Searching for rain in Oman’s Salalah


Nothing exemplifies the nature of summer in the Gulf quite like the existence of rain tourism.

While the rest of Arabia bakes under a relentless sun, a tiny enclave of southern Oman is thronged by visitors because of a quirk of climate and geography that gives it the monsoon.

Where else but in an Arabian summer could a destination’s popularity rise in direct relation to the chance of encountering rain? Or Oman Air Holidays use the phrase “tranquil mist and enchanting showers” without irony among its top selling points for holidays in the khareef season?

This would have seemed beyond comprehension when I lived in damper corners of the globe, but by the time my second summer in Abu Dhabi rolled around, I was jumping at the chance to head to Salalah as a fully-fledged rain tourist.

As my flight headed south across the familiar sun-bleached terrain of the Arabian peninsula, I could feel a visceral yearning for misty rain on my skin and to see any form of vegetation that did not have a black polyethylene irrigation pipe leading to it.

As we approached the crescent of rain-catching mountains that define the basin in which Salalah is located, a thick layer of khareef-generated cloud blocked my view of the ground and I had to compensate by remembering the images of lush vegetation and waterfalls depicted in the tourist brochures.

But when the plane dropped below the cloud layer, the picture that emerged was not one of verdant green but of a shabby brown remarkably similar to the hues I’d left behind in Abu Dhabi. If anything, the absence of the capital’s extensive irrigation systems meant the view was even more barren.

Ahmed, my guide, met me at the airport and explained the obvious: the khareef is running a couple of weeks late this year.

The season traditionally begins on the summer solstice on June 21 but a third of the way through July, there had yet to be any tranquil mist or enchanting rain to reverse the drought since the end of the last monsoon.

Still, although my plane’s final approach had been over a barren and lifeless plain, on the town side of the airport there was a plantation of coconut palms swaying languidly in the warm breeze as if they had been plucked from a Bounty commercial.

Then, as we drove off, I noticed that the car’s air conditioning is switched off and even though we’re now in the tropics, a couple of open windows is enough to keep us comfortable. It must have been at least two months since I last travelled by car in Abu Dhabi without aircon being a necessity.

“We have two seasons here,” Ahmed explained, but I already knew that there’s nine months of drought and then three months of the khareef, roughly from the solstice until the equinox in September.

It turned out Ahmed is referring to something slightly different. “There’s the European season and there’s the Arab season.”

And he was right. The two are as different as can be. From October to April, people living in Europe flee their wet, grey and cool weather for southern Oman’s sand, sun and heat. And from June to September, the people living in Arabia flee their sand, sun and heat for Salalah’s wet, grey and cool weather. This week, the temperature has averaged 27 degrees and the rains have arrived.

There is much more to Salalah and the area around it than just the khareef. As we drove through the town, it revealed itself to be a long, narrow and rather unlovely, strung out parallel to the seafront and featuring an unfortunate preponderance for Stalinist architecture, to the detriment of the few mostly crumbling remnants of traditional south Arabian building styles.

But a little further on was a narrow farm zone between the town and the long white-sand beach, where the abundant groundwater in the region allows for lush growth even at the depths of the annual drought season. There are more swaying coconut palms, alongside thickets of vibrant green sugar cane, grids of banana and papaya trees and rows of frond-roofed stalls on the roadside bulging with tropical fruit for sale.

I was hardly the first to admire Salalah’s tropical produce. In the 14th century, Ibn Battuta visited Salalah during his extensive travels in Dhofar; more than 700 years after Battuta, Wilfred Thesiger came just after the khareef season in 1945. Salalah was the starting point for what would become his epic crossings of the Empty Quarter, though his first justification for being there was because the khareef was suspected of creating the breeding conditions that spawned the plagues of desert locusts that afflicted the rest of the Middle East.

“Some peculiarity in the shape of these mountains draws the monsoon clouds [and they] are in consequence covered with mist and rain throughout the summer and were dark with jungles in full leaf after the monsoon,” he wrote in Arabian Sands; “All the way along the south Arabian coast for 1,400 miles from Perim to Sur, only these 20 miles get a regular rainfall.”

But Thesiger was barely impressed with Salalah, with his primary memories being that it was little more than a village with an uninspiring souq and the overpowering stench of sardines left to dry in the sun after being landed by the local fishermen.

