Down low, up high.

We turned the light off last night with the sound of the rushing falaj beneath us, though this stopped around ten. And apart from the peeping and groiking from the various fauna, all was quiet in this ancient village.

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When we arrived yesterday we were greeted quite formally by an Omani man who served us little cups of black Omani coffee and dates, as we sat in an open sided room which looks onto the palms. Breakfast was in the same place this morning and we sat by a German couple who were also heading down to Salalah and seemed to have the same feeling about exploring as we do. They were nice to chat to in the sunshine.. The guests are German and English and French and all were intrigued by clear plastic bags full of water hanging from beams in the roof. The Omani man seemed a bit embarrassed when we asked about them yesterday and we thought he said they were in case of fire. But the manager a dapper Indian man, said they were for flies. “Flies?” We all asked sceptically? “Yes, when the fly comes up, he sees a reflection of himself magnified in the bag and he runs away. It really works!”  Our German neighbour wondered whether it only worked at ceiling height as there were a fair few flies at our level…  But breakfast was plentiful and good and included a dall which I ate with a chipati and felt pleased with myself. Tom found some cereal.

Philippa had found a famous cave nearby – Al Hoota – which is the biggest cave system in the Middle East. So we made for that. It has a little electric train, but when we got there it was out of action. We walked in with a guide instead and saw that the train only went about a hundred meters into the hillside before dropping everyone off, so we didn’t miss much. About a kilometre of the cave is open for inspection, and it feels like a long , dimly lit aircraft hanger full of rocks.

Our guide walked at tremendous speed along the gantry which meanders through it. We trotted along behind him feeling rather warm. The temperature is in the low twenties in the cave. It has bats, which leave droppings eaten by insects, which are eaten by big, big spiders, which in turn are eaten by the bats. We were happy to have this explained to us and didn’t feel the need to see any of it in action. It has all the usual cave stuff; the stalag mites and tites – some of which look like animals or people – precarious bits which will fall off one day but not for millennia, and strictly no photos, though you can take photos here if you like.

Al Hoota also has blind cave fish which we saw pootling about in the little lake at the end of the cave. And here our guide told us that they can get so much water during the rainy season that the whole thing floods rather dramatically and they have to close it. In 2012 they had to close it for the subsequent four years. There was so much water that the walkways and lighting had to be re-installed. Now they have pumps to keep the level low enough that fresh air can get in, but they still get overwhelmed by the big rains. It was all rather good and we enjoyed it. Our German friends were there too and were heading on so we said our goodbyes in the car park. We went back to Al Hamra hoping for a cold drink in a juice place we had spotted but it was very closed, so on then the Jebel Shams. Or possibly Jabal Shems. Our guidebook isn’t entirely clear. But in any event it is the tallest mountain in Oman, all 3005 meters of it. We could see it in the haze; a gently pointed wall of rock like a canine sticking out above the other teeth. The road was initially tarmac and then gave way to graded dirt and took us up the opposite ridge. It was lovely and (almost) cool at the top with a fresh wind and big views. There were a few tourists about but nothing in Oman seems to be crowded. The Jebel Shams resort seemed shut when we got there; its big metal gate was locked. We circled around a bit, went back to the driveway and magically, it opened, and we went in for lunch.

We’d come to do the “balcony walk” which follows the escarpment somewhat precariously  until you come to the old deserted village of Ghul, which we saw in the distance as we began our ascent of the mountain. It looked rather lovely. Mud block houses with castellated roofs which looked like little fortresses and blended in perfectly with their surroundings. But after driving to the start of the hike there seemed no way to get onto the path in that direction. First we walked through the village rubbish dump, then to an ancient cliff ledge building where the path dead-ended. Stumped, we ended back to the car park and asked a young couple who had just finished their walk. They said the path went the other way to another abandoned village. So we took it.

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P and I had both been dreading it a bit, as it did all seem a bit near the edge from the write ups and when walking with a fifteen year old who ambles about without a care in the world thinking about something else, it can all be a bit stressful. It was a bit precarious and there was the odd moment of bladder tightening but it was terrific. The deep gorge between us and Jerald Shams (thanks spellcheck) was a mighty fine thing. It rippled with curving cliff face and had deep gashes where rocks had fallen away. Way down at the bottom there was a flat grey riverbed slithering through and at least one cluster of buildings next to it. It all felt rather biblical. The escarpment above leaned over us like a wave and kept us in the shade.

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After about an hour of steady descent we saw a cluster of ruined houses built into the rock.

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The flat rock walls were held together with some sort of basic mortar and some of the big roof timbers were still in place.

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A coupe still had decorated wooden doors.

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It felt like the Anasazi ruins P and I hiked to in Arizona called Keet Seel. Dusty and silent, looking down over this huge gorge.

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We were at the end of it where it began to turn back on itself and in the end of the horseshoe we could see ancient agricultural terraces and a few more houses.

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We stopped in the old village for our Iranian apples which a couple of goats thought they should probably have. They waited for the cores edging a little closer all the time until they were almost in our laps.

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A French guy leaving with his wife told us that if you climbed above the village you could see a pool of fresh water in a cave. So we had to give that a go, scrambling up the rocks and along crumbling ledges, through olive trees and camel thorn until we saw it; a beautiful broad pool with a pebble beach emerging from the arch of a cave.

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It felt like Eden. You could really imagine this special place being the hub of the village with people washing and collecting water and swimming. A real oasis surrounded by heat and rock. It was magical.

We yomped back along the path as the sun slid shadows up the cliff wall on the other side of the canyon.

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When we came to the village if al Khitaym where the path starts there were three ladies in bright blue abayas at trestle tables covered with little woven key fobs and wrist bands. A little girl was there too and said she had just finished making one of them so clearly we had to have it. The ladies were busy tying their wares around our wrists and we were gently taking them off again, but it seemed only right to get some. The Omanis don’t seem to be trying to fleece tourists wherever they gather. It would be very easy to set up the balcony walk as a paid attraction, or sell us cold drinks. But there’s none of that. There isn’t even a sign showing you how to get there. But we all park in this tiny village and stomp through it so in return we bought several little wristlets and woven key-chain wotsits and everyone was happy.

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It was getting dark as we drove down the dirt track and was completely dark when we came to the car park. Omanis are careful and considerate drivers but the lack of streetlights kept me on my toes. At Misfat we walked back through the darkened alleyways, worn paving stones gleaming in the moonlight. Supper on the rooftop of the Old House was just what we needed before a long exhausted sleep.

Author: Richard Lister

Chasing horizons...

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