ADVENTURE IN OMAN – ANCIENT, ARABIAN, BIBLICAL, SERENE
Setting the scene for this exotica . . . up in the Al Hajar mountains of Oman. Located in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula, , Jabal Akhdar “the Green Mountain” in Arabic, fits harmoniously into its natural habitat.
The anticipation for today’s exploration into this until recently closed Omani Military Zone, 2,000 metres above sea level in the Jabal Akhdar (“The Green Mountain” in the centre of Oman is exceeded only by yesterday’s arrival here and seeing the much-hyped new hotel, the new Alila Jabal Akhdar.
It doesn’t matter that I have to use a special setting on my camera to see through the dust blown in from storms further east in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and now lingering in the gorges below.
Our rooms are away from the main hotel building and surreally situated in a small stone building at the very point of a ridge that drops precipitously into gorges on both sides.. We could be totally enveloped in the serenity of the place and do simply nothing, but we also like an adventure.
Come join me with Pam and Ken on our adventure, for a morning at least.
But first it’s breakfast time starting with freshly squeezed pomegranate or cantaloupe juices. And after the first day’s experiences of wonderful dishes with subtle Arabic overtones (and nuts in almost everything), today I’m content to settle for ‘bread and jam’, the homemade apricot jam of local fruit, on fresh bread and butter (yes, butter). I can get a soft-boiled egg anywhere.
Our local guide, Waleed, in his flowing white dishdasha robe and colourfully tied kumma around his head, adds to the character and mystique of the day. We set off back along the ridge in 4WD comfort over rocky terrain sprouting ancient twisted juniper, wild olives and blackberry trees. The grandeur and ruggedness of the landscape, and shapes and erosions in the mountains are breathtaking.
We bounce along off-road in Waleed’s 4WD to reach a vantage point above Waleed’s own village of Seeq in the valley below. This tableau further illuminates his very personal account of how life was lead over the centuries in many villages scattered in the mountains.
The homes of today look modern in a blocky Arabic construction but traditionally; these people lived very simple lives on the sides of the mountains herding goats and sheep. In the valleys, wadis supplied the water to grow fruit in the orchards. Traditionally, in this green little village of Seeq below us, the people would carry the pomegranates, peaches, apricots and grapes grown in their valley on their backs, and walk for five hours to the Market Souq in Nizwa to sell it. On the return, they carried fish and other supplies for the village.
I walk halfway down a rocky hillside to get a closer view when we reach the point to view the abandoned village of Wadi Bani Habib that dates back 1,200 years. It was abandoned only in 1957 during the Jebal Akhdar War when the inhabitants escaped to caves. Seeing what I thought were goat herders on the hillside, Waleed tells me they are “farmers mixing the poop of animals to put on their gardens’. And perhaps the grape vines I see growing down by the wadi will benefit too.
Roses and frankincense have been closely associated with fragrances throughout Oman’s history. This is the season for the Damask Roses to bloom here in the mountains. Farmers grow roses alongside wheat, pomegranates and other fruits, and often in terraces down the mountainside. They collect the petals early each morning while the dew still clings and take them to the rose petal distillery where Oman’s famous rose water is produced.
We visit the working village of Al Ayn (“The Spring”) taking our walking poles, and I’d like to say ‘trekking’ down to the rose farm and across the mountain side to two more villages, but we stop short, taking time to ‘smell the roses’. The fragrance is as soft as the petal is pink.
We drive to another village near what is known as Diana Point, where Princess Diana flew in by helicopter to visit families and stayed for lunch in the 80’s. It’s interesting to see a new Anantara Hotel under construction on this sensationally positioned site.
Ducking beneath a low lentil, we enter a dark room blackened by smoke and over-heated by charcoal ovens to witness the ancient process of distillation of rose petals to extract the rose water. Scenes at the village around the distillery are quite Biblical; bearded men in soiled clothes and a cloth wrapped around their heads crouch on their haunches taking their meal with their hands from the one plate, while children play happily with muddy fingers in their mouths.
It’s back to the Alila for us for lunch, and taking a leaf from what we learned from these men, we order salads to share, but eat from our own plates. The hotel still waits for the liquor licence but we’re becoming used to the refreshing pomegranate wine with mint or the cantaloupe cocktail by now.
Postscript . . . Looking back on our visit to Oman, we can see that it could well be the “Switzerland” of the Middle East. It’s an island of peace in a very tumultuous area of the world. The Omanis have taken the best of the west without the glitter and overbuilding and amalgamated it with their traditions and Islamic culture.
(to be edited and tightened – when internet permits
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