August 5, 2011 10:09 pm

Postcard from ... Salalah, Oman

In late July or early August, rain transforms the sunburnt hillsides into a tangle of vegetation
The area around Salalah, Oman

The area around Salalah is transformed after the summer rains

Every year, in late July or early August, something extraordinary happens in the southeast corner of Oman: it starts to rain. This might not sound very exciting to anyone living in a temperate region but for those from the arid Arabian Peninsula, this is akin to a minor miracle, bringing life to the desert for the three months that the rain clouds hover over the region’s dusty escarpments.

The phenomenon, known locally as the khareef, is caused by the edge of the summer monsoon clipping a coastal strip of Oman as it travels east to the Indian subcontinent. It not only transforms the sunburnt hillsides into a tangle of vegetation, it also transforms Salalah, Oman’s normally sleepy, sub-tropical capital of the south. Thousands of Gulf residents, who long to see something green during the high-bake of the Arabian summer, pour into town between July and September, turning Salalah into a buzzing holiday destination. Some visitors come by charter flight but many choose to drive in 4WD convoys from the United Arab Emirates. At the start of this year’s khareef, I left my home in Muscat to join the south-bound convoys through Oman’s spectacularly tedious Al Wusta region, where not a bump, not a tree, not a shrub, nothing but a lone camel bothers the mile-upon-mile of unending rocky plain.

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After eight hours of driving across the monotonous desert, there was something sublime about reaching the fringe of the rain’s northern edge, where an imaginary line seems to divide the living from the dead. You can pinpoint the edge of the rain catchment to Thumrait, a dusty military outpost that signals the descent from the high, arid plateau to the coastal plains of Salalah. Thereafter, evidence of the rains begins in earnest with a few surreally bright succulents dotted among the burnt-out twigs of last year’s khareef. Next appear green fields where camels and cows incongruously graze in the high pasture. At length the road spirals downhill beneath thick mist and the lower hillsides erupt in a unique biodiversity of shrubs and creepers.

I was all for leaping out to examine the frankincense and the desert roses – but I would have been very much alone. The legions of visitors don’t come here for the botany, nor for that matter do they stay long in Salalah itself, despite the city’s attractive palm-fringed corniche, royal palace and ancient relics. The main focus of the summer tourists is to find the party.

In Salalah, this requires a compulsory trip to the Itten Road. Here, along an unprepossessing highway west of the city centre, it’s easy to find where it is all happening: a 24/7 parade of Land Cruisers and strolling families, of mobile kebab stands and temporary coffee shops marks the spot.

Extended families hunker down on spread rice mats unbothered by the drizzle; kids splash in the mud; bands of bead-twiddling men argue about politics over a water-pipe and a mint tea, one ear pressed to the mobile phone; regional neighbours swap ribald jokes about Egyptian singers.

A few years ago, the Salalah authorities noticed this annual ad hoc assembly and put a few tents up for refreshment and prayer. Now the area is home to Oman’s biggest annual festival, with nightly concerts and stands promoting national enterprises. An occasional Dhofari dance troupe shivers swords to the beat of a drum. The entertainments are all welcome distractions but the key to having a good party remains being outside in good company, eating and, most importantly of all, getting wet.

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