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  • Shelley Dark

#19 Alila and Jabal Akhdar

Junipers grow in Oman, but only up here on Jabal Akhdar. This one must be very old. Hardy and evergreen but extremely slow growing, they can easily be cut out. They're threatened on the mountain, so there's a nature reserve near the hotel for them and also the wild olives native to the area - apparently there's a symbiosis between the two. It's hard to comprehend but there are some junipers in the reserve 3000 years old.

The Sultan has an experimental farm up here. He crossed the fruiting Spanish olive with the wild Omani olive which doesn't fruit but survives well. Hey presto! A fruiting cross-bred. They're starting to propagate them for commercial production. His farm near Alila produces fruit for the royal palaces and they pump their water twenty kilometres from a well. Sometimes if they produce too much fruit, they have auctions and people buy cartons of 'royal' fruit as special gifts.

The project to bring desalinated water to the hotel is in trouble again. The foreign company which originally won the contract to dig a pipeline in this rocky terrain declared bankruptcy, and now the local company who took it over is also in trouble - the government is having to give more money to them. Alila buys all its water in by tanker - the pipeline was supposed to have been finished by 2012. It's an ambitious project.

Here are the berries of a youngish juniper tree - it's a different variety from the one used to make gin.

It's said that the Sultan loves greenery and flowers, which is why Muscat is planted with thousands of annuals every year. I love the way Omanis speak about him. Much as you would speak about a wise father who knows what's best for you. With love and respect. They realise that he has dedicated his life to his task.

The restaurant at Alila is called Juniper. When they cleared the site for the hotel, they kept the original juniper branches to use as art on the walls of the dining room. It's so nice to have a totally integrated design process from concept to operational.

We had breakfast on the deck in the shade overlooking the canyon. Bliss. The juices were in bottles, standing in a bed of crushed ice - I've come to love pomegranate which is a little tart and not too sweet. Omanis seem to have skipped the ghastly pre-juiced supermarket bottles and gone straight to the freshly squeezed option. When you order a juice at a restaurant, it's made on the spot.

Love the interior design at Alila. It's an understated palette in taupe, navy, back, beige, grey and a little gold. Wood and accents are black.

The stone-faced buildings are totally in harmony with the landscape and almost disappear.

Our sendoff committee this morning. The staff are very well trained - the older man takes his job very seriously and supervises the young ones with an eagle eye. The dishdasha trims and the turbans at Alila are all earth coloured.

I love the contrast in this foyer detail - the fine shiny black manufactured metal screen with rose motif behind the solid coarseness of the native stone.

This is the lift (a little scary looking) to the second floor of the main building.

Ali picked us up in the lobby at 9am. We were seeing the rose terraces near Sayq today, then down the mountain to a palace and a fort.

There's an interesting story behind this new community meeting hall and lookout in a small village near Alila. It's the custom in Oman to extend hospitality to any guest: they must be asked to stay for a meal. The people of this village were visited by a governor of a UAE state, and after lunch, he asked them how he could repay them. One man suggested that their meeting hall was inadequate. He comes back regularly now and asks, 'What do you need this year?'

Ali took us to see the old abandoned stone village of Sarab which is also called the Mirage Village because it's nearly impossible to see against the hill. Where is it? I said. You're looking at it said Ali. The plain square buildings were the inspiration for the hotel architect. This village is now abandoned because the goat herders who used to live here have moved to the plateau with proper facilities.

Not only the village was camouflaged. I couldn't see this goat until it moved. Mountain goats like this are a special breed and cost 200-300 rials (AU$700+). They're very tough and suited to their environment. Their diet in the wild is acacia, wild olive leaves, juniper and wild rosemary. Sounds like roast lamb! Their very tender flavoured meat is eaten for special occasions like the birth of a child when a husband might buy one of these goats and some mountain honey to make his wife strong. It's also given to accident victims.

Goat herders here run twenty or thirty goats just for their family. Commercial goat herders need up to three hundred. The beauty of these goats is that you don't have to feed them much to bring them home - just a tasty titbit. They're never tied up, and they never use a dog. They're sent out in morning and they come home by themselves. The goat herder does an afternoon head count and if any are missing he goes searching. If he has too many the extras may belong to neighbour. It's all based on trust. There are goat shelters here and there on the mountains under rock overhangs, for when it rains - they don't like rain as their coats get very heavy.

Ali looking at the mountains he loves. He was born on the flat at the base of the mountains at a village called Al Hamra. He mentioned that if you were born on the mountain as late as the 1960's there were no schools. In the 1970's there were schools in tents while schools were being built. In the '80's children from the Mirage Village were helicoptered to Nizwa and kept there for six months to learn to read and write. So recently.

