Ernie goes to the Wadis (Nov 2017)

Oman 2017-90

Wadi Shab

After having Bimmah Sinkhole all to ourselves that morning, we made the short 20 minute drive up the coastal road, through the small seaside town of Tiwi, to spend the afternoon at one of Oman’s more well known travel destinations – Wadi Shab. The wadi’s relatively simple hiking terrain and natural pools are popular with locals and tourists alike, and the views from within the gorge are spectacular. Other websites and travel guides had recommended visiting early in the morning or on a weekday to escape the crowds, but we found that there weren’t too many other people around on a Sunday afternoon. For the most part, we found this to be the case throughout Oman – places where we expected to find crowds were quite manageable after all, with very few other people around, and that suited us just fine.

The entrance to Wadi Shab doesn’t seem to promise much – the small parking lot is underneath the highway that connects Muscat and Sur, and the path ahead is blocked by a body of water that runs into the nearby Gulf of Oman. We paid villagers at the water’s edge 4 rials for a round trip, taking a narrow motorboat around the bridge columns and docking at the opposite shore. From there, it was about a 45 minute to an hour hike to the first of the pools within the wadi. The first 10 to 15 minutes of the hike were relatively flat, taking us past small gardens and homes on the valley floor. The path then went up one side of the gorge, cutting out a small walkway along a a layered cliffside striated with bands of yellow and orange in the afternoon sunlight.

The last third of the hike took us back down into the gorge, though this section was a little less straightforward. Large rocks and boulders littered the valley floor, and we did a bit of scrambling to find our way through to the other side. There are arrows painted on various surfaces throughout Wadi Shab, giving hikers a rough idea of which direction to walk in, but it’s not always easy to locate them, especially if you don’t know where to look. Fortunately, there’s very little chance of getting lost on the hike, as long as you stay in the valley – there’s really only one way to go. So, after finding and following all, or most of, the painted arrows, we found ourselves overlooking a long pool of water that disappeared around a bend in the gorge. The next section of Wadi Shab would require a bit of a swim.

The Hidden Cave

There was a bit of a crowd at the water already, though most seemed to be satisfied with sunbathing or wading in the shallower end of the rock pool. Ashley and I had our swimming outfits underneath our hiking clothes, and we brought our valuables with us in a small dry sack we had bought earlier in the year in Boracay. We’d also brought along wet shoes to change into, which were key in navigating some of the rockier portions of the swim. Everything else – grubby clothes, water bottles, hats, backpacks – we left beside a rock, trusting that nobody would be interested in taking off with those items.

This was probably one of our favourite memories of Oman – wading through crystal clear waters, following the gorge around twists and turns, clambering from one pool to the next – and we really took our time to let the scenes around us sink in. For much of the swim, it was just the two of us, floating on our backs looking up at the blue sky, sitting on ledges just beneath the surface of the water and appreciating the sounds of silence, and making ooohs and ahhhs of admiration as the views opened up in front of us. It probably took us about 15 to 20 minutes to get to the end of the pools, though we definitely took our time.

The last pool is where Wadi Shab hides its best known secret – the hidden cave with the waterfall. Any online search on the wadi will surely mention it, along with its tiny entrance, just big enough to fit your head through if you swim along the surface. Ashley and I made our way to the far side of the pool, finding the right gap along the cliff wall, and entered into a small tunnel filled with shifting blue lights – it was honestly something magical. The tunnel soon opened up into a beautiful grotto, sunlight streaming in from gaps in the rock ceiling, and the aforementioned waterfall, complete with a knotted rope along one side for those who fancy a bit of a climb. We stayed for about 10 minutes, having the cave all to ourselves, before making our way back to the larger pool outside. A quick note: the swim can be deceptively tiring, especially by the time you reach the last pool. There are handholds along one side of the cave, but it’s still prudent to be aware of how strong a swimmer you are, and taking the necessary breaks before going to the next pool. There are no lifeguards so you’re on your own out there.

The return journey, both the swim and the hike, seemed to go by a bit faster than the way there. Within the hour, we were back in our SUV, scarfing down the last of our flatbread and hummus to re-energize after the afternoon’s activities. The last destination on the our agenda that day was the town of Sur, about 35 minutes drive from Wadi Shab, where we’d be staying the night.

Interlude in Sur

Time and tide wait for no man, the old saying goes, and the ancient town of Sur has plenty of both. An important node in the Arabian Sea – Indian Ocean – Persian Gulf trading networks since the 6th Century, it truly thrived during the sultanate’s heyday from the 16th Century to the 19th Century, linking the empire’s East African and South Asian possessions. The town’s status as a trade centre took a major hit when the British outlawed the slave trade, and its death knell came with the opening of the Suez Canal. Its days as a major port are long past, and though the modern town has continued to evolve, becoming an important educational centre for Oman, it still clings on to its shipping roots.

