow slits above the doors known as ‘murder holes’ for pouring boiling water or date juice. These are visible above all the strategic doors in the tower. These doors have smaller ones inset such as we saw in many places in Oman, so that people could come and go without opening the large door – the smaller opening was easier for the guards to control.

The fort was built above an underground stream to ensure a good supply of water even during a siege, and there were several wells which, being inside the castle walls, could not be contaminated by attackers.

The drum tower

We started our visit with Said by climbing the tower. I asked him at the foot how many steps it would be and he said about twenty, but by the time we reached the very top it was clear he had lied! OK, he said, maybe more like thirty – so I counted them on the way down and made it over ninety! Said’s excuse was that if he’d said there were so many I might not have climbed them, but of course I would have done.

Roof of the drum tower, with just a few more steps to go!

It was certainly worth it for the extensive views over the town and countryside beyond. We could see how the town of Nizwa is strung out along the valley, emphasising the importance of the fort’s location.




Views from Nizwa Fort

Most of the rest of the fort buildings are home to a history museum. Photos here show various parts of the building, and the neighbouring souks, before, during and after restoration. The museum also has lots of displays about a variety of topics - Islam in Oman and in Nizwa in particular, mosques, the succession of Imam rulers, a timeline matching significant moments in Oman’s history with those elsewhere, the recorded impressions of famous visitors to the city over the years …. I was most interested in the costumes and silver jewellery, but we didn’t linger very long, as we wanted to be able to spend more time in the souks.


In the museum

Outside we found that the musicians were taking a break and were happy, even eager, to pose for photos, as was the woman demonstrating spinning and weaving.

Musicians at Nizwa Fort

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Some of the musicians, and lady demonstrating spinning

In the souks

By now Said had left us to explore alone and we chose to use our free time to go back to the souks for more photos and perhaps to shop. I loved the atmospheric old spice souk, which also sells practical kitchenware. Despite the fact that we were by no means the only tourists visiting, it felt completely local in nature.


In the old spice souk

From here we returned to the much more modern produce souk, selling mostly fruit and vegetables. Said had warned us that many of the men here didn’t like to have their photo taken, but in fact all but one of those we asked said yes and posed happily (although I confess the bottom photo here was 'shot from the hip'!).

In the produce souk

On the upper floor is the handicrafts souk, where I thought I might find a souvenir or two. But I was disappointed with the range of goods on display, most of which seemed to come from outside the country, e.g. Africa and India. We were surprised too to see ivory, crocodile handbags and other banned animal products - presumably they are permitted if they qualify as antiques?

Lamps for sale in the handicrafts souk

The shops surrounding the fort and souks sold mostly crafts and other souvenirs aimed squarely at the tourist market, apart from one section which had a line of shops selling weapons – I have since read that these are strictly for hunting purposes!

Weapons shop

Shop signs in Oman tend towards the literal!

Friendly cat

Sewing machine repairer, and old door

We bought a cold drink in the souk’s coffee shop and took it outside to enjoy in the ‘tourist rest area’ where we had arranged to meet Said. A friendly little tabby cat came along and was happy to let us make a fuss of her. Then Said arrived and it was time to return to the car to start today's drive out of Nizwa and back up into the mountains.

On the way out of Nizwa we passed the Grand Mosque, the second largest in the country after Muscat’s and like that one a gift to the people from Sultan Qaboos, but only completed two years ago. At Said’s suggestion we also stopped to use the loos at our hotel before the drive to Jabrin.

Nizwa's Grand Mosque, from the car

Jabrin Castle

Arriving at Jabrin we bumped into another friend of Said’s, this time a former teacher, and had a brief chat before going inside.

Said with his former teacher

Jabrin (also spelled Jabreen) Castle is a very different fortification to Nizwa Fort, and I liked it much more. It was built between 1679-1692 under the same imam who was responsible for Nizwa, Immam BilArab bin Sultan Al Y`aribi. By the time Jabrin was built the country was more stable, so although it has defensive elements, it was built primarily as a home for the imam and his family and as a place for Islamic education. The imam had moved the capital here from Nizwa (it was to move back again after his death) so this was a place where he received important guests and resolved legal disputes among his people.

Jabrin Castle

It’s possible to hire audio guides here but we went around with Said who pointed out the main features as we went.

We entered through the massive door, which has an ingenious hinge system and spikes reminiscent of the elephant spikes on the doors of Indian forts, even though there have never been elephants in Oman.

