Oman has over 1700 miles of coast. It’s situated on the most western point of the Arabian peninsula, bordered on the north by the Gulf of Oman, the east by the Arabian Sea and south the Indian Ocean. Geographically, it’s similar in shape to California only reversed. It also has a similar topography.
Salalah is situated on a bend of land, facing due south. We catch all of the tropical storms sweeping off the Indian Ocean. We also catch the Trade Winds, warm currents that sweep over the ocean waters creating an updraft that pushes the water inland and churns up the sand. Cold waters rush to the surface to fill the gap, hit the warm air and turn into a mist. This effect creates the Khareef which runs from June through August. These mists settle over the land and turn everything green. Humidity is often over 70%.
Salalah sits on a coastal plain, much like my hometown of Oxnard. The coastal plan is twenty to twenty-five miles wide. Beyond the plain, the Dhofar mountains shoot straight up out of the ground with sheer cliffs. The only way off of the Salalah plain is to climb those sheer cliffs via some very dangerous, twisting roads. Almost weekly there are truck accidents on the main road to Thumrait.
On the mountain plateau is a vast gravel plain called the Nejd. Here in the foothills and the plains is where the frankincense tree grows. Over-grazing and development have diminished the amount of trees so the government started a preserve just off the road in a wadi. It’s just a plot of land with trees, hoses, a fence around it to keep the camels out and a viewing platform left from the dedication ceremony.
The wind sweeps down the dry wadi. It’s quiet. Desolate. No sound carries from nearby highway. It’s hard to imagine that at one point in history, the sap of these short, squat trees was worth more than gold and made Oman one of the richest countries in the ancient world. The Omanis were some of the finest sailors, learning to ply the Trade Winds to visit India, the Mediterranean and even China.
Beyond the Nejd is the Empty Quarter, miles and miles of barren desert and sand dunes that covers the central portion of the Arabian peninsula. We travelled through this area to Muscat and it is, indeed, barren. The land is flat without even depressions in the ground. Sometimes the only thing you can see for miles is a large truck coming towards you on the road, shimmering in heat waves.
The vegetation in the Salalah plain is very similar to that of Southern California. Bougainvillea’s are everywhere, peeking over mud and brick fences with colors ranging from deep purple to white and peach. We have oleanders with dark pink flowers and mimosa trees. Of course, these varieties of the plants are desert acclimated since they only have water during Khareef. The bougainvillea’s have huge thorns and the oleanders are sparse, not nearly as full and bushy as in California.
The area is full of desert succulents, including aloe vera and huge shade trees that look like they came straight out of Africa. The leaves are large and waxy with flowers similar to magnolias. The roots are intertwined and some even start at the upper branches and grow down.
Wildlife is abundant here in Salalah. During the winter months we sit on the beach and watch the dolphins travel south. Sometimes they’re close to the swimmers, not more than ten or fifteen feet away. Fishing and diving are very popular, except in Khareef season when the currents are too dangerous sand the water too rough. Even experienced divers stay out of the water then.
On the beach, there’s a crab called the ghost crab because he’s so fast you rarely see him. But you can’t miss the cone shaped mounds he builds. They dot the beach everywhere. A ghost crab can dig 45 feet down and spread out underground for 450 feet! Mollusks and little crabs fill the water and their spiral-shaped shells are everywhere. There are so many beautiful shells here, a friend of mine has decorated her house by filling glass containers with them.
There are nine lagoons on the Salalah plain. Our home has one on each side. They are protected bird sanctuaries. My husband likes to walk along one of these lagoons or khors. He sees pelicans, white flamingos, long-legged white egrets and ...camels. They like to walk there, too. One day, he turned around to see a herd of one hundred or so walking up behind him. He’s over six feet and they were taller than him. Some of their hooves were as big as plates. Needless to say, he was a little intimidated when one big one slewed its head around and stared him down. Later he was told they are harmless…unless you’re mean to them. Then they will remember you forever.
Oman is the on the direct bird flight route from Europe to Africa so we see all kinds of birds, including miniature parrots, about one foot long from beak to tail. They earned their reputation as talkers because they’re the noisiest bunch in the tree. One little bird has a dark blue body, a light blue belly, a yellow neck and head with a black mask around his eyes. Even the sparrows have bright yellow heads and they spend their mornings on the hotel balcony, waiting for guests to leave their breakfast plates so they can steal a bite.
I walk through a large grove of huge trees to get to my villa. One day I noticed there were no birds making a racket. Just as I came out of the trees, I looked up and saw a huge hawk/falcon swooping overhead. He was close enough for me to see the details of his dark brown body and tan markings. He was fast and strong. so the other birds were in hiding.
Iguana’s rule the golf course. One day when I walked up on a green I was startled to see a very large iguana, about fifteen inches long scuttle away from me. He was so dark green, I didn’t even see him on the grass. He climbed a nearby divider fence and turned brown very quickly. When he realized he wasn’t going to find any branches, he climbed back down and headed across the next green with the iguana stutter-step that’s so slow.
Just yesterday I was sitting on a patio of a neighbor chatting, when a foot-long iguana strutted past her screen door. We all jumped up for our cameras and he ended his lazy little stutter-step and dashed across the yard to a tree. They can certainly run fast enough when they want.
There are all kinds of lizards... big ones, little ones. They’re all very harmless and help keep the mosquito population down. The only lizard I really don’t care for is the one that has a round body. It looks like a snake with legs.
Scorpions are prevalent here and their stings are pretty common occurrence but they spray quite frequently here at the hotel and I’ve never seen one. I did see a centipede but it was already half dead by the time it made it under my front door. Good thing. He would have been dead soon anyway. The biggest pests are the small black ants which are in everything, the ground, the walls, everything. They come out of cabinet brackets, electrical receptacles and don’t ever leave food down on the ground. It will be quickly swarmed and removed.
We don’t see many cats and dogs. Omani’s are not found of pets...except camels. We’ve seen some dogs with sheepherders but most of the dogs and cats are feral and all of them resemble the cats and dogs on Egyptian tombs, skinny with pointy ears.
Most of the time, it seems like I’m in familiar territory. I live in a resort where most everyone speaks English. I’m surrounded by California plants and vegetation. I’ve lived in the desert for thirty years and we’ve been here long enough that I’m comfortable. It felt that way the day I stood overlooking the Frankincense Park.
Everything seemed normal. Then warm air blew up behind me. I looked at the sea beyond with its warm, green waters…not blue. To my left were three stark hills, devoid of vegetation and at the base, intricately carved by the rushing waters of the wadi during Khareef. The wind came up again, hot and dry. Behind me was the endless stretch of desert gravel, hills and sand dunes. It struck me with sudden clarity that I was not home.
I was standing on the edge of the Arabian Desert...the land of frankincense, Bedu nomads and Islam, an exotic land of mystery, harsh conditions, and history. I shook my head and wondered how I had come to be in this strange, foreign land, half-a-world away.
Then a raven flew over me. A large one, similar to the ones at my home who steal my poor, flghtless dog’s food and think my roof belongs to them.
Well…maybe I’m not so very far away after all.