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Published: June 26th 2019
I get up early to take some happy snaps of sunrise over the canyon. There aren’t too many people around, but I’ve got lots of goats for company.
This morning we've signed up for a hike through three of the small villages that cling to the walls of the canyon. Our guide’s name is Maher, and we are joined by a Japanese lady and her two young sons, and a couple from Hawthorn in our humble hometown of Melbourne.
We haven’t gone too far when we come across an elderly man in long white flowing robes walking very quickly up the steep hill towards us. He greets Maher enthusiastically, and they have an animated conversation in Arabic. The man laughs almost constantly. Maher tells us that he is over 100 years old, and he walks up to Saiq and back from his village on the canyon wall every day. He says that most of the older people in the villages are extremely fit, and it‘s not at all unusual for them to live well past 100.
This fitness all stems from their traditional lifestyle. At one time all the people in the villages earned their living growing a
diverse range of crops (pomegranates, apricots, corn, olives, figs, etc) on terraces hand dug into the sides of the canyon hundreds of years ago, and irrigated by an elaborate hand dug system of spring fed channels. Twice a month during the growing season (November to May), they would take their produce down to the market in the town of Nizwa. They only way they had of getting there was to climb hundreds of metres down to the base of the canyon along narrow tracks cut into cliffs, and then follow the wadi down to the town. The villages only became accessible by motor vehicle when the road we came up here on yesterday was opened in 2007.
Maher tells us that this all changed about ten years ago when the climate suddenly changed; the rainy season failed to materialise one year, and it’s never come back. This meant that there was no longer enough water to grow the produce, so the villages were largely abandoned, and most of the residents moved up to live in Saiq. The Sultan was very unhappy about this loss of a traditional Omani lifestyle, and he responded by committing to build a pipeline to
carry water from the desalination plant in Muscat up to the villages. This project is now nearing completion, and many of the villagers are now in the process of restoring their abandoned houses with a view to returning to them when the water becomes available.
Maher tells us that he grew up in one of three villages. He is the youngest of ten children, and spent much of his youth making the hazardous trip down the cliff and along the canyon to and from Nizwa market. He says that there used to be leopards and wolves here when there was water, but now it’s only deadly scorpions and snakes. I’m not sure that I’m finding this all that comforting.
Most Omanis see the pipeline project as yet another example of the benevolence of their Sultan, and the obvious care he has for his people. Omanis pay no tax, and education and healthcare are free. They are however very concerned about the future. The Sultan is in his late 70s and is being treated for cancer. He was married briefly in the late 1970s but that union didn’t produce any heirs. No one is quite sure what’s going to
happen when he eventually passes away, although he is said to have named his successor in a secret document.
We walk along a series of narrow paths through the villages. Everyone in our party seems to puffing a bit, which Maher says is due to us being up at 2,000 metres above sea level. The scenery is beyond stunning. Most of the houses are hundreds of years old and have been constructed out of mud mixed with corn leaves and reinforced with goat hair. In the third village we stop at a four level house which has been converted into a mini museum. A picture on one of the walls shows a large waterfall gushing out of the rock in the 1970s before the rainy season decided to take its business elsewhere. Maher serves us all coffee on the house’s rooftop terrace.
We can see our Anantara Resort on the rim of the canyon opposite, but only just, as the architects have done a masterful job of blending it in with its surroundings. This is in stark contrast to a multi storey monstrosity on the rim of another part of the canyon, which sticks out like a sore
thumb. Maher tells us that this is owned by the Prince of Qatar who only uses it once or twice a year. We were told a couple of days ago that the Omani Government has a strict system of planning controls in place, particularly where views are concerned. In Muscat for example, the maximum building height has been set at twenty storeys to avoid obstructing views of the mountains. I think the Prince of Qatar must have pulled a swifty to get his monstrosity built. I wonder if it’s illegal to criticise the Prince of Qatar. If it is I think I am now in a lot of trouble. I think I might be OK as long as we never go to Qatar. I hope we remember never to go to Qatar.
On the drive back we pass the Saiq military airport. I ask Maher why there seems to be so much military activity going on here. He says that the army does a lot of training here, and the British Army also sends troops here to train. He says that we will probably hear a lot of gunfire while we’re staying here, and we have. Issy says she
wonders what it would feel like to have it aimed at us. I hope we don’t get to find out. Maher says that while Oman is currently on good terms with just about everyone, they are surrounded by volatile neighbours - Yemen to the south west, Saudi Arabia to the west, and Iran is only sixty kilometres away across the Strait of Hormuz to the north. Omanis are extra nervous about their neighbours now due to the Sultan’s age and poor health, and the uncertainty surrounding his successor. Maher says that the military needs to be prepared “just in case”.
We spend the afternoon lazing by the pool.
As we watch the sunset over the canyon we notice a flare light up the sky, followed by another and then another. I hope this isn’t an attack by one of Oman’s volatile neighbours. On the basis of what we’ve seen in the day and a half we’ve been here, at least the military will be prepared for such an attack, although I’m not sure that that’s going to be a source of too much comfort if the bombs start raining down on the military site right next door to
the resort. Issy says the flares are just part of a birthday party, but I’m struggling to share her optimism. I think I can feel a sleepless night coming on.
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