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The Empty Quarter

Oman day ten


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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!

Thumrait

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

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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!

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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.

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In Thumrait

Wubar

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.

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Ruins at Wubar

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Buried fence on the edge of the Empty Quarter

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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!

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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!

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In the Empty Quarter

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Issa and the other guide

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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.

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Desert self-portrait

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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!

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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.

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'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.

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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’.

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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.

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Instructions for visiting the Empty Quarter

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Where the tarmac ends

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Into the Empty Quarter

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Vehicle workshop on the edge of the desert

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Car mechanic

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Restaurant sign

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

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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.

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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.

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Thumrait Palace restaurant

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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.

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In Thumrait

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Frankincense

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.

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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!

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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.

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Lone frankincense tree

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Issa scraping a frankincense tree

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Frankincense resin

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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.

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In the tomb-house

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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!

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Minaret and frangipani tree

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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