Monday, January 7, 2013

Jebel Al-Akhdar and the Sayq Plateau, Oman

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 085
Diana's Viewpoint

There are powerful landscapes, and then there are landscapes that leave you breathless  – you can’t even think, and you don’t need to. Your mind goes blank, and you just gaze. Such is the power of Jebel Akhdar and the Sayq Plateau.
Jabal Akhdar, Oman 079 Stitch

Bait al Ridaydah at Bikat al Mouz

We diverted to Jebel Akhdar for a few hours on our way from Nizwa, the ancient city and former capital of Oman, to Muscat, Oman’s current capital on the coast. Taking the Birkat Al Mouz exit from the new four-lane divided highway or “carriageway,” as they sometimes call it here, we wound through the town, driving past one of Oman’s 16 magnificent castles and forts that are operated by Oman’s Ministry of Tourism.

We didn’t stop to tour the fort, because we wanted to get as high up on Jebel Akhdar as we could in the time we had. We could do a whole tour of the country, just seeing Oman’s castles and forts – but that’s another story.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 089
Steep turns, steep grade

Near the base of the mountain, we stopped at a checkpoint, beyond which only 4WD vehicles with low gears are allowed. Even though the road is paved, it’s unbelievably steep and sharply curved; far more so than a comparable mountain road in the USA. Starting at about 1500 feet altitude, the road climbs 7,000 feet to 8500 in about 13 miles.

I compare it to Kingsbury Grade, the steep and winding road we take from our home in Carson Valley over Daggett Pass to Lake Tahoe. It’s 8 miles from the intersection at Foothill Road, 4800 feet altitude, to Daggett Pass, 7350 feet. That’s a rise of 2250 feet, or 318 feet/mile or 6% grade, the maximum allowed in the U.S. Compare that with 538 feet/mile up Jebel Akhdar, a 10% grade – almost twice as steep, and 50% longer.
“Stay in low gear on the way down,” we were told. “Don’t use brakes. Use low gear.” Brakes will heat up, then fail.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 082
Terraced mountainside

Up we went, slowly winding up Jebel Akhdar and onto the Sayq Plateau. I had read about this area with its many villages, but what I was most interested in seeing were the terraced slopes where the rose bushes are grown. Distilled rose water is a special product of the mountain communities; it’s used in coffee and sweets, and as an air freshener. I have an Arabian cookbook, and the exotic watermelon, feta cheese and mint salad recipe, which I have yet to try, calls for a drizzle of rose water.

The name Jebel Akhdar means “Green Mountain.” In addition to the fragrant roses, the mountain terraces support a variety of fruit and nut trees – apricot , pear, plum, peach, fig, olive, almond, walnut, pomegranate, and citrus, among others. The mountain climate is temperate with warm, balmy summers and cooler winters when temperatures sometimes drop to freezing, especially during rains. Tourism peaks in March when the trees flower. I’d like to visit in spring but also in the summer, when the Gulf Coast heat is so oppressive.
Incidentally, the Hajar Mountains are a popular destination for mountain climbing and trekking groups. A few months ago I signed up on UAE Trekkers, an Abu Dhabi hiking group, thinking it might be fun to meet some other hikers. I soon discovered that a primary focus right now is training for an upcoming Kilimanjaro climb, although all are welcome on the many hikes they do. UAE Trekkers organizes camping and trekking trips all over the Arabian Peninsula, and I enjoy seeing where they are going next.

Here is what they say about hiking:
UAE Trekkers logoA hike is NOT just a walk outside in the mountains.  The nature of these mountains here in UAE and Oman is profoundly different to those in other parts of the world.   There are NO marked trails - anywhere. There are no maps. The hiking route can even change over weeks due to flooding and rains. Navigation and exploring are mandatory and - in our opinion - a big part of the fun! 

I haven’t hooked up with the group yet. For one thing, everything they do is on weekends or evenings, and my weekends are for sailing and doing things with Mark. Plus I could be wrong, but I suspect that the group is generally younger, and singles. And many lot of their hikes involve some climbing, which I am not into.

Wait. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: I don’t really operate that way. If I were here on my own and not so busy I would be there in a heartbeat, no matter what my age, as long as I could hike. What a great way to meet interesting people!

Ok, I just made a resolution: when I get back from the USA in February, I will find a way to do one of their basic hikes. I see comments from people all the time saying, "I'm not experienced, but want to try it ..." And I AM experienced. Plus last time I went home I brought back good hiking shoes.

