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  • Shelley Dark

#20 Jabal Shams

It was a very pretty dawn from our balcony at Alila this morning. Time to pack up to leave.

I had a grown-up looking Omani breakfast don't you think? We said goodbye to Alila and piled into Ali's car on our way to the grand canyon of Jabal Shams (Sun Mountain), also visiting Ali's home town of Al Hamra and the small village of Misfat Al Abriyeen.

Ali managed to find out the name of that grey-leafed plant we keep seeing. It's a giant milkweed called calotropis procera, and its latex sap is poisonous to humans and stock. It's an introduced pest in Western Australia.

The latin name comes from Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine. I found a scientific paper online from the Asian Pacific Journal of Medicine describing its properties. Its possible uses include the treatment of inflammation, promotion of the auto-immune response, anti-tumour, anti-diarrhorea, anti-dementia, contraceptive and analgesic. In short a wonder plant. There is so much we don't know about the plant world isn't there.

Our first chore though was to go to an ATM at Nizwa to make sure we have cash to pay Ali tomorrow. We went to the Nizwa hypermarket to a battalion of ATM's just inside the front door.

The first ATM spat out my card. I inserted it into the second one but there was no English option on the screen. I pressed cancel but nothing happened. It had swallowed my card. I stood there looking at it. I pressed cancel again. Nothing. I felt like the kid who's just dropped his ice cream - I just wanted to stand there, scrunch my face up and wail.

Ali had gone off to his own bank branch, John had gone for a wander. We had used all the cash I'd put into our other credit card. This was our only hope of paying Ali cash. It wasn't the end of the earth. I could always cancel this card and do a bank transfer to Ali, but it was very annoying.

A friendly man behind me tried to help, but the machine wouldn't budge.

We drove to the physical branch of the Oman Arab Bank and Ali and I went inside. I waited on a lounge chair while Ali was shown into the manager's office. I watched a seated man reprimanding two girls standing in front of him, seemingly for some misdemeanour. After he turned away, one pulled a face behind his back. It made me smile.

There was a lot of talking going on in the manager's office, hopefully all the proper formal greetings. Ten minutes later they both came out, the manager apologising profusely to me while showing us to a coffee table with coffee and cups. All I wanted to do was get going!

Ali insisted that he do the pouring as he was the junior person. I could see that the manager was indicating he would do it as a matter of good manners.

The manager disappeared and came back with 2 large gift bags. As he gave them to us, he said he'd come with us to the ATM and get the card out. I couldn't believe my ears. His son is going to come to Australian university but he wasn’t sure which one. He disappeared to finish some chores, and we drank the Omani coffee Ali had poured from the dallah (Arab coffee pot) into little cups. It’s boiled coffee and not strong. Our bags contained a leather-look bound notebook, a mug and a folding windscreen sun reflector.

We drove back and while we were waiting, Ali showed me a tailors’ shop - very fine dishdasha cotton stretch fabric and the choice of hundreds of trims.

The manager arrived and soon had the machine open. A piece of metal fell on the floor. He took out two cards. So we weren't the only unfortunates! I showed him my passport so he could match the names and thanked him most sincerely. We couldn't use the card there as the machine was broken. Ali suggested that we use an HSBC ATM elsewhere - it seems to be the most international of ATM banks here.

But what wonderful service!

Ali stopped for his chai and bought a snack called REKHAL for us to try. It's two thin crepes making a sandwich of honey, egg, cheese and crushed potato chips. I'm serious. Ali said that not everyone adds the chips. (!) John enjoyed it but I couldn't get past the unlikelihood of the combination.

The road to Jabal Shams goes through Ali's home town of Al Hamra which is situated on a very wide wadi. That's an old abandoned town on the opposite hill. It's so well-camouflaged that hundreds of people could be living there and you wouldn't see them.

We had to climb about seven thousand feet up a very windy two-way road through rugged mountains. The bitumen became dirt, at first wide and nicely graded, then steeper and narrow and damp from the rain yesterday. It wasn't nearly as bad as it sounds. Towards the top there was more bitumen. We saw only one or two cars for the whole trip, and there were no other tourists anywhere.

