Deeper into the mountains

It was a muggy night in our little room with a fan humming and ticking from the ceiling. So we were up early, brushing our teeth at the outside sink with a couple of hopeful frogs at our feet. We had Omani coffee with breakfast. It’s nutty and not too strong and would taste good with a couple of dates I think. Tom interviewed the young manager for a school project he is doing on the impact of tourism on Oman. The manager is an easy going Nepali who’s been working in Oman for three years he said. He’s also very patient. He had to suffer an obnoxious young man with more money than friends who sat with him as he was having his supper last night and went on and on about how awful Nepali food was and how he wouldn’t do another trek to Annapurna because the Wi-fi wasn’t very fast. Totally clueless.

Packed up, we nosed out of the gate and back on the track we’d driven in on. The down was a lot harder than the up. A steep rutted single track with perilous drops and just enough dust to keep things slippery.

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When we got to the village of Al Zammah we turned along the wadi towards the exit of Snake Canyon and parked in the shade of a date palm. All of these villages are built around a water source which they use to cultivate date plantations. Every community has a falaj for distributing the water; a gravity-fed series of channels that ensure everybody gets what they need. We saw them in Tenerife and the White Towns of the High Alpujarras in Spain, where the falaj system had been installed by the Moors. Even after the Moors were thrown out decades later, one Moorish family remained in each village to regulate the falaj.

We walked in to Snake Canyon; its massive narrow walls like an entry into something from the Hobbit or Indiana Jones.

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The south end of it is mostly dry at this time of year apart from a few pools somewhere in the middle.  To get to them was a fairly challenging clamber over and through the massive boulders in the main channel.. There was no path as such but we found our way through as the sun got higher and hotter. Soon though the canyon walls closed in on us and we were in cool shade. After an hour or so we came to a narrow pool that reached both sides of the gorge.

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We waded through to a deeper one where we swam in the cool water, frogs and fish darting out of the way.

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There may have been splashing.. Walking back seemed quicker and it was hotter too, but so peaceful. We didn’t see another soul on the whole walk.

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Back in the car we took the road back up to Bait Bimmah, and then after crossing a dried river, up the other side of the gorge, where knuckles were whitened a little further. Eventually we came to the village of Balid Sayt, ringed by high rocky hills and invisible until you get to the ridge that overlooks it.

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Its name is a derivation of “forgotten village” as one of the famous warlords who came through sacked every other village in the area but didn’t know this one existed. Tom wondered what it was called before the warlord came through…

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It’s handsome from a distance. A romantic ruin of a mud brick fortress stands at its highest point. Clustered around are small blocky mud buildings, and around the village as a whole an elaborate system of terraces fed by the falaj.

Closer up, Balid Sayt is just a rather plain little hill village with goat droppings on the pathways lots of patches roofs and a fair bit of rubbish strewn about. And why not. It’s a real place with real people who have probably always led a fairly simple farming existence. It is just about on the tourist trail but there was a sense in the guidebook that tourists are tolerated rather than welcomed. The advice was to dress modestly and park outside the village. The former was easy enough but we followed the official parking sign and ended up in the village anyway. Being lunchtime there was hardly anyone about. Voices drifted down from square, windows barred with iron or wood.

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A smell of spices competed with the smell of goat in the alleyways and I was tempted to knock and a door and put that whole hospitality thing to the test.

A couple of black-clad women with kids waved and smiled to Tom and we saw a few other women in distinctive red shawls but otherwise all was quiet. We found our way up to the ruin and bent through the door that was designed to stop invaders in their tracks. There was a lovely view across the cultivated valley. All was peaceful.

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Picnic above the village

The road from Balad Sayt up to  the highest point – Sharafat Al Alamayn -climbs nine hundred meters in eleven kilometres. It’s a hang-on-to-the-steering-wheel kind of ascent with the views growing bigger at every hairpin. We stopped to pick up a young Omani guy walking with a bag of groceries up the track. His face was burnished from the sun and he seemed glad we stopped for him even though he wasn’t hitching. We took him a couple of K and he motioned us to stop when a small settlement appeared on the plateau beside us. He hopped down the hillside and his blue gown was soon invisible in the scrub.At the very top, the road becomes tarmac and we stopped to admire the view.

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It was too hazy to see clearly and we couldn’t find Jebel Shams, the highest point in Oman, which was looming over us. Apparently. Or then again, not, in fact. The drive down on smooth, wide tarmac felt like flying. The next range of snaggly rock summits arranged itself before us as we descended. Soon we reached the pleasant, prosperous-looking town of Al Hamra and stopped for an ice-cream at the “We love Ice-Cream and Nuts” shop. We ordered by colour. Philippa’s turned out to be bubblegum flavour, Mine was a delicious white vanilla and Tom’s was bilious green Turkish Delight. Which was a first for him and an instant success as he loves Turkish Delight.

Our base here though is Misfah, up a wiggly road from Al Hamra. Here we must dress modestly, covering knees and shoulders, not take photos of people without asking and not make nuisances of ourselves. All perfectly reasonable. Why should people have their way of life spoiled by lumbering westerners crashing about in speedos snapping everything that moves with an iPhone. The path through the village to Misfah Old House is rock worn smooth and shiny by generations of feet. The house itself is surrounded by big date palms on the edge of a steep terrace by the falaj, which, as I write, is rushing with water.

A frog is going “groyyyk” somewhere close and we have heard the call to prayer from three different mosques, the song echoing off the cliffs. Two nights here in a room exactly like the living quarters we saw in the Nakhal fort with arched alcoves, wooden pegs sticking out of the walls for hanging things and small shuttered windows at floor height to catch the breeze. We will sleep on mattresses on rugs in the floor. Well, I think.

Author: Richard Lister

Chasing horizons...

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