Monday, December 31, 2012

Two Omani Villages – Old Tanuf and Al Far

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman 077 (10)
Ruins at Old Tanuf

Our Christmas trip was the realization of a year-long goal for me. Well, actually, maybe even two goals. Ever since we arrived on the Arabian Peninsula, I’ve wanted to explore the mountains, wadis (ravines) and villages in Oman. Having spent time building trails and hiking in the Sierra Nevada, I really miss having access to mountains.

a nomad in the land of nizwa -- and my muse

The second goal was to meet someone whose Oman blog I’ve been reading. I’ve been a regular reader of catbirdinoman, an American blogger who lives in Nizwa and teaches ESL at the university there, since our first trip to Muscat last Christmas. Cathy had visited Oman’s capital city and written about it, and I stumbled across her blog while I was researching for the trip. I was intrigued because I immediately saw that she and I have a lot in common.

Over the course of a year, I read about hikes that she took and viewed her amazing photos of the villages she visited. She wrote about her sons’ visit to Oman, her work, and many other parts of her life. I kind of got to know her, although she didn’t know about me.

A few days before the trip, I emailed Cathy and introduced myself, asking if she had any recommendations, which she if course did. We agreed that it would be fun to get together for dinner and a glass or two of wine. Mark and I both began to look forward to meeting a new friend in Nizwa.

So on December 21st, Mark and I drove across the desert from Abu Dhabi to Ail Ain, the closest border crossing to the ancient city of Nizwa in the Hajar Mountains. At the first border station, the guard waved us through. The guard at the second stop took our passports and car insurance and, without looking at anything, folded the insurance paper and handed everything back. “That was nice of him,” I said. “He folded it for us.”
The third and fourth stations were empty. Mark kept saying, “I think we need to stop and get a stamp.” Instead we said, “Let’s just keep going and see what happens.” Before we knew it, we were checking into Oman and buying our temporary car insurance. We drove through the last Oman checkpoint, and we were in.

As we drove off into the mountains Mark said, “I think we really screwed up, by not checking out of the UAE. I hope they let us back in. It’s not going to be easy.”

“We can still go back and get the stamp now,” I suggested. No, he didn’t want to bother. “So, are you going to worry about it all week?” I asked. No, he promised. Well, I thought, whatever happens, it could make a good blog story.

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The road to Nizwa

So we continued on, and after a 3-hour drive across the slopes that drain the Hajar Mountains, we arrived and checked into the Jibreen Hotel, happy to find the excellent restaurant there still open for lunch even though it was almost 3:00 p.m. 

Jebel Shams Oman 003
Knowing we would need a powerful 4WD vehicle for any serious mountain driving, several months ago we bought the turbo Cayenne. Now, we could try it out on Oman’s steep paved roads and gravel paths. Using the Oman Off-Road guide, we picked out several routes. I was especially interested in seeing the villages that I’d read about in Cathy’s blog posts, some of which are in ruins and some still inhabited.

Our first exploration route was Wadi Tanuf, and the first stop was the ruins of Old Tanuf. These ruins are easy to get to, unlike other ruined villages that are more difficult to access, tucked away as they are in canyons. Old Tanuf was bombed by the British in the 1950’s, under the orders of then-Sultan Said bin Taymur who wanted to rout out a dissident tribe under an opposing sheikh. I found an elegantly written version of the sad story at a blog called How to Live Like an Omani Princess, and I encourage you to read it. It contains far more detail than any of the tourist guides I’ve read, and although I can’t vouch for its accuracy, it sounds like it’s written by someone who knows the true story, and it’s a good read.
Walking among the ruins, you can’t help but imagine the 1,000 pound bombs exploding.

After exploring Old Tanuf, we continued up the road. We drove past the recharge dam, which collects water after the rains to recharge wells and aquifers, and the Tanuf water bottling plant, one of the main suppliers of water throughout the country. In these mountains, water is the all-important resource, and for thousands of years the people have been collecting water and distributing it throughout the land using a falaj system, small aqueducts that snake their way along ledges and through plantations.

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (40)
We were impressed with the sheer cliffs

We were heading into a steep-walled canyon, where Wadi Tanuf meets up with Wadi Qashah. You would not want to be here if there was any chance of rain. The road was getting rockier and steeper, and finally we came to a rise that took several tries to get over.

Mark was muttering that he wished we had more rugged wheels and tires – he had bought some, but it turned out that they were the wrong size – and that this would be easy if we had a Jeep. I saw that there was one hump that was hanging us up and, if we had a shovel, we could knock down the gravelly dirt. But there was really no way to do it by hand.

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (10)
Candy is dandy, but ...

Finally, with me outside the vehicle directing (if you can imagine that) we managed to keep three wheels engaged and made it over the hump and on up the road to a little parking area. Immediately, three young boys appeared on the path from the village.

