A sudden freak rainstorm at the end of an inland adventure in Oman created a desert flood like nothing I had seen before.
The dry desert landscape was suddenly alive as the dry ground was incapable of absorbing the rainwater.
Rising waters formed rivers that rushed so powerfully that they almost appeared to create waves. Rainwater cascading over rocky hills created waterfalls.
The storm’s momentum took me by surprise, as did the mixed reactions the desert flood evoked in locals.
We witnessed the wonderment of children who rarely see swimmable wadis (a ravine that is dry except in the rainy season) and the fascination of the adults that stopped their vehicles to take photos.
Sadly, six people drowned that day in the Arabian desert.
As our road turned into a ravine, we were grateful to be with an experienced guide who brought us to safety, yet even he stopped to take photos of this rare and unusual event.
But he did so quickly, as he understood time was a luxury we didn’t have.
To me, the scariest part of the story is that
it went from dry landscape to deep water
in just 20 minutes!
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Our desert flood story from the beginning … the warning call
We had been in Oman for several days, and the country had already captured my heart.
We were based in Muscat, the country’s capital. The city’s an energetic mix of Arab tradition and modern life surrounded by the desert environment that makes up much of the Middle East.
We had spent the day exploring the palm-desert oasis of Nizwa and other fascinating sites in the Al Hajar mountain range, including the Grand Canyon in Oman.
Exhausted by the end of the afternoon, we happily settled into the 4×4 for a two-hour return drive through the barren desert.
As the blue sky ahead filled with ominous clouds, I didn’t really give it much thought.
That is until our driver received a phone call. I could hear the surprise in his voice, despite not understanding the Arabic he spoke. It turns out the call was from his sister, who lives in a village about 30 minutes away via car.
She called to warn him of the desert rainstorm with hail that she called “ice-rain.” According to her, the ice rain was falling in chunks so huge it was damaging cars. There was a risk of a desert flood.
We still had options before the desert flood
Nonetheless, we were in the desert.
We could either continue or go back, but we couldn’t stay where we were.
When our guide chose to continue towards Muscat and the storm, our girls secretly hoped to see the ice rain.
Soon the water began to run over the hills like the ground was concrete. None of it seemed to be absorbed but rather reached the bottom and began to fill the wadis (remember, this is the purpose of the wadi).
It was April and unseasonably early for the first big rain of the year. In fact, any rainstorm is rather unusual for this time of year.
Drivers stopped to take photos, many choosing to swim in the wadis.
Families came out specifically to enjoy the desert flood waters. According to our guide, when the wadis fill like this, it is like a wedding to the mountain people – a reason for gathering with family and celebrating.
Looking at the floods, I found it difficult to believe his next words, “In a few hours, it will all be dry again.”
As the wadi overflows onto the road
Our guide didn’t let us take photos for long. In fact, as I stated above, the timestamp on my first photo in the series is only 20 minutes earlier than the last.
As the water overflowed the wadi and the flash flooding caused any dip in the road to turn into a river with rapidly rising waters, our guide had to make a choice.
Cars were already lined up to pass through, and we were near the front of the queue. We could see some oncoming cars stuck, and our guide assured us it was because they were not 4x4s. He was confident if we could start through the deeper water in the next few minutes, we would make it.
Our turn came just at the end of the time range, and he took the chance, making us one of the last vehicles to pass through the water before they receded hours later.
Then, seemingly random, our guide turned off at the first town for a traditional Omani sweet tea.
A few spots took longer to dry out from the desert flood
When it was all over, bridges had washed away, and there was damage from the rain and winds.
Most of the spots we visited the next day were bone dry, as if nothing had happened the prior day. But some still showed remnants of the desert flood, like the now missing bridge that washed away in the freak storm.
- Wadi Shab
While there may have been remaining desert flood water here, we can’t be sure as it is one of the few wadis in the region to never fully dry.
- Wadi Bani Khalid
This was a pre-planned swimming hole, but it had more water than normal.
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