#7 Cruising to the Khareef
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
Khareef (Arabic: خَرِيْف, Kharīf, autumn) is a colloquial Arabic term used in southern Oman, southeastern Yemen, southwestern Saudi Arabia and Sudan for the southeastern monsoon. The monsoon affects Dhofar and Al Mahrah Governorates from June to early September. Towns such as Salalah depend upon the khareef for their water supply. An annual Khareef festival is held in Salalah to celebrate the monsoon and attracts tourists from all over Oman and the wider Gulf region.
I love an adventure, and I love a mission. This summer I was provided with an opportunity to combine the two, which resulted in a journey that I will never forget.
The transition from the long, rejuvenating summer break back to school can be a challenge; getting used to Omani time and weather, leaving behind the freedom of the school holidays and being nearly 4,000 miles from my own children again can all make for a testing time indeed.
This year, however, the transitional process was something quite different - a spectacular road trip during the August Eid holiday, from Muscat to Salalah, with my Australian colleague (wingman) Les Jonson beckoned. Our mission: to transport 22 redundant computers from BSM, to our partner school in Dhofar, British School Salalah.
'Cruising to the Khareef' tells the story of this 1300km road trip, our segway from summer into the new school year, via one end of Oman to the other.
The first 5 hours of our road trip took us from the (relative) metropolis of our capital Muscat, to Mahoot, an isolated village near to Masirah Island. This initial stretch of the journey I had done several times before; a monotonous drive, mostly through a coarse, gravel type desert, some distance from the beauty of the coast. You drive past a fairly consistent scattering of Omani hamlets and random groupings of basic shops, bringing some simple signs of life to this barren landscape.
Other than the mirages you begin to see from the dry road once past Sinaw, the only visual entertainment on this sparse stretch of the journey was in the form of sand: drifting across the single carriageway from east to west, like a gentle brewing storm, promising to be more but dissipating after 20 minutes. Despite the monotony of this first leg of the journey, in what seemed no time at all, we arrived at Mahoot; a typical, simple yet lively village centred around a modern day oasis - the Al Maha petrol station.
Mahoot always reminds me that you are some distance from Muscat: 400km to be precise. Pick-up trucks, sometimes driven by teenagers, carrying goats and camels, hover around this busy little hive of activity. Animated young Omani men, wearing massars - Omani style turbans - with colourful tassels blowing in the strong wind, bring vibrancy to the scene and greet each other excitedly. It's often windy, noisy, dusty and busy; I call it the Wild West - but picture camels in place of Mustangs.
Having refuelled physically and mentally at Mahoot, we headed south to Duqm, leaving the Wild West and its energetic inhabitants behind us. Soon the road seemed empty and we were alone in the dry expanse once more, driving though the last hour of daylight referred to as the golden hour by filmmakers and photographers. Once touched by this stunning light, either side of the road appeared beautiful; rolling orange sand dunes, glowing shades of honey and amber as the sun started to set. We stopped to admire the view and the extraordinary palette of colour but the temperature contradicted the warm hues; it had dropped to below 30c.
An hour after leaving Mahoot, roughly half way down to Salalah, we arrived at the rapidly expanding new port town on the Arabian Sea - Duqm. Duqm port itself is being developed with substantial Chinese investment, to connect Oman with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and UAE.
Upon arrival the temperature was in the mid 20s and the wind was building, but it wasn't the blustery air which disturbed me that night. Ever slept in a damp bed? Me neither. After attempting to do so, at 11.30pm I complained to the manager;
“It’s because of the weather sir! It's because of the very strong winds sir... We have this problem in this location - we have consultants working on this problem for two months now."
"So... are all your beds damp?"
"Yes sir. This is a big problem sir."
He wasn't wrong. Having roamed the hotel for nearly an hour, we did eventually manage to locate a slightly less damp bed, in which I did get a little sleep, more induced by exhaustion than comfort.
An hour's drive from Duqm, we approached the fishing village of Ras Madrakah and were greeted by the sight of a colourful landscape of rocks in every imaginable hue, somewhat subdued however by a low lying mist.
As we drove through the village shrouded in sea-mist, the weather-beaten fabric draped over rickety shacks rustled eerily in the wind. We passed a collection of rusting outboard motors leaning up against one of the shacks. Nobody was in sight. Was this the end of the road? The end of the world? Or just a long forgotten village abandoned to the sea, the salt, the wind and the rain?
The most active creatures in or around Ras Madrakah seemed to be the agile green and yellow long legged crabs darting in and out of the rough sea at the water's edge. The majestic crabs then rapidly returned to the safety of the fine sandy beach, perhaps suddenly realising that the deep, dark blue ocean offers a far more daunting prospect. And then, tempted by the surf again, the crabs darted back into the sea only to return again to the familiarity of their beach minutes later. And so the cycle continued. But they never stayed in the sea for more than a few minutes. The seas in this part of Oman have some of the most abundant fish stocks in the world, including numerous predators of these extraordinary shoreline crabs.
A police patrol car drove slowly past us sizing us up - deciding that we were harmless, the car moved slowly on and disappeared down one of the village side streets.
It was time to head to our next stop - the exotic sounding Pink Lagoon.
An hour along the coast road from Ras Madrakah, anticipating a different and colourful view in this arid landscape, we followed the brown tourist signs to the Pink Lagoon, which led to a modest, recently constructed car park. Does every country now have brown signs for tourist attractions?
