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Salalah: Taqa, Derbat, Sumharum, Bin Ali's Tomb, Mirbat - UK

Last day in Oman


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Taqa Open Air Museum

A small collection of replica dwellings shows how local people lived in the Dhofar mountains in the old days. The hut on the left would have housed the family, while the building on the right was for the animals.

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Taqa Castle

Built in the 19th century as a private residence for the Sheikh and his family, the castle was restored some 15 years ago.

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Barza – the vestibule where visitors would wait to see the governor.

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Issa shows us the type of bowl used when milking camels. Camels are majorly fidgety animals and have to be milked quickly as they won't stand still for long. Stones from the fire are then added to the bowl to 'sterilise' the milk.

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The responsibility for the camels is usually the men's domain, while the women look after the sheep and goats.

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This room was used as a store for household items and as a workroom for grinding wheat, pounding spices, churning milk, and grating coconut.

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Tannur Oven

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The prison

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They seem to have left behind a prisoner in the cell.

Wadi Dirbat

As we make our way towards Wadi Dirbat, we see a number of camels in the road; creating the quintessential Middle Eastern scene of my imagination.

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There are camels everywhere and they are all heading the same direction.

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This is what they have come for: the water. And this is what we have come for: to see them in the water.

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Sumhuram Archaeological Park

The ancient site of Sumhuram dates back to the 3rd century AD and is the most important pre-Islamic settlement in this area.

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Built near the harbour of Khor Rori, it was once a wealthy port situated on the trading route between the Mediterranean and Asia.

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The city gate of Sumhuram was an imposing defensive structure. The access was tortuous, steep and blocked by three successive wooden doors.

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The fort was protected on all sides and almost impregnable.

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Khor Rori Port - the approach to the fort from the sea - the walls on this side did not have any openings, thus making it very secure.

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Flamingos in the bay

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The fascinating and informative Audio Visual show in the Visitors' Centre brings the whole place to life.

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Bin Ali's Tomb

Originally from Tarim in Yemen, Bin Ali came to this region in the beginning of the 12th century to teach Islam and build schools. A mosque has been built over his tomb, which is still used for prayer and mourning and this is now one of the most important Islamic sites in the region, partly because Bin Ali is said to be a descendant of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

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The tomb and mosque are surrounded by a large traditional cemetery.

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Issa explains how the female graves have three headstones and those containing the remains of a man have two.

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Mirbat

Once the capital of Dhofar, Mirbat is now primarily a fishing village with many old decaying merchant houses.

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I find the crumbling old buildings quite charming despite some being in a badly dilapidated state.

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We take a little wander around the old town, and again I am drawn to the ornate doors and windows, some of which are in a better state of repair than others; but all of which could tell a story or two about the people who once lived and worked here.

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The Old Town is deserted, and the busy working port is not exactly bustling either.

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When we get back to the hotel, we are informed that our flight this afternoon has changed and is now 5½ hours later. We manage to secure a late check out and have a snooze followed by something to eat and then listening to piano music in the lobby before trying to check in on line for our flights. When we get an error message stating “Flight Cancelled” we panic ever so slightly, and email Undiscovered Destinations (who arranged our trip) to see if they can find out for us what the situation is. They quickly come back to us to confirm that the flight is indeed running, so we assume the error message is just a computer glitch.

Homeward Bound

Salalah Airport is a joy. There is no queue for check in, and I chat up the guy on the counter who gives us window and aisle seats and blocks out the middle seat so that we can spread out. Success.

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At Muscat Airport we have to collect our bags, but again there is no queue to check in. Just like we did on the way to Salalah, we are made to wait in the bus while they finish off getting the plane ready to board.

The flight back to the UK via Istanbul is uneventful and at Heathrow we get plenty of exercise walking from the gate to the main terminal building – I swear it is at least half a mile!

And so ends another successful tour with Undiscovered Destinations. If you are interested in travelling to some of the more little-known places off the beaten path, check them out. They can arrange group or private tours and have a huge selection of destinations to choose from.