The scale of the canyon is impossible to capture in a photo. I get vertigo near steep drop-offs, and I had to inch my way to the fenced edge, looking at my feet until I reached it.

At the end of the canyon and a couple of hundred feet below us was an abandoned village perched on a ledge. You can just see the terracing - it's under the black cave on the left, just above the green trees. How could its inhabitants get there? How could they get out? Ali said it’s accessible from above and below. He hikes there.

There was a covered stall across the road where three women were selling plaited handicrafts. I bought plaited bracelets at one rial each.

We had toasted sandwiches for lunch at a nearby camping complex with a pool and a playground. I wonder how they make a living. The area is popular for hikers but not right now.

I couldn't believe it on our way back down the mountain when we saw this man walking along the side of the road. A picture of confidence and elegance. Paris models, eat your hearts out. Trendy sneakers with no laces, whipstick slender, posing for us with crossed legs, lungi nonchalantly tied and flipped over at the top, colour-coordinated sweat, turban picking up the detail in the lungi, leaning only slightly on his walking stick. Confidence born of knowing who you are. He was looking for his mobile phone which had dropped out of his oh-so-chic tiny natural leather pouch at his waist. We paid him a small modelling fee. What a true performer. I hope he found his phone later.

It seemed a quicker trip down that it had been up.

We stopped at the bottom at Wadi ben Ghul ( which means Snake Gully, so-named because it winds so much) and Al Hamra, with very healthy palm trees and lots of luscious looking lucerne and corn.

This man kindly stopped to pose for me, hands at his sides, as he walked through the Al Hamra palm plantation. Al Hamra means red village because of the colour of the clay used for the old mud houses. Underground water here is at about 20-30 metres.

We crossed the wadi on our way to the little village of Misfat Al Abriyeen. It has water in it after the rain yesterday, and the novelty of that had the locals out having a look.

Christ Thorn trees grow where there is water and this is a very beautiful specimen in the wadi. A family was picnicking under it. The proper name is ziziphus spina-christi and it's believed to be the tree which provided the foliage for Jesus Christ's crown of thorns. When you see the foliage up close, the thorns are long and sharp. By law they are not allowed to be cut down.

From this high vantage point we could see the old village of Misfat Al Abriyeen, its mud and stone houses perched on the side of the hill. The new village is on this side. Ali's tribe, Al Abri, gives the village its name - a village that time forgot.

There's a huge volume of water coming from a spring higher up the mountain. It flows through a concrete falaj or water channel on its way around teh slops, its retaining wall at ground level on one side, on the other three or four metres high, watering date palms, lemons, bananas and fodder crops.

As we drove up to the village, we saw this house under construction with a magnificent view of the town of Al Hamra below. Must be a military man.

In the nearly abandoned village, this man had been down further down cutting feed for his animals, and was carrying it back up the hill. Others were carrying baskets of dates on their heads.

Through a passageway in the old town we came to this empty ‘swimming pool’, the falaj winding around the back of it, where some kids with broom and spade were intending to clean out the mud from the bottom. They were casually walking and running along the edge of the falaj, a drop into the pool of about 4 metres, even more on the other side down the slope. They were oblivious to the danger of falling. You can see the volume of rushing water near the boy in yellow's foot.

We returned through the centre of Nizwa to try an HSBC ATM but the card still wouldn’t work. It was time to go home.

The road was full of traffic tonight because it’s Thursday and everyone is going home for the weekend - Friday is the holy day and Saturday completes the weekend. Sunday is a normal week day again.

Now we've finally arrived at the Golden Tulip Hotel to find a suite suitable for a whole Omani tribe. It has an entry big enough for an office, huge living room with enough seating for 9 people, a kitchen and a dining room with table set for six, ready for entertaining. Thankfully a bedroom and a bathroom.

We're skipping the dinner party. Some fruit from a bowl on the coffee table, a couple of biscuits we collected somewhere, and we're going to bed.

I'll leave you with an Omani sea-faring proverb:

Don't cut down the mast before the wind comes.

Hope you're ready for tomorrow's goat auction! It's our last day. Until then, I wait you.

shelley dark, writer 

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