When Red Savannah’s expert on Oman holidays, Ed Granville, recently visited the country, he scratched the surface of the desert to uncover ancient rivers, lost cities and discovered that the desert, in fact, experiences a monsoon season.
When the early humans left Africa to colonise the rest of the world, they did so by crossing the Red Sea to Arabia. Yet when one travels through the endless, dry lands of the Arabian Peninsula today, the most striking thing is how unpromising the terrain would appear to a hunter-gatherer. That it subsequently became the birthplace of agriculture seems positively ridiculous.
But as the vast oil reserves beneath the sands demonstrate, there was a time when the climate in Arabia was very different, when the rains fell and when rivers flowed, to provide the abundance of life to tempt early man on a dangerous sea-voyage across the Gulf of Aden. And when you scratch the surface, it is not hard to find those rivers still flowing in the desert.
The Rub’ al Khali is the largest sand desert in the world, encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. Here the sand dunes are like huge, ship-swallowing breakers and the remoteness is so complete that even international borders are not marked. Not for nothing is it known as the ‘Empty Quarter’. So to find on entering the quarter, on a 4×4 journey through southern Oman, that there are vast green fields of grass being cultivated to be used as camel fodder, is a surprise to say the least: Huge circular discs of emerald green, grown on an industrial scale as if this were the American prairie, amidst the most inhospitable land on the planet. Clearly there is water here somewhere…
Further along the desert road, in what is now a dusty, one-horse town called Shisr, lie the remains of an ancient fortified city, with towers, walls and fortifications that lend it an importance and wealth that seem wildly improbable given the dusty location it occupies today. This city of towers is considered by many to be lost city of Ubar, or Iram. According to the Koran, King Shaddad of Iram defied the warnings of the prophet Hud and God smote the city, driving it into the sands, never to be seen again. Why ancient peoples built elaborate fortifications to protect a hole in the ground becomes clear when one descends into that hole and feels the damp, moisture emanating from the rocks. Not far below the surface, the waters are still flowing, giving life to fields of turf that would not look out of place on the 18th hole at Turnberry.
The camels for which the grass is grown live further south, in Oman’s Dhofari Mountains, which in the height of summer see anyone who can afford to, leave the blistering, unbearable heat of the Gulf and descend on this corner of Oman. They come for the ‘Khareef’, a strange annual monsoon that shrouds these coastal mountains in fog and rain, bringing blessed relief from the summer sun. Rivers flow, waterfalls spring out of the rocks, trees blossom and thousands of families from Riyadh, Qatar, Kuwait and Muscat have long picnics in the rain, just because they can.
The city of Salalah benefits year-round from these rains. Travellers to Oman, used to the uniform date-palm oases of the North, are invariably surprised and delighted by the lush, fecund farms of the South, where coconut milk is drunk from the shell through straws and where several varieties of sweet bananas sit alongside guava, papaya and mangoes on the hundreds of roadside stalls vying for their trade. It is said the Sultan, who was born in Salalah, receives a daily delivery of fresh produce from his Salalah garden, wherever he is in the world.
The desert may long ago have engulfed the fertile lands of Arabia that drew our forefathers there, but in Oman, there are still delightful vestiges of those greener times which avoided Ubar’s terrible fate.