Oman: Where the Camels Drink

A day trip in Wadi Darbat leads to a memorable family adventure.

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Travel in Oman - Camels eating greenery on the edge of Wadi Darbat. Photo by Paula Ebelher
Camels eating greenery on the edge of Wadi Darbat. Photo by Paula Ebelher

Author’s Note: Knowing very little about the country, I accepted a teaching job in the city of Salalah, Oman – the centre of the frankincense trade for thousands of years. I was unsure about moving to the sultanate with my wife and two young sons but we soon discovered that Oman, which is located on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula (bordering Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), was a safe and endlessly fascinating place full of warm and inviting people, ancient archeological sites and amazing geographical wonders. Of the 4.5 million people that live in Oman, only 200,000 live in the southern Dhofar region.

Oman Travel

There was a flash of orange, the color of unexpected sunshine or a delicate piece of amber, and then a flash of Aztec blue, the color of evening sky before an Atlantic storm. It lasted only long enough for me to wonder if it happened at all.

Oman was full of mystery and magic and I looked at my family for confirmation, wondering if anyone else had seen it. I blinked and focused on the dark green slime running down like melted candle wax over the black cave wall.

Travel in Oman - The cave wall in Ayn Tabraq where birds zip from one nesting hole to the other. Photo by Paula Ebelher
The cave wall in Ayn Tabraq where birds zip from one nesting hole to the other. Photo by Paula Ebelher

A flash of yellow, like wind through a canola field, zipped from one side of the wall and disappeared under roots and vines. A flash of green, like Irish moss or the eyes of a princess, danced in the air for less than a second.

It lit up like a Roman candle war, a frantic battle of oranges, blues, reds, yellows and greens. I could now make out little shapes that nipped here and there between nesting holes in the rock wall. Armies of kaleidoscopic birds jammed the space and we all stood in awe.

A crescendo of a ghostly chorus echoed all around us. The birds were either teasing each other or warning of our arrival. Nicholas stopped pulling on my pant leg to be picked up, his eyes wide and unblinking, as the birds twisted and spun in front of us like circus performers.

We hadn’t gone looking for birds or caves. We knew nothing about Ayn Tabraq as we pulled off the main road and followed a narrow dirt trail. We had only gone looking for something – some hidden treasure that broke the monotony of the sand and gravel and rocks of southern Oman.

On the edge of Salalah, there were little signs pointing us to places we had never heard about (or could pronounce): geographical sites, archeological sites and the occasional ayn.  I had assumed that an ayn must refer to a village, but we had discovered Ayn Tabraq and realized it had nothing to do with villages.  I asked my students about it the next day.

“No teacher,” said one of my students, “not village, but water…from the earth.”

It took me a moment to understand. “Do you mean a spring?”

“Spring.  Yes.  Water from the earth.”

“Are there many springs in southern Oman?”

“Oh, yes, teacher. Many. They are beautiful.”

Three Omani boys in traditional dishdashas, taken at the Salalah College of Technology. Photo by Chris Brauer
Three Omani boys in traditional dishdashas, taken at the Salalah College of Technology. Photo by Chris Brauer

“Yes, teacher,” said another student. “Very beautiful. We have picnics with our families.  It is… ah… fresh.”

“Fresh?  The air is cooler?” I asked.

“Yes, teacher. There is no dust. And it is where the camels drink.”

The class became more animated as several students turned their desks around to discuss their favorite places to picnic and hang out with friends.

“Wadi Darbat, teacher,” said one student. “Darbat is very beautiful, teacher.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. Very beautiful.”

“Is it far?”

“No, teacher,” said another student. “Twenty minutes.”

“And there is water falling… down the mountain,” said a third student.

I thought 20 minutes sounded optimistic, but I had faith in my students.

Sunset from the roof of the authors villa in Salalah. Photo by Chris Brauer
Sunset from the roof of the author’s villa in Salalah. Photo by Paula Ebelher

That weekend, I strapped the family in the car and, sure enough, after 20 minutes, we approached a fork in the road with two small signs pointing us in two different directions. One pointed up the mountains to the area above the falls and the other pointed to the area below the falls. From the road, the site seemed unimposing – a tall cliff with a bit of trickling water – but I geared down the car and we started the drive up.

