On the edge of Arabia

In a land best known for its deserts, Sean Mooney finds beehive tombs and royal honey as he navigates Oman's spectacular mountains and caves.

I'm experiencing a moment of cultural confusion atop a barren peak overlooking the mouth of the Persian Gulf. To the north, I can see a queue of supertankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the strategically vital waterway through which 90 per cent of Gulf oil flows. Weaving between them to avoid detection by the coastguard are open-topped speedboats loaded with electronic goods, pharmaceuticals and American cigarettes bound for Iran, Afghanistan and beyond. On their way, the smugglers pass a calm inlet once used for shelter by Emirati pirates and an island containing the remnants of an old British telegraph station.

As the wiry nugget of a man beside me mumbles to himself in an Arabic dialect peppered with Farsi, Hindi and Portuguese, I think to myself that this multinational potpourri is probably not what most visitors to the Arabian Peninsula expect. Nor, I imagine, do many think the Sultanate of Oman is much more than mosques, camels and sand. Sure, it's a desert land but many parts of this Middle Eastern nation of fewer than 3 million people are actually soaring highlands.

Oman's great al-Hajar (the Rock) mountain range stretches through the country for more than 700 kilometres, reaching 3000 metres above sea level at its highest point. It begins here in Musandam, the northernmost province of Oman, which comprises a chain of arid mountains that plunge with great geological drama into the sea. Faulting of fossil-rich shales and sandstones over thousands of years has resulted in the "drowning" of Musandam's valleys to create a remarkable fiordland. This has allowed many a lazy travel-brochure writer to promote the area as the "Norway of the Middle East".

A handful of settlements exist in the most remote parts of the peninsula, clinging to the sandy mouths of ancient riverbeds, or wadis, which run down to the sea from 800-metre-high plateaus. Our guide comes from one such village, Kumzar, where the inhabitants bury their dead beneath their stone houses because there's nowhere else for them to go.

He squats beside me with a hatchet in one hand and a cluster of shiraz-red flowers that smell of rotting flesh in the other. Ripping off the putrid petals, he sucks a milky juice from the grey, leafless stem. Known locally as dij, this form of milkweed is apparently just the thing to keep you hydrated on long mountain treks and is also useful for treating lung disorders, rheumatism and liver ailments if you can stand its bitter taste.

We are in search of troglodytes and wild cats. I had thought for a brief moment the dij's stench signalled that the remains of a goat dispatched by a caracal lynx was near, but no. Locals say the big cats still hunt in these hills, albeit in dwindling numbers, but we have seen no sign of them. It also becomes clear the tale of a cave-dwelling tribe living in the hills is a myth. It seems likely that the origins of this story lie in the rectangular stone buildings we find at regular intervals buried deep in the ground. These structures, known as bayt al-qufl (house of the lock), are old seasonal migration camps with stone roofs covered in earth and supported by heavy acacia tree trunks.

We see other houses on the plains below nearby Jebel Harim (Mountain of Women), some many hundreds of years old. One employs a metal hook and gashes in a wooden slider to create a kind of combination lock, the magic sequence of clicks known only to its owner.

As we follow the unsealed mountain road in our four-wheel-drive, we pass yellowing terraces aching for rain and groves of cedars watered by underground springs. Eventually, we climb above the treeline, taking a serpentine track to the peak where, at two kilometres above sea level, we find the fossilised remains of urchins, corals and molluscs dating from 100 million years ago.

Much of the al-Hajar mountain range was once submerged under an ocean that spread from the eastern Mediterranean to the western Himalayas. This was the case even for the loftiest peaks in the range in the Jebel Akhdhar (Green Mountain) region. Nevertheless, a Lebanese salesman who takes us under his wing as we tour the area is seemingly unmoved by signs of ancient aquatic life. He's more intent on showing us the "Diana Position", which, it turns out, is less alarming than it sounds; it is the spot that Princess Diana flew to by helicopter almost 20 years ago, setting up camp on a rocky outcrop overlooking spectacular terrace farms. As we investigate the marine mega-fossils that the royal party must have seen, our Levantine guide hands us shards of green glass he swears came from the champagne bottles uncorked when a princess partied on this peak.

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Rain has been in short supply of late, so the terraces of al-Qisha and the plantation of al-Ayn are less verdant than we've seen them before. Nevertheless, in the cool, thin air of the Saiq Plateau, we find groves of apricot, peach, apple and plum trees, as well as grapevines and what are reputed to be the best pomegranates in the world. Saffron and rose water are two of the most famous products of the region, watered by gravity-fed channels alive with frogs and freshwater fish.

Indigenous olives, comfrey, wild cotton and myrtle grow by the side of the twisting mountain road. This brutal strip of tarmac is maintained by crews of rock-hard Pashtuns plucked from the road gangs of the Hindu Kush. It ends at the mountain-top town of Hail al-Misibt, where children in woollen caps keep an eye out for visitors from the branches of juniper trees. Here, just a few winters ago, the temperature fell to minus 10 degrees and snow fell for days. It is said that car-rental companies in Oman's capital city of Muscat ran out of 4WDs as people set off in droves to see the briefly white peaks of the green mountains of Arabia.

