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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!