The massive door, hinge on the left
- I asked Chris to place his hand against it to illustrate the width

On this lower floor we saw some old food storage jars and a series of small rooms at the base of one of the towers which were used for storing dates in sacks. Said explained how, as the weight of the piled up sacks crushed the dates inside the sacks, the juice would seep out and run down the stone channels on the floor to collection jars placed ready for the purpose. The syrup could then be used in cooking, in times of peace, or during a siege be boiled and used for defence by pouring it through the ‘murder holes’ above the doors, as at Nizwa. A reminder that this is still a castle despite the elegance of some of its rooms!

Food storage jars

Stone channels in the date store

The main building is five storeys high, including the battlements, but unlike Nizwa we ascended gradually, visiting rooms on each floor as we went! The rooms are arranged in two blocks, which connect only on the ground and top floors. We climbed the stairs to the wooden walkway that runs around the central courtyard on the first floor. The architecture and atmosphere reminded me of buildings I have visited in Marrakech such as the Maison Tiskiwin.

Central courtyard looking up

Around the courtyard

There is some Arabic calligraphy on the wall here which Said told us was in an ancient script, and which I have seen described as graffiti in some sources.

Said pointing out the writing on the wall

On this floor we visited the courtroom where the imam would pronounce sentence on those accused of crimes. In one corner is a separate tiny exit, no bigger than a window, for those pronounced guilty, from where they would be taken to the prison cells on the ground floor (one for men, one for women), while the innocent could leave by the same door through which they entered. Furnishings here and throughout are limited to rugs, cushions and a few storage chests, as is traditional in Arabic culture.

The courtroom
- the small exit door is at the far end, in the centre of the photo

Next to the courtroom is a series of dining rooms which like several others retain their original beautiful ceilings, as does the conference room also on this floor. My photos of these ceilings weren’t too successful, but fortunately I made a better job of it in later rooms! One of these rooms would be set aside for women to dine, one for the imam and his inner circle, and one for the remaining men.

Dining rooms

Next to the conference room Said showed us a small room which was designed as a horse stall – yes, on the first floor! No horse actually lived here however – it was used as a waiting area for the imam’s horse when he had called for it to be saddled but was not yet ready to leave. A special set of shallow steps enabled the horse to be led up here.

From here we climbed a flight of stairs which skipped the second floor (as I mentioned, the rooms don’t all connect on this level, and besides, Said was saving the best till last!) to emerge on to the roof. From here we had views towards the small town and the mountains beyond.

The view from the roof

There is a room here which served as a mosque and another as a madrassa or Quran school. Here I did manage to capture the beautiful ceilings!

Entrance to the mosque

Mosque ceiling, and view from a window

View from the madrassa , and its ceiling

Chris climbed higher, on to the roof of the mosque which served as a lookout, while I stayed below taking photos.

Battlements of Jabrin Castle
- Chris is in the light shirt, towards the left side of the photo

We then descended to the floor we had skipped, the second floor, to see the most ornate rooms, those of the imam’s private suite. These included the Whispering Room, so-called because it was here that the imam would withdraw to confer with his closest advisers, speaking softly so that no one outside could hear their deliberations, before making his pronouncements on the rights and wrongs of a case brought before him.

In the Whispering Room

The most famous room in the castle is on this floor, the Sun and Moon Room. This is where the imam would receive his most important guests. The ceiling is painted to look like Allah’s eye watching from above. The room takes its name from the 14 windows set in two rows, half of them facing the sun and half the moon. Thus the room always had light, either from the sun or from the moon.

The ceiling of the Sun and Moon Room

From here a short corridor with an ornately carved barrel ceiling leads to the women’s suite of rooms.

Carved calligraphy in the corridor

The Women's Room

We returned to ground level down the staircase which provided direct access to the imam’s rooms and suites, which is decorated on both walls and ceiling with paintings and motifs. The verses of the Quran were intended to be recited by any visitor before visiting the imam. One of the wooden steps is deliberately wonky in order to make a noise when anyone steps on it, so that no intruder could take the imam by surprise.


The stairwell, with carving detail


Leaving Jabrin our next stop was in Bahla where Said drove up to a point overlooking the town and fort. This fort is the only one in Oman to be UNESCO listed and has only fairly recently (2012) reopened after extensive restoration. Online sources tell me that there are as yet no real facilities for visitors in terms of labelling, exhibits or audio guide, which is possibly why a visit wasn’t included on our itinerary. A shame though, as I think it would have made an interesting contrast to Jabrin and Nizwa, having been built at an earlier time when gunpowder had not yet been introduced to the region. From what I have read it is a rabbit warren of a structure, built into the contours of the rocky mountain on which it is perched.

View of Bahla - town and fort

View of Bahla Fort

My source for the following interesting quotes is the excellent blog Once in a Lifetime Journey:

‘The Banu Nabhan [tribe] is said to have built Bahla Fort along with other rulers of Oman from 1154 until 1624, when the Yaruba dynasty took power. Unlike Shia and Sunni, the Banu Nabhan tribe followed the moderate Ibadism branch of Islam, like many of the ancient Omani Imams and today’s modern Sultanate.

