Weekend Field Trip to Nizwa

Trip to Nizwa

by Geoff Sanderson

We left Al Ain for Nizwa (via Sohar and Muscat) on Wednesday 6th December in the thickest fog ever, we could see no more than 30 meters in front of us, so there was nothing to note before the Wadi Jizzi border post!. Quite suddenly, like passing through a curtain, the fog was behind us and bright sunlight washed the Hajjar Mountains, splashed with greens, reds, browns, whites and shades in between. Ahead of us the early morning sun shone through a gossamer thin mist silhouetting each layer of ridge line. At first glance the mountains appear lifeless, but, on closer inspection you see the odd goat teetering on a rocky outcrop and the light sparkling on ancient rocks.

From the mountains we slid down to the narrow plains before Sohar. The Sohar suq was bustling, after a quick trade in fragrances we drove a little way to the seafront. Here there was beauty of a different kind, the seaside villages of Sohar. We visited the fish market right on the beach where the fish were being brought in off old reed fishing boats and more modern versions. The fish were filleted on the spot- the smell was to die for if you happened to be a cat....!! It is so nice to see that despite modern technology their traditional lifestyle has changed very little.

The buildings along the beach front reflect their history of Omani and Portuguese occupation. Bougainvillea and old Neem Trees, colourful painted doors, richly carved doors and a variety of window and parapet details make a fascinating villagescape.

The highway south to Muscat is midway between the sea and the mountains, neither of which are clearly visible. Nonetheless, we made a few more detours, Barka was especially interesting with its magnificent fort and beachside fruit and vegetable market.

From the coast road we turned westward toward Nizwa before reaching Muscat. The road through the Sumail Gap is now a four lane highway for at least three quarters of the distance. A necessity no doubt but now it would be so easy to fly by the little villages as though they were only figments of imagination.

We didn't fly by. We stopped at Izki and Manal just as the afternoon light danced gently through the oases and old buildings glowed yellow and gold as if they were riches beyond all other desires. The watchtowers of Manal still stand guard over the tiny village with its laughing children, busy farms and cheeky goats.

The old fort of Izki is crumbling, its need long gone, but it is still the centrepiece of the village. A fine old Sidr Tree which could, no doubt, tell many stories of battles, stands proudly beside the fort.

We reached the Falaj Daris hotel in Nizwa as the call from the mosques confirmed it was time for Ifta and the last rays of sunshine lit the jebel peaks.

The full compliment of ENHG Al Ainiens gathered at the hotel over the next hour or so, 24 in all, some repeat visitors but most were new to this region.

A hotel meal and a short walk through the largely inactive suq was enough for the day.

By 8.00am next morning we were on the road, 7 "trucks" in convoy headed for Bahla and beyond to Fort Jabrin.

En route we diverted to Tanuf, a now ruined village, destroyed during uprisings in the 1950's (jabal war) but is now a fascinating place to explore. Tanuf still has most of its defensive wall intact and the falaj lives on, undeterred by battle.

As I walked into the village enjoying the morning light, I noticed some footprints in recently dried mud; the prints were too large for a dog, my optimistic mind instantly said "leopard". I photographed the prints then my son Robert pointed out faeces that would, no doubt, complete the picture, assuming they were linked to the footprints. I collected enough of the faeces to present to Peter Cunningham on return to Al Ain and wait with baited breath for the news of a positive leopard recording.

We reached Fort Jabrin at 9.30, it is magnificent, carefully and senstively restored and brought to life by our guide who was both a delightful personality and very good at relating facts and stories from Fort Jabrin's history. I was a bit worried by his delight in telling us of the frequently used boiled date syrup method for dissuading assailants but was reassured that it is no longer in practice!! The fort is a "must see"; its catacomb like rooms are partially furnished with pots, carpets, muskets, swords, implements of various kinds, beautifully embroided cushions and exquisitely carved timber and plasterwork.

We were more than happy to raise a 1 Rh each tip for our guide and I highly recommend him to any future visitors to Fort Jabrin. Next stop Bahla suq and the "singing" silversmith, a charming old man who treated me like a long lost brother when I once again stepped up into his little workshop. He loves to scatter his vast collection of old silver jewelry over mats, demonstrate his skills at working silver and generally be the perfect host. The ladies, who dominated our group, would have none of the suggestion that there was more to see in Bahla and continued to rummage through the silver collection until the suq closed near 12.30pm.

The potter was closed too so we missed him, but that will be another adventure for another day, it would be sad to reach the stage where I had experienced all this region had to offer.

