x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Oman's mountainous treasures

Cover Amar Grover takes his young family walking in the rugged Hajar Mountains.

"What's that?" asked my four-year-old son as we rounded a bend and paused before a cluster of old houses that seemed to be dissolving into the sand all around us. "That," I replied theatrically, "is Tanuf." Amrik, my son, examined the word as though it were a new and highly polished marble - mispronouncing, playing with and distorting its sound as only young children do. I suggested a new game: we have a quick poke around, see if there was some old treasure for the taking and then move on for lunch. This went down very well. Tanuf is not exactly a ghost town and the fissured buildings with crumbling palm-log lintels have long been stripped of anything remotely valuable. Yet the clear lanes, recognisable mosque and falaj water channels still make for atmospheric wandering. The RAF actually bombed it in the 1950s during the so-called Jebel War when, with British assistance, Oman's retrograde sultan was trying to regain control of the region from rebellious tribes. Tanuf never recovered.

Except for a few potsherds, we never did find any loot. Disappointment was offset by a fistful of sweet fat dates we'd brought along as part of our picnic. We then gazed beyond the village where a driveable track wound into a valley beside a small dam and disappeared between barren hills. The prospect of idyllic winter sun on its practically virgin coastline coupled with a handful of new resorts and refurbished hotels has kept tourism to Oman ticking over quite nicely for some years now. Yet many of these visitors simply ignore its mountains - the Jebel Hajar - that are home to some of Arabia's finest scenery and walking.

The Jebel Hajar arc around 600km across northern Oman from the UAE border down to the capital, Muscat, and beyond. Their stark ridges and deep tortuous wadis hide remnants of what you might call old Oman. It's a place of startling landscapes with ancient villages, venerable mule trails and once-vital footpaths. Barely 40 years ago, journeys into the interior - especially through the Hajar - would have entailed a ghafir, or guide, to smooth the way through arcane tribal etiquette and seemingly petty disputes. Its inhabitants were poor and facilities minimal. Modern Oman has resolutely moved on. These days you can simply turn up and, with a pinch of respect and common sense, simply walk. Relatively few trails are waymarked but those that are provide a fine and varied network.

We - my partner and two young sons - based ourselves in Nizwa, the so-called Pearl of Islam, a small town already on the tourist circuit with its historic old fort. In the late 1940s its fanatical and suspicious ruler thwarted the hardy explorer Wilfred Thesiger and he had to avoid the place altogether. It is all so different and straightforward now. Nearby Wadi Tanuf, one of many canyons that gouge their way spectacularly down through the Hajar, seemed like a good place to start.

So after exploring ruined Tanuf we cheated briefly by driving about five or so kilometres into its valley past isolated clumps of acacia and bleached boulders that might see rain a couple of times a year. Copper cliffs funnelled us on towards swaying date palms. At the track's end, we donned our boots and headed up a stony footpath rather unsure what lay ahead. Amrik trotted along beside us at a reasonable pace, enthused by this strange new world. He was adamant I ought to shin up a tree and harvest some dates but this seemed like a recipe for injury - or trouble. As we wound deeper into this small oasis, a goat appeared high on a rock, bleating loudly as though warning of our approach.

Gurgling water channels and small vegetable plots heralded our arrival at Al Far village. A few shy women and curious children gazed at us from windows and doorways unsure what to make of our clearly unusual arrival. A bearded, bare-chested man strolled nearby on a footpath. Amrik announced he looked like Santa Claus; to me he resembled an Indian mendicant. Minutes later, a charming young man called Salah explained he was one of the oldest (and therefore most respected) inhabitants of the village.

Salah cheerfully beckoned us to follow. He helped Amrik cross a couple of streambeds and gullies as we navigated the village's oasis gardens twitching with little birds. Slender paths led here and there beside small palm-trunk aqueducts, and we clambered back down into the main wadi - by now a narrow bone-dry watercourse of pale, dusty pebbles. It soon tapered into a deep box canyon with just a ribbon of blue sky overhead. Without Salah, I realised, we'd never have come this far.

We walked on into the canyon, Salah and Amrik leading enthusiastically, until an impasse of boulders brought us to a halt. In this wonderland of strange echoes and frog- and tadpole-filled pools, Amrik - abetted by our young guide - discovered his stupendous stone-throwing potential. For a while, the peace was shattered as rocks splashed into water with resounding thuds and raucous laughter. Later we shared our picnic with Salah and lazed in the warm sun that, for a while, shone directly into our private haven, before returning to the village and saying goodbye.

Next day we headed further north and west on a road that has only recently been graded and partly sealed right across the Hajar. At a pass they call Sharaf al Alamayn, or "balcony of the two worlds", we paused to soak up the 2,000m view. Austere grey-brown mountains faded into the distance amidst a hazy sky and the air was noticeably fresher. This "balcony" marks the start (or end) of a pair of great hikes. The longer though easier trail heads west to the village of Misfat al Abriyyin, while, at nearly eight kilometres long, the slightly shorter path veers off the ridge to plunge over 1,000m to Balad Sayt village. We opted for the first section of trail common to both routes - it's a straightforward walk and Amrik seemed delighted to feel, as he put it, a bit like a bird. We simply followed the ridge's crest on a mostly level path that has surely been used for generations by goatherds.

Beyond the junction, however, the trails are either too long or demanding for young children. While the others returned to drive on to Balad Sayt, I continued on the exhilarating mule track that switchbacks steeply for a couple of hours among craggy cliffs down to the same village. There were many exposed sections, some with slabs of rock that faintly resembled a staircase, and it was a sharp reminder of how demanding life in old Oman once was.

Topped with a crumbling stone watchtower and cradled by boulder-strewn hills, picturesque Balad Sayt occupies a low spur. Just below it, emerald green fields and orchards still dominate a parcel of land, while its youth play football on a dusty pitch. Like many other such villages, roads have ensured its survival. Enthralled now by the lofty Hajar, we made for what is possibly one of its best trails. Centred on the heights above Wadi An Nakhar, which is often dubbed Oman's Grand Canyon, we took a tortuous road from Wadi Ghul up to the plateau and Al Khitaym hamlet, a somewhat threadbare cluster of shepherds' houses and goat pens. There's a well-known path to Jebel Shams or mountain of the sun - the country's highest peak - from here but we chose a more child-friendly route that follows a ledge high above Nakhar.

From Al Khitaym you walk slightly down towards the canyon's edge, turn onto the virtually hidden path, and simply keep going all the way to the abandoned village of As Sab. For about four glorious and mostly level kilometres, we marvelled at its ravishing mirador-like views across the chasm, afternoon shadows creeping slowly among great shafts of rock. Shamsa, a precocious young village girl, accompanied us and she managed both to entertain Amrik as well as help enforce lane discipline. The rocky terrain and surrounding slopes that fall away as cliffs require extreme care with young children. For many sections, I held Amrik's hand while at others despite his protesting I felt obliged to carry him. He quickly clocked Shamsa's caution, too, and was incredulous that anyone could live in such a remote and spectacular place.

As Sab's pronounced isolation has hastened its abandonment but some local people still occasionally use their old (and mostly locked) stone houses. You can still make out their ancient terraces, which grew fruit, vegetables and wheat, and even a flour-grinding platform. And although organised walking groups do come here, it remains beautifully tranquil and you're likely - as we were - to have it to yourself.

There is another way out. A path climbs to the base of a cliff where a terrifying-looking via ferrata leads up to the plateau. "Let's go, dad!" implored Amrik innocently when I explained it was a kind of shortcut, and it took quite some persuasion before we cheerfully returned the way we had come. travel@thenational.ae