You can just see a window and the corner of a house in this shot.

A beautifully shaped acacia protects an old house. See the resemblance to the hotel architecture?

Ali is wonderfully generous with his information and will keep talking all day in response to my questions as I scribble notes on my lap as we drive. Our next stop was a view of the terraced rose gardens just below the town of Sayd.

We took photos from three different vantage points and then walked down into one of the villages, along a raised canal and a dry wadi.

These damask roses are about to lose their yellowing leaves. They are grown to distil into rose water, sold locally. People use it to spray on guests' hands after a meal, as perfume, in the sweet halwa (an Omani sweet, different from halva), and in cosmetics. They also grow pomegranates and corn here on the terraces. How they created these terraces out of almost solid rock I cannot imagine.

alba rose by Nadiatalent via Wikimedia Commons

From the third week of March until mid-May, about 90 farms in the highlands turn pink with rose flowers. It must be wonderful to be here then. Pickers rise early to gather the roses just after they open and before the heat begins. The petals are collected on sheets or in baskets, and taken to one of many stills.

The stills are filled with roses and water and simmered gently for about four hours to create the distilled oil. The rose water is kept in clay urns for ninety days until the distillation process is complete.

A pomegranate orchard grows behind a high wall.

An apricot tree arches over the falaj which is filled only when needed. The majority of the ninety farms are located at Al-Aqr, Wadi Bani Habib and Al-Fiqaine villages.

These mountains have such amazing secondary roads and tracks through such forbidding territory.

He paused his work for the photo.

The old villages are half abandoned for more modern houses up on top of the plateau, and rooms are used for storage.

Someone has cut this corn to feed to animals. It's dried out in the sun.

A ripening crop.

These fossils are everywhere, just lying on the ground at a lookout near a new five-star hotel being built in Sayq on the edge of the escarpment. It looks big and not nearly so appealing as Alila, but will be close to other amenities .

Ali said they are 150 million years old. The mountain is young at 30 million years old.

This is the Sayq Plateau. The rose terraces are on the far edge.

We also visited Wadi Bani Habib.

This is the best time of year for pomegranates, just near the end of the season before winter comes. Here they are being sold at the top of Wadi Hani Habib for AU$8.50 each. By the way, the word rial comes from Portuguese.

A visitor from Kuwait.

We keep seeing this grey leafed plant with the sticky sap - Ali says it has medicinal properties. I'll be able to tell you about it tomorrow.

Ali holding a pomegranate. What an immaculately ironed dishdasha sleeve!

The houses down below in Wadi Bani Habib. The nearby cave would be used as an animal shelter.

Whenever we see more prosperous looking houses like these being built on the ridge, Ali says 'It probably belongs to a military man'.

A flowering laurel.

Then down the mountain we went - it really is the most amazing feat of engineering that road! No expense has been spared for safety - all the slopes are sprayed or retained by netting to stop falling rocks.

We were on our way to Jabreen Castle, which has been restored in recent years. It's the typical Middle Eastern fort of your imagination - high crenellated mud walls around the outside, holes in them for defence, towers, a three-storey building with a central courtyard, wells for water, places where you can drop boiling oil on your enemy or use a trapdoor to drop him into a pit.

The spiky doors would help repel any barrage. The fort was built in the late 1600's by

the son of Imam Sultan bin Saif Al Yarubi, who expelled the Portuguese from Oman.

The Portuguese had arrived in Oman soon after Vasco da Gama's rounding of the Cape of Good Hope. They occupied Muscat from 1507 to 1650, using it to defend the sea lanes. They had a few skirmishes with the Turks during their occupation.

Rebellious tribes eventually drove out the Portuguese, but were themselves pushed out about a century later, in 1741, by the leader of an Omani tribe, who began the current line of ruling sultans. Except for a brief Persian invasion in the late 1740s, Oman has been self-governing ever since.

This fort is basically a palace built in a time of peace by a ruler who was passionate about science and art. It's three stories high with two towers, receptions halls, dining areas, meeting rooms, a courtroom, a library, and classrooms.

The Imam loved his horse so much that he created a ramp up to the first floor so it could have its own bedroom next to his. They're still famous throughout the world these Arab horses.

A trapdoor in a doorway which could be released to cause an enemy to fall into a pit below.

Jahlahs are unglazed terracotta water containers, usually hanging by the handle on rope. The moisture seeps through the pot and slowly evaporates on the outside, keeping the water cool. They can also be free-standing like this palm tree motif pot.