We ventured on to Wadi Ghul, to find a place, hidden away, where those not fasting could replenish their dwindling stocks of nutrients. In a deep canyon with massive rocks towering over head and a tiny oasis clinging to the edge of the wadi we sat under the shade of date palms to rest and recharge the batteries. From our vantage point we could look up 3000 metres to the top of Jebel Sharm (mountain of the sun) and make out the precarious route (with binoculars), taken by other ENHG adventurers, to the deserted village.

Hidden away? Not likely, the local kids soon found us and set about trying to persuade these hardened tourists that they were in need of the fossil rocks, key holders and woven shawls that mother had sent them out to sell.

Even the toughest amongst us gave in to the smiles and irresistible laughter of the little boys who were not going to leave until a sale was made.

As the afternoon wore on we drove back to Al Hamra, the old village built on a vast sheet of rock sloping at 30degrees down to a oasis. The village has some very fine two and three storey mud brick houses many in good condition. They looked splendid against the deepest blue sky you could possibly imagine. Apart from children and goats, the village was almost deserted. Little girls in brightly coloured dresses giggled and called to us happily, ran to hide if a camera pointed in their direction then reappeared with cheeky chatter and flashing smiles as we passed.

We then climbed the mountain road to Misfa. The village of, Misfa would have to be my favorite. It hugs the mountainside and the houses appear to grow out of huge boulders. Alleyways wind this way and that, without a straight line to be seen. Oases step down the side of a deep gorge, a falaj gurgles and meanders through the village, providing the people, animals and plants with much needed water. Date Palms, Bananas, Papaya, Mangos, Citrus, animal fodder and vegetables thrive on the narrowest terraces . Looking up we see 100 metres above us, children tending to their donkeys and goats, chickens scratching through the leaf litter and groups of women preparing vegetables for the break of fast.

The late afternoon light of early winter told us it was really the best time to be in Misfah. Shafts of light lit the stone steps and walls, played amongst the Date Palms and Banana Palms and fell on old men as they chatted and solved the world's problems.

The people in all of these places are so friendly, particularly the old men and the children. Everybody shouts 'howareyou' repeatedly, until they get the answer they are looking for 'fine thankyou'. The children cannot contain their excitement and scream and giggle, whenever we pass by. In Al Hamra they all wanted to shake hands, and no body was allowed to pass until all hands had been shaken and everybody had responded to 'howareyou'?

They still farm the land using traditional methods and use fresh fruit and vegetables just picked, regardless of size, colour and shape. Everybody has the time to stop and chat and relax. It's nice to find people who are not so obsessed with time, money and perfection.

Reluctantly we climbed into our trucks to head down the mountain and back to Nizwa where we had a Omani feast waiting for us in the suq.

It was quite amusing to watch the uncertain faces of the 20 odd ENHGians gathered around assorted tables and seated on anything from pink plastic chairs to an office chair, as the first insignificant plate of salad arrived and a bottle of water stood shyly as a centrepiece. Steadily more and more and more food appeared from the kitchen until in chorus we had to say, 'you won, we are beaten'. Still we found room for coffee and dates but there was little more we could do then but stagger to our trucks and return to our welcome beds. The last thing I remembered that night was the fragrance of the Millingtonia trees outside the hotel and the Frangipani's in the courtyard.

Friday morning we dribbled out of bed and into the suq and the Friday morning goat market. If we weren't properly awake, the suq saw to that. The suq and goat market was a sea of activity, vibrant with colour, the air rich with the smell of goats, incense, fruit, vegetables, coffee, spices and Damas Rose buds. Sounds of bartering and boasting of the virtues of each and every goat, bleating of kids, bellowing of young bulls defending their meagre space, debates over the relative merits of bananas confirmed the suq was alive and well.

Old men wandered about with muskets in hand, silver hunjars hanging from silver belts; small boys pushed heavily laden wheel barrows; colourfully dressed women sat debating the wisdom of sales and purchases, still others staggered by with heavy bags of vegetables. It was an overwhelming sensual experience.

It is hard to decide which aspect of Oman I like best, the charm of the seaside villages and suqs, the people, the villages tucked away in the folds of mountains, the mountain suqs, the goat market teeming with people of all ages, the smells of spices and coffee.

So many memories, so much to return to.

Leave all this? Sadly, yes, it was Friday afternoon and there was a long drive ahead. As I drove, so many thoughts and memories passed through my head but foremost amongst them was...I'll be back!!


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