The Green Mountain

The Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) rises to a height of nearly 3,000 m and is part of the Hajar mountain range. It includes the Saiq Plateau at 2,000 m altitude and receives enough rainfall and moisture to sustain agriculture. The area is famous for its maze of wadis and terraced orchards, where roses, pomegranates and apricots are abundant. These patches of lush vegetation, in stark contrast with the surrounding dry and rugged land, are what give this region its “Green Mountain” name.

Jebel Akhdar is one of the obligatory places to visit and experience in Oman and has been designated as a nature reserve since 2011. The region became notorious after Princess Diana’s visit in the 1980’s; she admired the sunset from a viewpoint that has since been known as “Diana’s point”. I first visited Saiq Plateau in 2004, and back then there was only 1 hotel and a few scattered houses, plus the old villages nested in the terraced farms. Today there are many hotels and resorts, but the beauty of the landscape still enchants visitors.

I went back to the Green Mountain a few weeks ago, to walk the trail that goes along the terraces and the old villages. It is impressive to see the human effort that was required to mold the terrain into terraces that border precipices with hundreds of meters, where different cereals and fruit trees are grown. The water is supplied through an old falaj network, narrow channels dug in the rock. After driving around to get reacquainted with the area, I stopped near the terraces to admire the sunset. Lady Di was right, it is a magical experience. I took several photos as the sun went down behind the distant mountains.

Going up. The Royal Oman Police (ROP) only allows 4WD vehicles to access the Saiq Plateau. This is for safety reasons, as the road is really very steep.
Warm mist at sunset.
Sunset over the terraces and old villages.

The following morning, I woke up well before sunrise, to photograph the terraces and villages as the first light was appearing. There was nobody else around, and the silence was complete. It was cold too. As the night transitioned into day, a soft pinkish light started to fall upon the cliffs.

Dawn under the Moon.
Terraces at dawn.

After a well deserved breakfast, I walked the terrace trail; it was still early, so I had the path all to myself. I suggest walking this trail early in the morning, when the air is crisp and cold, to appreciate the tranquility present in the narrow streets that wind between old mud and adobe houses. If you do so, you will also avoid other visitors. It takes around 3 hours and affords beautiful views.

Green fields and hard work.
Old man.
Old village.

Besides this popular terrace walk, there are many other interesting places to visit, including historical abandoned villages (such as in Wadi Bani Habib and Al Sugra), and remote viewpoints that overlook the deeply cut mountain canyons at the head of major wadis.  At this higher altitude, the plateau is also home to a good number of juniper trees, the largest of which are centuries old. You will also see several birds of prey, flying effortlessly against the blue sky.

View over the abandoned houses in Wadi Bani Habib. The village is uninhabited, but the fields are still cared for. Not long ago, the only access was by donkey.
Old houses, Wadi Bani Habib.
In the valley, Wadi Bani Habib.

Given the wide landscape, I made a few panoramas as well.

Dawn panorama.
Panorama in the mountains.
Panorama of Moon and mountains.

Even if you are not a photographer, simply sitting down enjoying the beauty of the landscape, in complete silence, is a unique experience. I plan to return during springtime, when the rose gardens will be in bloom. This is one of the few remaining regions where the Damascus rose is still grown, for oil and water.

The Misty Mountains of Wakan

The small village of Wakan sits atop a hill, at the end of the Gubrah bowl, in the heart of the Jebel Akhdar mountains. During my first stay in Oman several years ago, this was one of my favorite places to visit; there are a few hiking trails in the area, and the views from above the village are stunning. The Gubrah bowl is literally a window into the (geological) past, as the erosion has carved out into the mountain range, resulting in a large flat area surrounded by tall and rugged peaks. The region is easily accessible, being less than a 2-hour drive from Muscat (see location map below).

Location map.

Even though the main road going through the Gubrah bowl is now blacktop, to reach Wakan you will need a 4WD vehicle, to negotiate the short but steep gravel road. Due to this limitation, the village is still relatively quiet, with a reduced number of tourists. For this visit, my plan was to walk the trail that starts in Wakan and climbs up the mountain, affording magnificent views over the mountains. The weather happened to be great, with a cloud cover that added an extra sense of mystery to the area. In my backpack, I had my usual Fujifilm kit of 2 cameras and 2 lenses, namely the X-T5 with the 16mm f/1.4 lens, and the X-T4 with the 56mm f/1.2 lens.

