Known as one of the most authentic countries on the Arabian Peninsula, Oman has an even wilder side still – head south to Salalah for wonderful wadis, beautiful birds and baobab forests…
Teetering on the edge of a chasm, the darkness echoing below my feet, I thought I was going to fall. Around me, trees had squeezed their way out of every rocky crevice and stretched outwards and upwards, desperately hoping to catch the sun’s rays. Yet I remained deep in the shadows. “Stay where you are,” whispered my guide, Justin Halls. I didn’t dare move an inch. Then it happened.
First, a single shrill cry from a fan-tailed raven was soon joined by another, more tuneful, chirp from a South Arabian wheatear. Adding to the choir came the melody of the hoopoe, then, finally, to bring some alto into proceedings, a particularly noisy crowd of Tristram’s grackle called out. The sound bounced off the rocks and echoed all around me. It was like being in an opera house, only with all the musicians replaced by birds.
I was stood near the bottom of a 210m sinkhole called Tawi Atair, also rather aptly known as the ‘Well of the Birds’. Here, in Salalah, 1,000km (and a one-and-a-half-hour flight) from the Omani capital of Muscat, it was the ideal beginning to my quest to find some of the country’s wildest and least-explored corners.
When it comes to the Sultanate of Oman – squeezed between the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – they do things a little differently. Sure, there is a Grand Mosque and the usual chain hotels found in most established Middle Eastern countries, but there is also a law prohibiting the construction of skyscrapers. As such, you’ll find no gaudy Burj Khalifa-type towers competing to become the tallest building in the world here. No, instead, the whole place appears much more understated, with smaller houses and apartments typically making up the cityscape of the capital.
Further south, it gets even less urban. With jebels (mountains) almost ring-fencing the edge of the urban sprawl, followed by the beautiful but barren desert of the Empty Quarter and finished off with the seemingly endless wild and rugged coastline, there’s plenty to explore. But I had opted for the southernmost reaches, heading to a place called Salalah, where a new airport has just opened up in a bid to entice visitors away from Muscat.
“The idea of tourism is still so new here,” explained Justin, a Brit who fell in love with the country 17 years ago and has lived here ever since, as we drove towards the coast. “They have so much to offer here. With the birdlife being some of the best in the country, we just need to ensure they don’t overdevelop it in these early stages, thinking they have to make it more ‘city-like’ rather than embracing so much accessible nature.”
Case in point was our first stop to listen to the birds in Tawi Atair the next morning – dawn being the best time to hear nature’s chorus. I admit that when my guide told me he wanted to take me down a well, I did approach the activity with some trepidation, but after the musical welcome, I was eager for more.
A walk in the woods
All of the main places to visit in Salalah are accessed easily from a freshly tarmacked coast road. We followed it next to take a wander up Wadi Hinna, a steadily climbing valley coated in a jungle of frankincense, pockmarked with little waterholes, and home to a whole cluster of huge baobab trees. Of all the trees in the entire world, the big tanker-like trunk of the baobab has to be my favourite. Once described by a wildlife guide as appearing as though they had been planted upside down, their bulbous bottoms and spindly arms up top always look to me like gossiping laundry women looking around in disapproval of their surrounds.
We took a trail that led us up to some particularly large specimens. On the way I stopped to feel their solid and comforting bark, while Justin pointed out the huge velvet pods that had fallen from above. We sat for a while at what we thought must surely be the largest. I’m not sure if there’s a collective noun for baobab trees, but I’d make it a ‘bloom’ of baobab, as here were three massive examples that seemed to be growing from the same root system. It provided a natural bench upon which to sit and watch the native Bruce’s green pigeons and tiny rock semaphore geckos, which stared up at me with curious eyes.
For lunch, we left the trees and looked for a café full of locals. Inside, it looked like nothing more than someone’s sparsely furnished kitchen, but the dhal curry with rice, fresh vegetables and paratha bread was some of the best I have ever tasted.