As for Oman: we absolutely loved it! The country as a whole has moved directly into our Top Three list of favourite countries, with its friendly people, cleanliness (including a number of fabulous public toilets), good food, nice hotels, stunning scenery, and a host of interesting historical and cultural sites. Go now before everyone else discovers it.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:34 Archived in Oman Tagged history travel fort cemetery tomb museum port castle necropolis old deserted asia camels ancient mediterranean oman archaeology wadi trade middle_east frankincense salalah taqa taqa_castle camel_milk wadi_dirbat sumhuram sumharam_archaeological_park frankincense_trade impregnable khor_rori bin_ali mirbat dhofar Comments (1)

The Empty Quarter

Rub' Al Khali


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

It looks to be another nice day out there. No chance of rain.

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Today we are leaving civilisation behind and travelling out to the fabled Empty Quarter, or Rub' Al Khali, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world and one of the driest regions; virtually uninhabited, and largely unexplored. I have high expectations for today as we set off with a different guide, also called Issa, heading north.

Once we have climbed over the mountains surrounding Salalah, the road is straight and flat, with very little interest either side. This road carries on for 650kms to Nizwa, through vast expanses of nothing.

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At the edge of the desert Issa lowers the tyre pressure to cope with the soft sand. The vehicle has been specially modified with roll over bars fitted for safety. I am hoping for some exhilarating 'dune bashing' today.

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Camel Farm

Our first stop of the day is a camel farm to see the rare, and much sought-after black camels who are only found here, Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. Another first for us.

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The baby is only two or three days old

The place is swarming with flies.

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Rub Al Khali

We are now entering the Empty Quarter and soon the gravel road turns to sand and we start to see some dunes.

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I am surprised at how many small shrubs grow in the sand dunes. So far it doesn't have a particularly 'empty' feel to it.

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Despite a number of strategically placed rubbish bins along the side of the track, trash gets caught on vegetation as it blows around in the wind.

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The scenery is dominated by long, linear dunes running parallel to the prevailing winds. Between these are crescent-shaped barchan dunes, and large, firm salt flats called sabkahs, which is what we are driving on.

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The dunes are getting slightly higher now as we drive deeper into the wilderness.

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Issa takes a couple of attempts to drive up a steep-sided sand dune and then swings around and follows the ridge before heading directly back down again. After a couple more swirls on the dunes, he stops the car so that we can get out and stretch our legs. Walking in the soft sand is hard going though.

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We are only just touching on the very edge of this enormous desert, the world's largest erg (sand sea) at 583,000 km². That's about the size of France. To me it is totally incomprehensible to imagine an area the size of France covered in sand.

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Just like Wahiba Sands, Rub' Al Khali is popular with young lads and families on the weekend, coming out here to have a BBQ and maybe try their hand at some serious desert driving. You can see several failed attempts at driving up this sand dune.

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As we make our way back to civilisation, I am left with a feeling of “Is that it?” The dunes are all very nice, but I don't feel any of the mystery and romance that I expected. It all feels like it is just a 'tourist day trip into the desert', which of course, is exactly what it is.

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The ever-present tyre tracks don't help, and neither do the several other tourist vehicles we meet.

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Wubar Archeaological Site

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At the edge of the desert, near Wadi Thumrait and a small settlement of the same name, is the UNESCO Heritage Site of Wubar (AKA Shisr), believed to be the remains of the Lost City of Ubar, often referred to as the Atlantis of the Desert.

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Wubar was the 'door to the desert' in the heyday of the frankincense trade, a prosperous and wealthy caravan oasis; until the desert once more swallowed it up and it remained hidden for centuries.

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A 180° Audio Vision display in the newly built visitor centre shows the fascinating and moralistic story of how man's greed once again ruined the environment by overuse of water.

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The site, however, is way older than that, and evidence found here suggests it dates back to 5000 BC.

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Thumrait Palace Restaurant

We stop for lunch near the site, and enjoy some chicken nuggets, chicken fried rice, vegetables in a sauce, bread and salad along with some delicious fresh mint juice. It makes a nice change not to have the typical Indian fare for once.