The Banu Nabhan were known across Arabia at the time because they controlled the trade in frankincense from the Yabrin oasis through the Middle East and to the Mediterranean coast of modern day Iraq and Syria, ancient Mesopotamia. There are several other frankincense routes, but this was one of the most important.’

‘Legends about the Bahla Fort abound. In one, a woman is said to have built the Fort’s walls in one night alone. Other black magic tales talk about the restoration of the Fort being delayed because of the acts of an unseen force at night: stones erected and mortar plastered during the day would come unravelled in the night and be replaced by a ruin in the morning. Perhaps an explanation can be found in the fact that 1400 years ago, a man was stoned to death by the villagers of Bahla for practicing wizardry. The same legend also talks about a tree growing in the citadel that would bring an untimely death to anyone who touched it because the sorcerer had cast a spell on it.’

Bahla Fort from the town

We had lunch at a restaurant in Bahla - unprepossessing in appearance but serving us an impressive selection of dishes including Arabic bread, hummus, spicy morsels of tuna, chicken pieces, rice, dhal and a spicy vegetable sauce, with fresh fruit salad to finish.

Restaurant in Bahla

In Bahla
- maybe the business on the left could get a spelling lesson from the one on the right!

As this is becoming a very long entry I will split today's adventures and continue in a following one

Posted by ToonSarah 12:23 Archived in Oman Tagged buildings castles architecture history views fort market cats oman Comments (12)

Up into the mountains

Oman day five

View Oman 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Kestrel at 1,000 Nights Camp

Again we slept well in our cosy tent but were up promptly as we needed to sort our bags for today’s departure from the desert. On the way to breakfast I spotted a bird in one of the trees, which very obligingly stayed around to pose for photos! Friends have since told me that this is a kestrel.

We had another good breakfast and were ready to meet up with Said at 9.00 as planned. Driving away from the camp he stopped for a few last photos of the sands and one more exciting drive up, and down, a steep dune!

Last view of the dunes

The track through the dunes
- note the car in the middle distance, for scale

Arriving back in Baddiyah we paused for photos at the point where the tarmac road began again.

Where the tarmac ends

Said told us the bush that grows here was called Indian Cotton, but while that might well be the local or Omani name, a quick search online revealed it to be Sodom's Apple Milkweed.

Sodom's Apple Milkweed



Signs at the start of the dunes

The signs give rules and guidelines for desert driving, including:
'Respect the Bedouins, don't drive very close to their camps and don't scare their animals
For your safety and to avoid destroying the vegetations follow the older tracks while driving in sand dunes
Helping tourists & visitors is a part of Omani hospitality. Respect the desert and the locals

We stopped at the same car mechanic workshop in Baddiyah as on the way out, this time to have air pumped back into the tyres. I took the opportunity to indulge in a little street photography, as a change from sand dunes!


In Biddyah

Then we were off, heading towards the Hajar mountain range.

Ibra / Al Minzafah

Our first stop today was in Ibra, or rather in the adjoining partly ruined village of Al Minzafah, its old centre. Our guide in Salalah, Hussain, was to explain to us that in many cases people in Oman have found it easier to move to a newly built house rather than try to introduce modern conveniences to the old ones, especially as the latter were generally in a poor state of repair prior to the renaissance of the country. Although Said didn’t expand so much on the story behind the ruins here, I suspect that is what happened in Ibra.

Said in Al Minzafah
- I joked that he'd chosen his turban today to match this beautiful door frame!

More recently, both here and elsewhere, people are discovering the charm of the older properties (especially in relation to tourism) and are starting to restore and reoccupy them. We saw a number here either undergoing restoration or fully restored and inhabited.

Entrance gate, and mihrab of ruined mosque beside it

We strolled through the village while Said told us something of its history and pointed out details of the architecture. We saw the remains of Al Qablateen Mosque, the third oldest mosque in Oman, although little remains now apart from the mihrab and the well for ablutions.

In the past, when Zanzibar was ruled by the Sultanate of Oman (18th and 19th centuries) there were strong trade links between Ibra and Stone Town, so perhaps it is not surprising to find that the village has many beautiful carved wooden doors. It was the details of both wood and stone carving that I loved the most here.

Doors of Al Minzafah

Details of doors and door frames

This is one of the oldest cities in Oman and was once a centre of trade, religion, education and art. Many of its buildings are former mansions once owned by the prosperous merchants of the early 19th century during the reign of Said bin Sultan Al-Said. When Said died his kingdom was split into two – one son becoming Sultan of Muscat and Oman, and another Sultan of Zanzibar. As the empire declined so these once stately mansions fell into ruin.

