The rust colored sand dunes of the Rub' al Khali desert – also known as the Empty Quarter – make up the largest sand desert in the world. It covers most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, spreading over four countries: Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen.
Oman – Been There

Oman's deep south, a Martian landscape

Photo by Aldo Pavan

Oman – Been There Oman's deep south, a Martian landscape

A sudden sea breeze makes me shudder; southern Oman is anything but a sun-parched desert.

John Malathronas
John Malathronas Travel Writer

The ancient Greek description of the province of Dhofar in Southern Oman as a “mountainous, inhospitable country permanently encased in thick fog” may come as a surprise to those who view the Arabian peninsula as an arid wasteland. Not to the locals though, who are used to a summer monsoon season, the time when the ancient Greek boats passed by to trade. The region has two high tourist seasons: winter when wealthy Europeans come to embrace the sun and escape the rain and cold of the north, and summer when wealthy Arabs come to enjoy the rain and relative cold compared to other regions in the Gulf.

While this rainy port may have been the commercial hub of the frankincense trade, the plant itself does not like rain, meaning it only really thrives inland in the wadis (dried riverbeds) of the interior – one of which, Wadi Dawkah, has been chosen as the site of the Frankincense Natural Park. Some 20km inland from the Arabian Sea and beyond the moisture-catching al-Qara mountain range, the park forms a living link with that legendary past of caravans and djinns (genies). We pass neither with our four-wheel-drive. Abdul gives the driver an instruction in Arabic and explains to me with some ambiguity: “The wadi is difficult to find. So I told him to turn left when he sees no sign.”

I have an overwhelming feeling of loneliness as we continue our search for the park. My guide Abdul is silent, lost in his own thoughts, and any evidence of civilization, let alone traffic signs, ceases to exist an hour after we cross the mountains. At least there are people in the mountains, or proof of their existence anyway. Remote farmhouses and cattle kraals built with hard branches may stand in the middle of a field with no occupants in sight, but they still suggest a human presence.

In the flat, featureless Martian landscape, full of dirty yellows and brown pinks, where no stone is bigger than a fist, the empty tarmac road is the only evidence I have seen for the last half an hour been that any humans pass this way. The driver eventually turns “where there are no signs” following, it seems, an inner compass and to my surprise we reach the wadi’s entrance soon after.

Not that we need an all-terrain vehicle for this. The bone-dry soil is as easily drivable as the asphalted road, bar the dust devils that we set off behind us.

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