In the afternoon we took a stroll into Wadi Darbat, an area popular with locals. Despite its reputation, camels were the only ‘traffic’, and once we left the green waters by the car park, where a few children played and families enjoyed picnics, we were on our own once more.
“Keep a lookout for porcupines,” said Justin, as we followed a rocky path that wove above the river. The Indian crested species lives in this water-rich area and we were on the hunt to spot it – or at least a few of its quills. Being winter in Oman, the temperature was in the mid-twenties (Celsius), perfect for walking. We meandered through vegetation, which Justin identified as myrrh (used for incense), thorny apple (used as a hallucinogenic by the medicine men/shaman) and fig trees harvested for their fruit.
Every time we heard a rustle, we scoured the ground for our prickled prize, but it was always just another surly-faced camel, which then mooched towards us. We may not have spotted the porcupine, but there was still plenty to keep our senses on alert. Inside a dramatic overhanging fossil chamber, we stood and listened to the wind whistling through, imagining how locals would once have sheltered inside such overhangs, while the colourful iridescent glow of shiny sunbirds provided a visual interlude.
That evening we sat by the sea, pleased with the array of creatures that we’d managed to spy along the way, all without running into a single other traveller. It was as though we’d found a secret wildlife park that the world was yet to discover.
In the footsteps of queens
One place definitely already discovered – by none other than the Queen of Sheba herself – was our first stop the next day, an archaeological site known as Khor Rori.
“It was first excavated in 1953,” Justin explained while we walked around the yellow and red sandstone walls of a former settlement called Sumhuram. “They think it was a city dating back as far as the second century and was something of a palace to the queen, who would come to collect the native frankincense.”
Being on the hunt for Oman’s wild side, however, we did not linger long at the site. Instead, we continued past it towards the edges of the estuary on which it sits. There we took a spot by the water, binoculars in hand, and watched the pink feathers of flamingos dance before us. Over the next hour or so, we saw spoonbills and their delightful scooped beaks, the thin-legged form of the glossy ibis, egrets, black-winged stilts and even a Bonelli’s eagle soaring in the thermals above.
For lunch, we picked up a chapati and headed to one of the public gardens of Ayne Razat, where workers tended the flowers of the ornamental grassland while, outside the fences, camel herders slowly passed by.
As much as visitors like seeing these single-humped quadrupeds, they are causing something of a problem. In the afternoon, when Justin took me to another spot, known as Ayne Hamran, where lizards and birds are often seen in abundance and hundreds of snails cling to the tree branches, we were disappointed to see that much of the land was barren due to overgrazing.
“That is one of the problems with the idea of revenue from tourism being so new,” explained Justin. “They don’t yet know that allowing free grazing in places like this is shortsighted, we need to protect the areas for long term benefits.”
Luckily, there are definite moves to conserve areas in Salalah, the best example of which I saw the following day when we headed out on a hunt for a much larger kind of wildlife.
Leap of faith
“Oman has its own leopard?” I asked a PhD student called Hadi Al Hikmani back in the UK before my visit. A Salalah native and tribe member of the group who used to hunt the endemic Arabian big cats, he and his brother Khalid have both worked for a government initiative called the Omani Leopard Conservation Project for 15 years.
“We try to educate people to realise they’re important to our eco-system,” said Hadi. “They hunt gazelles and ibex, keeping numbers healthy, and we should be very proud to have our own subspecies.”
Persecuted by cattle farmers and struggling with habitat loss due to new roads being constructed across the country, leopards here face a number of problems. Their ranging territory even stretches into the troubled lands of Yemen, where no protection at all is known to be offered since political tensions escalated there in 2014. Today, these creatures – smaller than their African cousins – are now critically endangered, with camera trap data and faecal samples suggesting that there are fewer than 200 left.
“Will I see them?” I’d asked Hadi.
