Taking a stroll around the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, it seemed taxing to find a quiet spot without tour groups. Even in the far corners, the guides knew where their group would capture a nice view of the dome atop the mosque. So everywhere we went, a group loomed behind us like a shadow. When we did find a quiet spot, some of the covered walkways were beautifully eerie.
Right before the skies blackened and the winds howled, we had a gentle sunset and a few beers. That didn't last too long though, sometime after 10pm, the stars slowly disappeared behind a black mass of cloud. It was around then that we battened down the hatches and secured ourselves inside the tent to await the heavy winds and rain overnight. I didn't risk the camera in the rain, but when we awoke the next morning at 06:15, we were well and truly inside the low cloud until it started to clear around midday. On a toss of the coin, we decided to do Wadi Bani Awf on the way back to Muscat, hoping the track down to Balad Sayt would be fine – turns out it was muddy, but safe as houses!
Taking a walk through Bahla's old town, you'd think it deserted long ago, but then out of a small alley walks a local Omani woman carrying a washing basket on her head in the midday heat. Whether she has walked from a more populated area behind the crumbling houses settled next to Bahla's old fort, or emerged from one of many cracked buildings in front of us remains unknown. What mattered, was that locals still roam the lanes and alleys of Bahla's original mud housing estate in their day to day lives.
It was of course pretty empty in the middle of the day, with the sun beaming down on the backs of our necks. The only others wandering around we're a few other tourists hoping for a glance of the newly renovated Bahla fort. Unbeknownst to all of us, the fort was still only on temporary opening hours on Thursdays & Fridays, so the closest we could get was at the rather splendid iron cannon guarding the front entrance from the road. May be another time, I will get the opportunity to see inside this monster of a fort.
Easter weekend meant that I had four days to play with, and having spent a day relaxing around Al Qurum Park and the beach, I felt the need to find a new wadi.
North from Muscat lies Wadi Hawasinah, a short drive from the coastal road. The drive brings you closer back towards the mountain range that spans from the Western Hajar, where Jebel Shams dominates the landscape. Just past the village of Al Ghayzan, the old falaj lies crumbling below a new concrete irrigation canal running on top. The main falaj channel across the wadi is still intact, forming an impressive bridge baked together with stone.
Further down the road lies the entrance to Wadi ad Dil, where the new tarmac road had cut off the obvious entrance to the wadi bed. After a couple of attempts to find a drivable route to the wadi, I set off towards the looming gorge in the distance across a good gravel track. The entrance to the gorge lay beyond a small settlement and a few terraces of date palms and crops.
After scrambling, wading, jumping and walking across a narrow wadi bed, I came to a rock face blocking the canyon. Attached to the boulder was a hefty chain hanging down with stirrups. Known as The Chains, they had been there since at least the early 1900s. The excerpt below describes an expedition by Captain JG Eccles in 1925:
“In the narrowest part the torrent bed drops a sheer 40 feet, and over the precipice thus formed a chain has been hung. Well forged with long, narrow links it is firmly secured between two rocks, but as it is not long enough to reach the bottom a rope has been attached to the further end. The face of the cliff is concave, so that no foothold is obtainable. The tribesmen said that up to twenty years ago there had been only a rope and many had lost their lives by its breaking. They could not name the public-spirited Shaikh who had substituted the chain.”
Although they looked easy to climb, the challenge was slipping my feet into the stirrups that rested on the rock face. Not taxing, but frustrating! There was quite a sense of achievement in getting to the top of the boulder… intact!
Not much further on was an emerald pool of cool water to swim in. The cold waterfall dribbling over the edge of a rock was a welcome reward for surviving the climb!
A short walk along Al Athaiba beach in Muscat brought home the feeling of family. A group of Omanis prepped to play their afternoon game of football on the sand, a father and son played cricket, and a family helped their father clean the fishing boat that had just been pulled back onto the shore.
Al Athaiba beach front felt like a working beach, where the small fishing boats arrive home after a day in the Gulf of Oman and nets are fixed after snagging on a coral below, but it also felt more about the families that rely on the sea.
Was it worth the wait? Hell yes! I'd wanted to go down Snake Canyon since first picking up the guide book over 18 months ago, even before I'd arrived in Oman. Another bonus was that to get there, we needed to go down Wadi Bani Awf once again, somewhere that I will never get bored of. To make the most of the trip, we camped out on the mountain pass between Awf and Wadi Bani Kharous, watching the sunset over a few cold beers!
The next morning we were close enough to Snake Canyon that we could have a lazy morning and pack away at our own pace. Snake Canyon is not one of your usual walks in Oman, but requires a good deal of jumping, swimming and climbing (i.e. canyoning!). Great if there is a good amount of water in the canyon, but not so if there is not enough, or too much. Luckily, the water levels weren't too bad, a little on the low side, but if we had had 2 meters more, there's a couple of places we couldn't have made it through!
There were a few places where a rope would have been handy to lower the first person down into the water to test the depth, but given we didn't have one, we all went first at one point! My turn came in a narrow section of rock that was enclosed each side, giving me half a meter of room and had been carved out by a small waterfall. It was only a drop of 2.5 meters to the water (or a bit more), but when you're hanging of the rock above and realise you can't get back up, there's only one thing to do – let go. I dropped against the back wall, which curved down to the water and plunged chest height into the cool water below. Apart from knocking an elbow as I tried to slow myself, no harm was done, but we still had 5 others to get down the gap!
About 3/4 of the way down the canyon, the walls close in and the floor drops away down below the waters. It's a pretty lengthy swim through a snaking passage, with no idea how deep the water is, but round another few corners lies the treasure of Snake Canyon. With the water levels as they were, we approached an open cave tunnel with stalactites hanging above, dripping in the passage. The sunlight reflected around the cavern creating amazing lighting effects in the water near the exit. If the water level had been a couple of meters higher, there would have been no way through! This was the reason I'm glad I took a camera in a waterproof holder (although the photos weren't great!).
It's safe to say that the cavern was definitely the highlight of the canyon, but the whole stretch of it was stunning, with the afternoon sun skipping over the crest of the gorge. After the initial anxiety of jumping into murky waters, wondering what was below and how deep it was, the rest was a hoot! Given the chance to do it again, and the need to have a car at either end of the gorge, I'd jump at it like a shot!