Now back to Jebel Akhdar …
Wadi Bani Habib Oman - sony (34)
Wadi Bani Habib

Up at the top, just after the Jebel Akhdar Hotel, we turned left onto a smaller road which took us past a military installation to Wadi Bani Habib, where we took a short walk to one of two abandoned villages. This is one end of another Village Walk like the one at Jebel Shams, that I would like to do when we come back. You can read and see photos of the lovely village in the Wildcardtravels post Dispatch from Oman: Wadi Bani Habib.

Jabal Akhdar nikon 024
Arabs spare no expense
when it comes to parks

We ate a lunch of cheese, crackers, apples and a sip of white grape beverage at a park with a nice view of the rocky Sayq Plateau spread before us.

Sahab Hotel

Since we had time for one more thing, we decided to go to Diana’s Viewpoint, unofficially named in remembrance of a helicopter visit by Princess Diana in 1990. On the way, we noticed a brand new luxury hotel, perched right on the edge of the mountain. High-end eco-hotels are becoming more common in the Middle East. Maybe when we come back we can splurge on a night at the Sahab Hotel.

Still, I would love to camp; there are plenty of great camping spots near Diana’s Viewpoint. If only more people would embrace the eco-idea of just cleaning up after themselves.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 095
Diana's Viewpoint

At Diana’s Viewpoint, we pulled into a parking area where we were rewarded with a stupendous view of the vast array of terraces, roads, and villages below and on the adjoining slopes, not to mention the procession of peaks and valleys stretching off into the distance.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 075
We'll see this in bloom in March

I knew that the roses would be dormant. We need to come in the spring to see them in bloom. I was actually glad for the opportunity to be able to view and photograph the structure of terraces themselves, which I imagine are pretty well hidden when the vegetation is in bloom or leafed out.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 125
One of many escape ramps

The ride back down the mountain was remarkable. With the car in low gear, we wound our way past signs in relatively flat looking areas that warned, “STAY IN LOW GEAR.” When we stopped at a pullout to rest the Cayenne, we could smell burning brakes. Not ours, though – there were three or four other cars there, and it was them.

Jabal Akhdar nikon 015

We marveled at the effort and expense it took to construct the road. Not only are there extensive concrete guard walls and rails, but a huge portion of the roadside has been covered with some kind of concrete mixture. Much of the rock is conglomerate -- sedimentary rock that is easily weathered and eroded, and big boulders.The entire road is prone to slides.

“This road must be The World’ Most Something,” Mark said. We speculated: it could be The World’s Steepest Paved Road, or possibly World’s Most Expensive Road for the Amount of Traffic.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 123

Or maybe World’s Biggest and Most Numerous Escape Lanes. The further down we got, the more frequent the escape ramps were. But I could see why, because not only does the road bring tourist vehicles and locals in their Toyota pickups to the mountain, but we saw water trucks and other heavy vehicles toiling up and down the road. I kept thinking of those smelly brakes.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 124

Finally, we saw a ramp near the checkpoint that had been used, although obviously by a smaller vehicle, not one of the big heavy trucks. And what a dropoff beyond it! Somebody must’ve had to throw away their knickers afterward.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 130

Probably one of these guys.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman 133

Back on the road to Muscat, we enjoyed looking at the bent and folded layers of Earth’s crust, exposed for us to see. I am so thankful that we have the mountains to come and visit in Oman, just a few hours from Abu Dhabi. It’s time to get serious about doing some hiking, while the weather is still cool!

 Thanks for reading ...


Amy Subaey said...

Hi Anne, I enjoyed reading your blog! I'm the organizer of the UAE Trekkers that you talked about here..just wanted to let you know that you should really join us - its NOT all singles and 20 somethings.. I am a divorced single mom in my 40s!!!! There are a wide range of people, ages, lifestyles and personalities, with kids, without, but we all have one thing in common that is we love the outdoors, the mountains and pretty much anything in Oman!! Our training sessions are there to give people a chance to 'meet' who is in the group, so if you don't want to dedicate a full weekend before you know who is there, come to one of those. We'd love to have ya! But sure, as you said, all of our events are on the weekends.

Anne Schreiber Thomas said...

Amy, I actually am signed up with the group, and I receive all your Meetup notices. So far, the timing hasn't worked out, but I'm hoping to go along on one of your excursions to Oman on of these times.