Ernie goes to Jebel Shams (Nov 2017)

Driving into the Mountains

After leaving the golden dunes of Wahiba Sands,  with a quick pitstop at Jabrin Castle, Ashley and I began making our way up the western foothills of the Hajar Mountains. Our destination was Sama Heights Resort, a collection of stone cabins and tents nestled on a plateau partway up Oman’s tallest peak, the 3000-metre high Jebel Shams, or Mountain of the Sun. As we drove past the medieval towns of Nizwa and Al Hamra, the landscape shifted from dusty plains to broad plateaus jutting out of the rocky earth, and jagged peaks casting stark shadows in the late afternoon sun. The changing views were breathtaking, and we found ourselves pulling over onto the side of the road to take it all in, reminiscent of our Iceland trip the year before.

If you do a little research on driving in Oman, there is a lot of guidance on how to drive the mountain roads, to the point where I was getting a little nervous before the trip. In my mind, I was imagining gravel, one-way roads with no guardrails and terrifying drop-offs into the void, and the fact that I’d never really driven in an alpine environment before only added to my unease. In actual fact, the road up Jebel Shams was in excellent condition – well-paved, two lanes, and guardrails as far as the eye could see. I still drove quite carefully as the road curved and snaked up the mountain, but it wasn’t the death-defying drive I was dreading (that would come later). After about forty minutes on the mountain road, the gradient levelled out and we soon arrived at Sama Heights. Before checking in, we drove a little bit past the resort complex to a lookout point overlooking Wadi Nakhr, a deep canyon cutting into the side of Jebel Shams, and the site of our next day’s activity – the infamous Balcony Walk.

A quick note on the environment and accommodations – it was quite chilly in the mountains at night, significantly colder than the desert evening the night before. The Sama Heights dining hall is unheated, but they do set up heat lamps by the tables to keep diners warm, and the food is nothing to complain about – it was tasty and filling. We stayed in a two-person bungalow, a sturdy stone structure that kept the wind out just fine, and the room heater had us feeling warm and toasty throughout the night.

Balcony Walk

High on our list of to-dos in Oman was a trek into the mountain region’s awe-inspiring canyons and wadis. The gorgeous Wadi Shab hike on the other side of the Hajar Mountains was stunning, but the deep chasms and gorges that gouge the sides of Jebel Shams present an entirely different sort of adventure. Wadi Nakhr, also known as Oman’s Grand Canyon, is a deep rut in the earth of the mountainside, exposing layers of rock millennia old. The rock layers are gathered in thick bands, forming a series of natural shelves and terraces along the top third of the canyon before dropping off steeply into the depths below. A narrow path runs along one of these shelves, connecting the villages of Al Khitaym and As Sab, an abandoned settlement in the depths of the canyon two hours walk away. This terrifying hike is the Balcony Walk.

The hike starts off easily enough – Al Khitaym is located at the top of the canyon, and the start of the path is below the village, on a broad shelf that hides how steep the drop-off is just a few metres away. I’d say about two-thirds of the hike is like this, where the edge of the path is fronted by a gentle slope, giving a false sense of security and safety. It was only when we turned around and looked back at where we came from did we realise the precariousness of our route through the canyon. Ashley was fine throughout most of the hike, clambering fearlessly over rock piles and gazing over the edge of the abyss. I, on the other hand, have a massive fear of heights, and there were more than a few sections where my heart saw fit to make its home in my throat and my legs dissolved to meat jelly. Was it worth the terror and the stress, then? Most definitely – the views were absolutely incredible, and how often can you say you’ve hiked through an Arabian canyon to a centuries-old abandoned village.

Speaking of which, it took us about two hours to get to As Sab, a tiny collection of stone structures tucked away beneath an overhang, in the deepest part of Wadi Nakhr. The site of the village had been occupied for hundreds of years, protected from invaders and hostile forces by its remoteness and inaccessibility, until the government relocated the residents about fifteen years ago. Now the little homes and courtyards are open to hikers and explorers to wander around in, though the average person will have to crouch to get through the low entrances. The look and feel reminded Ashley of her years growing up in the American Southwest and her trips to see the ruins of Mesa Verde, and she had a fun time ducking in and out of the village structures. There’s an option to go beyond the village, but we decided to turn around and head back to Al Khitaym in order to have enough time for the rest of our day’s planned activities. Ninety minutes later – it was a brisk walk back the other way – we were buckled into our dusty SUV, taking the winding mountain roads down Jebel Shams and on towards our next destination.

Epilogue

Doing the Balcony Walk definitely had an element of facing my fears, which was becoming an apparent theme of this trip. With the desert driving in Wahiba Sands, the windy alpine roads of Jebel Shams, and the dizzying heights of the Balcony Walk, I felt myself getting slowly pulled out of my comfort zone – and there was more to come. What beauty though, and beyond what I had imagined. Oman was very quickly proving itself to be among the most beautiful places I’d ever been, and we were only halfway through our trip.

 

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