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Wadi Dokah

On the way back to Salalah, we swing by Wadi Dokah to see the frankincense plantations. This national park is a stony semi-desert valley and a perfect habitat for the 1,257 frankincense trees found here.

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Issa shows us the proper tool for shaving the tree to get the sap flowing, although we don't actually use it, of course.

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As we make our way over the Dhofar Mountains and on to Salalah, I can but notice that Issa has a most unusual driving position, with his left leg tucked under his body.

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Pool / Beach time

We dump our stuff in the room and head for the beach. As we make our way through the reception, a young man appears from one side, making a beeline for me with his arms outstretched. “Baby, hello, I love you, you are beautiful...” Reaching out towards me he gently caresses my camera. We get chatting and it turns out he is the in-house photographer and does indeed have camera-envy.

We leave the photographer behind and spend the rest of the afternoon / evening walking along the beach, around the pool and in the little café.

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The hotel has a beautiful private beach that stretches around the bay in a crescent shape, with plenty of activities laid on if you are into that sort of thing. We're not.

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At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I have to admit that this five-star luxury and fabulous mini-suite is all well and good; but give me a small, rustic hotel or lodge any day. This place is much too big for my liking, there are too many people, and I hate buffets with a passion. I prefer a small privately-owned place, where maybe the owner is the chef and you eat what they have that day. Something more personal where you get to know the staff and there are just a handful of guests. I don't need luxury, I want authenticity. In a large fancy hotel like this you could be anywhere in the world.

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It is not really a complaint though, just a personal preference. I understand that there are no such hotels in this region, the middle market is sadly lacking accommodation. The rest of this trip has been fault-less, and I yet again Undiscovered Destinations have done us proud. Thank you for organising this trip (and several more in the past and in the future).

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:13 Archived in Oman Tagged desert beach hotel sunrise sand pool unesco luxury camels dunes national_park sand_dunes erg unesco_heritage_site frankincense salalah camel_farm empty_quarter rub_al_khali wadi_dawkah thumrait deser archaeological_park anicent_city wubar ubar shisr al-fanar five_star Comments (2)

Mosque, Museum, Souk, Ayoub's Tomb, Mughsail blowhole

A busy, varied and interesting day


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Wandering bleary-eyed onto the balcony at 07:30 this morning, we are amazed to see that all the sunbeds around the pool are still free. There is not a single 'reserved towel' to be seen. How very refreshing.

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We also discover that we have a much larger balcony than most of the other rooms. I really like the design of the hotel, with lots of angles and variety of architecture, rather than just a square block. Our balcony is covered, but it seems not all of them are. So far we are very impressed with this hotel, despite not being keen on large resorts.

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Breakfast

Breakfast is an elaborate affair, with an enormous choice of dishes: cereal, breads and conserves, salads, fruits, Middle Eastern and Continental selections, Indian cuisine, waffle machine, sandwich toaster and a number of chefs on hand to cook eggs how you like them or fry pancakes amongst other things.

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The hotel has 308 rooms and caters to guests of all nationalities. We hear English, German, French, Italian, Czech, Russian, Swedish, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, American and Icelandic spoken during our stay. Package tours are available directly from Prague and a couple of different German airports; I guess the rest are independent travellers like us.

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Salalah

We have no time to enjoy the many facilities of the hotel this morning, however, as we are off to explore Salalah and the surrounding area. We meet with Issa, our local guide, in the reception at 08:30.

On the way we see a huge herd of camels just ambling along the side of the road. As they do.

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Sultan Qaboos Mosque

This is the baby sister of the Grand Mosque in Muscat, constructed in 2008 using the Sultan's own money.

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The mosque is not on the same grand scale as the its big brother, but still very impressive, with a capacity of 3200 men and 800 women.

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Having studied photography in Melbourne, Issa is very keen that I should get some good pictures and not only does he suggest the best positions to be in, he also poses willingly for photographs. I like him already.

