The award for best Destination of 2014 goes to a river valley that is just a short drive from Muscat – Wadi Al Arbaeen
It has been an adventurous year for Y Magazine and its travels around the Sultanate. From wadis to the mountains, deserts and beaches, there’s not many places we didn’t visit. But it has to be said that our top pick for 2014 goes to Wadi Al Arbaeen, a stunning river valley just 90 minutes from Muscat. Jerzy Wierzbicki, Y’s former photographer, took visiting journalist Mark Thomas on this trip back in February. Here, Mark takes up the story:
“An hour-and-a-half out of Muscat, we are zipping along an empty highway through the Hajar Mountains with the bustle of the city roads just a bad memory. ‘We have arrived,’ Jerzy announces, before swinging the big white Land Cruiser off the reassuringly smooth asphalt carriageway and down on to the rough, rocky terrain of the dry riverbed at the roadside.
“I am in expert hands. As regular readers of this feature will know, Y photographer Jerzy Wierzbicki is an inveterate explorer of Oman’s most beautiful secret backlands. Yet, as he steers the car under the bridge and takes us down the wadi hewn by the ages into the base of those forbidding mountains, for just a moment I find myself glancing quizzically at my companion.
“Soon, the highway is just a memory as the car slews and bounces its way down a dirt track, weaving through the river valley known as Wadi Al Arbaeen.
“The third member of our expedition, Trop, seems completely unfazed. Jerzy’s intrepid 10-year-old Dachshund has travelled thousands of kilometres with him on routes like this and he takes it all calmly in his four-legged stride. I decide to take my lead from Trop. What’s the worst that can happen? We pass little groups of wandering goats and a couple of donkeys.
“Occasionally, a Bedouin tribesman or a young child in a brightly coloured robe wanders up the track, always with a friendly wave as we slow down to pass them.
“It has been a dry winter, but there are still stretches of water along the trackside. Occasionally, the big 4×4 splashes easily through shallow fords, sending a cascade of shimmering water crystals dancing over the windscreen.
“As we press further into the wadi, we come to deeper water, made vivid turquoise or emerald green by the mineral-rich rock formations. Tiny freshwater fish play close to the surface, occasionally breaking the water to snap at a hovering insect.
“It is hot, the sun is already high overhead in the azure mid-morning sky and the steep valley walls offer almost no shade.
“We stop, gather a few dry twigs and Jerzy makes tea over a campfire in a trusty old copper kettle. Trop shuffles about, dipping into the ice-cool water, snuffling among the grey and copper-brown rocks. Jerzy watches him from the corner of his eye, every now and again calling him back. ‘This close to water, there are always the risk of venomous snakes or lizards,’ he explains. ‘Trop found a nest of snakes once in terrain like this.’
“I make a mental note to pick my steps carefully. The flora is sparse, but there are crops of palm trees and clusters of hardy little shrubs that somehow manage to thrive in this rugged place.
“We drive on, coming across occasional groups of simple homes, impressively equipped with electricity through overhead cables and water through a falaj, which is a manmade water channel carved into the sheer walls of the wadi. The track climbs higher and the views back down the valley become ever more spectacular as the car clings precariously to the bends.
“Eventually, we reach journey’s end, a system of deep and inviting water holes linked by tinkling little waterfalls over blue-grey granite. This close to Muscat, we have not completely escaped the tourist trails and a red warning sign cautions the unwary: ‘Drowning accidents are now popular.’ “We, we knew what they meant.
“Wadi Al Arbaeen is a quiet, ancient place where the sounds of rushing water and gentle birdsong provide the same soft soundtrack that must have endlessly echoed down the valley for thousands of years. It is a corner of mystic beauty and my first taste of the great Omani wilderness. A wilderness that Jerzy knows so well.”
How to get there:
Take the Sultan Qaboos highway to the airport and turn right at the exit for Nizwa/Salalah. Then drive all the way towards Nizwa/Bahla on the Nizwa road. From there, you turn to Nizwa and follow the road towards the town centre. At the roundabout (left to the Nizwa fort), you take the right for Bhala. Tanuf is 19km from Nizwa. Take the paved road at the signs for Wadi Tanuf and the mountains. After 1.5km, turn off for old Tanuf.
Location of Tanuf Village: N23’03’8”E57’28’8”