The darkest of blues and purples are the predominant colours of nearby Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun), which, at 3009 metres above sea level, is the highest peak in the land. The origin of its nickname, "Blacktop", becomes clear as we pass tortured folds of crystalline ophiolite underlain by dark volcanic rocks on our way to the lip of a great canyon. We watch the sun set behind the peaks as weavers pack up stalls draped in woollen rugs. As darkness falls, a lone drummer finds his rhythm by a fire on the cliff's edge.

Nights spent at permanent campsites on towering peaks and in mountain-top guest houses are followed by days of driving through wadis littered with boulders. Trees grazed flat across their tops by goats and camels grow out of the smallest fractures in these great rocks. On the edge of one valley is the village of Hajar al-Jifr, where small fires burn throughout the day and smoke-drunk bees hang around their hives in the hollowed-out trunks of date palms.

The bee-keeper, Khamis, rises from beneath a nearby acacia tree, kills a huge red wasp with a rolled-up towel and gives us an impromptu tour. We end up eating chunks of dripping honeycomb that Khamis digs from one of the logs with a knife. We know pure acacia honey produced in this labour-intensive way can fetch up to $250 a litre but Khamis just laughs when we ask him his price. He tells us the Sultan of Oman buys most of his honey at top dollar for the palace kitchen, so there's none left for him to sell.

Not far away, we have our first encounter with, appropriately enough, Oman's "beehive" tombs. One particularly beautiful row of these 5000-year-old rock cairns is dramatically framed by the curtain-like Jebel Misht (Comb Mountain). They date to an age when gazelle and ostrich roamed a lush land that was a source of copper, hardwood and frankincense for much of the ancient world.

Later, we cross a broad plain and, near the remnants of lava from an ancient submarine volcano, we find more tombs known locally as the Shaar, or devil, Tombs. These circular towers built of thin slabs of stone hand-dressed to a rough-chiselled finish were the portals to the afterlife for the ancient Umm an-Nar people. We sleep outside on simple camp beds in the moon shadows of these Bronze Age structures.

This spot is often used as a base camp for the long trek to one of the largest underground chambers on Earth. Known as Majlis al-Jinn (Meeting Place of the Spirits), this spectacular cavern formed in limestone laid down in a warm shallow sea 50 million years ago. A free descent of 158 metres through a tight vertical sinkhole will get you to the cavern floor. It takes training and serious caving equipment to do this safely but it's worth the effort; the sight of the chamber bathed in sunlight blazing down through its three entrances is something I'll never forget. Sunbeams fly across the cavern floor as the sun arcs its way across the sky, spotlighting small pools of water filled with delicate cave pearls.

Days later, as we swim in the cobalt-blue water of a coastal sinkhole, a guide tells us of a government plan to install an elevator to take people to the bottom of the Majlis al-Jinn. This depressing thought weighs on our minds that evening as we sit down to a meal cooked by a Zanzibari mechanic who makes some extra cash by grilling meat in the wadi outside his house. As we tuck into lamb, chicken and prawn kebabs doused in east African-inspired chilli sauce, the first rainfall for months sends customers running for their cars.

We chuckle at the improbability of a rainstorm in this bone-dry valley and our mood improves. Later that night, as we smoke fruit tobacco under the glare of an immense television showing Egyptian movies from the 1970s, we laugh when we realise the man who told us about the plans for the Majlis al-Jinn also thought the natural sinkhole we'd swum in that day was created by an asteroid strike. We find ourselves hoping he's similarly mistaken about that escalator.

Sean Mooney travelled courtesy of Sultanate of Oman Tourism and Emirates.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Muscat for about $1950 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax, flying to Dubai (14hr), then Muscat (1hr). Australians obtain a visa on arrival for 30rials ($77).

Touring there

Sun Island Tours runs a seven-day Oman Adventure Tour that visits much of the region, from $2426 a person, twin share. A three-day Musandam extension costs from $897 a person; see sunislandtours.com.au.

Operators including Abercrombie & Kent, World Expeditions, Peregrine Adventures and Bunnik Tours have a range of Oman itineraries.

Staying there

Falaj Daris Hotel, Nizwa, is a good base from which to visit the mountains; from $123 a person, twin share; see falajdarishotel.com.

Golden Tulip Resort, Khasab, has a superb location by the Persian Gulf; from $135 a person, twin share; see goldentulipkhasab.com.

Jabal Shams Camping and Travelling Centre is a spectacular place to stay in the mountains; from $93 a person, twin share, half board; see rahaloman.com.

When to go

Oman is best visited during the cooler months from October to April; November to February is the most comfortable.