Imagine you’re just a quiet bloke. You live in the hills, just about as far away from civilization as you can manage. Your electricity trickles in on a single wire that hangs from a concrete pole that is currently being used as a butt-scratching device by the neighbourhood goat. Your water flows from one of ten secret mountain springs through a falaj system as ancient as your stories. Your missus is outside cleaning the guts out of your sacrificial cow with your eldest son. Later, they’ll heave it into a pit filled with smouldering coals and cook it until the meat is so soft it dissolves in your hands. The mountain breeze whispers through your open door – it’s always open, to your family, friends, and even the feral kittens your daughter likes to bring home.
And then you hear your granddaughter chirping from outside – “Jadda, these people want to take photos of me. Do we let them?”Can you put yourself in that position? Pretend for a moment, that you are this man. The world we live in allows him to move if he wishes, but he stays here, in his village with its peace and tradition. And then, when tourists come, they take photos of his front door, the off-cuts of his forthcoming feast, his front garden, his drainage system, his grand daughter, and even the ruddy goat with the itchy bum. In Australia, he’d set his kelpie on you, probably with a string of invective to accompany. In other places you may get shot for trespassing. And yet, in Oman, even on holy days (we visited over Eid al Adha), when the only words you can say are hello and thank you, this man will smile and shake your hand. Don’t ever say that people are unkind in the Middle East. You’d be wrong.
Al Ain is one of around thirty tiny villages scattered in the folds of the Saiq plateau, and one of the better ones to visit, not only because of friendly grandfathers and gorgeous little girls. This village takes up much of the vista that fills your eyes from “Diana’s Viewpoint” – famous for the princess who stood there, rather than the picture it presents. It continues its mountain life, suspended in time and apparently space, on the edge of its cliff. It’s not just an old village, with it’s crumbling stone, timeworn paths, sagging foundations and secret tunnels. It’s also a working community. There are fields of corn, wheat and vegetables, tiny orchards of fig and pomegranate with their land eroding and likely to take the trees to the depths of the valley before too long. Further afield you’ll also find walnut, palms, grape vines, juniper and roses.
From here in Al Ain, you can also take a relatively easy walk to the nearby village of Al Aqr, and past the spring that feeds crystal clear water to the village. Al Aqr is famous for its roses, which are in bloom by April, and harvested in the traditional fashion just before the worst of the summer begins. At that time you can watch them harvest into terracotta urns for processing. At others, villagers will allow you to stumble through their tiny alleys, over lithic wadis, and almost off the edge of their cliffs, with the most incredible view in the world.
For some reason, even though I’ve lived nearby in the UAE for 5 years, I had forgotten just how exotic this part of the world can be.
The region is paradise for trekkers and amateur geologists. For those who want more information on the walks, it’s best to buy a guide or ask at your accommodation for a map (this will probably be hand-drawn). The Oman Off-Road Explorer is a bible. You must get a copy if you want to spend any serious time in the area. The maps are excellent, and without it, you will waste all your time driving up the wrong roads. They also have a website where you can ask questions about particular regions (although the site has little information). I have included a map that I have taken from various sources – click on it to zoom.
The better known walks are:
- The little one already mentioned from Al Ain to Al Aqr.
- This one, which will take you a little further and through two more villages, all the way to Saiq.
- There is another good village trek from Wukan to Hadash, through Al Qawrah, but this is at least four hours, and challenging in parts. This free link will show you where to go, and give you the harder option, between the same towns, but around the Ghubra Bowl (amazing but hard!) This area is approached from the north.
- Wadi Bani Habib is worth a look – an uninhabited village, but beautiful nonetheless.
- as is Al Ghaba, a wrong turn we took (to the right on the way up the mountain when we should have continued straight to the Saiq plateau.) – a working village in a steep wadi.
It’s fairly easy to do this yourself (despite the lack of decent maps online) – people really are very friendly so long as you behave. But you will need a 4WD to get past the checkpoint soon after Birkat al Mawz, or if you just find you get more out of a trip with a guide, then you could try one of the many trek and tour operators like the following:
- For trekking with a guide, the best are probably These blokes
- For an easy day in a 4WD (you can see the Saiq plateau in a day-trip from Muscat), try Gulf Leisure or Panorama
- Or for something tailor-made, try Audley
- We’re big fans of the Golden Tulip (affectionately nick-named the ‘Golden Toilet’). It’s not fancy, and it’s not super cheap. But, it’s in the best position (between Nizwa and Birkat) to explore the area, it’s clean, the service is reasonable, it has large rooms, and a lovely pool surrounded in plush astro-turf. And the biggest plus – it has wine. If you look hard enough, you’ll probably find a deal outside of holidays. Book early if you are going during a school break. They make super curries and fairly average buffets, and the pool barman seems to have a love of eighties ballads. It’s a great place to relax after a day of walking.