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (11)
... cameras are really cool!

We had read in the guidebook that the local children are fond of sweets, and we came prepared. We handed them some candy, but what they were really interested in was my camera. They didn’t really want their picture taken – Omani people, who value their privacy, often will say no when you ask if you may photograph them. They wanted to take our picture.

Against my better judgment, I handed my camera to one of the bigger boys, who took a photo of Mark and me.

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (12)
No, no, ok, here I come ...

But then, the smallest boy became insanely jealous, and snatched the camera away. The older boy tried to grab it back, and a fight ensued. Oh, no! My camera! “No, no, no!” I said, running toward them. What I should have said was “La la la!” I managed to get a hold of it before it landed in the dirt, but not before Little Brother snapped a photo of me hurrying toward him with a worried look on my face!

The name of their little village is Al Far. It’s so tiny, we think only four or five families could live there. As we approached, voices rang though the canyon, bouncing off of the cliffs. Even with just a few children calling, it sounded like a whole schoolyard full.

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (20)
He obviously loves his kids

Up the stony path we went, right into the heart of the village. We came upon a woman and small boy, tending to their goats. I asked if I could take a photo, and to my surprise she said yes. The little boy posed with his kid goats, just like an American child would pose with a puppy.

We felt like an intruders, but the villagers smiled and pointed the way up through the village. I was surprised at how young they all were – the men were young and handsome, and the women were all pregnant.

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Village view, Al Far

As we worked our way through the village, we came upon two men, probably in their late 20’s, who were returning from performing their ablutions at a little pool, in preparation for the sunset prayer. It was late afternoon, and the sun was disappearing behind the tall cliffs. They made their way past us, smiling and friendly, saying “Salaam alaikum,”  which means “Hello, nice meet you.”

Have I mentioned yet that they’re handsome?

Wadi Tanuf - Al Far (27)
I was happy to be safely back up on the ledge

We found ourselves at a fence surrounding a small plantation, really a grove of palm and banana trees, which the guidebook said to cross through to get to the wadi hike. The wet rocks were very slippery, but we finally climbed down the ledge, realizing afterward that we had gone the wrong way – there was no way to get to the wadi from where we were because of a dangerous dropoff.


his did not surprise me, because I had read in Cathy’s blog of similar experiences. You have to be patient and flexible in finding your way around the maze of wadis and villages. And the guidebook is too big to carry on the hike!

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (21)
Whether he was calling for dinner or prayer I do not know,
but his voice echoed beautifully across the canyon.

It was going to be dark soon anyway, and I had been thinking for quite some time that it would be bad to be somewhere in the wadi in the dark without a flashlight. We climbed out of the plantation and wound our way back through the village. We could hear parents’ calls to their children echoing throughout the canyon. At the last turn, we came to the goat pen, where they were milking.

Wadi Tanuf - Al Far (40)
Mama protects her kids

“No picture,” the husband said this time. But he offered us a drink of goat’s milk. I might have taken him up on it but before I could think, Mark said no, thank you, claiming to be allergic. As we were walking down the path to our car, an older gentleman walked past us, carrying a bottle of milk, got into a pickup truck with several people already in it, and headed down the road to town.

We couldn’t help but wonder about the lives of the Al Far villagers. They tend their goats and palms, and raise their children. They are so friendly, and they were some of the happiest looking people I have seen in a very long time.
Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (29)
Gathering water

Their village life seemed almost idyllic to me. But, in reality, it’s a camping life – poverty, by any kind of modern standard. They go to the pool to get fresh water – as we were leaving, one of the women and her husband were on their way there, carrying large water bottles. So, I wonder. Do they live there all the time? Do they have members of their extended family living in modern houses in Tanuf?

Wadi Tanuf-Al Far Oman (37)
God's Own Hills.
Something tells me these people appreciate the place.

As we left, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before: the words “GOD’S OWN HILLS” were painted on a rock at the entrance to the village. I reflected on the fact that it was December 21st, the last day of the Mayan calendar, which made some people think the world would come to an end. I’d never believed it but, even so, I thought it was a good place to be when the sun set on that day.

If you’re wondering about the rest of the story about meeting Cathy, and what happened at the border, those stories are coming soon.

Meanwhile, thanks for reading

1 comment:

Cathy said...

Hi Anne, I love your pictures and stories of Wadi Tanuf and the village of Tanuf. It looks like you had a really fun time meeting the villagers and exploring the area. And you are so kind to mention me! :-)

I don't know why I am still not getting notifications of your posts!! I just don't understand Blogger! I signed up right after I met you to get notifications by email, but I haven't received even one. I just happened to have a few minutes this morning and thought I'd check in to see if you'd posted anything. I will catch up more after the boys and Mike leave! :-)