Trail of the Unexpected: Greenery and grandeur in Oman

We must be in the wrong place. This was the immediate conclusion I arrived at as our guide, Mahad, pulled off to the side of the road and killed the engine. While he pottered about in the boot for the picnic, laying out a blanket and several bowls of exotic-looking food, I held a quick internal debate about whether or not I should believe my eyes.

Beside us was a muddy brown river bordered by grassy banks – so green they looked as though they might be lime-flavoured. Rising up on the opposite shore were mist-shrouded mountains covered in trees, which, from where I was sitting, looked like mini florets of broccoli. This was not at all what I was expecting from the Middle East.

"What do you think?" asked Mahad, with a glint in his eye. I'd only ever seen landscapes like this in the Amazon rainforest. And yet, according to the stamp on my passport (and the registration plate on Mahad's car), I was on the south coast of Oman. So where was all the sand?

There was plenty of it back at the hotel. Located right on the beach at Salalah, the Hilton is one of several resorts that have sprung up here in recent years. With the turquoise Arabian Sea on your doorstep and miles of white sand stretching out in either direction, it ticks all the usual boxes. Yet for some reason most Brits only go as far as the capital city, Muscat, located in the north – remaining oblivious to the surprise that awaits this part of Oman.

The reason for the Dhofar Mountains' ostentatious greenery is that they trap moist air coming off the Arabian Sea – creating a coastal microclimate. The result is that you get plenty of sun, without the intense heat normally associated with desert countries. Come here in June, as I did, and the greenery is even more spectacular – fuelled by the monsoon winds that blow across from India.

The other reason for coming to the south of Oman is the fact that it's packed with historical treasures. After collecting me from the hotel earlier that morning, Mahad had taken me on a magical history tour that began at al Baleed National Park. Located half an hour from Salalah, this Unesco World Heritage Site is home to the remains of Zafar – an ancient port city dating back to around 2000BC. Up until the 16th century it did a roaring trade with the likes of India, Africa and China – exporting horses, gold and frankincense. The latter made the Middle East rich before anyone had even thought about oil.

From here we headed to Khor Rori – the ruins of an ancient fortified town overlooking a lagoon. Like Zafar, this place prospered thanks to frankincense, but many of its houses have been worn away by centuries of dry winds and salty air. In my experience, visitors to such sites are normally kept at arm's length from the exhibits; yet here we were, nonchalantly strolling around the biscuit-coloured buildings that are sprinkled across the hilltop.

The view from here has remained unchanged in centuries: spread out in front was a jade-green lagoon, with a flock of feeding flamingoes lining the water's edge like decorative sculptures. Behind me were those lush green mountains, rising up out of the flat, rocky plane that leads away from the coast. These formed a natural border between us and our ultimate destination – the Lost City of Ubar.

After a leisurely picnic, we climbed out over the other side and I got my first glimpse of proper desert. The mist suddenly lifted, and we found ourselves staring out over an arid landscape that stretched away into the shimmering distance.

What we were looking at was the Empty Quarter – a vast expanse of desert that covers more land than France, Holland and Belgium combined, and is one of the most sparsely populated areas on the planet. To this day, one of the few people to explore it is British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger, whose book on the subject, Arabian Sands, is considered a travel-writing classic.

Despite becoming familiar with several Bedouin clans – who are among the only people hardy enough to call this place home – Thesiger never managed to find the mythical city of Ubar. In fact it took scientists and historians until 1992 to find the place, using Nasa satellite technology to spot traces of the old caravan trails that lead here.

Tucked away in the barren wilderness, it's more a collection of random ruins than a lost city. Dating back to around 3000BC, it was a thriving trading post for frankincense merchants from all over the Middle East, until the first century AD, when its water source became squashed by a huge boulder, making the place uninhabitable. As with al Baleed and Khor Rori, this is history that you can get up close and personal with – assuming you can stand the roasting 50C heat, that is. The moment we got out of the car, it felt as though someone was directing a pair of hairdryers up my trouser legs.

If I was looking for bona fide desert, I'd come to the right place at last.

Matt Carroll stayed at the Hilton Salalah (00 968 23 211 234; hilton.com ). For a list of tour operators contact the Oman Tourist Office on 020-8877 4524 or oman@representationplus.co.uk. For more information on Oman visit omantourism.gov.om

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - York

    £18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - Y...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project