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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Life and Style
life“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice