Oman day five
13.02.2019 - 13.02.2019
Kestrel at 1,000 Nights Camp
Again we slept well in our cosy tent but were up promptly as we needed to sort our bags for today’s departure from the desert. On the way to breakfast I spotted a bird in one of the trees, which very obligingly stayed around to pose for photos! Friends have since told me that this is a kestrel.
We had another good breakfast and were ready to meet up with Said at 9.00 as planned. Driving away from the camp he stopped for a few last photos of the sands and one more exciting drive up, and down, a steep dune!
Last view of the dunes
The track through the dunes
- note the car in the middle distance, for scale
Arriving back in Baddiyah we paused for photos at the point where the tarmac road began again.
Where the tarmac ends
Said told us the bush that grows here was called Indian Cotton, but while that might well be the local or Omani name, a quick search online revealed it to be Sodom's Apple Milkweed.
Sodom's Apple Milkweed
Signs at the start of the dunes
The signs give rules and guidelines for desert driving, including:
'Respect the Bedouins, don't drive very close to their camps and don't scare their animals
For your safety and to avoid destroying the vegetations follow the older tracks while driving in sand dunes
Helping tourists & visitors is a part of Omani hospitality. Respect the desert and the locals
We stopped at the same car mechanic workshop in Baddiyah as on the way out, this time to have air pumped back into the tyres. I took the opportunity to indulge in a little street photography, as a change from sand dunes!
Then we were off, heading towards the Hajar mountain range.
Ibra / Al Minzafah
Our first stop today was in Ibra, or rather in the adjoining partly ruined village of Al Minzafah, its old centre. Our guide in Salalah, Hussain, was to explain to us that in many cases people in Oman have found it easier to move to a newly built house rather than try to introduce modern conveniences to the old ones, especially as the latter were generally in a poor state of repair prior to the renaissance of the country. Although Said didn’t expand so much on the story behind the ruins here, I suspect that is what happened in Ibra.
Said in Al Minzafah
- I joked that he'd chosen his turban today to match this beautiful door frame!
More recently, both here and elsewhere, people are discovering the charm of the older properties (especially in relation to tourism) and are starting to restore and reoccupy them. We saw a number here either undergoing restoration or fully restored and inhabited.
Entrance gate, and mihrab of ruined mosque beside it
We strolled through the village while Said told us something of its history and pointed out details of the architecture. We saw the remains of Al Qablateen Mosque, the third oldest mosque in Oman, although little remains now apart from the mihrab and the well for ablutions.
In the past, when Zanzibar was ruled by the Sultanate of Oman (18th and 19th centuries) there were strong trade links between Ibra and Stone Town, so perhaps it is not surprising to find that the village has many beautiful carved wooden doors. It was the details of both wood and stone carving that I loved the most here.
Doors of Al Minzafah
This is one of the oldest cities in Oman and was once a centre of trade, religion, education and art. Many of its buildings are former mansions once owned by the prosperous merchants of the early 19th century during the reign of Said bin Sultan Al-Said. When Said died his kingdom was split into two – one son becoming Sultan of Muscat and Oman, and another Sultan of Zanzibar. As the empire declined so these once stately mansions fell into ruin.
Reflecting the past importance of the town, there are watchtowers on all the surrounding hills.
Ruined buildings in Al Minzafah
It was while we were here that Said took a call from his colleague Assad, who had met us on arrival in Muscat last Saturday. He wanted to let us all know that the problem with his driving license being confiscated at the airport had been resolved. He explained that the airport police had believed him to be a taxi driver, taking rides away from the official airport taxi service. A letter from his boss had convinced them that he worked for a tour company not a taxi one, and his license had been restored. We would see him again on our return to Muscat when he would be taking us to the airport for our flight to Salalah.
Postscript: Assad explained the situation in more detail when we saw him a few days later and it sounded to me that the police weren't so much acting in error as trying it on a bit, as the same thing had happened to all tour company drivers that day! A meeting with tour company managers had been needed to clear up the mess, and an apology had since been sent from the police to all those companies.
Said pointed out some calligraphy on one of the tumble-down walls, which he told us was in an old form of Arabic.
By the way, I have to mention how impressed I was with the public toilet here! We had met an acquaintance of Said’s while walking around (but then we met his acquaintances everywhere - I joked that he knew everyone in Oman) whom he told us worked keeping the toilets clean, and boy did he do a good job! They were spotless, and well supplied with toilet paper, soap and paper towels - far better than I have found in many other countries on my travels!
Birkat al Mawz
From the road to Birkat al Mawz
From Ibra we drove west through Izki to the small town of Birkat al Mawz where Said turned up a stony track which led to an excellent spot from where we could look down on the date and banana plantations below, and beyond them the ruins of the older village.
View of the date plantations, Birkat al Mawz
The ruined village of Birkat al Mawz
Said had a knack of knowing just where the best views were to be had - usually up a rocky track near a communications tower of some sort, as here.
Watchtowers near Birkat al Mawz
Nestled among the date plantation
After descending from the viewpoint we drove through those same plantations, and Said was quick to spot an Indian Roller in one of the palm trees.
