When thinking of Arabia or any of the Middle Eastern countries, I’ve always imagined vast dunes and expanses of sand, stretching as far as the eye can see. Instead, as I travelled through Oman’s interiors, I was in for quite a surprise in the form of mountains and oases.
The Al Hajar mountain range lies about 50 kilometres inland from the Gulf of Oman, and runs 300 kilometres along the length of the country, from northwest to southeast. Its tallest peak rises just under 10,000 feet. The wadis, or ravines, within these mountains are Oman’s real hidden gems. These waterbodies have been the lifeline of this country for thousands of years and provide more than a glimpse into the history and culture of the place and its people. They are dotted all around the mountains, hidden in canyons, and within valleys; all over Oman you see canals or falaj systems set up for irrigation, to channel this water across an otherwise arid land. Oman’s numerous wadis can sometimes stretch for kilometres. Along them lie pools of tranquil turquoise-blue water, abundant greenery and vegetation, cultivated terraced fields, and even orchards and underground caves.
On a bright February morning, my travel companions and I sped down the smooth highway in a 4WD, heading from the capital Muscat to the western Al Hajar mountains. I was eager to explore some less well-known places, particularly the oases in the rugged terrain of this Arabian state.
From the historic town of Al Hamra, a steep, winding road glides up into the mountains. The air gets cooler and soon we’re driving without air-conditioning. Then, there’s a sudden curve in the road, and we’re atop Jebel Shams, Oman’s “Mountain of the Sun.” At over 9,800 feet, it is the highest peak, not only in the Al Hajar range, but in all of eastern Arabia. Fifty feet from the road, we walk to the edge and see a spectacular gorge below us: This is Wadi Nakhr, the so-called Grand Canyon of the East. The afternoon sun barely reaches the dry river bed at the bottom of the chasm, and plays visual tricks on me as I gaze across the canyon.
I’m tempted to walk down the narrow trail I see along the rim. Our guide says this is the Balcony Walk, which leads to the abandoned village of As Sab. It’s a three-hour walk one-way, and unfortunately, we haven’t planned for enough time to do this. Instead, I settle on a rock and take in the spectacular view and cool breeze. I watch, laughing as a stray ram takes a fancy to my guide Waheed, who then gives it chase. At nearby shacks, young girls and women sell colourful souvenirs woven from goat hair, and ammonite fossils they’ve picked up from the riverbed at the bottom of the canyon. This is the first time I’ve seen women out and about like this in Oman. From behind their veils, they explain that the men go out to graze the goats while they try to make a few extra rials from tourists.
WHERE Jebel Shams is 4 hours/240 kilometres from Muscat, close to the ruins of the historic town of Al Hamra.
TIP Plan enough time to walk the Balcony Walk, even if it’s just for an hour or two.
This is one of the greenest oases in Oman, surrounded by palm groves and fruit orchards. From the parking lot, we make our way on foot along the falaj canals into the wadi. The blue-green pools of clear water along the way look very inviting. This wadi is obviously a popular place for a family picnic, and is full of locals and tourists alike enjoying themselves with a dip, some even jumping into the water from cliff edges. Though my companions aren’t too keen, I decide to walk deeper up the wadi as I’m eager to explore the underground caves I’ve heard of.
A 20-minute walk past calm, deep pools and imposing boulders later, I encounter Ahmad, a local lad who offers to lead me further down the Moqul cave system. He waves a torch at me and that’s enough to convince me to follow him. The entrance is low, and only six feet wide. Soon I’m twisting and contorting my body as we go deeper into the cave. It’s pitch dark and I’m hoping my torch won’t die on me. Ahmad fearlessly slithers down rocks and boulders with the ease of a veteran. At one point I suggest turning back, but he insists it’s not much further in. Suddenly I feel a blast of hot air, which doesn’t help my sweat-drenched body, and I hear the roar of flowing water.The glow from Ahmad’s torch tells me where to stop. We’re at an underground stream, but unusually, the water is hot and the air thick and almost pungent but breathable. I sit there in the darkness mesmerised by the sound and pleased at having had this completely offbeat experience. Ahmad totally deserves a good tip for this; I’d never have made it so far down into the bowels of the mountain on my own.
WHERE Wadi Bani Khalid is 3 hours southwest of Muscat, via the city of Sur.
TIP Take a torch and a local guide if you’d like to explore caves. Don’t venture in there if you are claustrophobic.
Two other wadis that I visit are Wadi Tiwi and Wadi Shab, both en route from Sur to Muscat. At Wadi Tiwi we are able to drive a significant part of the way in, at some points almost getting engulfed by the sheer cliffs and canyon walls, at other times driving through shallow water. The deeper we go into the canyon, the more interesting it gets. There are deep pools of blue water, with chains attached to cliff edges for people to haul themselves out, and sometimes gently flowing streams, and at one point, even a waterfall.
At Wadi Shab, a boat takes us across a large water body that empties into the sea. Then, it’s a six-kilometre-long walk to some of the best pools and caverns of the wadi. The trail rises precariously along a narrow ledge—one wrong step and you can end up in the water below you. Soon, I’m back on the valley floor, admiring the lush vegetation as I walk along a narrow falaj. I pass an ancient adobe structure that resembles a cliff dwelling and think this must be the end of the trail, but a friendly tribesman eggs me on, saying “Go, go, good pool inside.” It’s another thirty minutes before I reach the “good” pools. The serene spectacle and refreshing dip that follow more than make up for the long, hot walk.
WHERE Tiwi town and Wadi Tiwi are 100 kilometres/2 hours from Muscat. Wadi Shab is a few kilometres away.
TIP Both wadis can be covered in a day unless you decide to camp out. Driving from Muscat to Tiwi, the last leg of the drive is a lovely stretch along the ocean.
This is another unusual site, an ancient crater or sinkhole, we stop at along the route from Sur back to Muscat. As I enter the Hawiyat Najm Park, where the sinkhole is located, I’m a little sceptical as it looks rather manicured and man-made. But when I reach the actual sinkhole, I’m lost for words. It’s just sitting out there, a pool of emerald and turquoise water with a flight of steps leading down to it. Local legend, I’m told, holds that a meteorite crashed into the earth and caused this crater, but there’s now a more scientific explanation that attributes its creation to the slow collapse of the limestone rocks at this site. I prefer the local legend about a meteorite. I walk down to dip my feet in to cool off, but the next thing I know, loads of tiny fish are nibbling away at the dead skin on my feet. If you’re hot and sweaty take a dip, don’t worry you won’t be the only one.
WHERE Two hours from Muscat en route to Sur, before Wadi Tiwi and Wadi Shab.
TIP Make this part of a trip to Wadi Tiwi and Shab and pack a barbecue or picnic to enjoy in the park.
Appeared in the January 2016 issue as “Arabian Surprise”.
To travel to Oman, Indians need to go through a local sponsor: a friend, relative, or local tour operator/destination management company based in Oman. Reputed Indian travel agents can also help travellers by arranging a visitor’s visa and making ground arrangements, including a guide. The Oman tourist office in India can also assist potential visitors get in touch with the right travel agent in their city (firstname.lastname@example.org; 022-29256965). Documents required for a visa include scanned copies of a valid passport, passport-size photographs with a blue background, a return ticket, and hotel confirmation voucher. A visa takes about one week to process, costs OMR5/₹840 and is valid for 10-days (www.rop.gov.om).