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Salalah: Say goodbye to the desert

For a few months each year, Salalah, in southern Oman, is transformed by monsoon rains. The hills are verdant, the rivers swell, and deserted natural pools beg to be swum in

Salalah: Say goodbye to the desert
Image: Getty

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I’m having a blissful solo swim in the kind of woodland pool you see on shampoo adverts — a clear natural well the colour of cut emerald, ringed by mossy rocks and hidden from prying eyes — when an Iranian man appears and jumps in fully clothed. I know he’s Iranian because it’s the second thing he tells me. The first, in excitable broken English, is that when he saw the water he was able to restrain himself long enough to take his phone out of his pocket but not long enough to take his shirt off. Fair enough, really. It is a pretty awesome swimming hole. 

Four days earlier, I’d taken a dip in a heat-blasted wadi (valley) a few hours east of Muscat, where the rocks were bare, the sun was harsh and the water was full of fish that nibbled at my toes. It was a mightily refreshing swim — if a little ticklish — but I’d spent most of my time splashing up and down beneath an overhang, to avoid the full glare of the sun. Here in the southern region of Dhofar, however, the water is deep and cool, the banks are full of greenery and there are dragonflies skimming the surface. And if you know where to go, it’s deliciously quiet, too.         

best swim holes near Salalah

Image: Getty

I wouldn’t have found the pool at all without my Omani guide Salim. Together, we’ve been spending the day driving around the wadis surrounding Salalah. It’s September — the end of the khareef monsoon season in this pocket of the country — which means you take your usual notion of what Arabia should look like, then bin it. The hills are verdant, the rivers are full and the waterfalls are gushing. Picture Snowdonia, then add white Toyota Land Cruisers, minarets and camels.

“This time of year — July, August, September — is when we get most visitors,” explains Salim. “Most of them are from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. They come to escape the summer heat; they come for the mild days and the drizzle.” If the concept seems strange, so does the fact that it’s so short-lived. “That pool you just swam in. If you came back in a few months, there’d be nothing there — no greenery, almost no water.”

Image: Getty

Salim pulls over at a roadside stall, where, for a modest sum, a Pakistani man wearing smart shalwar kameez (baggy trousers and tunic) fries off a dough base on a hotplate, layers it with cheese, breaks an egg over the top, then cooks it some more, releasing a barrage of sizzles and scents. When it’s done, he drenches the whole thing with honey and hands it over.

By the time we’re finished sharing it we’ve arrived at Wadi Darbat, which appears to have fallen straight out of a Disney film: six side-by-side waterfalls falling over 60ft into a wide grotto of aquamarine water and white sands. It’s so laughably beautiful I have a hard job believing it’s not man-made. Groups of people are standing and staring, which, really, is the only thing you can do.

It’s a Friday and Salim needs to pray, so we drive up into the cloudy hills before he drops me at the Tawi Atair Sinkhole, a natural cavity in the land, and heads to the mosque. I walk to the edge of the sinkhole and look down into its cavernous, green depths. There’s a fine rain falling, and no one else around. Then the call to prayer rings out, an echoing summons wavering in the mist. Whenever it quietens, I hear only birdsong before it starts up again. I don’t want it to end — but like the rainy season, end it must.

Al Fawaz Travels offers tours of the wadis and best swim holes near Salalah alfawaztours.com

Oman Air offer daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Muscat (omanair.com), and for more information on the country as a whole, visit experienceoman.om