- Sahab Hotel is a fairly new resort almost smack on Diana’s Viewpoint, that will appease the luxury hunters. The restaurant is probably one of the better ones in the area too, and tries to serve some authentic regional (if not entirely local) cuisine. They have an infinity pool that pitches off into the sunset, and a native garden speckled with fossils. They also arrange activities onsite, so it’s good for lazy planners. To be honest, we might end up here next time. At this stage, no liquor license.
- Until Sahab opened in 2011, people always stayed at the Jabal Al Akhdar hotel. It’s well positioned and cheaper than the Sahab, but a bit tired.
- Misfah Old House is where to go if you really want to immerse yourself in Omani life. It’s a little further out, and closer to Jebel Shams, but if you’ve got your own 4WD and you don’t mind giving up the plonk for a few days, it’s got a great reputation. It’s only small and accommodation is basic, but it’s fairly inexpensive and the cuisine is authentic Jebel village food, cooked in village kitchens around the house. It’s in the beautiful and traditional hamlet of Al Hamra, so no buffoons allowed. Walking and horse riding trips can be arranged from onsite.
- For something a little outside the box, contact Hud Hud travels, who will set you up in a luxury camp and organise all the hard stuff for you.
This gets a little tricky. Unfortunately, Oman is still an emerging tourist destination, and so both information and the physical presence of secondary tourism businesses (like restaurants) is a little lacking. So apart from the above, I can’t help you out much with where to go. I CAN tell you what you should look out for:
- Qawha (kahwa) – Omani coffee, served in thimbles and flavoured with cardamom, very similar to Emirati Gahwa. If you don’t get to drink this at least once, you’re going to the wrong places.
- Halwa and Lokhemat (doughnut balls in honey) are accompanyments to the coffee, and also found in many other parts of the gulf region and beyond. Here, halwa is usually egg based rather than tahini, and so more like a firm custard, and flavoured with spices and rose water. Lokhemat (we call them lgeimat here) are likely to be flavoured with cardamom, and lime.
- Oman Chips…. Yes, I know, not really gourmet, but considering a previous commenter (who doesn’t understand tongue in cheek humor) described them as a “cultural expression”, I thought I’d better include them. They are yummy – and definitely a step up from sweet chilli chips, and available everywhere.
- Harees is a wheat based paste similar to a porridge and usually served with spices, ghee and chicken. It’s sweet equivilent, sakhana, is flavoured instead with date molasses, diluted with milk and is loved by all who come near it.
- I did manage to find Kabuli rice (apparently not hailing from Kabul) on the menu at the Sahab – a spiced rice dish with nuts and potato (and in this case, chicken). The other rice dish to look for is Aursia – a mashed rice dish, heavily spiced.
- Mishkak is something you will find everywhere – barbecued meat on a stick, marinated in a mild Omani spice blend. Hard to go wrong.
- Maqdeed is a dried meat, either served before Eid, or carried by travellers.
- Maqbous is the traditional main meal – a rice and meat (usually chicken) dish that many would compare to biryani, usually tinged with saffron, and often served with a spicy kick. Most buffets should have this.
- Shuwa is the delicacy to keep your eyes peeled for. It is really only a festival dish, and resembles what we call Ouzi here in Dubai. Slow cooked whole cow or goat in the ground with a multitude of herbs and spices. I’d really hoped the hotel would serve it during Eid. Aching to try it – if you find it, let me know.
- Of course, try the local fruits when in season. Look for figs (also dried), pomegranates, stone fruit, citrus (also preserved), and walnuts. You will find these fresh, but also in many local dishes.
There’s plenty more information available on the area on the web, but you need to know what you are looking for. Villages of course are spelled phonetically, and this can differ widely. Google maps only lists the Saiq village, however satellite images will show you where other villages and trails are. There’s so much more to it than I’ve mentioned here – if you can’t find the information online, ask at your accommodation. If you have the time, look up the Jebel Akhdar War, and find out why there is a military base in the area to this day. You can also find plenty of evidence of fighting in the relics left around the hills. Look up caving in the hills, and further out, towards Jebel Shams, particularly Al Hoota cave. And of course, if you’re in the area, look at some other antique architecture in Birkat al Mawz, Jabrin (Jibreen) and Bahla.
The rest of the journey continues in photos. When you go, make sure to say “Hi” to those lovely kids in Al Ain for me xx.