The village consists of a few houses, which are nested against cultivated terraced hills; people grow fruit trees (pomegranate, almond, peach, among others) and several types of cereals and vegetables. At an altitude of 1400m, the climate is cooler than in the valley below, and there is plenty of water that comes from the mountain through a network of falaj, or channels excavated in the rock.

Mountain’s gate. Approaching the entrance of Wadi Mistal.
Inside the Gubrah bowl.
On the road.
Surrounded by mists and mountains, Walkan sits at the top of a ledge (panorama assembled from several photos).

The first part of the hike is easy going, as you cross the village and the fields. The trees are showing the colors of Autumn, with rich oranges and reds. I stopped several times to take a few photos. The clouds and the mist add to the sense of quietness that emanates from the mountains. After a few hundred meters, the paved steps end, and you start walking along a narrow and rocky mountain trail, that has been used for centuries, as it connects Wakan to the Sayq Plateau, which is located higher, around 4 km away. Every now and then, I stop to take photos and enjoy the scenery. Sometimes the sun breaks through a gap in the clouds, shining upon the valley below.

Wakan from above, with the green fields and the Autumn colors.
Autumn colors.

The way is always up, but after a while the trail levels a bit, next to a huge cliff face. This is a good spot to rest and admire the view. This time, I decided to return to Wakan, rather than walking all the way to Sayq Plateau, which requires a bit more time. But even if you walk only up to this point, it is already a great experience.

On the trail.
Clinging to the rocks.
Fellow walkers.

Wahiba Sands

The Sharqiya Sands, also known as Wahiba Sands (named from the local tribe), are a desert with an area of around 12,500 km2. The desert was formed by a combination of south-western monsoon and northerly trade winds, forming long linear sand ridges that can reach to 100 m high. Located to the southeast of Muscat, they are easily accessible via a nice blacktop road, taking about a 2-hour drive. Below is a general location map.

Wahiba sands location map.

During my first stay in Oman, I used to visit the Wahibas regularly; there is something special about being in the desert, watching the sunset or sunrise, surrounded by complete silence. With the sun lower in the horizon, the shapes and patterns of the dunes are highlighted by the interplay of light and shadow. Sand colors are variable, from subdued yellows to rich orange and red. The last time I had visited the Wahibas was in 2009, so I did notice some changes after 14 years. Namely, the number of tourist camps has increased, and there is mobile network coverage. Even though the area is visited by many tourists, especially during the winter months, you can easily find a nice spot all for yourself. You can choose to book accommodation in one of the several desert camps, or simply camp on your own. The camps are always located in the interdune valleys, which are easy to drive to.

In terms of photography, I used my 2 cameras (Fujifilm X-T4 and X-T5) with 2 lenses (Fujinon 16mm f/1.4 and Voigtlaender 35mm f/1.2). The wide-angle saw a lot of use for large vistas and sand patterns, while the standard lens allowed me to shoot the more general subjects. As the sun is low in the horizon, it is necessary to work quickly, because the light changes fast. It is better to allow yourself some time in advance to climb the dunes and find a good spot. Wind can be a problem, as it carries sand everywhere; the sand is very fine and can adhere to your camera gear and tripod. I was careful to always replace the lens cap and store the gear in the backpack when moving between locations. This is normal procedure when shooting in this type of environment. And of course, the wind is what created the desert to begin with, so it comes with the territory.

After settling in, I went out for a photo walk at sunset, climbing the western dunes to reach a high location. Interesting vistas and subjects are everywhere, so I just kept shooting. There are plenty of patterns in the sand, and the rare green bush here and there. The experience of watching the sunset surrounded by all this natural beauty is unforgettable. At night I also carried out a session aiming at getting some nice star trails and Milky Way photos. The area was dark enough, even though there was light pollution coming in from the camp itself, and some vehicles driving through the valley.

The Arabian Oryx.
Desert panorama.
Desert sunset.
The Milky Way. 6 images stacked.
Star trail. 1 hour total time.

The following morning, I went out for a pre-sunrise walk; climbing the dunes, the sand was cold, as the temperature at night had dropped significantly. I kept photographing as the light slowly changed, painting the sand with soft colors, that became more intense as the sun climbed over the top of the opposite ridge. Again, it was magical simply to sit on the top of the dunes, watching Nature’s beauty unfolding in front of me. It was wonderful to go back to the Wahibas after 14 years.

Dawn in the dunes.
Soft tones.
Ripples and shadows.
Pyramid. #1.
Pyramid #2.