Not surprisingly, he also found it troublesome that he could only travel if accompanied by one of the Sultan’s guards. More than 60 years later, I was happy to be accompanied by Ahmed, who proved to be a knowledgeable and companionable guide.

Unlike the monsoon which arrives with a sudden blast in other parts of Asia, he explained that the khareef tends to build up slowly here with strong onshore winds and then the rain that turns the countryside from brown to green. Although the rain had not yet begun, the khareef winds had already kicked in and instead of the gently lapping rollers that come in from the Arabian Sea to the beach at Salalah for most of the year, there was now an angry pounding surf that churns up the water and creates dangerous currents.

But there was a positive side to this, which emerged when we drove west from Salalah to the Mughsayl beach. Swimming at what would otherwise be four kilometres of idyllic white sandy beach was clearly inadvisable but at the western end, the pounding surf means the natural blow holes in the limestone rock are in top form.

Several of the bigger blow holes have grills installed over them, with one produced nothing but gusts of wind accompanied by an eerily guttural whistling sound, giving the unwitting dishdash or abaya wearer the chance to replicate Marilyn Monroe’s famous skirt-billowing scene from The Seven Year Itch.

Another nearby was the most dramatic of Mughsayl’s blow holes and varied between producing high-powered expulsions of watery mist, frothy sea foam and gallons of seawater flying 10m or more into the air, usually with nearly no advance notice. Anyone miffed by the absence of rain needed merely to stand a little too close to experience a soaking.

On our way back to town, Ahmed headed up a side road and into a dusty wadi bed where we walked to a scraggly-looking tree that seemed like it was barely eking out an existence. After a cursory scan of the trunk, he plucked off a nubbin of congealed sap and handed it to me.

I rubbed the slightly sticky gum between my fingers, took a sniff and was instantly transported back in my memory to the smell of old wooden churches. It was still a little difficult to believe that this was the mainstay of the region’s wealth spanning thousands of years – frankincense, or lubban in Arabic.

Vast fortunes had been made since trading of frankincense began 5,000 years ago and a series of prosperous port towns sprung up along this stretch of coast to feed the Egyptian, Indian and Roman appetites for lubban.

Egyptologists found Samhuran, a fortified village in a magnificent location overlooking an inlet east of Salalah, depicted in a drawing dating to 1,500 years ago in a temple in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, where the ancient Egyptians used frankincense as part of the burial rituals.

But after thousands of years of generating immense wealth, the trade suddenly died away in the middle ages and towns like Samhuran and Al Balid, on the outskirts of Salalah, began their descent to become dusty archaeological sites barely hinting at past glories.

Now an echo of the past survives in the dozens of tiny shops dedicated to selling frankincense at the Al Husn souq in Salalah, where the proprietors will bring out the high grade substance from under the counter at the merest hint of interest.

I was trying to work out why the green-tinged frankincense was most expensive of all when I felt a nudge from Ahmed, who gestured towards another vat of indeterminately vegetative matter. “See this,” he said. “This is myrrh. Now all we have to do is for you to find some gold and you’ll be a wise man.”

“If only it was that easy,” I replied.

The next day, Ahmed’s tour headed up into the mountains behind Salalah. “It’s nice and cloudy today,” Ahmed says cheerfully as we ascend into parched hills to visit Job’s Tomb, the last resting place of the Old Testament prophet and the region’s most significant religious site.

But as we drive near the crest of the escarpment overlooking the plain, the cloud coalesces to something almost approaching a mist which leaves the tiniest of impressions on the windscreen. “Ah, drops!” Ahmed says, then we crest the ridge and the mist dissipates. It’s the closest I ever come to precipitation during my effort to be a rain tourist in Salalah.

Later, after a dusty tour of other frankincense ports at Taqah and Mirbat, we’re driving back towards Salalah when Ahmed turns up a side road up another broad wadi. Soon a falaj irrigation canal comes into view and then we emerge at one of the 360 perennial springs in the Salalah region.

In the space of a few hundred metres, the terrain has gone from desolate brown to lush green, with vines and broad-leafed shrubs thriving at a series of natural springs emerging from the bottom of an escarpment. Here there’s just the merest hint of what the khareef must be like.

“See this,” Ahmed says triumphantly. “It’s all green! At least you’ve seen some green before you go.” And I have. A few hours later, I leave Salalah on a plane bound for the black polyethylene pipes of Abu Dhabi.