The car park, no more than 30 metres from the Sea of Oman and adjacent to the fine sandy beach, was empty. As we got out of the car, we welcomed the warm bright sunshine that replaced the mist of Ras Madrakah. It was now a comfortable 28c - a whole 10 degrees cooler than the stifling heat and humidity we had left behind in Muscat the previous afternoon.
Our naive optimism was quickly dampened when we surveyed a small, dried up pond, seemingly devoid of life, apart from a few small birds darting about, possibly awakened and understandably excited by our, or indeed any, rare visit. This patch of slightly pink mud - was this the Pink Lagoon? Still anticipating something more substantial and impressive, we headed over a crest of small sand dunes and down onto the beach, hoping to discover a large expanse of water populated by more than a thousand pink flamingos. Instead we could only see bright blue Sea of Oman and the foundations of a dilapidated beach house, abandoned to the drifting sand dunes long ago.
Sadly, we later found out that we were just a few weeks too early to see the beauty of the Pink Lagoon.
The Pink Lagoon. Sadly, we later found out that we were just a few weeks too early to see the beauty of the Pink Lagoon.
We continued our journey south to Salalah. When had we last seen a car? Half an hour ago? Maybe 40 minutes? We had lost track of time. Since leaving the Pink Lagoon the white sandy desert had been replaced by a more varied, and impressive rocky desert.
Leaving behind the coastal plain, we started the ascent of the spectacular new coast road. What could we expect from the final leg of our road trip to Salalah? Reaching the highest point on the plateau, we were greeted by a brown sign, directing us to a non-specific “View Point." What might this be?
The varied rock types and formations found in Oman represent a history of more than 800 million years and resemble almost all the chapters of tectonic events and climatic conditions throughout the Earth’s history. The Sultanate is a paradise for geologists.
The diverse and fascinating geology of the Sultanate, including the magnificent Jabal Akdhar and Jabal Sham mountains, the Sharqiyah Sands and the Rub al Khali deserts and the numerous spectacular wadis such as Snake Gorge, Wadi Shab and Wadi Mistal also provide endless adventures in stunning landscapes.
We got out of the car. The view before us took our breath away. A winding wadi snaked its way through an impressive canyon down to the sea. Was this another example of the impressive limestone features so prevalent in the Western Eastern Al Hajar Mountains? Or maybe this was a different type of rock altogether? In an attempt to satisfy my curiosity, I made a mental note to check out the beautifully illustrated book charting the geology of Oman I bought on my arrival in Muscat, 8 years ago.
We were now less than three hours, or 240km, from Salalah.
Other than a few patches of green vegetation on the beach, there was still no sign of the Khareef.
40km away from Salalah, we were quickly enveloped by gloomy grey cloud and fine drizzle. Or was it mist? The desert had turned lush green and everywhere and everything was damp. We were finally cruising into the Khareef.
The quiet Dhofari town lost in the last century was now an extensive festival campsite. Glastonbury had come to Dhofar. A never ending caravan of Lexus saloons, Land Cruisers and Toyota Camrys connected camping sites, picnic spots and markets. Elsewhere the luxury Lexus saloons are one of the most expensive and desirable cars available on the market. In Salalah’s Khareef season, they had been transformed into mud splattered, low slung festival troop carriers, looking as though they had just emerged from a post apocalyptic ‘Blade Runner” film set.
There was a surreal feel to our experience. We noticed a car driving up the wrong side of the highway and then exiting the entrance to the double lane carriageway at high speed as if this was totally normal - nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. Camels, usually seen in dry, barren, rocky and sandy landscapes, gorged the rapidly sprouting vegetation as if it was a complimentary 'all you can eat' buffet.
Set against this lush verdant backdrop, the noble Dhofari camels, possibly the hardiest animals on the planet, suddenly looked like dinosaurs in the latest Jurassic Park movie. One particularly grumpy camel stopped us in our tracks groaning in the middle of the road as if to say: “Can’t all you tourists just get out of my way, I really need to keep eating before this buffet closes.” All this Jurassic greenery must have been a novelty to these hardy ships of the desert, who are more typically to be seen grazing on rocks and sleeping on the sandpaper desert floor.
Sharing this fiesta with the camels, the festival-goers seemed to have been immersed in one never-ending celebration of picnicking and shopping. Gazebos, tents and marquees had sprung up all over Salalah to create lively, bustling markets to serve the 830,000 tourists who visited Salalah in the Khareef this year. Shopping from mid-morning to dusk, and well on into the night, seemed to be the norm in Salalah at this time of year.
What did all the shoppers buy? Bananas, coconuts, guava, pomegranates and papayas - for sure, Salalah has the potential to be the tropical fruit basket of the entire Gulf region. Beyond that I had no idea. Who were the vendors? Where did they come from? Where did they go when the Khareef came to an end later in September?
We had reached our final destination: British School Salalah. We unloaded the PCs, monitors and keyboards from our Land Cruiser and took them into the empty IT suite. Two hours later, British School Salalah had a brand new IT suite with 22 fully operational PCs. That will have been a surprise for the BSS students on their return to school for the new term!
I look forward to returning next August to Salalah to join the merry shoppers, and unravel more of this Omani phenomenon.