Escape the heat of the city atop the highest mountain in Oman and mingle with goats on the edge of the second largest canyon in the world.
Words and Images: Kate Ginn
Up and up we drove, along a twisting dirt track taking us ever higher with no end in sight to the climb ahead of us. To our left side, although I could barely look, was a steep drop of such dizzyingly height it felt as if we were flying in tandem with the black speck of a bird soaring overhead. Our 4×4 clung to the road as the tyres seemed to skim the edge.
Suddenly the road changed and flattened out.
It felt as if we were on top of the world – and in a sense we were, standing on the highest point in the country and looking down on all we surveyed as if it was all ours. Indeed, at that point, we all felt like kings and queens, conquerors of Jebel Shams.
Sources differ as the exact height of the summit of the mountain, with figures ranging between 2,980 and 3,075 metres (9,777 to 10,089 feet). Whatever the true figure, it’s pretty impressive.
And it seems churlish to quibble over a few metres.
Spread out before us was An Nakhur Gorge, the Grand Canyon of Arabia, the world’s second largest – deferring only to the U.S namesake in size – and a momentous sight stretching to the horizon and plunging down into unfathomable depths below.
Standing on the edge, one could only feel in awe at the power of nature for creating such wonder.
The brown and white mountain goat in front of us trotting along the narrow ledge, inches from a vertiginous drop, seemed oblivious to all the fuss. A cool breeze whispering along the top stirred the patches of shrubs nearby.
It was a world away from the oppressive heat of Muscat we had left behind only a day, and 240 km, before.
Having never been further than Nizwa since arriving in Oman four months ago, the invitation to join Guide Oman’s Easter in the Mountains was a welcome excuse to escape the confines of office and desk.
Our drive from Muscat, a convoy of 4x4s, took us via Jabreen Castle, which dates back to 1670 and has been sympathetically restored to retain its original features. It lies around 20 km from the city of Bahla in the Ad Dakhiliyah region.
Nestling amid date plantations, it offers a wonderful 360-degree panorama from the roof with the towering darkness of the Al Hajar Mountains range looming in the background.
Our final destination was somewhere up there.
On the way, we took a detour to Al Hamra, a 400-year-old traditional village, one of the oldest in Oman, where time has stood still.
We wandered round the old residential quarters, some of which are still /inhabited, preserved through time; while the rest is deserted. Crumbling remains where ceilings made of palms and fronds topped by mud and straw can still be clearly seen as shafts of sunlight pour through the gaps. Inside the living museum, Bait al Safah, women daubed sandalwood make-up the faces of willing volunteers, while the smoke from rukhal bread being baked from an open fire drifted across the small courtyard.
Less than half an hour drive away was our overnight camp, Sunrise Resort, rooted into the northwestern side of Jebel Shams, reached by a 38km graded interior road travelling through the interior. Our Jeep made light work of the potholes as we bumped along.
As we climbed, we could almost watch the degrees dropping on the car’s temperature gauge.
When we left Muscat earlier it had been 38c. Here, in this almost apocalyptic terrain of ancient skeletal trees and scorched barren earth, it was a refreshingly cool 20c. By early evening, it was 12c. A popular destination to flee from the suffocating summer, it drops to below 0c in the winter.
After a good dinner in the onsite restaurant (basic but more than adequate) and a chat by the open fire, our weary group was ready for a soft pillow and sleep.
Earlier, the Easter Bunny (Rebecca from Guide Oman with rabbit ears) had visited and the children were happy with the Easter egg hunt among the rocks and trees.
Sunrise offers family chalet, private rooms and Arabic tents, all with beds and blankets.
It even has a pet camp goat, George, who is very tame and will eat dates, plastic cups and just about anything else in his path.
The next morning, we set off on the final ascent to the top of Jebel Shams, Sun Mountain, so called because it is the first place to greet
sunlight at dawn and the last to say farewell at dusk.
Our driver, Abdul, calmly negotiated the bending turns without a glance at the hair-raising drop directly to his left, while our cameras clicked and whirred at the scene before us.
There is a path leading down from the side of the gorge into the ravine ofWadi An Nakhur below, only to be undertaken by the brave. Alternatively, you can drive the 7km through to the end of the gorge, passing mango trees and golden grasses on the way.
One last photo stop on the way home was the old Ghul village, a cluster of ruined mud brick homes clinging to a hill of orange rocks with a patchwork of farm fields and date plantations in the foreground.
Then it was back to Muscat and a mountain of paperwork in the office.