Easily the most rewarding attraction in Al Batinah is the so-called Rustaq Loop, a fine day’s drive combining magnificent mountain scenery with three of Oman’s finest castles – at Nakhal, Rustaq and Al Hazm. There are also a few other minor sights en route, while the surrounding mountains offer endless possibilities for off-road driving through spectacular wadis. Unfortunately, the loop has (temporarily, at least) lost some of its lustre thanks to the closure for renovation of the castles at Rustaq and Al Hazm. Hopefully these will have been restored to working order by sometime in 2012, although as with all Omani restoration projects, it’s best not to hold one’s breath.
The loop is strung out along single-carriageway Highway 13, a fast, and usually fairly traffic-free (except between Barka and Nakhal) stretch of road. The only accommodation on the loop itself is a single, rather unappealing option at Rustaq, although the trip can easily be done in a day from either Barka, Seeb or even Muscat.
The last point of interest on the Rustaq Loop is the modest little town of Al Hazm, home to another oversized fort. At the time of writing, the fort was closed for extensive renovations, probably until sometime in 2012 at the earliest – although you can at least sneak a peek at the entrance gateway’s magnificently carved wooden doors. The fort was built by the Ya’aruba imam Sultan bin Saif II, who briefly established Al Hazm as capital of Oman in preference to Rustaq, and who is buried inside. This is one of the biggest of all Oman’s fortified structures: a huge stone box containing a disorienting labyrinth of corridors and rooms, complete with the usual living quarters, prisons, mosque and its own dedicated falaj, clustered around a diminutive central courtyard – although there’s not much to see from the outside, which is disappointingly plain.
To reach the fort approaching from Rustaq, turn left at the roundabout in the centre of Al Hazm town. The fort is 1km along this road, clearly visible on your left.
The first major stop on the Rustaq Loop is the small town of NAKHAL (also spelled Nakhl, from nakhl, meaning “palm”). The town is home to one of Oman’s most picture-perfect forts, dramatically situated atop a small natural rock outcrop and backdropped by the jagged peaks of the Jebel Nakhal, a spur of the main Western Hajar range. The fort is about 1km off the main road, just right of the road through the village (and surprisingly easy to miss, despite its size). As with many Omani forts, the history of the castle is somewhat convoluted. The origins of the fort probably date back to pre-Islamic times, although the structure was continuously remodelled over the following centuries, including a substantial rebuilding in the mid-seventeenth century, while the present gateway and towers were apparently added in 1834 during the reign of imam Said bin Sultan, and the entire structure was comprehensively restored in 1990.
Enter through the main gate (where you buy your ticket), then walk up the steps and turn left through an impressively spiked pair of wooden doors and a second gateway to reach the interior of the fort. To your left is the finely carved stone archway which leads up to the fort’s main residential quarters. Opposite this is the Barzah, a large two-storey building which sits atop the fort’s outer walls above the main gateway. This was formerly home to the wali’s majlis (or “sitting room”, as it’s translated); the room on the lower floor was used in winter, while in the hotter summer months the wali would move to the airier room on the upper floor, which makes the most of whatever sea breezes are blowing in from the coast.
Continue past the Barzah, where you’ll find a kitchen, followed by a small watchtower equipped with loopholes just big enough for a rifle barrel, plus wider openings through which (in traditional Omani fashion) boiling date juice or honey could be poured onto attackers below. Past here is the imposing east tower, reached by a narrow flight of stone steps and equipped with further rifle-sized apertures, plus wider embrasures for the fort’s cannon, one of which survives in situ.
Retrace your steps to the Barzah and head through the archway opposite, from where further steps lead up past a date store and a large jail to reach the wali’s living quarters. This was the castle’s main residential section, with a series of rooms arranged around a small terrace at the highest point of the fort, including the wali’s own bedroom, along with a living room, guest room and rooms for boys, girls and women, all modestly furnished with old rugs, crockery and fine old wooden chests, plus a couple of antique (and very rickety) four-poster beds. The women’s room, despite being the highest in the fort, is notably less breezy than the wali’s bedroom opposite, as it faces inland.
