It’s a summer afternoon in north-eastern Oman and the heat is on.
In the village of Dibab — the very definition of a one-camel town — the soaring temperature causes a shimmering in the air just above the tarmac. The place seems deserted: the population presumably posted resting in the indoor shade.
For Omanis, it may be nap time, but for a Scotsman used to the frigid swimming conditions in the northern waters of the United Kingdom it seems like the perfect juncture to get acquainted with one of Oman’s more refreshing natural wonders: Bimmah Sinkhole.
Located just outside Dibab around 130km south of Muscat, the 50m by 70m depression around 600m from the coast is filled with crystal-clear turquoise water. Indeed, it’s about the most appealing spot in the Sultanate for a dip outside the infinity pools at The Chedi Muscat, my palatial digs in Oman’s capital.
My driver bids me farewell and directs me to the ramshackle changing room with a lazy wave of his hand. I look back and he’s already snoozing in the air-conditioned comfort of the Landcruiser. I don my trunks and edge my way around sinkhole’s rocky edge to a prime jumping-off spot. I’m about to immerse when I hear a holler.
“Watch out for the monster,” comes the shout from above. I look up to see a group of local kids grinning down at me. By now the sweat beads are pouring down my skin. I throw caution to the wind and take the plunge.
Myths and legends loom large the length and breadth of Oman. As the oldest independent state in the Arab world, the country has had plenty of time to weave a complex tapestry of evocative tales. Even today, the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred at locations around the nation.
In the northern port towns of Sur and Sohar, seafaring locals are quick to claim their towns as the real-life birthplace of Arabian Nights hero Sinbad the Sailor. At the opposite end of the country, near the southern city of Salalah, the sprawling ruins near Khor Rori are said to be the remaining vestiges of a summer palace of the Biblical Queen of Sheba.
The queen’s existence is disputed by many historians. Sinbad’s origins, meanwhile, are widely attributed to Baghdad in Iraq, not Oman. But just as no jokey monster threat gets between me and a cooling al fresco dip, no amount of historical fact seems to get between an Omani and a good old-fashioned yarn.
Given this tendency to spin a tall tale or two, it’s no surprise that even a straightforward natural wonder like Bimmah Sinkhole comes with a generous portion of lore.
Legend has it that the sinkhole was created when an asteroid struck the flat, arid plain that separates the ocean from the craggy peaks of the Al Hajar Mountains. This widely held belief is reflected in the Arab name for the park that Bimmah Sinkhole is part of. Locals know it as Hawaiyat Najm, which can be translated as “the deep well of the falling star”.
In reality, the depression was formed — like most other sinkholes — by underground water carving away at the rocks before forcing the ground to cave in on itself.
The monster myth is not as widely known, although some locals are said to refer to the sinkhole as Bayt al Afreet (house of the demon) due to the presence said to be lurking in the depths. It does appear in quite a few travel blogs, meaning that it’s most likely dissemination is from the lips of mischievous kids laying the fear on sweltering foreigners preparing to take a dip.
You can see why Omanis might want to jazz up Bimmah Sinkhole. It is, when all is said and done, just a depression in the landscape. But what a hole in the ground it is. At first, I exert myself: repeatedly diving from perches around the lagoon into the deep, inviting water. Later, as the heat of the day gets a little less harsh, I make my way to the shallows and luxuriate in the fading sun as the garra rufa (nibble fish) that patrol the brackish water give me a free pedicure.
After a while, it’s time to move on and get the journey back to the Chedi Muscat underway. As I approach our vehicle, the driver — now fully rested — greets me with a twinkle in his eye. “I see the monster didn’t get you,” he laughs. “It must have been sleeping today.” The stories that surround it may be pie in the sky, but a swim at Bimmah Sinkhole is truly out of this world.