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Ablutions room

Having been told yesterday that the Grand Mosque is the only one in Oman to allow non-Muslins inside, we are pleasantly surprised to go inside this one today. But first, shoes must come off.

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The chandelier is a poor cousin of the glorious one we saw yesterday. It is still impressive though, or at least would have been if we had visited this mosque first.

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The carpet, although just one single piece, is not hand made like the one in Muscat.

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Renovations are taking place, with the ceiling being painted using an elaborate hoist.

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Most of the time we have the place to ourselves, but just as we are leaving a large tour bus arrives. I am so glad we are on a private tour.

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Fruit Stall

The streets around Al Haffa are lined with roadside stalls selling fresh fruit. Oman being predominately desert and mountains, fresh tropical fruits such as bananas and coconut are mostly imported. Only here in the Dhofar region is fruit grown commercially, and the area is famous for its fresh produce.

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Pomegranates

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Papaya

There are a number of different types of bananas in Oman – green ones for cooking, finger-bananas for milk and the sweet yellow ones for eating.

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The main reason for stopping here, however, is to have a refreshing coconut drink. The Dhofar region is the only place on the Arabian peninsula where coconuts are grown, so they are a bit of a celebrity here.

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The hairy variety are used for cooking and making oil, whereas the smooth-skinned coconuts are the ones that produce the water for drinking.

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Once we have finished the lovely juice inside, the stallholder cuts the coconut open for us and scoops out the flesh.

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I love coconut milk, but the jelly-like texture of the flesh makes my stomach turn.

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Khawr Ad Dahariz

We make a short detour down to a little lagoon known for its birding. As soon as he was given our names for guiding us for the couple of days we are here, Issa googled us to see what he could find. Being the only Grete Howard in the world with that specific spelling, combined with the fact that I have a very high presence on the internet (Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Twitter, 500px, Pinterest, and of course this blog amongst others), I was easy to find. His results revealed that I am interested in bird photography so he even brought along a gorgeous bird book for me to peruse.

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Large flocks (AKA stands or flamboyances) of flamingos are often seen in the shallow waters here, but today there are only a few and they are a considerable distance away.

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The flamingos may be a disappointment, but this Water Pipit more than makes up for it. A new species to us, it takes our life list ever-nearer to the magic 1000 mark (now standing at 927).

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Museum of the Frankincense Land

Sadly, this wonderful museum does not allow photography inside. I will try and describe some of the displays without sounding like a guide book.

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A topographic map of the Dhofar region (the area around Salalah) shows the the low-lying coastal area, mountains that surround the city and the desert that stretches over large parts of the Arabian peninsula. There is also a selction of samples of the various coloured sands found in this area.

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Frankincense trees in the grounds of the museum.

The growth of human habitation in the area is shown in a chronological display from early stone age to present time, including examples of coins and jewellery.

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The courtyard of the museum

Trade between Oman and the rest of the world is described including replicas of ships used and maps detailing the routes taken.

The museum is quite small but very well laid out and extremely interesting. There is much more to it than I explained above, but those are the exhibits that caught my imagination the most.

Al Haffa Beach

From the museum we drive along the pristine white sands of Al Haffa beach.

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Al Husn Souk

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Ever since we arrived in Oman I have been intrigued by the frankincense. A completely new experience to us, which is not surprising as it only grows in a very few areas of the world: Oman, Yemen, Somalia and parts of Ethiopia. It still amazes me though, that we can have new experiences every trip, even after all the travel we have done over the years.

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Frankincense comes in three different grades as you can see here.

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Their uses including burning on special incense burners, something we have seen all over Oman; making perfume; a drink can be made leaving three of the best 'stones' in water for 24 hours; sweets and so on.