“My students told me that the spring is above, near the top of the falls,” I said.

“It doesn’t look very interesting,” said Adam, aged nine.

“Well… we’ll see. You never know what awaits.”

“I guess,” he said, unconvinced.

After weaving up the steep mountain road, we spied an abandoned building with the windows boarded up and a rusty padlock on the door. There was also a small sign screwed into the wall that pointed us down the valley towards Wadi Darbat. It wasn’t an inviting sight, but I followed the road that dipped down and twisted around the corner.

Wadi Darbat

We tucked down into the tight valley, lost sight of the ocean, and were soon among grass and trees. Wadi Darbat was larger than I imagined and we rolled down the windows, letting the cooler air and smell of earth fill the car. It was a welcome break from the sparse moonscape that made up most of Oman.

Camels were eating low hanging leaves as we made our way into the verdant oasis. A clear brook of fresh water flowed down porous rocks before disappearing underground. Rather than being piped along a falaj (or aqueduct) system, the waters were allowed to flow the way nature intended and I pulled the car over so we could get a closer look.

Some of the diverse wildlife in Oman. Photo taken at Ayn Tabraq by Chris Brauer
Some of the diverse wildlife in Oman. Photo taken at Ayn Tabraq by Chris Brauer

We walked gingerly from one rocky outcropping to the next while munching on date cookies. It was easy to find footing, and we made our way higher and higher where the waters flowed into a series of little waterfalls with tall green trees and turquoise pools, and I could hear the boys laughing through the sound of running water. I could feel my spirits lift as I leaped from place to place. We weaved back to the road and, interested in what lay further along, we loaded back into the car.

We passed some temporary structures covered in frayed green and blue tarpaulins, belonging to the camel herders. More camels were walking into the water and dipping their long necks down for a drink. They paused at the sound of our car on the gravel and then continued to fill their bellies.

The road ran parallel to the wadi and the clear water from the spring was now muddied. We passed a series of lay-bys with picnic benches and tangles of lush greenery. At the end of the road was a small beach and, off to the side, were public bathrooms that looked closed for the season. When the Indian monsoon touches down in Salalah for the summer, the site is filled with families picnicking on chicken dinners and Mountain Dew but we were the only visitors at the end of winter.

We spied narrow trails, where the trampling of feet had killed the grass, and we followed them into the rocks before coming back to watch the lazy waters flow towards the ancient archaeological site of Khor Rori.

Oman Travel - Adam and Nicholasat at Taqah Castle. Photo by Paula Ebelher
Adam and Nicholas at Taqah Castle. Photo by Paula Ebelher

We visited the bottom of the falls on the way home. We followed the overgrown path and, as we approached the pools, we heard voices in a language not our own. Three Indian men were flinging fishing lines into the water. With only line, hooks, and a bit of bait, the men were pulling tiny fish out of the water. I’m not sure if they intended to eat these little unnamed fish, but every so often one man would yank his line and whip out a bite-sized morsel. Intrigued, Adam and Nicholas went over to get a closer look.

“Hello,” said Nicholas, already the more outgoing of the brothers.

“Hello,” said the first man, smiling as one does when approached by a three-year old.

“What are you doing?” asked Adam.

“We are fishing,” said the man. “You try?”

“Yes, please.”

We watched as the Indian men helped Adam put bait on the end of the line, and soon he was also catching fish. Nicholas was happy just to watch and he laughed and clapped whenever someone caught anything. After Adam caught a few, we thanked the men for their kindness and headed home for dinner.

If You Go to Oman:

http://www.omantripper.com/salalah/

http://www.beautifulsalalah.com/salalah-places-to-visit/

https://www.insightguides.com/destinations/africa-middle-east/oman/dhofar/overview

Author Bio: Chris Brauer lives in British Columbia, Canada where he splits his time between writing and teaching. He has recently completed a travel memoir about living and teaching in the Sultanate of Oman, and is currently working on a book about his travels in Ireland. He is also working on his first collection of poetry.