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Oman: The Green Mountain

‘The harder the life,’ wrote legendary desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger, ‘the finer the person.’ Ensconced in a new Toyota Land Cruiser, air-conditioning on full, my companions and I can hardly claim to be suffering as we begin our ascent of Oman's Jebel Akhdar — or Green Mountain.

Oman: The Green Mountain
Jebel Akhdar, Oman. Image: Daniel Allen.

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Back in 1950, Thesiger had planned to make the gruelling 9,800ft ascent on foot. While our views over the dramatic landscape promised to be no less spectacular than 65 years ago, this is not an exercise in character-building.

From the base of the mountain, guarded by a police checkpoint, the name Green Mountain appears a total misnomer. The rock walls rearing up around us are strikingly coloured yet completely devoid of life, while the desiccated wadi beside the road is a jumble of rocks, pebbles and sand. This is not the verdant peak I’d been imagining on the 90-minute journey from the Omani capital, Muscat.

The Al Hajar Mountains, extending all the way from Muscat, through northern Oman into the United Arab Emirates, separate Oman’s hinterland from the country’s cosmopolitan coast. Governed for centuries by rebellious imams, the Jebel Akhdar, which sits at the heart of the massif, was off limits to tourists until very recently. The fresh paint, signs and crash barriers on the immaculate tarmac ahead of us suggest this route is a relatively new one.

The engine whines as we start to climb, and the air becomes noticeably cooler. Air-conditioning is replaced by open windows. A never-ending succession of hairpins takes us higher and higher, revealing ever more dramatic views toward the shimmering coast. Eventually we emerge onto the Sayq Plateau, a sprawling, 6,500ft-high tableland riven by rugged canyons and gullies, and the landscape undergoes a dramatic transformation.

Stands of juniper, wild fig and olive cover the ground, while terraced fruit orchards and rose gardens cling to slopes at unfeasible angles. Fed by abundant rainfall, natural springs encourage a bountiful range of fruit to grow here; apricots, peaches, figs, pears, plums, walnuts, almonds, delicious pomegranates and even grapes are all harvested, as is the desert rose, whose sweetly scented flowers are used by local communities to make rose water.

For those seeking the ultimate in secluded refinement, the Sayq Plateau is where travellers will find the newly-opened Alila Jabal Akhdar, perched magnificently on the edge of a plunging chasm. Two hours out from Muscat, we pull into the resort, a collection of low, stone buildings that meld seamlessly with their surroundings.

Boasting a spa, gym, indoor and outdoor pools, marble bathtubs and a restaurant serving haute cuisine, the Alila Jabal Akhdar is the very antithesis of Thesiger’s hair-shirted approach to travel. Yet one imagines that he might have been secretly impressed with this eco-conscious hotel’s efforts to engender sustainability. The doormen once herded goats, while solar panels heat the water supply, which in turn is recycled to irrigate the grounds.

Over the next few days we explore the plateau surrounding the resort and the various communities that live there, learning of their livelihoods in this unique habitat. We learn how they maximimize the benefits of local rainfall with an intricate network of ‘aflaj’, or artificial aqueducts. Yet despite man’s impact on the environment, this still feels like a wild, secret garden. The Jebel Akhdar has been tamed since the days of Thesiger, but not by much.