Dhofar in the Khareef

August 2012

At the very southern end of Oman, southwest from Muscat across 1,000km of endlessly flat and monotonous sand and gravel deserts, is the region of Dhofar and the small city of Salalah. This famous port, once the hub of an important trade in frankincense Boswellia sacra that grows in the distant dry hills, sits at the centre of a narrow coastal plain sheltered by an arc of mountains.

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A colourful wayside stall decked with coconuts, bananas and banana plants.

For three months between June and August, the khareef or summer monsoon brings a blanket of cool, grey cloud over Dhofar as moist air is swept from the Indian Ocean over the land.  The clouds form a damp, dense fog and drop incessant light rain sufficient to cloak the steep escarpment behind Salalah in dull, wet green, seasonal cloud forests and above, lush cattle- grazed pastures and thorny scrub. Fruit and vegetables are grown and sold at colourful wayside stalls around the town.  Livestock, including large numbers of camels, thrive on the drier coastal plateau dominated by gravel desert and spattered with Acacia and the widely introduced mesquite Prosopis juliflora.

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The khareef brings cool temperatures beneath the thick, damp cloud and people travel from across southern Arabia in the heat of mid-summer to enjoy this extraordinary place.

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The sedate, sleepy town of Salalah; the town awakens in the misty cool of the khareef but in 2012 only at the end of Ramadan when the place filled up over the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

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The beaches are blown by the incoming monsoon and the sea is wild and dangerous; perfect conditions for seabirds such as sooty gulls and great crested terns.

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The coast of Salalah is pock-marked by khawrs or reed-fringed lagoons cut off from the sea by banks of beach sand; these support a diversity of wetland birds such as this Indian pond heron.
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Within the long narrow lagoon of Khawr Rawri is an ancient harbour and settlement.

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At Khawr Rawri, camels feed on beach morning glory Ipomoea pes-caprae.

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Ospreys are common in the khawrs; here one is mobbed by a sooty gull.

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To the west of Salalah, where the bite of high hills meets the sea, is the brooding headland of Al Mughsayl; the rocks are beaten hard by the boiling swell under clouds that slide slowly inland.

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At Al Mughsayl, the limestone near the sea is punctured by the force of the sea swell and on every incoming wave, water is forced up through spouts like a geyser, creating a great game for the brave and foolhardy.
In the dry valleys behind Al Mughsayl cattle and goats are carefully herded and strip the vegetation back.

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Camels are grazed everywhere across the Salalah plains.

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Tristram’s grackle, now more prosaically named chestnut-winged starling, work the ground for insects in family parties; here an adult hunts with a young one looking on.

The bite of high hills behind the town of Salalah and the nearby Hawf region in Yemen are the only places in Arabia where these summer monsoons occur and so the habitats are isolated remnants of a formerly once more widespread forest and scrub habitat that has all but disappeared as Arabia has desiccated in recent millennia.  Consequently the habitats are full of endemics and, even allowing for the biting midges reminiscent of a muggy day in the Scottish Highlands, a wonderful place to explore and escape the killing heat of the Arabian summer.

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Seasonal cloud forest at Wadi Hanna on the slopes of the hills, drenched in the monsoon mists. These forests are full of endemic trees and plants and rich in reptiles, birds and mammals including Indian crested porcupine Hystrix indica, Arabian wolf Canis lupus arabs, striped hyena Hyaena hyaena sultana, honey badger Mellivora capensis and caracal Caracal caracal.

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Above Wadi Darbat the road passes through wide pastures, where singing bush larks sing their familiar rattle, before breaking through the cloud into the sun.

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Rüppell’s weaver occurs in large colonies; one of many African species with an outlying population in the these isolated arcs of cloud forest; as is the Didric cuckoo, a small, green jewel of a bird that parasitises the weaver broods.

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Grey-headed kingfisher hunts in the green wadis.

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Tristram’s grackle is intelligent and inquisitive.
Bruce’s green pigeon feeds high in fig Ficus sycamoros trees where it is perfectly camouflaged. This is another species that is widespread in Africa, from Senegal to Somalia, with an outlier population across the Red Sea in southern Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Dhofar.

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Blackstarts are confiding and always sallying for insects from the end of a branch.

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Blue pansy Junonia orithya; the most common butterfly in the mountains of Oman and found throughout Asia and Africa.

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Gladiolus candidus from the path above the sinkhole known as Tawi Atayr; a charismatic species of the highlands of East Africa and Yemen.

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Arabian mourning wheatear is also present at Tawi Atayr and the rare Yemen serin is commonly seen here too.

The road up to Jabal Samham runs past Wadi Darbat, and heads east. Where the cloud breaks at the hill crest the summer heat drys everything in its usual 40 degrees way.

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Jabal Somham – the clouds are rammed against the high cliffs.  The escarpment is home to one of the few remaining populations of Arabian leopard Panthera pardus nimr

Hadi Hikmani, Arabian Leopard scientist on Jabal Somham, Dhofar in the khareef

Where there are leopards there are leopard scientists; this is Hadi Al Hikmani, born in the area and working  to conserve the Dhofar population through research, advocacy and education.

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There were no leopards, they are extremely elusive, but plenty of brown-necked ravens and the odd short-toed eagle.

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An inquisitive brown-necked raven.

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Dracaena serrulata clinging to the escarpment.

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Mountain gazelles Gazella gazella inhabit the barren ground beneath Jabal Somham to the north of the town of Mirbat. Here too are rock hyrax Procavia capensis and, further afield, Nubian ibex Capra nubiana.
Outside Salalah, tented restaurants feed the many tourists with goat and camel meat cooked on piles of hot gravel.

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