Just 1,200 km from Dubai

The weather is just right and the year- end holidays are coming up. What better place to take off to than Salalah in Oman? Paolo Rossetti spins the wheels to this greenland.

Image Credit:Paolo Rossetti
Peak time on the Dhofar mountains, the fog can be thick with temperatures in the low 20s.
Friday

We're going to spin our wheels on the Oman Land Rover Family Adventure this month, so buckle up, and stack up with snacks, because we've got a 3,000-km trip on our hands!

If you look at a satellite image of the Arabian Peninsula, you will be overwhelmed by a fairly uniform sandy brown colour – the deserts of the Middle East – except for one little spot of totally vivid green: like an emerald shining brightly, the little enclave of Salalah on Oman's southernmost coast is uniquely blessed by the yearly monsoon winds, and these winds bring what the rest of the region desperately lacks: moisture!

Salalah is geographically a long sandy beach, with dramatic rocky cliffs at both ends, and a plateau which spans back a couple of kilometres, before the mountains rise majestically, crowning the city and trapping the wet clouds that pour in from the Indian Ocean – the khareef season is in full swing when the mountains are covered in thick drizzly fog; and that brings fertility to the soil and carpets the entire Dhofar region in resplendent green ... a miracle of nature.

Can you imagine driving in a Gulf country through regions that look like rural Scotland? Green rolling hills, herds of cows out to pasture, waterfalls and rivers, men in long robes with rifles slung over their shoulder ... wait a minute!

Actually, the rifles are purely traditional ornaments, or so they say! Fiercely proud and independent, the Dhofar region Jebelis (literally, mountain people) accompany their numerous herds of cattle, goats and camels wherever they please, seemingly saying: "This is my homeland, I was here before you, and your car can wait while my 600 goats cross your path."

In fact, the sheer beauty of the land and incredible weather attract thousands of visitors each summer. And the influx of mostly Gulf Arab nationals in their powerful SUVs is a welcome financial injection into the local urban economy, where houses are vacated to make room for rentals and hotels quickly fill up.

The generous hospitality of the Omanis is evident everywhere, from the banana farmer inviting us to sample his tea to the distinguished gentleman who took the time to suggest some interesting destinations during his evening stroll along the beach.

The highlight of the trip certainly is not the trip there – you've got roughly 1,200 kilometres of flat arid desert to cross, and during summer it's not really plesant. The single-lane strip of tarmac is patchy and poorly maintained, and at both sides it drops to the desert floor at a 30Þangle, and every so often an unrecognisable twisted wreck, often burnt to a crisp, breaks the monotonous view – unless you're driving that is, then you're busy making sure all the other guys in their heavy 4x4s speeding on balding sand tyres and with entire family belongings tied to the roof do not swerve into you.

It's a highway known for its danger, and with temperatures firmly in the high 40s, I wanted to make sure that our two families were as safe as possible – hence we went for one of the safest and most practical vehicles: the new Land Rover LR3.

I had previously reviewed this vehicle (Friday, October 7-13, 2005) and I knew it was perfect for the job.

A long bouncy drive at high speeds on tarmac through one of the remotest places in the region, fully packed for ten days of family camping in various locations, and the need to drive off-road on both muddy mountain tracks as well as sandy beaches – this is what the Land Rover LR3 is built for. Both the V6 and 8-cylinder versions performed exceedingly well.

The air suspension was fabulous on the long fast highway – truly magnificent – and the functionality that is built into the new Land Rovers made camping in nature a joyous experience. Full marks to the Land Rover engineers and designers – a fantastic balance between drivability, safety and practicality.

So with our two LR3s we were able to not only survive the trip there and back (and consider that on the return we actually did it in one day!

I kept asking my fellow traveller on the walkie-talkie: "Want to stop yet? Need a break?" but the answer was always: "Nope, doing fine!") we also were able to explore the ins and outs of the spectacular Salalah mountains.

And that brings us to our suggested 4x4 adventure – I realise that not many will be able to jump into their cars and zoom off to Salalah next weekend, but a trip to Salalah is definitely worth planning for, and when you're there this excursion will take you on a breathtaking exploratory route!

Another plus of the Land Rovers is their excellent navigation system. We were able to find our way in an unknown area without hesitation, and therefore I will use GPS waypoint locators to set the itinerary so I can be brief and accurate – if you don't have an on-board navigation system in your car yet, then get one; absolutely fantastic to "see" where you're going even in fog or on the other side of the city.

We'll start from the main road that heads from Salalah to Mirbat (17'03.581/54'25.998), and turn up north into the mountains to explore Wadi Darbat (17'04.287/54'26.856 – 17'06.251/54'27.178), poke around several muddy trails (17'04.753/54'26.290), park and go for a brief hike along an escarpment with a fabulous view, and cross miles of rolling grassy countryside with wide-open windows and sunroof.

Don't stick to my itinerary too tightly, as all roads and tracks heading downhill eventually will lead to a tarmac road, but do be prepared for a sudden fog, which will disorient and challenge your driving skills.

For an extremely challenging "Camel Trophy" off-road adventure for fully-equipped experienced drivers only, try entering at 17'02.990/54'28.094 and working your way uphill to the tarmac north-east, exiting at 17'04.867/54'27.522 or 17'05.585/54'28.155 – please use extreme caution and the equivalent of the Land Rover Hill Descent Control on slippery steep inclines. And please do not remove trees or rocks to make the passage easier.

Despite the adventure of exploring the rough 4x4 trails of Salalah, we also wanted to spoil ourselves and enjoy a stay at a luxury hotel.

Be warned that hotels are regularly fully booked for the khareef season, however we were extremely lucky in meeting the Hilton Salalah Resort's hospitable general manager, Bamberg, and his masterful Executive Chef, Fernando, and so we indulged in a bit of refinement towards the end of our trip, and I would highly recommend you also take the opportunity to enjoy sophisticated dining on some of the freshest seafood the Indian Ocean has to offer!

All in all, Salalah was an exciting destination for an extended summer road trip, and with the right vehicles you will most certainly enjoy a fantastic trip to a unique region of Arabia.



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