Ruined mansions

Reflecting the past importance of the town, there are watchtowers on all the surrounding hills.

Ruined buildings in Al Minzafah

It was while we were here that Said took a call from his colleague Assad, who had met us on arrival in Muscat last Saturday. He wanted to let us all know that the problem with his driving license being confiscated at the airport had been resolved. He explained that the airport police had believed him to be a taxi driver, taking rides away from the official airport taxi service. A letter from his boss had convinced them that he worked for a tour company not a taxi one, and his license had been restored. We would see him again on our return to Muscat when he would be taking us to the airport for our flight to Salalah.

Postscript: Assad explained the situation in more detail when we saw him a few days later and it sounded to me that the police weren't so much acting in error as trying it on a bit, as the same thing had happened to all tour company drivers that day! A meeting with tour company managers had been needed to clear up the mess, and an apology had since been sent from the police to all those companies.

Said pointed out some calligraphy on one of the tumble-down walls, which he told us was in an old form of Arabic.

Carved calligraphy

By the way, I have to mention how impressed I was with the public toilet here! We had met an acquaintance of Said’s while walking around (but then we met his acquaintances everywhere - I joked that he knew everyone in Oman) whom he told us worked keeping the toilets clean, and boy did he do a good job! They were spotless, and well supplied with toilet paper, soap and paper towels - far better than I have found in many other countries on my travels!

Birkat al Mawz

From the road to Birkat al Mawz

From Ibra we drove west through Izki to the small town of Birkat al Mawz where Said turned up a stony track which led to an excellent spot from where we could look down on the date and banana plantations below, and beyond them the ruins of the older village.

View of the date plantations, Birkat al Mawz


The ruined village of Birkat al Mawz

Said had a knack of knowing just where the best views were to be had - usually up a rocky track near a communications tower of some sort, as here.

Watchtowers near Birkat al Mawz


Nestled among the date plantation

After descending from the viewpoint we drove through those same plantations, and Said was quick to spot an Indian Roller in one of the palm trees.

Indian Roller

We also passed one of the oldest of the irrigation channels for which Oman is famous, known as falaj or aflaj. These particular ones in Birkat al Mawz are listed by UNESCO as being representative of some 3,000 such systems still in use in Oman. The listing explains:

‘The origins of this system of irrigation may date back to AD 500, but archaeological evidence suggests that irrigation systems existed in this extremely arid area as early as 2500 BC. Using gravity, water is channelled from underground sources or springs to support agriculture and domestic use. The fair and effective management and sharing of water in villages and towns is still underpinned by mutual dependence and communal values and guided by astronomical observations. Numerous watchtowers built to defend the water systems form part of the site reflecting the historic dependence of communities on the aflaj system. Threatened by falling level of the underground water table, the aflaj represent an exceptionally well-preserved form of land use.’

Said pointed the channels out as we passed them but didn’t stop, and I was too slow to realise what I was seeing to ask him to do so, but we were to get a closer look at some elsewhere later in the tour.

Jebel Akhdar

From the road up Jebel Akhdar

Roadside cafe, Jebel Akhdar

Then we started the long climb up the mountains to Jebel Akhdar, otherwise known as Jabal al Akhdar, on an impressively engineered modern highway, reaching 2090 metres above sea level at the highest point. And as we climbed, so the temperature outside the car dropped - from 25 degrees down in the valley to 14 at the top. When we stopped for lunch at a small roadside restaurant (fried chicken rice and dhal) I had to fetch my jacket out of the suitcase!

Jebel Akhdar forms the central section of the Hajar mountain range. The name means ‘Green Mountain’, but in fact it is not a single mountain but a group of peaks rising to nearly 3,050 metres and forming a daunting massif. But the grey stone is softened by the extensive agriculture which gives Jebel Akhdar its name. At this altitude figs, grapes, pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, peaches and other orchard fruits grow well. The area is also famous for the production of rosewater, but of course in February the roses weren’t in flower.

In the 1950s the peace of these mountains was shattered when battles were fought out here between Omani forces loyal to the sultan (aided by British soldiers, including the SAS) and rebel forces of the inland Imamate of Oman, backed by Saudi Arabia. The Hajar Mountains form a natural divide between the coast and the inland parts of the country. They have also in the past divided the country into a traditionally outward-looking society of merchants and seamen along the coastal area and, in the interior, an inward-looking, conservative, frequently xenophobic society. When the two societies clashed, they did so here in the mountains.

After lunch we drove to various viewpoints. The first of these overlooked another ruined village, that of Wadi Bani Habib. It nestles among terraces where pomegranates and walnuts grow – the bare branches are the pomegranate trees, yet to come into leaf in February. A path descends to the village but Said recommended against this as I’m not a great walker and there were plenty of other similarly ruined villages on our planned tour.