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When we leave the market, a group of older men shout out friendly greetings from the outdoor café. As I squeeze by their table, the nearest man grabs my arm, then my waist and his hand rapidly makes its way across my tummy and further south. I shout out “la” several times (Arabic for “no”), remove his hand and walk on. The other men at the table are terribly apologetic. No real harm done, it was just another one of those 'Trump Moments' (“grab 'em by the *****”) #metoo

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Prophet Ayoub's Tomb

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There is a wonderful story attached to this place, and I do love a good legend: Ayoub (Job) was very ill and was suffering from a worm infestation that repulsed everyone who knew him. Because of this, he was driven from his home in Syria, having to leave everything behind: his wealth, his 12 children and one of his wives. Only his second wife stood by him.

Despite all his hardship, Ayoub never lost his faith and every day he would pray. He and his wife walked for many days and many nights until they arrived in Dhofar where we are now. Life was still hard and his wife cut off all her hair to sell so they could buy food. He still prayed like a good faithful servant. Eventually, fearful of yet again being rejected by everyone around him and feeling very tired with his illness – after all, he was 250 years old at this stage – he prayed to god for some relief.

Impressed that he had stayed faithful all through his troubles, god told him to go outside and kick the ground in a specific place. When Ayoub did so, a spring appeared from the ground and he was instructed to drink from it. His illness was immediately cured and his health restored to that of an 18-year old. He also regained his wealth and went on to have two more children.

Outside the mosque we can still see his footprint in the ground where he kicked up water, preserved by a simple stone enclosure.
Judging by the size of the footprint (some 18” or more long) and the casket in the tomb, he was a giant of a man.

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In the courtyard is a mirhab facing towards Mecca, and also a prayer wall in the direction of Jerusalem.

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Lunch

Back in civilisation again we stop for lunch in a curry house appropriately known as The Curry, where we have a private 'family room' (where families can eat together as women are not permitted to eat in the same room as men you are related to them).

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Their butter chicken is absolutely scrumptious, and there is also fish and vegetables, vegetable korma and biriyani. This really is one of the best meals so far in Oman, absolutely superb.

Frankincense

As I said earlier, this tree and its products is totally new to us, and I am really excited to learn all about it this afternoon.

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The Boswellia sacra trees are well known for their ability to grow in unforgiving climates and soil and have been traded on the Arabian peninsula for over 1000 years.

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To extract the resin, the bark of this scraggy tree is shaved, letting the juices run free and left to dry on the branch. 15 days later it is shaved again, and this is repeated once more. The third shave produces the best quality of frankincense.

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Providing the tree is properly managed and not over-exploited, it should last around 100 years.

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Each tree can produce between three and five kilo of resin per season. Harvesting generally starts after the khareef (rainy season). After harvesting, the resin is spread out on the ground to dry.

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Mughsail Beach

We stop for a photo on this pretty little beach.

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Marneef Cave

As per Wikipedia, the definition of a cave is “A cave or cavern is a hollow place in the ground, especially a natural underground space large enough for a human to enter”. By that description, Marneef is not a cave in the true sense of the word, or at least not these days. Who knows what the cave was like thousands of years ago, when the hollow in the soft limestone was first carved out of the sea.

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I am certainly glad of the numerous benches that offer shade from the fierce afternoon sun.

Mughsail Blow Hole

This area is famous for three things: the beach, cave and blow holes. This time of year they are not too active, but I hang around in the shade of the cave and am eventually rewarded with a performance.

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The 'tourist fountain' is created when waves hit the roof of an underwater cave and squirt through a hole in the roof of the cave. The coastline here is rocky and craggy, offering some wonderful views.

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From Mughsail it is time to return to Salalah and our hotel. Arriving so late last night, we didn't get a lot of sleep, so we just have a quick drink and a few snacks in the room followed by a very early night.

Yet again our thanks go to Undiscovered Destinations who have arranged this fabulous trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:30 Archived in Oman Tagged beach religion cave job camels islam souk souq blowhole frankincense sultan_qaboos_mosque al_fanar_hotel salalah ayoub's_tomb prophet_ayoub ayoub prophet_job al_husn_souk al_husn haffa haffa_beach mughsail blow_holes marneef_cave mughsayl mushgail_beach mughsayl_beach tombmosque Comments (3)

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