the journey


The Mission

March 3, 2010

Location: Salalah, Oman

Being a full-time traveller sometimes is tough; always moving, always feeling like you should see the sights, experience the culture, and make the most of each day you are in these strange new worlds. Sometimes just wandering around and letting serendipity have it's way with you is just what the doctor ordered. But other times it is fun to have missions; little adventures we plan, look forward to, and set out trying to accomplish. Not that we are always successful, but usually a good story or two results, regardless. Today is one of those days.

We are in search of a baobob tree grove in the Dhofar mountains outside of Salalah, Oman. Nicole's idea. She is infatuated with baobob trees, the infamous "upside down" trees of Africa.

Accompanied by our new friends from the catamaran, 'Orinoco Flo': Mark, Meg, and Kieran, we have hired a car for the day and set out on an adventure. It's nice to have wheels and be liberated from our boats and the dust-blown harbor we have been in for the last 8 days, all of us waiting patiently for the "convoy" to begin through "pirate alley" in the Gulf of Aden. Plus, sharing some time and space with new friends, even younger than us, is a really nice change. Our new friends are into the mission.

After a stop at one of the excellent bakeries in Salalah to stock up on pastries and nibbles, we quickly navigate out of town and up into the hills of the Dhofar mountains. First stop is to Job's Tomb. One of only a handful of real tourist spots, Job's Tomb is where the prophet, Job, is said to be buried, important in both the Muslim and Christian religions. High on a hill overlooking Salalah, it is worth a visit, just for the destination alone. A short stroll away is a typical Omani bare-bones restaurant hang-out where locals drink tea and smoke their hubbly-bubbly tobacco pipes. Hanging with our new friends, all from the UK, of course we had to stop for tea time. Strong black tea with milk and sugar, called "Shai", almost like an Indian "Chai", is delicious. We passed on the hubbly-bubblies.

The day was just getting going and we were excited to drive around the Dhofar mountains exploring the desert landscape and seeing what the rural villages look like in this historically fascinating part of the world.

Dating back to at least 5000 B.C., yes, that's B.C., this is the place where the once highly lucrative frankincense trade was centered. Dhofari frankincense was at one time so precious that supposedly the Queen of Sheba hand-delivered some to King Solomon. Then, of course, most of you all know the story of the wise men in the Bible...the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The frankincense was from the Dhofar mountains of Oman.

A little piece of this country's more recent rich history:
For hundreds of years (1600's - 1800's) Oman became a sizable unified empire backed with a legendary formidable navy. In the early 1900's, however, Oman reversed itself economically with rule by religious conservative Imam's and a new Sultan, Said bin Taimur, but nowadays, since the Sultan, Qaboos bin Said, took the throne in 1970, Oman has modernized. Based on a diversification of the economy including natural gas exports, modern ports for trade, a local intensive agricultural system, and support for rapidly growing tourism. Visiting Oman nowadays you will find a fascinating mix of old and new blended together to define this new era. Cars are modern, the main road infrastructure is very well built with lots of ongoing construction, and the shopping can be quite western.

However, once out of town or onto the city side roads, you quickly see the other reality. Tough looking sun-weathered men carry around ceremonial daggers called khanjars, and sometimes strap kalishnikovs (AK47's) over their shoulders. They wear the white "thobe" called a dishdasha, but almost all welcome you with a big smile and sometimes a "Welcome to Oman" greeting.

When you do see women, they are mostly still covered head to toe in the black burkas with veiled masks, called abeyyas, with only their eyes showing adorned with copious amounts of eyeliner and mascara.

Camels and donkeys roam freely across roads and the simple bedouin-style desert shelters contrast with the more modern city tall concrete apartment dwellings that seem to sprout out of the bleak desert lands.