The ruins of Wadi Bani Habib

Instead we drove the short distance to another village, Ash Sharayjah. The view from the parking area here was stunning.

View from the parking area at Ash Sharayjah

From here we followed Said along a narrow path to a wonderful view of the terraces below. Some were planted with pomegranates and consequently bare, while others were lush and green between the rows of stone that protect them, while on the far side of the valley a waterfall tumbled down the cliff face.

Terraced fields on Jebel Akhdar

Waterfall, and more terraces
- note the steps built into the stone wall for access to the fields

On the next ridge we could see the most luxurious (and consequently most expensive) hotel in the country outside Oman. I had seen the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar featured on a BBC TV programme in the UK some time ago and been wowed by its setting perched high above this valley. The buildings are modelled on a traditional Omani fort and seemed to me a little stark in appearance, but this would clearly be an amazing place to stay if you have money to splurge – indeed, the TV series that featured it is called ‘Amazing Hotels’. Incidentally that same series also featured Nairobi’s Giraffe Manor which we saw last year – we seem to be making a habit of gawping at these special hotels from afar!

Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar

By now we had started to retrace our steps, and from a third viewpoint near Sayq, the town where we had stopped for lunch, we got more extensive mountain views as well more terraces. We could see the network of irrigation channels, the famous falaj, very clearly from here.

Mountain view near Sayq

Terraced fields near Sayq
- note the irrigation channels or falaj in the lower photo

... unless you are with Said!

At one point Said asked, as he regularly did, if we needed to use a toilet, and when I said that I did he took us to a nearby hotel, explaining that the public ones here were not at all clean. I queried whether I would be allowed to use the hotel loos, not being a guest here, and his answer was characteristic - ‘Of course, you are with Said’. And naturally he was right!

The hotel lobby had a beautiful stained glass dome ceiling which was worth a few photos.

Hotel in Sayq - lobby ceiling


The only way down from Jebel Akhdar is to follow the same winding road back down the mountain. I was struck again by what an impressive piece of engineering this is!

Descending Jebel Akhdar

View from the road, late afternoon light

Lulu Hypermarket

Arriving at the foot of the mountain we headed to Nizwa, and to our hotel for the night, stopping on the way to change some money at a foreign exchange in the massive LuLu Hypermarket. We would see more of Nizwa tomorrow morning.

Our hotel here was the Falaj Daris, where we had a large comfortable room with, oh joy, hot water in the taps and WiFi with which to check football results and catch up on messages.

Our bedroom at the Falaj Daris Hotel, and dinner by the pool

As everywhere on this tour we were staying on a half-board basis. Dinner was served buffet style (again, as everywhere) by the poolside - a pleasant setting but apart from very good hummus, not a very memorable meal. On the plus side, after three nights in ‘dry’ hotels, here we could buy beer to accompany our food, which felt like a real treat.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:12 Archived in Oman Tagged landscapes mountains birds desert restaurant history ruins views hotel village doors oman Comments (15)

Desert life

Oman day four

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A morning in camp

Early morning at the camp - our tent on the right

We slept well in our cosy tent, enjoying the peace and quiet of the desert until woken around 6.30 by bird noise. A pigeon was cooing on the tent roof, so we got up, dressed quickly and went out to take some photos. The clouds we had seen last night still covered the sky, unfortunately, and the sand flies were a bit bothersome, but the air was pleasantly fresh. Chris climbed the big dune above the camp but I stayed below, photographing the birds and other details that caught my eye.

Dove on the tent roof, and storm lantern

Camel, and camels crossing sign

We had a good breakfast (with another nice omelette and excellent coffee) and soon after finishing that, the clouds began to break and patches of blue sky appear. We took a few more photos around the camp (camels, birds, dunes) before meeting up with Said for a chat about the plans for the next few days (he had some proposals for varying the route, to which we agreed), and a briefing about Omani culture, geography etc.

Chris and Said

Bedouin visit

We then had time for a cold drink in the Desert Ship (as the bar is called), before leaving with Said to visit a local Bedouin family for lunch. We could have opted to stay and relax at the camp today, but it would be a real shame to come to the desert just to sit by a pool, and besides, these visits, while obviously ‘staged’ for tourists, help to support the Bedouin financially and do, based on our experience, offer real insights into their way of life.

We retraced the route through the dunes which we taken when arriving yesterday, stopping to take photos of the camp’s old truck left to rust just outside the gates for that very purpose.

The old jeep buried in the sand

Sign by the jeep

Said decided to take a photo too!

The sign by the jeep reads:

'It's time to have rest, 1000 Nights Camp doesn't need me
any more, I'm too old to move. Give me a favour and take
a photo with me, you might tell my story..'

