This guest post was kindly contributed by Robert Ryan.
When it’s 45 degrees outside, and you’ve been riding all day, a bowl full of steaming hot camel’s milk is not what comes to mind for refreshment . . . but that’s what was being offered, and to decline seemed completely inappropriate.
Based in Dubai, with six days off coming, the wife and kids back in Europe, and soon to be leaving the Middle East for good, it was now or never for a second attempt at the long trip down to the elusive Salalah.
Located in the far south of Oman, Salalah is an oasis of lush green hills in a dry, barren desert. It boasts wild, empty beaches, seasonal waterfalls, and best of all an average summer temperature of 27 degrees, while the rest of Oman and the Middle East swelters in 45 degrees and horrible humidity.
Most people traveling to Salalah from the UAE will fly, as it’s a long 1200 km drive down through empty desert on dangerous roads, and in August with the heat, humidity and blowing sand, it’s a shit drive on a bike; however, as I said, it was now or never.
My first attempt, two years earlier with a friend on another GS, started well, but after two days of riding with a 40 mph crosswind and visibility reduced by blowing sand that, by the time we decided to give up, had sandblasted the windscreen of my GS to a terminal shade of opaque (requiring a replacement) and scuffed off a layer of skin from the upwind side of my neck.
Riding south towards Salalah required leaning hard over into the crosswind—until you passed a truck going in the opposite direction on the single lane highway and the resulting wind blast tried to rip you out of the saddle.
The forecast on that tour was for another week of the same, and to keep going meant two days to get down there and another two days coming home in the same conditions, so we decided to end the misery and call it quits.
This time, the wind was gone, but the brutal heat and humidity were still there. Once the temperature reaches 45 degrees and above, my experience was that more clothing rather than less is better. Wrapping up loosely and drinking constantly from a two-liter camelback helped me to endure the oven that is Oman in the summer.
All covered up, I’d pour a small bottle full of water down my neck and back inside my jacket, and the slow evaporation reduced the heat.
By the end of the first day, the only thing causing me a problem was the deep sunburn on the exposed part of my wrists, between the top of my moto-x gloves, and the end of my sleeves. I needed to find a way to cover them up, and the solution was to sacrifice a good pair of socks, cutting the ends off them and turning them into “wristwarmers”.
After that it was a question of will power, lots of water, and an occasional nap when some shade could be found. All helped to endure the 1200 km or so, down through barren empty desert, to where things slowly changed and became worth seeing.
After two long days of brown, empty desert, the road veered east towards the coastline, and a hint of blue on the horizon replaced the previous day’s yellow haze. I rode along miles of wild beaches with nobody in sight.
Apart from the occasional small dilapidated fishing village, there is really nothing in this part of Oman, which separates Salalah from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Its name, Rub’al Khali (Empty Quarter), really sums up the whole midsection of this country well.
After half a day of riding along the coast, all of a sudden, in the space of 50 km or so, the terrain changed dramatically, with mist-covered hills and lush green countryside replacing the empty beaches. It could be mistaken for somewhere in the west of Ireland, with cows, mud, and damp roads, all in the starkest possible contrast to the rest of the region. Best of all, though, was the temperature, which had declined to a delicious 29 degrees.
I had crossed into Dhofar, the region that borders Yemen, on the southernmost coast of Oman. The beauty and contrast of Salalah is thanks to the Khareef, the only monsoon in the Arabian Peninsula, which during the unbearably hot months of July and August creates an amazing microclimate, bringing clouds rolling in, to deliver a constant drizzle, giving birth to the sensation of greenery and waterfalls for which Salalah is best known.
I spent two great days exploring the hills and mountains, and was thankful for the 80/20 Shinko 804 offroad tyres I had on my GS, which while less than ideal for the previous two days of highway were now making life much easier on the mud-covered hill roads.
There was plenty to see around Salalah, and it’s hard to believe that you are still in Oman while riding through the mist and drizzle, along muddy country roads. I passed through green countryside, past farms full of cattle, waterfalls and swollen rivers, all looking completely at odds with the traditionally dressed locals and other typically Arabic features.
The time came to head home, and on the morning of the fifth day I set out early from my small hotel to make sure I’d get my daily mileage done, and make it back in time for work. Leaving Salalah, and heading due north, meant climbing up into the mountains overlooking the city and riding in the dark through a thick soaking fog.
As the elevation increased, the temperature dropped, and with my now sodden summer gear I was freezing and had to stop to put on any remaining clothes, dirty or otherwise—hard to imagine five days before, while packing for the trip back in the heat of Dubai.
Once I had crossed the mountains and descended into warmer air the fog disappeared, the heat returned, and the long slog home awaited.
There is a pecking order of vehicles on the roads in Oman and the UAE, and on a bike you are pretty much at the bottom, expected to take to the ditch and make way whenever a car approaches. As such, I was considered an overtaking opportunity for the opposite direction traffic, on the single lane highway heading north.
Even on a big GS, planted firmly in the middle of my lane, with headlights and driving lights lit up, the oncoming traffic would whip out on to my side of the road and overtake, coming head on, with lights flashing, and horn blaring, in a game of chicken, in which I was always the loser, forced over to the hard shoulder to avoid the oncoming two tonnes of Land Cruiser, blasting past in a cloud of sand.
The wind picked up again, with visibility reducing drastically in the blowing sand, and once again, driving became a stressful misery. Between avoiding the oncoming maniacs, and in the next instant being overtaken from behind, it was becoming dangerous, and so I decided to stop much earlier than planned for that day.
I found a truckstop with a small depressing hotel and spent the night there. The next morning I got up at 4 a.m. and hit the road to try and stay on schedule. The wind was calm, and even better, the road was quiet, and I felt better about making up the previous day’s lost kilometers.
Just before lunchtime, I saw traffic stopped ahead and slowed to join the queue, wondering what the hold-up was about. Riding up along to the front of the line, I realized we were waiting for a huge herd of camels, numbering at least a few hundred, to cross the road.
I got chatting with one of the Bedouins supervising the crossing, and he explained that they were camel breeders and were moving the herd from Salalah all the way up to the UAE camel markets on foot, a trek lasting three months or more.
These were black-haired camels, and a good one can fetch up to $55,000 in the UAE camel markets, enough to buy a new Land Cruiser.
In 2017, the Crown Prince of Dubai paid a record $2.7 million for a female camel at the Abu Dhabi camel beauty pageant.
A strong camel can carry 200 kg, for 50 km per day, or up to 60 km if worked in the coolness of the night. It can run in short bursts at up to 40 km/h, and survive in severe heat without drinking for up to seven days.
He explained how, with the rest of his family, they lived with the herd, gesturing over to what looked like a large mobile home, parked with a few other vehicles about a hundred meters in from the main road. He turned and started to walk away, gesturing for me to follow him. “Come for a coffee!”
I drove the bike over to what was basically a huge Portacabin, mounted on a long chassis, with an old Mercedes truck attached in front. This was home to the extended family, and was driven slowly along a narrow concrete lane, set in about 100 meters from the main road, built by the government to allow these Bedouin caravans to travel throughout the country.
Two other old Mercedes trucks formed the rest of the mobile encampment, one carrying a massive generator and diesel tank, with cables stretching over to power the mobile home, the other truck full of camel feed. There were also two Land Cruisers.
I parked the bike beside one of the trucks, and as my Bedouin friend waited at the bottom of a set of metal stairs attached to the outside of the Portacabin, I was struck by how bizarre this felt, one minute being on the bike for hours alone in the middle of nowhere, and the next about to enter another world, that probably not many people get to see, all completely by chance.
I mounted the steps and five sleeping men came into view, lying in the sand underneath the mobile home. My host explained tht they were Pakistani and Afghani camel herders, who lived with and looked after the camels, doing the journey on foot with the camels.
I left my boots at the top of the steps, and a door in the mid part of the home led into a hallway, and then as another door opened I was amazed to see a huge ornate lounge area, complete with gilded wallpaper, rugs, and wall-length Arabic sofas.
The room was ice cold thanks to a huge A/C unit, and four Bedouin men sat drinking coffee. I was introduced to, and shook hands first with, the most senior looking Bedouin, who it turned out was the father and head of the family. The other four men, all his sons, ranged in age from their forties down to early twenties.
The extended family all lived here, the sons with their wives and children, and two or three housemaids. I sat and was given coffee and dates, while they continued their conversation. The son who I had met outside, being the only one it seemed who spoke English, would translate the occasional question from the father, and then continue explaining how they lived and moved with the herd.
They were basically self-sufficient, with enough fuel and camel feed to last for a month or more, and then when needed, would top up whatever was required, driving to the nearest town in one of the 4x4s. The mobile home and support trucks would remain in place, however, too big to leave the purpose-built lanes that ran the length of the region.
After half an hour or so the father stood up, opened the window and called out to the herders below, one of whom ran off towards the camels and appeared ten minutes later in the room, holding a huge bowl of frothing camel’s milk, which I now realized with a degree of apprehension was meant for me. I was handed the bowl, and with all eyes in the room watching me intently, I was expected to drink it. I held the bowl with both hands, and took a large gulp, and as I started to lower the bowl, the father gestured for me to keep going, which I did while trying not to taste it and keeping my expression as neutral as possible.
I thanked him graciously, hoping I had consumed enough and not caused any offence; he seemed reasonably satisfied and we sat down again for more coffee and dates, with one of the wives and young children coming in with Madluka, an Omani dessert made from date paste and sesame seeds.
I was amazed at the hospitality I was shown, as a complete stranger covered in dust and dirt, showing up on their doorstep.
I was also struck by how happy and content everyone here seemed, living what seemed to be a very simple and carefree existence, which apart from the obvious modern conveniences was basically the same lifestyle that Bedouins have had for centuries. Living on the move, with their beloved camels.
It felt like I could spend a few days here, and nobody would have batted an eyelid, but I was running out of time, and I said my goodbyes. Once back on the road and alone again, I thought about my unexpected insight into this other world, I could not have been made to feel more welcome, and while Salalah had been an amazing place to see and explore, my unexpected lunch invitation with the Bedouins was by far the highlight of my trip.
Once again showing that it is the unexpected human interactions that make travel such a joy.