Just two hours from Muscat, and six hours drive from Dubai (border crossing permitting) lies the breathtaking Wadi Nakhar Canyon. Emma Mehrabanpour checks out Oman’s answer to Arizona’s finest….
The sun was setting fast, splashing orange and red all over the sky as it hurtled towards the horizon. As our 4×4 bounced along the rocky path, spraying dust in all directions, the sun dipped behind a mountain, disappearing from our view. It was a race against time to find a viewing spot before sunset. We reached the end of the path, jumped out of the car and ran to the top of a small hill, certain we’d have a good view from there. To our dismay, the whole view to the west was blocked by craggy mountains. Trust us to the miss the “not to be missed” sunset experience!
Returning to our hotel in the semi-darkness, feeling rather dejected, we spotted a small group of people gathered at the back of the hotel. Approaching them, we realised that they were enjoying the after-glow of a beautiful sunset, from a perfect viewpoint…. It seems our jaunt around the mountains had been in vain and the best spot had been right in front of our noses. At least we knew where to go the next night.
We were staying at the Jebel Shams Resort, at the top of Jebel Shams (the “Sun Mountain”) in Oman. We’d taken a break from our busy lives in Dubai to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the Hajar mountain range, which runs along north eastern Oman and into the United Arab Emirates. The mountains are the perfect place for people interested in hiking, mountain biking, camping and climbing.
The Balcony Walk
The main attraction of the mountain range is Wadi Nakhar, otherwise known as the “Omani Grand Canyon” or the Wadi Ghul Canyon. The gorge is 200 metres deeper than the Arizona Grand Canyon (but with a lot fewer tourists!) and is most famous for its spectacular “Balcony Walk” – a path along the rocky rim which leads to the abandoned village of Al Sab. This walk was the reason we’d driven six hours from Dubai.
The path starts in the hamlet of Khitaym, which is a couple of kilometres past the Jebel Shams Resort. Arriving at the start point, we were bemused to see that the enterprising villagers have taken advantage of the increase in visitors by setting up stalls selling beads and trinkets. (Let’s hope we don’t go back in 10 years to find a McDonalds has sprung up!)
Facing the canyon, we took the W6 path to the left (the W6A path to the right leads you on a descent down to the village of Wadi Ghul). The path winds around the cliffs, with stunning views into the canyon and the little villages at the bottom. This is the sort of landscape which makes you feel small – in a good way. The cliff walls are over a kilometre high and drop down into the canyon in zig-zag steps, forming a kind of natural amphitheatre. Unlike other famous mountain ranges, which are covered with forests or jungles or snow, the Hajar mountains are bare of all vegetation, other than a few shrubs. This makes the scenery all the more dramatic, as every jagged rock and sharp drop off is exposed.
At the end of the path is the village, where a row of stone houses shelter under a sloping cliff wall. You can wander through the dilapidated houses, which look a bit like rocky igloos. Round the corner, the cliff has been sculpted into terraces where the villagers would have grown their crops. We were told that the village used to be home to around 15 families. Its remote location meant that it was well–protected from enemies (who clearly couldn’t be bothered to make the 1.5 hour hike to get there) and had a good source of water.
The round trip took us about 3 hours. The route is clearly marked with red, white and yellow painted flags so it’s very difficult to get lost. The path is rough, but not dangerous or difficult. That means that walking boots aren’t necessary but flip flops would be foolish 🙂
For the more adventurous
The other famous hike in the area is the W4 hike, which goes all the way from the bottom of the Jebel Shams mountain to the summit and back again. The hike takes 10-12 hours, so it’s definitely one for the fit, healthy and super keen! Sunset in Oman is at 6-7pm all year round, so you need to set off early to avoid being caught in the dark. We certainly weren’t up early enough to attempt it!
Where to sleep
Being the softies we are, we opted to stay in a hotel, but lots of people choose to camp. Wild camping is permitted in Oman so you can pretty much choose your perfect spot and pitch your tent.
The Jebel Shams Resort is simple and clean, but not luxurious (don’t expect 5* Dubai opulence!) You can choose between staying in a chalet for 70 OMR (around US$180) or an Arabic tent for 50 OMR (around US$130). The tents are what we would call “glamping” – all the fun of camping but with electricity and a comfortable bed. There are fire pits outside each room, which is a great way to warm up as the evenings can get a bit chilly that high up. The hotel website also advertises a swimming pool, but don’t get excited – it’s a funny shade of green and I couldn’t go in after my husband said the words “legionnaire’s disease”.
All rooms are sold on a half board basis, which means a buffet breakfast and dinner. My advice is to get there early! We arrived late on the first night and there were only a few sad bits of salad left. For other meals we were first in line and the food was pretty decent.
What the hotel lacks in luxury, it certainly makes up for in location. Perched at the top of the Jebel Shams mountain, there are 360 degree views of rugged peaks and sweeping valleys. As we eventually found out, the hotel is also the perfect spot to watch the sunset. On the second night, we were rewarded with the most serene view as the sun slipped through wispy clouds and left the whole sky streaked with colour.
Once the sun had gone, we realised that “dark” in the mountains is really dark! This meant one thing: star gazing. We drove a short distance from the hotel, turned off the car lights and sat on the bonnet looking up at the stars. There’s no better way to make “real life” disappear…
A few helpful tips on getting there:
Jebel Shams is about 240 km from Muscat and 500 km from Dubai. Coming from Dubai, you need to endure the rather tedious border crossing, which can add quite a bit of time to your journey, depending on the day and time. I don’t recommend trying to cross the border on a public holiday – we once had to turn back when faced with a 5 hour border queue…
After the border, you follow the main highway (route no. 21) for a couple of hours and then turn off into the mountains. The road winds through small villages as it climbs up Jebel Shams. Signposts are few and far between, so you’re best off relying on google maps. The last part of the road is not paved, so a 4×4 is preferable.