Arriving at Salma’s home we left shoes and socks in the car and entered the compound to be met by her husband. Inside we were greeted by Salma herself, our hostess, and her daughter in law. There were two grandchildren at home too (two others, older, were at school).

Entrance to the home
Salma and her husband

Salma wore the traditional Bedouin face mask which Said explained is designed to protect from sandstorms and the elements in general. Her daughter in law however wore a veil. Together they served our lunch of traditional bread, rice, dhal, chicken, fish and salad. Being cautious I stuck to the bread, rice and dhal, which was delicious. Chris also tried, and liked, the chicken.

As everywhere in the world, the traditional life-style of the Bedouin is threatened by modernisation and a trend for younger people to move away to the cities. We learned elsewhere on our tour that the government is encouraging this move by building homes in towns which are offered at low cost or even free to the tribal people. The motive, we were told, was to help unify the country by bringing people closer together, as well as enabling everyone to benefit from modern health services and schools. But I’m not sure how well it is working, as in places (near Salalah in the south for instance) we saw new houses standing empty because the Bedouin have moved back to their tents or to villages nearer their traditional homelands. The fast pace of modernisation in Oman, which in less than fifty years has moved from a largely feudal to a technologically advanced economy, is perhaps having its greatest, or at least its least positive, impact on these people.

Inside the room where we ate

Meanwhile tourism, including hosting visits like ours and working as guides in the desert, offers those Bedouin who want to continue to live around here the opportunity to do so. Many, like Salma’s family, split their time between a home here and one in town. Possessions are for the most part small and portable – apart from a wooden dresser, a trestle table and some low benches, there is little solid furniture. The family sit and sleep on the colourful cushions made by Salma and her daughter in law, the sandy floor is covered with a patchwork of rugs, and family photos and small ornaments hang on the walls of the two rooms.

Salma's daughter in law relaxing in the other room
Family possessions

The only incongruously modern notes come from the mobile phones propped on a ledge to charge (they have solar power) or used to keep the children occupied.

Salma's granddaughter with mobile phone

Said had already told us that we were free to take as many photos as we wanted, so we did, asking permission however when we wanted to photograph any of the family. I am not sure what they thought of our interest in their various possessions, but I guess they are used to visitors taking photos of such things!

A window

After we had eaten we moved to the room on the other side of the sandy open area. There we had coffee and dates, and learned a bit of Omani coffee culture from Said. He taught us to shake our cup if we wanted to indicate that we had had enough, or to hand it back directly if we wanted more. I handed mine back without shaking!

The family had set up a small stall of handicrafts, most of the items woven by Salma herself. The bigger items included scarves and bags, while the smallest were key chains, bookmarks and bracelets. I felt we should buy something to repay their hospitality (even though I trust that our tour company, Undiscovered Destinations, ensures that a fair price is paid for these visits) so picked out a mobile phone pouch to serve as a case for my compact camera – something I did genuinely need.

Salma at her handicrafts stall
Weaving loom

There was time for more photos around the home before leaving, and Salma’s husband kindly posed for me with his grandson. I was a bit disappointed though not to be offered the chance to try on a face mask as Said had suggested I might (and as my friend Grete had done on a similar visit), but on reflection I realised that I would probably have felt a little silly and looked even more so!

Salma's daughter in law and grandson

Salma's husband and grandson

The enclosure

Dune view

Relaxation time

Oryx in an enclosure at the camp

We returned to the camp in the middle of the afternoon. Said offered to take us again to watch the sunset but on such a cloudy day it seemed unlikely that it would be a good one, so we decided to give him, and ourselves, the afternoon off to relax.

I considered going in the pool, but my shoulder was still a bit sore and a group of young children were playing there a little boisterously, so I wasn’t sure how relaxing the experience would be. Instead we enjoyed another delicious cold fruit juice drink in the 'Desert Ship' bar, and occupied ourselves with our books and sorting photos. There is no WiFi at the camp so catching up on messages or emails wasn’t an option and we found ourselves wondering about football results and world news; being cut off from just a couple of days seemed good ‘practice’ for our planned September visit to North Korea!

Lemon mint drink

Chris in the 'Desert Ship' bar

Dinner again was a buffet, as the norm in the hotels here it seems, but although I’m not a big fan of these the selection was good and I found several tasty dishes. There were musicians again, and I found them rather more tuneful than the previous evening - the brief video I shot is not great quality because of the low lighting in the restaurant, but gives a flavour of the music.