“Well I’ve worked with them for 15 years and seen them four times – and count that as extremely lucky,” he replied.
Though a sighting was virtually impossible, Justin and I headed to Jebel Samhan, a sprawling plateau that ends on the edge of the Empty Quarter itself. We passed a sign declaring the area (and the wildlife within) protected, and continued to bounce our way along the ungraded road. The landscape looked almost moonlike – rocky, barren and devoid of signs of people other than the vehicle tracks. But this is not where the leopards tend to linger. Rather, it’s along the edges of the escarpment that looks down on the whole of Salalah itself where they are found.
We pulled over to a small clearing and a walking trail known to locals as the Leopard Trail. Treading its rough terrain, gazing down towards the ocean, I was in awe at the vibrant colours of the rock below, which appeared to switch between green, orange, red and yellow, as though painted. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the spotted mammal patrolling the pathway.
Dragonblood trees sprouted grandly out of some of the precipices like veined hands, while the desert roses resembled brown sheep on their backs, pink flowers blossoming from their upturned hooves. Each provided an extra splash of colour. When we had reached as far as we could, we stopped and took time to simply sit and feel their presence, and I tried to imagine a time when a whole leap of these mysterious wild cats wandered in great numbers. I hoped that in the future they would do again.
Sharing my wish was Khalid, who I met just before leaving Salalah, He told me that they are trying to encourage the tribe who live up on Samhan to start a café and visitor centre near to the trail, so that they can see first-hand how the promise of the leopards (even without guaranteed sightings) could bring more people to the area, help boost the economy and prove to everyone that they are worth far more alive.
“It will take time, but we won’t give up – how can we?” he said. “Protecting these leopards is a lifetime commitment.”
It seemed a shame to leave the south, as it felt as if I’d only just scratched the surface of its hidden wilds, but a connecting flight meant I needed to get to Muscat airport. Yet Justin had one more final surprise before I caught my plane. He whisked me a couple of hours from the city, where I got the chance to try the ‘balcony walk’ and scramble the via ferrata at the so-called Grand Canyon of Oman (also known as Wadi Nakhr), amid the rises of Jebel Shams.
“Don’t move,” he shouted once again, as I stood precariously on a patch of rock only big enough for one foot. Here I was, for the second time since arriving in Oman, looking down into a stretching chasm, but this time I wasn’t in the shadows. The chorus of the birds found in Tawi Atair may have been missing this time, but I had never felt more connected to Arabia’s wilds and, somewhere inside, I could now hear my own heart sing.
Southern Oman Highlights
1: Tawi Atair
It’s not known as the ‘Well of the Birds’ for nothing: this is the perfect place to bring your bins to look at (and listen to) Oman’s feathered residents.
2: Khor Rori
Archaeological remains and wetlands jam-packed with birdlife go hand in hand. Once home to the Queen of Sheba – and if it’s good enough for her…
3: Wadi Hinna
A wonderful place to linger among the native baobab trees. Keep an eye out for tiny rock semaphore geckos and also beehives, which the Omani from Muscat often bring south to ‘summer’ on the flowers in Salalah.
4: Jebel Samhan
Home to the endangered Arabian leopards. You might not spy one of these elusive big cats, but wander the Leopard Trail to feel their presence while enjoying the impressive views.
Whether this archeological site really is the lost ‘Atlantis of the Sands’ remains to be seen, but it certainly makes for a fascinating visit.
The author travelled with local operator Twenty3 Extreme, who come very highly recommended. A similar seven-day trip includes all the sites visited in this article in both Salalah and Muscat, four-star hotel stays, local transport and internal flights.
As tourism is still fairly new in Salalah, accommodation options are limited, with resorts being the main choice. Chain hotels are ubiquitous in Muscat and still the most convenient in terms of location.
In Salalah, the author stayed in the beach-located Crowne Plaza Resort, which is clean, comfortable and a 10 minute drive from the airport.