Thursday, 6 October 2016

Road trip: The Roses of Jebel Akhdar

After several failed attempts to explore Jebel Akhdar, I finally made it up there to see the roses in bloom back in April.

Jebel Akhdar (translation, the Green Mountain), is part of the Al Hajar Mountain range. It takes about an hour and a half to drive to from Muscat, or less depending if you have a driver who likes to put his foot down. At its peak, the mountain is 3,000 metres high, and you don't appreciate just how high this is until you arrive at the base and get your first glimpse at the steep the road to the top.

The mountains are the perfect place to escape to in the summer since it is significantly cooler up there. The temperature was 30 degrees at the base and 20 degrees at the top.

It is called the Green Mountain because at the higher altitudes there is precipitation, which means the land is moist enough to allow the growth of shrubs and trees and support agriculture, which includes pomegranates, apricots, peaches, and walnuts. This time, we were here for the roses. The roses are used to make the famous Omani rosewater, which we were told was the most sought-after rose water in the region. It is added to drinks and food, typically Omani halwa and coffee, and it is also thought to be good for the heart, arthritis, and headaches if you rub it in the relevant areas.

We visited the rose gardens and distiller with Guide Oman. They have a great relationship with a few Omani heritage workers, Abdullah being one of them. Abdullah is one of five Omani's left making rose water the traditional way. According to him, he had been making water since the day his eyes had opened. He wakes up early in the morning when its cool (and before the petals get a chance to bloom fully and lose their aroma) and picks the flowers. It takes 7.5kg of roses to make a Vimto sized bottle of rose water, which is a lot of roses.

The whole flower is then put into an earthenware pot with water, sealed up, and a wood fire lit underneath and left to boil for a couple of hours. The rose-flavoured steam then condenses into a metal container that is inside the pot, and it is then filtered to get rid of the oily residue. This produces a dark and very smoky-smelling rose water, which is nothing like the rose water that I expect everyone has seen and smelt before. The 'traditional', clear rose water is produced by boiling the flowers rather than the wood burner technique.

After seeing the distillery, we walked along to Seeq Village, part of Saiq Plateau. There we got to see the Damascus rose bushes as well as pomegranates, onions, garlic, walnuts, figs and other plants I didn't recognise, and lots of toads.

We then had a very tasty lunch at the Sahab Hotel, which has spectacular views from the gardens of the terraces.

The roses season is over for this year so if you do want to see them mark April on your calendar as the best time. Guide Oman are mostly known for their desert crossing trips, but they do offer unique experiences like these and the relationships they have mean that you do get access to places and people that you might not otherwise see just making the journey there yourself. We paid 45 OMR for the day (which included lunch and drinks). Details of this and the other tours they offer can be found on their website.

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