jabrin-scriptMuscat. If you say that word in my home town, what comes to mind is an unctuous ambrosia made in the Rutherglen region. Sweet, drippy, fortified wine that is produced in a solera method, a little like a sourdough – the wine goes into barrels and is aged. Half is taken out and drunk. The rest is mixed with new stock, and returned to the cellar for further aging. This happens time and time again, until eventually it is impossible to tell how old the wine coming out of that barrel actually is. It’s absolutely luscious stuff.In this part of the world, Muscat is a city on the other side of the Hajar mountains, a quieter, more traditional version of a west-friendly Middle Eastern City. It’s rare for anyone who lives in Dubai for more than a couple of years not to visit it – it’s a 6-hour drive, or short plane trip away, and particularly during Summer, a welcome few degrees cooler. But most people take the beach road. Little do they know, but the desert road has wonders for them to explore – tiny settlements built up year, upon year, upon year, a melding of both old and new, that must not be missed. I will tell you about many over time, but one of the most picturesque of these gems is Jabrin Fort.

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We drive through Al Ain, and take the Jebel Hafeet road, and cross the border there. It’s a sleepy outpost – no queues of trucks waiting to get through, no tourists, barely a man and his goat. Jebel Hafeet is a lonely blip on the landscape, so we put on a good CD and enjoy having time to talk with the family – the landscape is a flat wasteland for at least an hour.

Then the sand changes texture. It becomes rockier, deeper in colour, sparse vegetation appears by the way of thin ghaf forests and organic gargantuan steel wool bushes. We pass through the oasis town of Ibri, where, those who are brave enough can stop at the VERY traditional souk, maybe picking up some silver, camel bags, or a live goat to throw in the back of the ute. Take note, no McDonalds here. Those who can’t bear the local food better come packing items of modernity.

We drive on, and then all of a sudden, we are on another planet.

muscat-road-near-nizwa

Mountains rise out so suddenly, initially we mistake them for a mirage. The colours are surreal – deep red, ochre, gashes of blue-black. The texture is like Mars – Some of the ranges appear ribs of deposits, others rent from the crashing of landmasses, still more appearing like giant stone frisbees thrown by the Titans in an ancient game.

Occasionally we pass a roadhouse, a mosque, a service station. Nothing more. It would be possible to take this road the entire way to Nizwa, unaware there were hidden settlements. Bahla, and Al Hamra mustn’t be missed, but they are for another day. We find the Jabrin turnoff just before Bahla – sometimes spelled Jabreen, others Jabrin, and even Jabberin. A five minute drive will takes us from the alien landscape and modern highway into a piece of Omani History.

jabrin-exterior

It was built in the 1670s by Imam Sultan bin Saif Al Ya’arubi, and has been preserved impeccibly, but additionally recently restored. We step through the stumpy openings that hold four-inch-thick wooden doors, and bow our heads, just as intended – traditionally, it’s best to walk into a room with eyes lowered – one wouldn’t want to catch the lady of the house unawares. It’s dark. The walls are smooth, like new plaster, but chalky and cool. Arches lead through to the central courtyard and the light source. I take a quick in-breath – it’s really quite beautiful. The kind of thing you would expect to see on a movie set, not here to be touched and walked on.

jabrin-courtyard

Arches and stairs lead up and down, around and about. It’s like the Dr Who’s Tardis. It doesn’t appear this big from the outside, but here we are, on level two, three, four, then on the roof, blinded by the sun, then silenced by the view. Then we walk down again, three, two, one, and below. Here, it is dimmest of all, cold and quiet. The basement floor is corduroyed, small trenches used to flow with water or date honey and oil. Imam himself rests here under the floor for eternity. The walls and ceilings are carved with arabic script, the meaning unknown to me, possibly a poem, and excerpt from the Qur’an, an epitaph?

jabrin-omani-manThe friendly gatekeeper hurries us out with as much politeness as hustle. It’s 4:30, and the fort closed at 4pm. He doesn’t mind, he says, smiling, ruffling Goldilocks hair, allowing our extra photos, asking us in broken English about Australia, and how we like living in Dubai. He closes the door behind us, and we realise that we had been only among ten other tourists. It’s a remarkable thing, discovering something so important to a tourist trail, and knowing that less than 1% of the world knows anything about it. I get the feeling Oman and it’s people like it this way – maybe that’s why they are always smiling to themselves so happily.