The day’s clouds had finally dispersed so after dinner we were able to sit outside and enjoy the stars for a while before retiring for our final night in the desert.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:43 Archived in Oman Tagged people food desert culture music costume oman crafts customs Comments (16)

Into the desert

Oman day three

View Oman 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Portuguese watchtower in Sur

Despite my painful shoulder I slept well, and woke up determined to enjoy the day regardless. With a 9.00 am start scheduled we were able to relax over breakfast, which included another good made-to-order omelette.


After breakfast we met up with Said as planned – unfortunately he had had to spend the night at a different hotel 15 kilometres away after a mix-up with the reservations. We drove back to Sur where he stopped so we could take a walk on Al Ayjah Bridge, an attractive suspension bridge across the estuary, built just ten years ago.

Al Ayjah Bridge

From here we could take photos of the watch-towers, lighthouse, dhows and fishing beach. The low morning light was challenging for photography but at the same time made the waters of the estuary really sparkle. There are three watchtowers in total, at different heights, all built by the Portuguese to guard the harbour entrance. Like most of those you see dotted all over Oman, these have been fully restored by the government to serve as landmarks.

Two watchtowers and a lighthouse

Dhows in the harbour

River estuary with dhows

Fisherman mending his net


I loved the design of the lampposts – I have a bit of a thing about photographing lamps wherever I travel!

We also stopped briefly in the parking area just beyond the bridge, near a striking beach pavilion. We had a good view of the lighthouse from this spot. This is much newer than the watch-towers, having been built in the 1990s, and is 18 metres high.

View of the lighthouse

We met a friendly elderly man here, happy for us to take his photo in return for a few words of greeting. He told us (via Said as interpreter) that he liked to come here each morning to get some fresh air and a little bit of exercise.

Beach pavilion, and friendly local

Local men at a nearby coffee shop

Said filled up with petrol and we headed out of town, travelling now away from the coast. I took a few photos from the car as we drove into the mountains.

Driving inland from Sur

Wadi Bani Khalid

Our destination was Wadi Bani Khalid, a popular beauty and bathing spot, but before driving up to the wadi Said turned off up a narrow road that took us to a great viewpoint above it.





Looking down on Wadi Bani Khalid

Village near Wadi Bani Khalid

After retracing our route down the mountain we drove up to the wadi’s parking lot, where we could see just how popular it was even on a weekday when few locals were visiting. This is the most accessible and developed wadi in the country but it has been done sensitively and doesn’t detract from the visual impact of deep green waters, lush date plantations and stark mountains all around.

We followed the one kilometre path along the water channel, lined with date palms and other trees. We were excited to spot the vivid blue colours of an Indian Roller, and even more so when he deigned to pose for a few photos before flying away!

Indian Roller, Wadi Bani Khalid
The Indian Roller in flight

Arriving by Wadi Bani Khalid

We arrived at the end of the path just at a good time for lunch, which we had in the poolside restaurant. The buffet food was tasty (my choice was rice, dhal, vegetable curry) but not served as warm as I would have liked.

View upstream from the bridge

After lunch we split up for a while. Chris took the rocky path further up the wadi, which would have been a challenge for me even without the wrenched shoulder.

Chris's photos of the upper pools

Rules at Wadi Bani Khalid

Meanwhile Said went to the tiny mosque to pray, and I had my own plans …

Swimming in the wadi is understandably popular, but you are asked to respect local standards of dress, which means keeping shoulders and upper legs covered. We saw one French tourist head down to the pool in a bikini to be immediately called back by one of the men patrolling the site. The tour guide leading her group later expressed his frustration to Said, as he had apparently told everyone what the rules were and was, I believe, a bit embarrassed when someone in a group he was leading had to be pulled up in that way.

Fishes nibbling my foot!

Knowing about these rules beforehand I had already decided against a swim, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy the water! So I went down to the water’s edge to sit with my feet in the water where myriads of tiny fish came to nibble on them - a weird but enjoyable sensation, although my hot feet seemed an odd sort of treat from their perspective!

Water-level view

Said and a fellow guide - everywhere we went, we met people he knew!

By the time Chris returned from his walk Said had rejoined me, so we all strolled back to the car together. We followed the road back, stopping on the way for photos of the different coloured mountains - green where there is copper, red for silver (I had though iron but Said said no, silver). A reminder of the rich natural resources in this beautiful country.

Mineral deposits in the mountains

Mountain view

Roadside plant

Wahiba Sands

In the small town of Bidiyyah (sometimes spelled as Bidiya or Bidiyah, but Said assured me that the double 'y' was correct) we stopped at a car mechanic workshop so that air could be let out of the tyres, in preparation for desert driving.

