“I hope you’re not scared of heights,”says climbing guide Hernani Lima, as he shuffles along a frighteningly exposed cliff ledge, before it abruptly drops and vanishes below an overhang. At a height of 2,095m, the sight is enough to dishearten even the bravest soul. “If you’re thinking of turning back, now’s the time,” says Lima.
This is the new way to tackle Jabal Akhdar, the Green Mountain – via its just-opened via ferrata (iron way) climbing route. This devilish snakes-and-ladders course features steel beams, chains, rungs and zip lines that progress along the rock face. To our left, Wadi Al Muaydin, a mini Grand Canyon, drops precipitously, before marching west towards the sandy haze of the Empty Quarter, the world’s great undiscovered desert. Even the clouds think twice about coming this high.
Oman is becoming a new destination for adventure travel. Which seems about right: this is a place where you find man in a constant fight with nature. It’s normal to cling white-knuckle to a cliff face or traverse a rocky ledge with only darting butterflies for company. The region must have seemed a fearful place to those who first came here, but in a way, its signature vibe – wild promise – is a reflection of the beautiful intensity of modern Oman as a whole. The Hajar Mountains are challenging and isolated, and yet all the more rewarding for that.
This is my fifth visit to the area, but the first time I’ve noticed this mountainous Shangri-La starting to draw international attention. A recent wave of hotel openings has helped: there is the unapologetically luxurious Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort, perched on the canyon rim and acclaimed by some as the most beautiful hotel in the country. It opened two years ago and has hoovered up numerous awards for its frontier romance and capacity to thrill, with the highest infinity pool and tennis courts in the Middle East. An observatory to draw stargazers is in the pipeline.
Investment is flowing in elsewhere, too. The remote, rustic Alila Jabal Akhdar hotel is intent on giving you whiplash when you crane your neck over its canyon edge, while the Green Peak Adventure Resort, managed by Thai chain Dusit Thani, is due to open before the end of the year.
The growth of such properties is founded on the belief that people who come to the region are searching for extremes. Beyond Muscat, there is palpable demand to experience Oman’s harsher landscapes and higher elevations, in a way that was unheard of until recently. Yet the Jabal Akhdar plateau has remained largely hidden from the lowlands for decades. There is something almost unbelievable about the switchback road that delves deep into the mountains being only nine years old.
With such virgin appeal, many from near and far have decided to uproot their lives and move to the area, believing the future of luxury adventure tourism is here. Hernani Lima, originally from Lisbon, Portugal, is one of them. He has just arrived, only one month into his own adventure, and yet has his sights on tackling the area’s tallest peak, the 3,028m Jabal Shams (Sun Mountain). Firas Rashid, a Jordanian marathon runner who leads hiking tours through the villages of Al Aqur, Al Ayn and Ash Shirayjah, is another. Jessi Chai, a Taiwanese-Canadian daughter of a two-time Everest climber, has introduced sunrise yoga sessions on a platform overlooking the canyon brim at the Anantara resort. “The luxury here lies in the terrain,” she says. “You’re never far from Oman’s traditional past.”
In an area so remote and rugged that local school buses are, in fact, 4WD Toyota Land Cruisers, upmarket adventure doesn’t come either free or easy. The range’s military airport has seen increased business from private jets in recent years. The lobster served at Anantara’s Arabian fort-influenced restaurant Al Qalaa must be driven the demanding 170km mountain road from Muscat almost daily.
Of all the lures of the area, the most compelling is what lies largely hidden in the canyons snaking off from Wadi Muaydin. For the past few centuries, several villages have lain in ruined obscurity, densely packed with abandoned meaning and stories about the families that once struggled to eke out livings here. The hallmarks are lopsided mud- and thatch-wall houses, but these are also scenes framed by stepped terraces still used for cultivating pomegranates, walnuts, dates and delicate Damask roses that perfume the air.
I follow guide Mohammed Zakwani as we descend down 200-odd steps into the canyon on a walk around the area’s most famous lost village, in Wadi Bani Habib. Sixty families once lived here, he says, as we pick our way through a thicket of acacia past the ancient falaj irrigation channels that keep the orchards fertile. While I’m trying to make sense of the evocative skull-like houses and rock stairways from a distant age, he’s reading the land as his father and grandfather once did, hand-picking rosemary and reaching for an apricot from a ripening mish mash tree, as the fruit is known in Arabic. “There’s still plenty of life here,” he says, “but only if you know where to look for it.”
I ask Zakwani if he believes in ghosts, the fantastical djinn of Omani folklore so rooted in the tale of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. Deep in the Hajar Mountains, legends abound of dark magic and it strikes me the skeletal homes of Wadi Bani Habib are poignant tombs where such spirits could be found. “People moved because they wanted to experience more of the outside world,” he says, glancing at his beeping iPhone. “There are no genies or ghosts here, only memories.”
During my stay, a storm demonstrating the mountain’s power blows in, filling the canyon with swirling mist and forcing a change of plans. The photographer accompanying me suggests an early-morning trip down to Oman’s one-time capital of Nizwa, an ancient city at the crossroads of caravan routes where many great adventures once began. Medieval scholar and explorer Ibn Battuta visited, coming away with stories of its “fine bazaars and splendid, clean mosques”. Today the city is a byword for upbeat Instagram posts, with day-trippers from Muscat living out their notions of the One Thousand and One Nights fantasy.
In the lengthening shadows of rebuilt Nizwa Fort, all set with pristine battlements, false doors and a centrepiece garrison turret, we pass through gateways and round dark corners into the hubbub of the souq’s Friday market. I can hear the bleating of harried goats and the air turns charged as frantic bartering breaks out. Through one last arch, into what seems like a disused car park, a livestock market throngs and thrums with activity as goat and cattle farmers parade their stock in a circle around a makeshift catwalk crowded with irascible buyers. To a man, they are clad in intricately woven kumma hats and dazzling white robes, sizing up the animals as well as each other.
It is a ritual from another age and so time-honoured not even the swelling visitor crowds would be crazy enough to intrude. It all feels carefully managed, and yet experiencing this curious circus of people thrown together is as profound as any heart-pounding abseil or canyon hike.
Finally, the weather clears on our journey back up the mountain road, and in the returning light we overtake a group of touring cyclists, pioneers every one of them, yet all blissfully unaware of the hard-earned thrills that lie ahead. I wish them good luck silently in my head, but I am secretly glad it is not me.
Against the challenges of topography and time, Jabal Akhdar and its canyons and cliffs are starting to hint at what is possible. There is room for nervous rock climbers like me, abseilers, cyclists and plenty more adventurers besides. This is a landscape that carries distant echoes of a way of life long lived. And yet, somehow, this is only just the beginning of its story.