Road Trip Oman: Peaks and Valleys Near Jebel Shams
After two blissful nights on top of Jabal Akhdar we depart the hotel feeling completely relaxed, with the distinct scent of Frankincense wafting from our backpacks. We load into the Pajero, reluctantly wave goodbye and pick up a carpooler on our way down the road. He’s an employee from the hotel who is about one kilometer into a five kilometer walk to the nearest Omani coffee shop. We drop him off and descend the road — a steep and winding drive with “Escape Lanes” veering off from the main road in case our brakes go out on the way down.
Within an hour we’re back on the main highway cruising along the informal border between the mountains and the desert. We watch for camels and goats crossing the road among the sleepy towns that have closed up for the afternoon. Goat hair rugs are displayed along the roadside. We pick up a quick souvenir before starting the undulating ride up to Jebel Shams, the highest peak in Oman.
The view ahead of us is split into a barren brown landscape and a clear blue sky punctuated with the geological “exotics” of the region. Jebel Misht is like a shark’s fin — suddenly menacing and mysterious in the general flatness surrounding it. No wonder Oman is called a geologist’s paradise with anomalies like this to explore. Adventurous rock climbers can’t be too far behind.
Our trusty 4WD drags us to the top of the plateau. We park at the tiny village of Al Khateem where we’re welcomed by a couple of curious goats and some kids selling bracelets. We walk toward the canyon edge where a solitary juniper tree offers the only shred of shade from the blasting sunshine. The “grand canyon of Oman”, also known as Wadi Nakhr, drops away in front of us.
It is a massive canyon, and yet I do see the bottom — a teeny, tiny strip of dry, gray riverbed flanked by a couple of date palms (see fourth photo in the gallery). The entire landscape is tilted up 30 degrees exposing layer after layer of compressed sediment. We’re looking at (and standing on) a region that’s known as the Semail Ophiolite. This is one of only a few dozen places in the world where the crust of the earth that was previously underwater has obducted over and onto the continental crust, revealing both the crust and the mantle underneath it. There are not many places where you can find marine fossils at nearly 3,000 meters/10,000 feet, but this is one of them. And all of this obduction happened between 66 and 100 million years ago, before the extinction of the dinosaurs.
We stand on the Balcony Walk — the trail along the rim of the canyon — and take it all in. It’s kind of mind blowing to see so many millions of years illustrated right before our little human eyes that have only existed for a nanosecond in the scheme of things.
We consider taking the Balcony Walk, which looks stunning and terrifying — an express route past all those amazing sedimentary layers if just one step on the trail goes awry. We’re nearing the end of our trip — just two days left — so we pass on the hike and head back toward to Nizwa. Remnants of old villages dot the hillsides along the way.
Before getting to Nizwa we make a last-minute decision to pull off and explore Misfat al Abriyeen, an old village that can only be explored by foot. A crumbling labyrinth of paths leads to old doorways and cottages, and terraced gardens cascade down the hill under the shade of date palms. Misfat is an oasis made possible by a falaj — an irrigation system that distributes water downhill throughout the village. We climb down, we hike up, we get lost among the staircases and finally emerge as the sun sets and shadows overtake the valley.
We move onto Nizwa, arriving after dark with the unfortunate task of finding a place to stay. It’s too late to camp — finding a good site in the dark of a very foreign country never quite feels like the best choice to make. Instead, we peruse our guidebook and zero in on a funky little motel called the Falaj Daris.
Along the road outside of Nizwa we find the motel — a single story building with the style of a Howard Johnson’s from the early 1970s that’s been reinterpreted for the Middle East. I hop out of the car and run inside to see if they have a room. With one step through the door I’m transported from date palms to Palm Desert — the lobby has a Christmas tree, blinking holiday lights are wrapped around the trunks of the trees next to the pool and the servers at the restaurant are dressed in tuxedos. This is not what I expected.
A smiling man behind the reception counter welcomes me with sweet enthusiasm. Yes, he has a room (and a nice one at that).
We check in, enjoy a great dinner by the pool and savor the diverse discoveries of another day in Oman.
This is the fifth post about touring Oman. You can read from the beginning starting here.
Next up… Road Trip Oman: Final Thoughts from Nizwa