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The opening hours are as sparse as the vegetation in the desert. 9am to 4pm Monday to Thursday, 9am to 11am Friday, and 9am to 2:30pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

We stayed overnight at the Golden Tulip hotel. It’s just outside of Nizwa, clean and servicable, but nothing special (although the astroturf around the pool really was something to behold). The curry was pretty good. There are a couple of other hotels and a guesthouse, but none really come highly recommended. It takes about 4 and a half hours to jet to Jabrin from Dubai including border crossings, and about another half hour from Jabrin to the hotel.  There are camp sites nearby at Jabal Shams, and near al Hamra. Take note many places are unlicenced, so if you want a G&T with your desert mountain sundown, then the Golden Tulip is your best bet. You could continue driving onto Muscat – it’s only about an hour and a half from Jabrin.

More photos – I just couldn’t stop…

8 thoughts on “Over the hills and far away”

  1. Saraha, those are fantastic pictures you have taken. STUNNING! I have ventured out to Khasab and then flown into Muscat City but have never been to Jabrin before- not sure I can take the 6 hour ride with M. However, if I can get such great memorable photos on the way, I could be convinced.

  2. Your lovely post and pictures have hit another one of my buttons (you know, like the last one about the whole organic/environmental marketing con thing). As you can tell, I have fairly random buttons (unless you are part of an organised conspiracy – ah, of course, now it all makes sense…). Anyway, I will now risk sounding like a crummy Oman tourist brochure (which, by the way, you can get for free along with excellent maps and friendly advice at the kiosk inside the Hafeet border post – if they haven't gone for lunch or prayers or whatever). Having now read back through my rambling below, I've wittered on so much that I need to split this into 2 comments. Even if it's too much to append to your blog, I hope you read it through and get some ideas and I will be interested to hear your further experiences in future posts.There is a myriad of genuine, unspoiled delights – natural, historical and cultural – in the whole greater Ad Dakhiliyah (interior) region of Oman. Crammed into the polygon roughly formed by Sohar, Muscat, Buraimi and Nizwa is a treasure trove of sights and experiences that are completely removed from the gilded facades of Dubai (and even of Muscat), and while perhaps a little tarted up in places, offer an accessible, authentic experience of Arabia. I am lucky to have a good Omani friend to show me around but most places are easy to explore unguided and you will already have discovered how friendly and helpful are most (not all) Omanis. Jabrin fort is indeed the best of its type (and you didn't even mention the stunning 18th century painted wooden ceilings), but there are impressive forts also in Nizwa and Rustaq and Buraimi, each with some distinguishing features. Bahla has the most imposing one of all in terms of scale and location (though currently closed for long-running renovations) and you can walk along the remains of the amazing 700 year old mud brick city walls including towers and arches, which used to stretch for 17km. Beware of the sorcerers for which Bahla is infamous in Oman and whom many locals surreptitiously still travel to consult (try to avoid getting turned into a donkey as I'm assured has been known to happen). I've never found Bahla souk to be worth lingering in though the town is reknowned for ceramics. It's only about 15 minutes from Jabrin along the back road to Nizwa. Continuing on that road you will pass the turn for Al Hamra which is not that much in itself but from where you can get to Misfat Al'Abriyeen, a thoroughly beguiling mountain village where the older part around the aflaj has been preserved and many of the old streets and structures are intact though now unused and make for a very atmospheric wander. Al Hamra is also the start of the route up Jebel Shams which is both stunning and exciting – though largely gravel track. Don't miss the abandoned village visible from the road across the wadi – when you finally twig it's there and not just an extension of the natural rock – at the bottom of Wadi Ghul. When you make it to the top of Jebel Shams ( more of a ridge than a precise summit – follow the signs for the campsite, it will take less than an hour) you can peer over the edge into "Oman's grand canyon", through which the more fit and adventurous hike (not for the amateur) but over which the rest of us can drool. Al Hoota cave, again, off the Al Hamra road, is nice but fairly typical of a cave experience, perhaps good for kids, though not cheap. Nizwa souk is definitely worth the effort, not too cleaned up but not a total pit either, chaotically arranged around the fort. Another place to stay in Nizwa is the Falaj Daris hotel, closer into town than the Golden Tulip on that same road. I've never succeeded in booking a room there though it is often recommended. Certainly it must be more homely than the austere Stalinist GT.