After our afternoon Shai, we drove through the desert hills of Dhofar, pulling over often to photograph the numerous donkeys, camels, and rural homesteads out in the windy sand-blown ecosystem. As we got more off the beaten path, the road signs were nonexistent or only in Arabic, and the intersections tricky as our late afternoon hunger levels increased. We missed an important turn and realized too late that we were headed back towards the coast, but fortunately, as is usually the case in a good adventure, we stumbled into a great local open-air teahouse settled into a hillside niche with views overlooking the Arabian Sea in the distance. The smiling Omani waiter brought us all tasty shai and delicious curry chicken with fresh flat bread which we ate with the fingers of our right hands, local style. Surrounded by Omani men with their sandals kicked off and their feet propped up on empty chairs, they sucked on the hubbly-bubbly waterpipes as we engulfed our food.

Decision time. Do we backtrack and commit to the baobob forest mission or call it a day and head back into Salalah town? It was an easy decision, everyone was still in. Our new friends were our kind of people.

Leaving our smiling waiter behind, Mark pulls a bonehead manouever, puts the car in reverse and backs directly over the curb. A police car is directly behind us. We all hold our breaths, not knowing what the police will do. A big fine for the stupid tourists? Maybe a big bribe?
The police man smiles and waves us onward. We all explode in laughter. One of those, "you had to be there" moments.

We backtrack to the last town and I jump out to ask directions to some local men sitting outside another tea shop. One of them speaks enough English to understand me and actually seems to know how to get to the baobob forest. We're in luck. Follow the road until it ends, he says, then walk down the hill a couple of kilometers. We're still on.

We drive and drive until we think that we definitely are lost. The crew is doubting my understanding of the directions. We go through a thick fog bank, a herd of camels, and then arrive on a major road construction site. The workers are all standing around staring at us westerners. Lost crazy tourists. Mark gets out to ask directions with the Arabic words for "baobob forest" we pull off of a simple map we have. All the workers crowd around, mostly from India it looks like, wanting to help and understand where we are going. They have no idea, and I'm pretty sure don't even speak Arabic. We decide to continue on. Down the hill we go until we are stopped by some kind of construction foreman. The road has ended and we are now in a major valley being destroyed for this huge road construction project.

We ask the foreman directions, who seems very happy that we are there, but most likely thinks we are crazy too. He still does his best to help out. He doesn't get it, but says that, yes, we can walk down the hill through the project to the supposed "baobob forest" we have been told is down there somewhere. It's getting close to dusk, but we think we are almost there, so decide to go for it.

We strike out on foot through the dusty drainage as the Indian workers all head back up the hill, the day's work finished. They all look at us confusedly.

Twenty minutes later and almost 2 km down the hill, we decide to commit to just one more turn and viewpoint before turning back. Peeking over the edge of the churned up road construction desert, we spot the grove. The baobob forest is real. Mission accomplished!

The untouched part of the forest is tucked into the valley with an almost magical quality to it.
But, all is not well for this baobob forest, as the other part of the grove is being destroyed by the careless building of this new major road. Obviously, there was no thought in trying to conserve these thousand year old trees. It's pretty sad to see some of these massive trees getting pummeled and destroyed by the road construction boulders and earth that is burying the land around it, but, I guess, sometimes that is what happens when modernity comes quickly to a country like Oman. This place is obviously not on the main tourist sites list.

All 5 of us scramble around the grove and get some photos with some of these living giants. How did they get here? Why just this tiny grove of trees in the whole country of Oman? Questions we still haven't answered.

Some of the baobob trees have seed-pods which you can crack open and eat the starchy white nut inside. It's actually pretty good. We say good bye to this special little place and hope that many of the trees actually survive another thousand years.

The last light of day is lingering and we must be off, back up the hill to our car before the creeping fog and darkness soaks into our valley.

Driving back into Salalah on one of the "most lit up" roads we have ever been on, where fancy ornately-decorated lamposts placed on the median every 100 meters or so through the desert, we pull up to, where else, but to the tasty bakery with the conveniently located fresh juice bar next door. Mango juice is delicious. We pick up our laundry and stop for another round of fresh veggies and fruit at the best local stand we have found, then it's back to the dusty harbor to celebrate a mission accomplished.