A tropical storm had formed over the Indian Ocean and was sweeping northward to the Arabian Sea and Gulf. Oman was right in its path and the first to be hit would be Salalah. The Internet said the winds were not expected to be too high. We’d experienced stronger ones in the Antelope Valley but heavy rain was expected. When the first deluge hit, it fell like a monsoon, hard and fast. But it was gone quickly. Wave after wave of hit. Palm fronds fell to the ground. Branches broke.
Having just experienced a hurricane in New Jersey, (here it would be called a Cyclone because it originated over the Indian Ocean) I didn’t think the damage would be too bad. Especially since Salalah is subject to the Kareef (monsoons) every summer. I was wrong.
Kareef comes as a heavy mist. It settles over the land like a cloud, depositing dew and moisture softly. The thirsty land absorbs it and blooms profusely, but there is very little measurable rain.
Salalah was not prepared for the downpours they experienced in this tropical storm, especially since there is no major sewage system. Traffic came to a standstill. Streets flooded and huge yellow trucks were sent out to pump the water out of roads so septic tanks wouldn’t fill and overflow.
Inland the damage was even worse. Wadis, dry river beds, flooded, sweeping cars and people away with their flash flooding. Lives were lost. Foreign travelers and locals alike were trapped. The Omani Air Force was called in to do rescue operations with helicopters. Two Danish families were plucked out of a wadi, deep in the Empty Quarter, the desert that makes up most of the center of Oman and stretches across Saudi Arabia.
Even after the rains stopped, the flooding continued. The streams were full and ran their course to the ocean, crisscrossing the plains ahead of them and washing away anything in their path. Signs along the roads warn drivers not to enter the low lying patches of road and pillars alongside have red lines. The signs say do not enter if the water level is at the red line. Drivers still do. The depth is often deceiving and the sand that covers the roads in these places can be like quicksand, swallowing up trapped cars.
I tried to track the storm on television but Oman does not have its own weather station for public broadcast. I had to resort to searching info on the Internet. The storm only lasted five days but the after-effects continued for weeks. One good thing to come from the storm was a young Omani whiz kid created a weather website for Oman and with it, an emergency response unit where people could search out the latest information on routes or contact for help. Since there is only one road from Muscat to Salalah that stretches over the center of Oman through the Empty Quarter, it’s a service that was much needed and long overdue.
The benefit of the storm for us was a sneak preview of conditions during Kareef. One of the most famous wadis in Oman is just outside Salalah. Water gathers in the mountains and shoots over a cliff at a place called Wadi Darbat. The resulting waterfalls are spectacular. Three to five waterfalls cascade down the face of the rocky cliff. The cliff is made of travertine, a sturdy but porous rock that creates an apron like effect. Travertine is highly prized in other countries. In fact, it’s the primary building material of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Here, it was used to make the steps of my staircase in my villa.
At the top of Wadi Darbat is a pool surrounded by date palms and banana trees. It forms a lovely oasis you can actually see from the foot of the falls. When we traveled up the hill to see the oasis, a large herd of camels, tended by a young boy with a stick, blocked the narrow road so we couldn’t go all the way to the pool. I wasn’t disappointed. Signs all around the pool tell you not to swim. There’s a particularly nasty red worm in the water that burrows into your skin and makes its way to your kidneys. I was perfectly happy just to look over the edge at the beautiful plains below.
Directly across from Wadi Darbat is a natural cove, an inlet protected by two narrow points of land. On the shore, across from the inlet is a large hill and on top of the hill are the ruins of a fortress called Sumhuram. It’s an ancient settlement, so old it’s listed as a World Heritage spot. Standing on the hill, looking back at Wadi Darbat, it’s easy to see why this place was occupied from ancient times. With a ready water source behind it, a natural port in front of it, Sumhuram would have had the perfect location. Frankincense was brought down from the high plains of the mountains, loaded onto ships and sent around the world, probably even to the courts of the Pharaohs.
An Omani friend told us that a world famous magician used to live at Sumhuram. He said there are many Omani stories about the magician. He’s even mentioned in the Bible. But our friend couldn’t remember his name.
As I walked around the excavated ruins, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine this was once a bustling seaport where stories were told and fortunes made. I’ve only had that feeling at two other places, Mesa Verde and the desolate ruins of Chaco. It’s something you sense. Like the aftermath of a storm. An echo. A feeling of so many lives…lived and lost, a feeling of happiness and hatred that still lingers in the air.
I guess there’s a good reason these places are designated as World Heritage spots.