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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Mountains of Oman

Kate Humble
Jan 14, 2011

From a patch of bare ground between the main road and some apartment buildings on the outer edge of Muscat came the most extraordinary sound. Great snorts and bellows mingled with the early-evening traffic noise as if some mythical creature from The Odyssey had been let loose in the suburbs. The truth, perhaps, is just as unlikely.

Tied up to stakes encircling an open area of sand that could double as a football pitch or cricket ground were about 10 bulls, coats gleaming, nostrils flared, front legs pawing the ground and filling the air with dust.

As we parked our car, a pickup truck swept past, carrying another bull standing on a thick bit of padded foam in the back, a garland around its neck, gazing out at its surroundings with the baleful arrogance of a despotic leader in a sedan chair. This was the beginning of a bullfight, Omani style, unlike any bullfight I've ever heard of.

Oman is one of those Gulf countries that people seem to go to for guaranteed sun, a little lazy trinket shopping and nothing more.

Several people I know had been to Oman and claimed it was "fabulous", only for me to discover that they had never actually left their resort. Yet, culturally and historically, it is as rich and varied as its landscapes.

How to make the most of Oman
Just outside Muscat is a dramatic rocky jumble of peaks and wadis that looks tantalisingly wild and undiscovered.

There is not much in the way of vegetation because there is not much in the way of water, which is one of the great challenges of taking on the mountains in Oman.

The other is a lack of a map, which is why we needed Rob.

Rob is an expat who went to Oman as an engineer but was happier crawling about in caves or scampering up rockfaces. He abandoned engineering and set up an adventure travel company to help groups or individuals like us experience the wilder side of the country.

Over a biryani we explained that we wanted to get into the heart of the mountains and see something of the more rural, traditional Oman.

"No problem," he said. "We'll climb Jebel Akhdar and then meet my friends Glynn and Izzy and go really off piste. How does that sound?"

Scrabbling hand-over-fist up a gully, following no discernible route, I wondered during a brief, vertiginous pause what Rob meant by "off piste" if this wasn't.

It was the beginning of day one, and I had the impression that we were going to start with a fairly standard ascent of one of the more popular and accessible mountain regions for tourists.

"You are," Rob said. "Well, fairly standard, anyway. I take some groups up this route. There is an easier one, but I didn't think you'd like it as much."

Jebel Akhdar isn't a peak, as I had thought, but a range of mountains with a scattering of small traditional mountain villages. Our breathless ascent brought us to a rocky plateau and along a narrow goat track watched by a small herd of wild donkeys and circling Egyptian vultures. It felt as though we were the first people ever to have been here; the landscape was bleakly beautiful, but without water, without trees, without soil.

No one could, or would, live here, surely? Yet in a few hundred yards we came across a collection of simple stone houses built in and around a cave and perched eyrie-like above the valley. The village was abandoned. When Oman's leader, Sultan Qaboos, ousted his father and took power, the modernisation of Oman began in earnest. Part of that modernisation has meant that the people who lived in these remote mountain villages have been encouraged to move to the modern houses that have sprung up along the ever-expanding network of roads. Traditional village life in these mountains will soon, it seems, be a thing of the past.

We walked all day and saw no one. It was a little disappointing, then, to be in a place that felt so remote, so unaffected by human development, only to plod up a final rise and see our support vehicle sitting at the side of a new tarmac road waiting for us. But, as Rob said, these new roads have allowed him to get farther off the beaten track. It is possible to carry enough water for one or, at a push, two days, but no more than that. Having vehicle access meant we could spend more time in an area which, although barely two hours' drive from Muscat, felt like a different country.

We camped in a rather beautiful bowl among a rare grove of trees. With no danger of rain we slept out in the open – a rare treat that I never fail to take advantage of; we were, though, at 8,200ft and we woke at first light with frost in our hair and water bottles frozen.

Rob's friends Izzy and Glynn arrived with a car full of red wine and grand plans for adventure. This astonishing couple had met in Oman and neither had been particularly interested in walking or camping before then.

Frustrated with the same old expat routine of beaches and bars, they started to explore, and it is probably fair to say that they know the mountains around Muscat better than anyone, Omani or otherwise. With the most basic of maps and a bit of help from Google Earth they spend the majority of their weekends searching out new walking routes and discovering an Oman that few people experience.

Their plan this time was to try to fill in a gap between a route they had found from a village nearby and a route that Rob knew from another village in a different valley. We would have to be completely self-sufficient, but they thought it was achievable in two days of walking.

We began with a long descent to the bottom of a wadi and a climb up to another traditional mountain village on the other side. This one was inhabited. It was immaculately clean and ordered; its neat stone houses almost invisible against the rock and the majlis (meeting house) open to the breeze and far-reaching views across the valley.

The men and boys were busy carrying loads of goat manure from a store above the village down an almost vertical slope to the fields on the terraces. We met the women farther up, collecting firewood and tending goats. They nodded to us shyly, their brightly coloured clothes and scarves in stark contrast to the barren rock around them.

At every turn immense peaks, vistas and valleys would open up ahead of us. We were walking through a maze of rock and I was constantly in awe of Izzy's and Glynn's navigation skills.

"How do you know you're heading anywhere?" I asked. "You get to know clues. The path down a wadi is never straight down; it usually follows a contour to the head of the valley and around. Omanis don't like going up or down if they can avoid it. Donkey poo is also a pretty good sign you're on a path."

On our own, Ludo and I would soon have been lost, but with the help of the others we became hooked on path-finding. When the route we were following petered out we would all spread out looking for shiny stones or donkey poo and feel a tremendous sense of achievement when we found the next bit of the jigsaw. We came across the remains of ancient villages, small circles of stones high up on rocky plateaus and neat piles of stones that Izzy explained were graves.

Towards the end of the first day we reached the edge of a plain and Glynn said: "It is entirely possible that you and Izzy are the first European women to have been here." From then on it was virgin territory for all of us. We crossed the plain, then picked our away across and down the side of a mountain which, when we looked back at it, looked totally impenetrable. Dusty and jubilant, we walked through the carefully tended gardens of a village whose inhabitants looked at us as if we had dropped from the sky.

It was afternoon and men were gathering for the start of the regular Friday bullfight. An Omani bullfight is literally that – two bulls fighting. There are no men in sequins, no swords and no blood.

Two bulls of similar size and weight are led into the middle of an open piece of ground, the ropes are slipped from their necks, and they lock horns and push each other around a bit until the judge announces the winner. Sometimes the bulls choose not to fight at all; the first pair was led into the ring and one of them promptly turned its back and wandered off. Game over. Even when two bulls did engage in a bit of argy-bargy, it was all done in a rather demure way until the judge, whose criteria we never quite worked out, announced the winner.There is no prize money or trophy. A bull's value increases with each win, but more importantly it is a matter of honour for the bull's owner.

The final round was between two heavyweights; both, we were told, at the top of their game and worth several thousand pounds apiece. Their owners nervously massaged their withers before they were led into the ring. A hush fell over the crowd. The bulls eyed each other up, lowered their heads and stood, forehead to forehead, the late evening sun glinting on their gleaming hides. The crowd held its breath, then let out a collective murmur of surprise. One of the champions was leaving the ring.

Its owner looked thunderous as the judge declared the remaining bull the winner. People started to melt away as the bulls were loaded back into their pickups, but the losing owner was not finished yet; his honour was at stake. As we left he was duelling with the victor, their walking sticks flashing like sabres.