Letting out air from the tyres

Just a few minutes further down the road the tarmac came to an abrupt end and we were driving on sand. This desert region is usually referred to in most tourist itineraries as Wahiba Sands, its former name – taken from the local Bani Wahiba tribe. Today however it is more properly known as Sharqiya Sands, and that was how our local guides spoke of it. It covers a large area of Oman – about 180 kilometres from north to south and 80 kilometres from east to west, giving a total area of 12,500 square kilometres. The biggest dunes (some 100 metres high) are found to the north, where we were, while the southern part consists of a plain dotted with salt flats.

First view of the dunes

The desert was formed during the latter part of the Ice Ages through the monsoon winds blowing in from the south west, transporting sands from areas to the south and meeting trade winds from the east which halted this transport. Or at least, that’s my wildly over-simplified version of complex geological treatises to be found on the internet!

Our ‘road’ (really just a track across the sand created by those who had driven here previously) led us past Bedouin homes, some with camels tethered outside or grazing nearby on the slim thorny pickings.

Mosque on the edge of the desert
Road through the dunes

Beyond the scattering of homes, the dunes grew taller and Said turned to climb up a ridge which he explained was the route to the camp where we were to stay for the next two nights, the 1,000 Nights Camp.

Another vehicle seemed to be hesitating as to which way to go, so we looped back, straight down the dune, to check all was OK. It was being driven by a French couple who asked the route to the camp. ‘Follow me’, said Said, and turned up the dune again, but after a short distance the French driver turned back. So we stopped again at the top and Said walked back down to offer to drive his vehicle up the steepest part for him, an offer gratefully accepted.

The dune that defeated the French driver!

On top of the dunes, waiting for Said

The French couple then followed us the rest of the way, pleased to have the escort I am sure.

1,000 Nights Camp

We descended from the dunes to drop into a wide valley of sand which led to our destination, the 1,000 Nights Camp. The low-level buildings of the main public areas (reception, restaurant etc.) didn’t look too incongruous in this setting, and beyond them footpaths wound between the tents that form the bulk of the accommodation here (although there are a few luxury suites in two story buildings on the fringes of the camp).

Reception area

View of the camp from reception

Restaurant and bar area

We checked in, thankful that there was no problem with Said’s accommodation here, after the previous evening’s mix up (the nearest alternative is 42 kilometres away, so it was just as well!) We were shown to our ‘Sheikh Tent’, the mid-range tent option of three available. In reality though it was more of a chalet than a tent, with fabric hangings in the Bedouin style creating the tent effect. It was large and cosy-looking, rather warm but with a ceiling fan and screened windows to let in the breezes. The attached bathroom was rather more basic, with a wet-room style shower with only one tap and one temperature - lukewarm!

Our tent


In the tent

Our simple bathroom

There was time for a cold drink in the (strictly no alcohol) bar, made from an old dhow, before meeting up with Said again at the reception to drive up to the dunes for the sunset.

1,000 Nights Sunset

From the top of the dunes

We were up there well ahead of time and were able to take photos of the curves and corrugations of the dunes in the warm late afternoon light. Indeed I took far too many photos over the next hour so apologies now for the desert sunsetn overload to follow!

Waiting for sunset




Dunes at sunset

There were lots of camels to add interest to the photos - I suggested to Said that he might have arranged for them to wander past but I don't think he got the joke and denied it vigorously!





Camels at sunset

Said and another guide

The sunset when it came was not especially spectacular (it was rather hazy and lacked foreground interest, although the wandering camels came close), but it was still good to be up here soaking up the desert scenery.




Sunset over Wahiba Sands

If it weren’t for the (many) other tourists doing the same thing we could have thought ourselves miles from anywhere!

Tourists photographing the sunset

Evening at the camp

Once we got back to the camp there was a little time to relax, and have that lukewarm shower, before dinner. This was another buffet – not usually my preferred option, but I have to say the food here was good (the best of the trip, we concluded later). I especially enjoyed the various starters and the lamb kebabs. We weren’t however able to get a table in the main restaurant area so chose one in a sort of off-shoot, near the grill. We were comfortable enough here but Said, when he found us part-way through our meal, was disappointed on our behalf and apologetic that he’d forgotten to reserve a table for us in the best part – a small error which he rectified on the following evening!

Evening in the camp

There was live Omani music in the restaurant (an acquired taste I fear) but we retreated after our meal to the nearby open air ‘bar’ for post-dinner mocktails – my pear and ginger one was very nice but would have been even better for a slug of rum, perhaps!

Disappointingly the few clouds we had seen at sunset had turned into a completely cloud-covered sky, so there were no stars to be seen – although given what happened when I tried to look at the stars last night maybe that was no bad thing.

So we retired to bed in our cosy tent, deciding on an early night to catch up on some sleep as going online was not an option – there is no WiFi here or even satellite signal for phones, so our two night stay at the camp was a mini digital detox!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:06 Archived in Oman Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes birds water desert coast hotel camp sur camel oman lagoons Comments (15)

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