The donkey caravan emerged where the rocks above us met the deep blue of the sky, plodding down an ancient trade route from the Omani mountain hamlet of Aqabat Al Hamra, which had no road access.
Led by two men with two little girls in tow, they were laden with sacks, perhaps carrying dung the men would sell, spending the proceeds on dates and other fruit grown on the well-watered terraces of Misfat Al Abriyeen, the village we had just left.
Watching this timeless ritual, it was easy to forget the village was only a short drive from one of Oman's new motorways and less than three hours from the country’s most luxurious coastal resorts. As we stood aside to watch their unhurried progress, however, there came a sharp reminder that nowhere is completely insulated against tourism’s chain reactions. The men were already accustomed to meeting hikers. I had barely removed my camera from its pouch when one of them shouted something. My Austrian guide, Jakob Oberhauser, translated: “He says no pictures. He’s probably alarmed you might photograph the girls.”
Oberhauser had suggested we set out early, while the climb to Aqabat Al Hamra was still in shadow. Good call. Though it was winter and altitude occasionally brought a caressing breeze, mid-morning temperatures were heading well into the 20s celsius.
The previous day we had toiled up Wadi Muaydin, starting not far from the town of Nizwa. Well, to be accurate, I had toiled. Though this was no stroll in the park Oberhauser, who has worked in Oman almost a decade and is blessed with the balance of an accomplished climber and professional mountain guide, appeared to treat it as such.
The bed of the wadi was strewn with smooth, pink pebbles of schist so round and flat you itched for a plane of water to skim them across – but the ground looked bone dry. Don’t be fooled, said Jakob. There was water running only a few centimetres below the surface. Rain may be infrequent but when it falls, rocky valleys like this quickly become frothing torrents.
Not far from the start we passed an automatic alert system, installed to warn people below that the water level is at danger point. The triggering of a similar device, in another wadi nearby, signals that shoppers in the market place at Nizwa have 45 minutes to evacuate. It was never enough time, said Jakob.
As we ascended, water from the previous week's storms chattered between boulders and formed sometimes deep pools. We skirted them with occasional scrambles, threw in stepping stones and teetered across. The rock patterns and colours kept inviting similes: here like a Braque collage, there the light and dark of chocolate truffles or the wavy stripes of a Roman mosaic. Streaks of gleaming white calcite ran through old grey limestone.
The track was sometimes little more than rubble, sometimes wonderfully preserved paving stones, polished by the feet and hooves of travellers who had traded inland produce for dried fish on the coast of the Arabian Sea. On either side great rust-coloured walls rose 1,000 feet or more to jagged summits. A hat proved essential here not just as protection from the sun but from painful brushes with the prolific shrub known as Christ’s Thorn.
We passed a settlement deserted by residents in favour of more modern homes and continued to Masirat Ruwaijhi, where villagers had laid out brightly woven rugs to air on the rocks and where our support vehicle was waiting. En route to our night stop we paused to take in the astonishing view from Diana’s Point on the Jebel Akhdar plateau. The Princess came during her international land mine campaign. Many mines were laid in the surrounding wadis during the 1950s by rebels fighting the forces of Oman’s sultan, who eventually took this stronghold after a daring assault by supporting units of Britain’s SAS. Away to our right loomed the twin peaks of Jebel Shams, the highest mountain in Oman.
It was dusk as we approached Misfat Al Abriyeen, where we were to stay at a guest house run by two pioneering cousins who have recognised the potential of restoring a traditional property abandoned, like many of its neighbours, for more modern homes. We lugged our bags down narrow steps and ducked through the low doorway. Abdul, one of the cousins, brought dinner on the roof: vegetable curry, lamb and thin Omani flat bread. There were dates, of which some 40 varieties grow here. It is claimed they taste different from tree to tree.
On the ridge above, dark against an opalescent sky, stood a crumbling watchtower and a line of ancient cairns said to have once played a part in some kind of astronomical calculation.
I slept under low wooden beams to the sound of water rushing down a falaj, or irrigation channel, access to which is governed by an elaborate system of rights determined by the village elders, and woke to the dawn call to prayer. In the golden early light it was easier to appreciate the beauty of the place and setting. We set out on paths which followed the contours of green terraces, shaded by date palms, passing the men’s showers, where the falaj is diverted to create two powerful waterfalls.
Leaving the donkeys far behind, we met a man carrying his injured son down the trail, who was happy to be photographed. As we neared Aqabat Al Hamra we were greeted by yapping dogs. Dogs, as Oberhauser observed, are not highly regarded in the Islamic world but these were kept to guard the villagers’ sheep and goats against now scarce wolves.
We gave them a wide berth, skirting the village on a ridge. As we looked down on the little huddle of dwellings, built around a small enclosure with a shelter for livestock, the sense of changeless isolation returned. Until, that is, I spotted the satellite dish.
Roger Bray flew with Oman Air (0844 4822309, www.omanair.com) which offers flights from Heathrow, Paris or Frankfurt, with connections from Edinburgh on bmi, with fares from £519, £412 (€512) and £1,970 (€1,586.24) respectively. His hiking itinerary, arranged by Global Tours (00968 24695959, firstname.lastname@example.org), based in the Omani capital Muscat, cost from US$357 per person (about £220) for two days with guide and overnight stay if seven people travel (more if there are fewer in the group). Details of holiday operators to Oman (including those offering walking tours) from the Oman Tourist Office (0208 877 4524, www.omantourism.gov.om). They include Ramblers Holidays (01707 331133, www.ramblersholidays.co.uk) which operates a package starting in Dubai.
Foreign Office advice for British nationals in Oman is to maintain a high level of security awareness and to exercise caution, particularly in public places and on roads. Avoid large crowds and demonstrations. Piracy is a significant threat in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean and the FO advise against all but essential travel by yacht and leisure craft on the high seas. Terrorism attacks, although unlikely, could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers. See www.fco.gov.uk for details.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
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Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North east