In putting together our itinerary, Ashley and I didn’t leave much time for Sur – an evening and part of a morning. We booked a room at Zaki Hotel Apartment, a relatively new hotel attached to a locally famous Indian restaurant, and, after checking in, we drove towards the ocean to get a feel for the place. Sur is split in two by a narrow channel that widens into a many-fingered bay. In the eastern half, a promenade runs along the northern boundary, where a beach dominates the shoreline. In the western half, the older part of the city curves around a rocky shore, ending in a lighthouse perched at the far end of a corniche.

After walking on the beach for a bit and checking out the empty corniche at night, we headed back to Zaki Hotel Apartment for dinner. The restaurant, also named Zaki, was one of the few promising results we found while researching food options in Sur, and it was actually really good. Oman has long had ties to the Indian cultural sphere, and Zaki’s fragrant curries were a delicious showcase of that particular regional relationship.

The next morning, we went back to the corniche to check out the views from the Al Ayjah Lighthouse. Built by the Portuguese during their occupation of Sur, the structure dominates the low-lying skyline of the old town, looking out over the surf and the fishing boats moored in the shallows. Across the water, underneath a cloudless blue sky, neighbourhoods of white buildings lined the narrow beach, separated from the interior plateaus and highlands by a range of dusty hills and peaks.

From the lighthouse, we drove back across the bridge linking the two parts of town to visit the dhow shipyard, one of Sur’s claims to fame. In centuries past, ships built and outfitted in these shipyards plied the waters of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and all the way to the South China Sea. Though the demand for such ships has diminished considerably, the traditions of shipbuilding have continued to this day, if only to serve local fishing and travel needs. The shipyard is open to all visitors – you can walk right in and just watch the builders at work. It doesn’t seem like they’re all that bothered by the attention, although it must be a bit of a distraction to have random groups of people wandering around and pointing cameras at them. Nevertheless, point cameras we did, but not for too long. Noon was fast approaching, and we wanted to be on the road well before then.

Wadi Bani Khalid

After navigating our way out of the dense neighbourhood streets and alleys of Sur, we got on the highway that cuts through the coastal mountains in a more or less southwesterly direction. We were finally heading into the interior of the country, where some of its most stunning desert and mountain landscapes are located – Wahiba SandsJebel AkhdarJebel Shams, etc. Before getting to all of that, however, we had one final destination to check off our list.

We turned off onto a side road after about 2 hours of driving and began climbing into the low foothills of the Hajar Mountains – the very same mountains we had just driven through on the highway. The sinuous road carved its way slowly up and around the hills, the gravel throwing up a cloud of dust behind us. Fifteen minutes later, the drive ended in a parking lot surrounded by groves of date palms – we had finally arrived at Wadi Bani Khalid.

Of the two major wadis in this part of the country, Wadi Shab and Wadi Bani Khalid, the latter is more well-known, although the former is more easily accessible from Muscat. There are a number of differences between the two wadis as well. Where the facilities at Wadi Shab were relatively basic – a parking lot, a small tuck shop at the beginning of the trail – Wadi Bani Khalid had a restaurant with public washrooms, and the natural pools had more supervision. Wadi Shab also required a 45 minute hike through a gorge to get to the pools, while Wadi Bank Khalid‘s pools are basically there at the entrance – a 5 minute walk from the parking lot brings you to the first pool.

Ashley and I didn’t plan on spending too much time at this particular wadi, mostly because we wanted to get to our next destination before sunset, but it certainly could have been a place to linger and relax if we were so inclined. The pools looked just as inviting as the ones in Wadi Shab, perhaps even more so in the midday heat. Unfortunately for us, we hadn’t planned on swimming here, so we were stuck looking down at the frolicking swimmers as we walked along the ridge above the wadi.

At the end of the ridge, a local asked if we wanted to go and see the Moqal Cave, which he said was not too far of a walk. Knowing nothing about the cave, and having nothing else to do, we took him up on the offer. The sure-footed guide led us across shallow streams, heading deeper into the wadi, and away from the crowds. When we arrived at the entrance of the cave, at the top of a set of concrete steps, we crawled in one after another, dragging our bags behind us. Once at the bottom, we decided this was really all we wanted to see, and we promptly went back up to sunlight and fresh air. On our way back, we dipped our toes in the cool water of the wadi for a few minutes, before making the short hike back to the date palms and the parking lot.

Epilogue

This ends the “easy” part of the trip, in my mind. Thus far, driving and navigation had been relatively straightforward, the hikes and the pools weren’t too difficult or inaccessible, and everything had gone more or less as planned. That afternoon, as we continued on into the interior, we encountered our first stumbling block, our first reality check, and we were reminded that our previous driving experiences did nothing to prepare us for the challenges of driving and navigating through the shifting sand dunes of the Wahiba Sands.

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