Exiting the women’s room, turn left and follow the steps and walls around the rest of the complex and thence back to the entrance. En route you’ll pass the fort’s middle and western towers. The latter is equipped with a neat little wooden ladder built into the internal wall, while there are particularly fine views from the small watchtower immediately outside across the fort’s impressive quantity of spade-shaped battlements and out over the sprawling date plantations and rugged mountains beyond.
Tucked up beneath the northern escarpment of the Hajar mountains, RUSTAQ is one of the most venerable settlements of the interior. The town owes its place in Omani history to the redoubtable imam Nasir bin Murshid al Ya’aruba, founder of the Ya’aruba dynasty, who was elected imam at Rustaq in 1624 and made the town his principal centre of operations during his subsequent 25-year reign. The town was also a favoured base for Ahmed bin Said, founder of the later Al Bu Said dynasty.
Rustaq’s importance was the result of its strategic position between the coast and the mountains, guarding the exit points of several nearby wadis through which goods would have been transported from the jebel above. The town developed into a major centre for local commerce, craftsmanship and other trades, home to some of the country’s finest metalworkers and silversmiths, and also renowned as the source of some of Oman’s best halwa and finest honey – bee-keeping remains a popular local occupation to this day.
Sadly few remains of the town’s illustrious history survive, however. Modern Rustaq is a sprawling and rather characterless place, and far less interesting than its old rival, Nizwa, while the closure for extensive renovations of the town’s majestic fort has robbed it of its one stellar attraction, for the time being at least.
Rustaq is effectively divided into two distinct sections: the “old” town and fort, which lies just south off Highway 13, and a “new” town, about 3km further north along Highway 13 on the way to Al Hazm, clustered around the turn-off to Ibri and the modern Rustaq Mosque, a vast white structure with a pair of soaring minarets.
Tucked away at the back of the old town (and clearly signposted from Highway 13) is Rustaq’s mighty fort, one of the biggest in the country, with a huge, soaring central keep surrounded by extensive walls. The fort was closed at the time of writing as part of a major two-year restoration project, due (in theory, at least) to finish sometime around early 2012.
The fort is one of the most ancient in Oman. The original fort is thought to have been built by the Julanda dynasty fifty years before the arrival of Islam, and was subsequently expanded in 670 ADand again in 1698, while further towers were added by Sultan Faisal bin Turki in 1906. The extensive compound is provided with its own falaj and surrounded by low exterior walls topped by a quartet of towers, the tallest rising to almost 20m. Inside sits the tall central keep, built over three levels, with the usual living quarters (including the finely decorated chambers of the imam himself) plus an armoury and a fine mosque. The old souk in front of the fort – which formerly hosted a good range of stalls selling traditional handicrafts and souvenirs – is also being rebuilt.
Wadi Mistal and Wekan
About halfway between Nakhal and Awabi, a sign points south off Highway 13 towards Wadi Mistal (tarmac road for the first 6km, then good graded track for another 25km before the final ascent to Wekan village). The wadi begins by passing through a narrow gorge, its floor covered in a tumble of huge grey boulders, before opening out into the Ghubrah Bowl, a huge, flat gravel plain, ringed on the left by the cliffs bounding the southern edge of the Jebel Nakhl and, at the far end, by the peaks of the Jebel Akhdar.
It’s a swift if rather bumpy ride across the bowl to reach the village of Al Hejar on the far side, from where a very steep, rough and slightly stomach-churning road (4WD essential) climbs up to WEKAN (also spelled Wakan, Wukan), one of the most spectacular mountain villages anywhere in Oman. There’s parking in the village, while a restored watchtower provides an optimal viewing platform from which to admire the bowl and encircling mountains below.
Wekan is also the starting point for the hiking routes W24b and W25. Even if you don’t fancy tackling either walk in its entirety, it’s well worth exploring the opening section of walk W25, which winds up through the picture-perfect terraced gardens to the rear of the village, running alongside a bucolic little falaj which tumbles down from the mountainside above – arguably the prettiest short walk in Oman. The walk is waymarked (albeit not very clearly) from the village centre and it takes around twenty minutes to reach the top of the village.