  3. Part 2 of 2:There is a through route over Jebel Shams and down to Rustaq on the other side, which I have yet to do. I have been to Rustaq from the coast side (via Sohar), which in addition to its well-restored fort has nice hot springs free to the public: walk in from the road. A short drive through the wadi leads to Nakhal, another charming old oasis village with beautiful springs bursting from the foot of the mountain. Then it's a short hop to Barka, famous for delicious traditional Omani halwa. Barka has many halwa outlets but a local tip is the large white-washed factory whose gateway is on the main Sohar-Muscat road towards the Muscat end of town on the coast side of the road. It's rather unmemorably called "Factory for Omani Sweets" or some such. Seeing where the halwa is made and sold is interesting – and gratifying: modern, ultra-hygenic and yet somehow timeless. Pay over the odds for the special stuff, some with nuts or saffron or both (no haggling here, though they mostly do speak English; you might find it deserted but somebody will show up eventually). Addictive, even if it may seem like an acquired taste at first – takes about three unctuous mouthfuls to acquire it. And an authentic gift option (I mean do you know any Khaleeji who actually eats camel milk chocolate?) albeit with a shelf-life and not the most elegant packaging.My favourite place of all to go is up the Jebel Akhdar onto the Saiq plateau. Take the turn-off in Birkat Al Mawz (about 20km from Nizwa on the Muscat road). First you might want to stop outside the small fort there to swim in the deliciously cool, deep and fast-flowing falaj with the local kids. You'll need a 4WD to get past the military checkpoint further up, though the road is excellent, curving precipitously up to 2000m. Up on the plateau you might spot the remains of the British bomber that crashed during the 1950's crushing of the Jebel Akhdar rebellion (they've always been feisty in those parts – not that long since Nizwa, the scholarly and religious seat of the region, acquiesced to rule from cosmopolitan coastal Muscat). Turn left in Saiq town and drive towards the edge of the plateau to find a good vantage point for the tiny ancient stone terraces and villages clinging to the almost vertical sides of the mountains. It's like something from the set of Lord of the Rings. Utterly, utterly magical.Several of the terraced villages can be visited. Probably the best candiate is Al Ain, which hangs precipitously off the edge of the Saiq plateau and mostly looks as if it hasn't altered in centuries. You can (sensitively – people live there) walk through the village and out onto the skinny terraces tumbling down the sheer mountain face which provide an amazing array of falaj-fed produce including fragrant roses (for rose-water) in April/May and the most delicately delicious sweet pale pink fleshed pomegranates you have ever tasted in September. It is worth the trip (an overnight from Dubai) just to buy bags full of them from the wizened old farmers who sell their crop on the side of the road (and you said I was anti-local!). Mind you, they're not cheap – 100 baisa (1 dirham) a pop is typical but you just can't get them anywhere else. You'll need your transactional Arabic – it's pretty much only locals up there, from all over Oman and UAE. Ask any older local here about Ruman from Jebel Akhdar and watch their eyes glaze over wistfully. It's now an annual pilgrimage for me. There's loads of places I've yet to see. Sur for a start, not just for the turtles. And the prehistoric beehive tombs in Bat near Ibri, a UNESCO world heritage site (I have been to the less well-preserved versions at the bottom of Jebel Hafeet on this side of the border: also worth a trip, especially in conjunction with the mysterious ruins in the Hili archaeological park in Al Ain). Many reasons to spend a few more years here yet…

  4. I hope that you also did the goat sales at the Nizwa market!We did a fab trip through Oman when we lived in Dubai – blogged about it hereI still get people emailing me to say that they followed my instructions and did the exact trip!

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