Date syrup was made in a cool dark place like this basement room where bags full of dates were stored on the rills. The syrup drained out and was caught in a tank. I imagine in those days, the rills would have been shiny clean clay.

A copper strainer.

A display of copper household items.

Buckets to draw water from the well were hand-made of leather. This one has seen better days.

From the top there's an expansive view of the date palm oasis, the town of Bahla and the mountains. The wooden balustrade encloses a courtyard open to the sky.

These studded wooden chests are typically Omani.

You can see how thick the walls are!

In a couple of the rooms there were painted ceilings.

Ali makes a timeless picture. He's a good model.

We lunched at a restaurant in Bahla where we were comparing these two different one rial notes - about AU$3.50. On the top note, I like the meticulous way the Sultan's masar is tied so that the angled stripes match above his forehead.

We had seen Ali greet others as we've travelled around. It's a lengthy business. I asked him about his name, and how he introduces himself. There are a list of things you must say and there is no surname as such. It's the tribe which describes where you are from. For instance, the Sultan is Qaboos bin Said bin Taimur Al Bosaidy:

*first name QABOOS

*son of ... BIN SAID (son of Said)

*grandson of .... BIN TAIMUR (son of Taimur)

*tribe .... AL BOSAIDY (tribe of Bosaidy - this is the geographical area or village you are from)

If you want an abbreviated and casual way of introducing yourself, you just say your first name and tribe. So Ali would be Ali Al Abri (Ali from the Abri tribe which is from Al Hamra)

Sheikh is pronounced SHAY-HHHH with a breath of H at the end. No K. It means tribal leader and is pre-Islamic. They are rich men who nowadays are given the title by the government - it has no privilege attached, simply prestige and a stipend to help run a community. In the old days if a sheikh called for war it had to be obeyed. There is a also a well-paid mayor, called a walli, funded by the government.

Next was Bahla Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a much much older building - part of it is thought to date from 500BC. It was built and destroyed over the centuries and was almost beyond repair when the government decided to restore it in the 1990's. The last major occupants were the Banu Nebhan tribe, rulers of Oman from 1154 until 1624. There are records of personal visits by these Nabhani rulers to Ethiopia, Zanzibar, Kenya, and Persia. The archaeological dig here is still going on.

The view over Bahla. This is the town we can see from our hotel, in the far distance, looking down the gorge. We could see clouds beginning to build over the mountains. It only rains two or three times a year here, so we were hoping that we would see a shower.

It was late afternoon when we started climbing the mountain. We were going to see rain!

Yes, it started!

After we passed the plateau, it really started to rain. In fact, for a short time it bucketed down. Yellow water was washing gravel across the road, wadis were starting to fill.

Back at Alila, it was clearing with patches of blue.

The rocks and fences were washed clean. They'd had a half hour of their ten hours rain a year.

At dinner we met a couple from Montpellier - he a rugby fanatic, she an architect who loves this complex. A Belgian couple who were at Desert Nights at the same time as we were are also here. It's nice to see familiar faces even in a foreign country.

This is a little amuse bouche of pomegranate granita.

Followed by chargrilled octopus for John, warm pâté de foie gras for me.

We had lamb chops and mash as our main course.

John's dessert was date brulée and I had the peach panacotta again. Our New Zealander Chef Alex Endors has only been here for ten days. He came out to say hello.

I hadn't realised before, but Oman has had a couple of small civil wars recently, one in the late 1950's when the Sultan's father came into conflict with one of the Imams, and again in the 1970's before Qaboos took over. The Sultan's father had British help to put the insurrection down. There's a legend which has grown up about an 18 year old boy who shot down a bomber with an old rifle. The second skirmish was in Dhofar in the south. The present Sultan established peace with his words "put your hand in my hand'. The country has been united and peaceful since then. He doesn't like these wars to be written about, as he wants the country to feel totally unified. You can't limit the freedom of the press like that, though, without losing it.

I'm really sorry we have to leave Alila tomorrow. I could so easily stay here.

Tomorrow we go to the Grand Canyon, Jabal Shams, elevation 9700 feet. And then we're staying in Nizwa tomorrow night so that we can be up early for the goat sale on Friday.

Another Bedouin saying for you:

Truth may walk through the world unarmed.

Until tomorrow, I wait you....

ps. I'm sorry about the problem with comments, but they tell me I can fix it if I delete the blog and reinstal it. I think it only applies to mobile devices but I'm not sure about that either. Until we've finished this trip together, I don't dare change a thing!

shelley dark, writer 

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