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
Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
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
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

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment