Northeast of Nizwa rises the great limestone massif of the Jebel Akhdar, centred on the Saiq Plateau (pronounced “Sirq”, and often spelt Sirq or Seeq). This is one of Oman’s more unusual natural curiosities: an extensive upland plateau, lying at an altitude of around 2000m and ringed by craggy summits to the north and the vertiginous gorge of Wadi al Ayn to the south. The plateau has been extensively farmed for at least a thousand years thanks to its temperate Mediterranean climate, which allows for the cultivation of many types of fruit which cannot survive the heat of the lowlands: peaches, pears, grapes, apples and pomegranates all flourish here, along with a wide range of vegetables and the area’s famed roses. The plateau is particularly beguiling during the hot summer months, and deliciously cool after the heat of the plains below.
The plateau was formerly one of the highest and most inaccessible inhabited regions in Oman, although it’s been largely tamed by a carpet-smooth modern tarmac road which allows access to the plateau from Birkat al Mawz in around forty minutes (compared to the gruelling six-hour hike which was formerly required) – though you’ll still need a 4WD to get up it, thanks to the local police regulations described below. The top of the plateau is surprisingly developed in places. The sprawling modern town of Saih Katenah is the main local eyesore, while the presence of a large military camp and firing range at the top doesn’t help, accompanied by endless barbed-wire fences and assorted military hardware. Away from these areas, however, the plateau remains one of the most beautiful places in the Western Hajar, dropping into the huge natural chasm of Wadi al Ayn and ringed by the idyllic traditional villages of Al Aqr and Al Ayn.
The name Jebel Akhdar means “The Green Mountain”, a somewhat unlikely moniker, given the massif’s largely inhospitable terrain, with vast expanses of bare rock on which only the hardiest shrubs and ground plants are able to survive. The most convincing explanation for the unlikely name is that it refers to the days when the Saiq Plateau and other parts of the surrounding mountains were covered in a dense carpet of agricultural terracing, pieces of which can still be seen today below the villages of Al Ayn and Al Aqr. An alternative if slightly less convincing theory holds that the name derives from the colour of the limestone from which the mountains are formed, and which can take on a decidedly greenish coloration in certain lights – in complete contrast to the reddish ophiolite hills which surround the plateau to the east and south.
Further ambiguity surrounds the present use of the name. On maps, the name Jebel Akhdar is generally used to refer to the entire section of the Hajar mountains running west from the Sumail Gap as far as Jebel Shams. In practice, however, most locals (and local road signs) use the name to describe the area of mountains immediately north of Nizwa, around the Saiq Plateau (which is the sense used in this guide). The area further west, beyond Al Hamra, is usually described as Jebel Shams.
It’s 32km along the twisting road from Birkat al Mawz up to the plateau – a journey of around forty minutes. Some 6km beyond Birkat al Mawz, the road up to the Saiq plateau begins to climb in earnest. There’s a police checkpoint here, and if you’re not in a 4WD you’ll be forced to turn back – a shame, given that the wide and beautifully engineered road up into the hills would be perfectly feasible in a 2WD.
From here the road begins to hairpin dramatically upwards into the hills, with huge sweeps of rocky mountainside dotted with the small, hardy shrubs and trees – butt, wild olive and the occasional stately juniper – which manage to suck a living out of the bare rock. The mountains are a study in naked geology, formed out of huge slabs of limestone which have been tilted sideways over millions of years to produce the evenly sloping mountainsides and neat right-angle summits you see today, and whose colour changes according to the light from a sere, green-grey with occasional splashes of brownish-orange – a striking contrast to the much smaller and more irregularly shaped reddish ophiolite hills below. A series of viewpoints on the road up allows you to stop and admire increasingly expansive views.