We also passed one of the oldest of the irrigation channels for which Oman is famous, known as falaj or aflaj. These particular ones in Birkat al Mawz are listed by UNESCO as being representative of some 3,000 such systems still in use in Oman. The listing explains:
‘The origins of this system of irrigation may date back to AD 500, but archaeological evidence suggests that irrigation systems existed in this extremely arid area as early as 2500 BC. Using gravity, water is channelled from underground sources or springs to support agriculture and domestic use. The fair and effective management and sharing of water in villages and towns is still underpinned by mutual dependence and communal values and guided by astronomical observations. Numerous watchtowers built to defend the water systems form part of the site reflecting the historic dependence of communities on the aflaj system. Threatened by falling level of the underground water table, the aflaj represent an exceptionally well-preserved form of land use.’
Said pointed the channels out as we passed them but didn’t stop, and I was too slow to realise what I was seeing to ask him to do so, but we were to get a closer look at some elsewhere later in the tour.
From the road up Jebel Akhdar
Roadside cafe, Jebel Akhdar
Then we started the long climb up the mountains to Jebel Akhdar, otherwise known as Jabal al Akhdar, on an impressively engineered modern highway, reaching 2090 metres above sea level at the highest point. And as we climbed, so the temperature outside the car dropped - from 25 degrees down in the valley to 14 at the top. When we stopped for lunch at a small roadside restaurant (fried chicken rice and dhal) I had to fetch my jacket out of the suitcase!
Jebel Akhdar forms the central section of the Hajar mountain range. The name means ‘Green Mountain’, but in fact it is not a single mountain but a group of peaks rising to nearly 3,050 metres and forming a daunting massif. But the grey stone is softened by the extensive agriculture which gives Jebel Akhdar its name. At this altitude figs, grapes, pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, peaches and other orchard fruits grow well. The area is also famous for the production of rosewater, but of course in February the roses weren’t in flower.
In the 1950s the peace of these mountains was shattered when battles were fought out here between Omani forces loyal to the sultan (aided by British soldiers, including the SAS) and rebel forces of the inland Imamate of Oman, backed by Saudi Arabia. The Hajar Mountains form a natural divide between the coast and the inland parts of the country. They have also in the past divided the country into a traditionally outward-looking society of merchants and seamen along the coastal area and, in the interior, an inward-looking, conservative, frequently xenophobic society. When the two societies clashed, they did so here in the mountains.
After lunch we drove to various viewpoints. The first of these overlooked another ruined village, that of Wadi Bani Habib. It nestles among terraces where pomegranates and walnuts grow – the bare branches are the pomegranate trees, yet to come into leaf in February. A path descends to the village but Said recommended against this as I’m not a great walker and there were plenty of other similarly ruined villages on our planned tour.
The ruins of Wadi Bani Habib
Instead we drove the short distance to another village, Ash Sharayjah. The view from the parking area here was stunning.
View from the parking area at Ash Sharayjah
From here we followed Said along a narrow path to a wonderful view of the terraces below. Some were planted with pomegranates and consequently bare, while others were lush and green between the rows of stone that protect them, while on the far side of the valley a waterfall tumbled down the cliff face.
Terraced fields on Jebel Akhdar
Waterfall, and more terraces
- note the steps built into the stone wall for access to the fields
On the next ridge we could see the most luxurious (and consequently most expensive) hotel in the country outside Oman. I had seen the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar featured on a BBC TV programme in the UK some time ago and been wowed by its setting perched high above this valley. The buildings are modelled on a traditional Omani fort and seemed to me a little stark in appearance, but this would clearly be an amazing place to stay if you have money to splurge – indeed, the TV series that featured it is called ‘Amazing Hotels’. Incidentally that same series also featured Nairobi’s Giraffe Manor which we saw last year – we seem to be making a habit of gawping at these special hotels from afar!
Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar
By now we had started to retrace our steps, and from a third viewpoint near Sayq, the town where we had stopped for lunch, we got more extensive mountain views as well more terraces. We could see the network of irrigation channels, the famous falaj, very clearly from here.
Mountain view near Sayq
Terraced fields near Sayq
- note the irrigation channels or falaj in the lower photo
At one point Said asked, as he regularly did, if we needed to use a toilet, and when I said that I did he took us to a nearby hotel, explaining that the public ones here were not at all clean. I queried whether I would be allowed to use the hotel loos, not being a guest here, and his answer was characteristic - ‘Of course, you are with Said’. And naturally he was right!
The hotel lobby had a beautiful stained glass dome ceiling which was worth a few photos.
Hotel in Sayq - lobby ceiling
The only way down from Jebel Akhdar is to follow the same winding road back down the mountain. I was struck again by what an impressive piece of engineering this is!
Descending Jebel Akhdar
View from the road, late afternoon light
Arriving at the foot of the mountain we headed to Nizwa, and to our hotel for the night, stopping on the way to change some money at a foreign exchange in the massive LuLu Hypermarket. We would see more of Nizwa tomorrow morning.
Our hotel here was the Falaj Daris, where we had a large comfortable room with, oh joy, hot water in the taps and WiFi with which to check football results and catch up on messages.
As everywhere on this tour we were staying on a half-board basis. Dinner was served buffet style (again, as everywhere) by the poolside - a pleasant setting but apart from very good hummus, not a very memorable meal. On the plus side, after three nights in ‘dry’ hotels, here we could buy beer to accompany our food, which felt like a real treat.