The Arabian Peninsula is typically associated with arid desert landscapes, and while much of Oman falls into this category, the southern region of Dhofar is a stark contrast. Each year as the rest of the country’s temperatures soar during summer, the khareef brings monsoonal rains to Dhofar landscape. A carpet of lush green vegetation results, and both livestock and travellers flock to enjoy the markedly cooler temperatures.
Dhofar’s capital, the beautiful city of Salalah, is known as the southern capital of Oman. Facing south over the Arabian Sea, it boasts pristine white beaches to accompany its enviable climate. Its vibrant culture reflects its historical association with Zanzibar, a one-time colony of Oman. Beautiful hotels, colourful souks, and a stunning natural backdrop make Salalah one of the country’s favourite cities for travellers.
Nearby Mirbat is a picturesque seaside town, complete with its own majestic castle, a captivating souk, and the ruins of an old town dating back many hundreds of years. Visitors will also enjoy the opportunity to see local fishermen bringing in the day’s catch down by the water’s edge, and are then able to purchase the freshly caught seafood at the souk shortly afterwards.
Taqah is another Dhofari town with a rich history, having been a major shipping port for both frankincense and myrhh. Both of these fragrances are harvested from locally grown species of trees and at one point were worth more than their weight in gold. This led to a prosperous local economy, with the town’s impressive Taqah Castle museum revealing tales of its glorious past in a collection of fascinating exhibits. Taqah is a favourite destination for Omanis as it represents the birthplace of their beloved sultan, HM Sultan Qaboos.
East of Taqah, visitors will discover the remains of the ancient port of Sumhuram. Located at Khawr Rawri, Sumhuram is one of four sites on the UNECSO ‘Land of the Frankincense Trade’ World Heritage List. Here, an impressive collection of ruins is still the focus for archaeological teams who seek to unearth more about this once thriving city. Sumhuram has commanding views over the waters of Khawr Rawri (sometimes spelled 'Khor Rori') and across to the ocean, a key consideration in the town's planning which allowed for the monitoring of shipping and also ensured its safety from marauders.
Another UNESCO-listed site is Al Balid Archaeological Park, with ruins dating back well into pre-Islamic times. Like Sumhuram, it was also a trading port for frankincense; however, it was also a major port for the shipping of Arabian horses. References to Al Balid and its splendour date back millenia, including notable mentions by Marco Polo around 2000 years ago.
The next site on the UNESCO World Heritage List is at Shisr: The Lost City of Ubar. This remarkable treasure was only discovered in 1992 with the aid of a NASA satellite, having been buried under the shifting desert sands for centuries. It is thought to be the famed ‘Atlantis of the Sands’ proposed by Lawrence of Arabia, a major hub on the caravan route between trading cities of the region. The town was reported to be a ‘paradise’, a place of unparalleled opulence that thrived as a centre for trading local fragrances with exotic goods from the East. However, its ruin came suddenly when the limestone cave over which it was built collapsed, with the desert sands quickly shifting in to cover the remainder of the town’s buildings above. As a result, it disappeared off the map - quite literally - for over a thousand years. Speculation remains as to whether or not the excavated ruins behind Shisr are indeed the famed Ubar of history, although the place is undisputedly of great historical significance. Artefacts dating back several thousand years have been uncovered by archaeologists who continue to take a keen interest in the site.
The last site of UNESCO World Heritage Listing is Wadi Dawkah, a protected stretch of over one thousand frankincense trees situated about 40km north of Salalah. The precious sap from these trees -and others across the Oman landscape - brought the country great wealth throughout history, and increased its connections with other nations as the fragrance was traded as far away as Europe and China.
Perhaps the best place to trace Oman’s prosperous path through history is the Museum of the Land of the Frankincense Trade. Located in Salalah, this fascinating museum hosts a range of interactive exhibits which take visitors on a journey through more than 10 000 years of human history. A vast number of ancient artefacts are on display, from the excavated columns of buildings built two thousand years ago to pieces of stone tooling used by fishermen two thousands years before that. This museum is perhaps the most complete and comprehensive in Oman - a must-see for any visitor to Salalah.
Only thirty minute’s drive from Salalah, Wadi Darbat is one of the natural treasures of Oman, an oasis of wildlife and lush green vegetation at the base of the Dhofar Mountains chain. Travellers will marvel at the vibrant contrast to the vast regions of desert to the north; during the height of the khareef, waterfalls cascade over the wadi’s rocky slopes and into the river below. Camels, cattle, and other livestock graze the abundant grasses on the banks, while birds nest in the wetland areas. Families from all around the region come to share in the magic of the annual summer rains, creating a festival atmosphere. During the khareef, Wadi Darbat showcases the richness and colour of both the Dhofar landscape and the Omani culture. It will undoubtedly rank as one of the highlights of any Oman holiday.
Above Salalah, on the northern side of the Dhofar mountains, travellers descend into Wadi Shuwaymiya. Here, they are greeted with richly coloured rock formations which curve and flow in remarkable patterns. Every so often, the wadi floor is punctuated with the vibrant green of acacias and the occasional palm tree, while limestone stalactites hang from cliff faces in the background. The majesty of Wadi Shuwaymiya has an other-wordly quality about it, its landscape distinct from the many other wadis to be found across Oman.
Lastly, Al Mughsayl is located about an hour’s drive west from Salalah. On a strikingly beautiful section of the Omani coast, the seawater pounds against the cliff faces and rushes up through a small opening to create an impressive blowhole. Of even greater attraction is the breathtaking vista looking west towards Ras Sajir, where the beautiful charcoal mountains terminate in precipitous white faces which plunge into the turquoise sea.
A visit to Dhofar will provide many of the highlights of an Oman holiday with its offer of stunning scenery, incredible history, and various unique elements of Omani culture.