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The Secret Life of Arabia

The deserts of Oman‘s coastline are well known. But as Sam Knight discovers, delve deeper into this ancient land and you encounter the beautiful, fragile delights of a kingdom rediscovered. 

The road is blocked by a checkpoint. Hot furls of rock rise up on the right. On the left, a stony canyon – one of hundreds of wadis that etch their way down from the mountains of Oman – leads upwards into the dry succession of hills that looms ahead.

This is the entrance to the Jabal Akhdar, the Green Mountain, an isolated, high plateau in Oman that only fully re-opened to visitors in 2005 after being closed for decades. Sixty-six villages and an area of nearly 122 sq km were sealed off by the Omani military after a series of rebellions in the 1950s, and long before then, the region was all but inaccessible, a mythical redoubt. In the early 19th century, European adventurers, traveling inland from Muscat, into the “vast and horrid mountains no shade but Heaven does hide” came back speaking of high mists and sudden valleys, of warlords, unreachable villages and pomegranate trees – a rocky world cooler than the blinding desert below.

Now the plateau has the feel of a newly discovered moon. Only heavy trucks and 4x4s are allowed past the checkpoint at the bottom of the road, which was completed by the Omani military only a few years ago. Then the immaculate tarmac snakes hard into the sky. Cliffsides have been gouged and smoothed, as if by some unimaginable carrot peeler, to allow you to rise, air-conditioned, almost 3,000m into the hot, endlessly folding rocks. There are escape lanes, if your brakes fail, water pipes clamped to the barren hillsides, but not much you would actually call green. It takes a few miles, a few dozen bends and swoops, before the air begins to thin, the temperature eases, and the land of the main Saiq plateau, at 2,000m, becomes freckled with uncountable bushes of bright ashas – a shrub for goats. Then suddenly the car windows are a blur of log trees, juniper, wild fig and olive. A million dots of mountain life.

In April I visited Oman’s interior – a region known as Al Dakhiliyah – and stayed at Alila Jabal Akhdar, the first five-star resort on the once-forgotten mountain, which is now a priority for the country’s developing tourist trade.

Built at unknown cost by Omran, the country’s tourism investment company, the 86-room hotel is a staggering feat of engineering. Everything had to be trucked up 45km of vertiginous road. Cranes were taken apart, and put back together, on the mountainside. The hotel runs on generators usually used for submarines because of their transportable size. Glass screens and lightbulbs cracked on the journey up from the coast because of the change in pressure, and had to be sent down again. The rooms are rigged to cope with temperatures ranging from freezing in the winter to 35 degrees in the summer (still a good 15 degrees cooler than the baking land below) and yet, against the mountains around it, the resort reads as if it is barely there. Every surface is clad in hand-cut blocks of the grey and pink ophiolite of the Jabal Akhdar. And all this on a ledge that simply stops: the rooms face air and silence, over a mighty nameless valley. I walked into my room, and all I could hear was the braying of a goat, many miles away.

The next day, we went out to explore. At first, after the best part of half a century as a military zone, the Jebel Akhdar struck me as having a vaguely Potemkin feel. Most of those who live up the mountain now are government workers, and in 2011, the landscape was declared a “Scenic Reserve”. There are tidy little parks and occasional viewing points for those driving through – the coolness is a magnet for hot and bothered city dwellers from across the Gulf.

But everything changes once you get out of the car. Edging ahead down narrow paths, my guide, Salim, led me to the jewels of the Green Mountain: its improbable stone villages, always stacked against vertical hillsides, or tucked in the lee of some terrible gorge. In the hamlet of Al-Aqar we found an old man weighing rose petals and distilling their water in clay ovens. He gave us coffee, flavored with cardamom, and fed us local dates – farth, najal, khalas, khenaizy, matl, handal – calling out the barely distinguishable varieties on the plate as if they were cousins.

Along the cliff-edge, in Al-Ayn, there was a spring, a blue-domed mosque and a lattice of aflaj – irrigation channels invented the ancient peoples of Oman – that fed bursting terraces of sharp-smelling rose fields. Dragonflies and frogs bombed around in the bright, precious channels of water as we sat in the shade of a pale walnut tree, surrounded by barley and the early growth of mishmash (apricots). Valleys spiralled below.

At Wadi Ben-Habib, the houses are abandoned now. Under Omani law, every citizen is allowed to apply to the Ministry of Housing for a plot of land to build a new home, so over the past two generations, the most isolated mountain communities have migrated closer to the country’s towns and roads. But the locals still farm the steep land with amazing dexterity. Balancing on the sides of the aflaj, Salim and I walked through thick groves of pomegranate trees, an open-air mosque under cedar trees and rows of wild garlic.

We met a local farmer, who had come up to tend his trees, and who told us how his father used to spend two days walking to market. Everything came up the mountain by donkey. “In the past,” he said, “people were very, very, very strong.”

Having the Jabal Akhdar as your base brings the rest of Oman’s interior within reach. The next day we struck out for Nizwa, the old capital, and its fort and famous livestock market: middlemen in dishdashas leading goats and calves anti-clockwise around a wheel of punters, shouting out bids, examining hooves, with tourists taking pictures on their tablets.

Spending time in the shadow of the mountains gives you a sense of their scale, as they make a constant, forbidding horizon. The Jabal Akhdar is just part of the Al Hajar range that reaches north west, into the UAE, and peaks in Oman at the Jebel Shams, the Sun Mountain, 100km away.

As we skirted through the plains below, we passed through shocking, dense green date plantations and paused at the ruins of a castle in Tanuf. It belonged to the last, mighty warlord of the Jabal Akhdar, Suleiman bin Hamyar, the self-styled “King of Nebhania and Lord of the Green Mountain”. Suleiman used to govern the hilltops with a medieval enthusiasm, driving around in an American convertible with a black slave posted on the boot, before escaping to exile in Saudi Arabia in 1959. Now only rubble and a shattered tower remains of his lair. It was a Friday afternoon, the weekend in Oman. Children were leaping into a bright pool. A goat was being skinned for lunch in the shadow of the trees.

We ate our own lunch further west, at Misfah, a steep oasis of date palms that scrambles down a mountainside. A network of turquoise running aflaj laced through the village, gathering in a rectangular, shining pool, before the water raced down in intricate channels, that are variously opened and  closed throughout the week, to make sure every farmer gets his fair share. We were invited to the house of a former Omani air force officer and sat in his front room, eating chicken and rice. As I learned how to pit and eat a date, only using the fingers of my right hand, we talked, inevitably, of the fragility of these hills, the care and caution that Oman will have to take as it opens its gaunt, beautiful interior to the rest of the world. And then we drove back up the mountain, into the medicinal air.

This article was originally printed in our luxury travel and lifestyle magazine, Days Like This. For more information on Oman, give one of our Consultants a call on 0203 603 3555 or visit scottdunn.com.

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