Tucked in at the foot of the mountains some 40km northwest of Nizwa (and 20km north of Bahla) lie several of the region’s most memorable attractions, including Al Hamra, one of Oman’s most atmospheric traditional towns, and Misfat al Abryeen, one of its prettiest villages, while it’s also worth making a short detour to the impressive Al Hoota cave nearby.
Magical AL HAMRA is one of the best-preserved old towns in Oman, with a warren of stony, rubble-strewn alleyways lined with endless traditional mudbrick houses tumbling down the hillside to the idyllic oasis below; it’s hauntingly time-warped, although as throughout the rest of Oman these old dwellings are now being systematically abandoned.
Much of the pleasure of a visit here simply consists of getting lost amid the winding streets, although there are a couple of low-key attractions to head for, close to one another on the main street which runs through the bottom of the old town. Best of the two is the Bait al Safah, a kind of living museum of old Oman occupying an exquisitely restored traditional house done up with old artefacts and traditional furnishings. It gives a nice (although perhaps rather sanitized) impression of what these houses might originally have looked like, while a few jolly old ladies from the town sit around baking bread, grinding coffee and flour, and so on.
Close by lies the Beit al Jabal, also on the main street through the bottom of the old town. Occupying another of Al Hamra’s traditional houses, this is a much less manicured offering than Bait al Safah, with rough-hewn mudbrick walls and rickety steps – very atmospheric, and probably a lot more authentic as well. Unfortunately, the entrance price is a rip-off and there’s not much to actually see apart from a dusty collection of not particularly interesting antiques and curios, including the usual old swords, coins, pots and suchlike.
Beyond Al Hoota Cave lies the start of the spectacular descent of the Western Hajar down a sheer escarpment through Wadi Bani Awf (or Auf), widely considered the most memorable off-road drive in the country. This is Oman at its most nerve-janglingly dramatic, with stupendous scenery and a rough, vertiginous track which challenges the skills of even experienced off-road drivers – not to be attempted lightly, and best avoided during or after rain.
The entire off-road section between Sharafat al Alamayn and the main road at Awabi takes around 2–3hr. The track is regularly graded but gets very churned up after spells of bad weather. It’s also possible to tackle the route in reverse, driving up from the Batinah, although the driving is easier and the views generally better heading downhill.
Geology is all around you in Oman in a way that’s matched by few other places on earth. For professional geologists, the country is one of the most interesting on the planet, and even casual visitors cannot fail to be intrigued by the spectacular rock formations which fill every corner of the Hajar mountains, where the lack of vegetation and soil cover leaves milllions of years of complex geological processes exposed, often with textbook clarity.
Much of Oman’s geological interest (and, by extension, its spectacular mountain scenery) is the result of its location at the southeast corner of the Arabian continental plate where it meets the Eurasian (aka Asian) oceanic plate. As the Red Sea grows wider, Oman is being pushed slowly north and forced underneath the Eurasian plate (a rare example of a continental plate being “subducted” by an oceanic plate), a geological pile-up which has created the long mountainous chain of the Hajar.
Most of the rocks now making up the Hajar mountains were actually formed underwater. As the Arabian plate was driven underneath the Eurasian, large masses of what was originally submarine rock have been pushed on top of the mainland (“obducted”), sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometres inland – which explains the incongruous abundance of marine fossils found buried near the peaks of some of Arabia’s highest mountains. Most of the main part of the range is made of up various types of limestone, ranging from older grey and yellow formations through to outcrops of so-called geological “exotics” – pale, whitish “islands” of younger limestone, such as Jebel Misht and Jebel Khawr, north and south of Al Ayn respectively.
Surrounding the limestone are Oman’s celebrated ophiolites – rocks from the oceanic crust which have been lifted out of the water onto a continental plate. These are of particular interest to geologists in that they reveal processes which are normally buried kilometres underwater. They also provide Oman with one of its most distinctive landscapes, forming the fields of low, irregular, crumbling red-rock mountains which you can see along the Sumail Gap, around the Rustaq Loop and in many parts of the Eastern Hajar.
If you’re interested in exploring further, pick up a copy of Samir Hanna’s Field Guide to the Geology of Oman.
Sleepy MISFAT AL ABRYEEN (often abbreviated to Misfat, or Misfah) is one of the prettiest traditional villages in Oman, a picturesque huddle of old ochre-coloured stone buildings looking, from certain angles, a bit like a medieval Italian hill village. Arriving at the small parking area at the edge of the village you’ll see only a single street climbing steeply up the hillside. Dive down one of the side alleys, however, and you’ll find yourself amid a marvellous warren of twisting lanes, covered passages, gateways and meandering flights of steps – all of which bring you down, sooner or later, to the falaj which runs below the village, surrounded by lush bougainvillea, banana palms and other greenery.
Once you’ve explored the village, head back to the main road, walk up the hill and then down the steps on the far side to rejoin the falaj as it exits the village running through a rocky, steep-sided gorge crowded with date palms and tiny terraced fields. You can walk along the falaj walls or the footpath which runs just above it for about 1km up into the gorge until the falaj disappears into a large rock. En route, notice the regular gaps in the side of the falaj from where subsidiary channels run off into fields below; these are kept blocked up with stones, which are removed when the adjacent fields need irrigating.
Back in the centre, it’s also possible to scramble up the rocky hillside to the picturesquely ruined watchtower which stands above the village, and which is said to be over a thousand years old.