Monday, January 23: Today I tell my boys we are driving over the Wester Hajar Mountains on dirt roads, using my Oman Off-Road guide, from between Al Hamra and Al Hoota Cave in the Al-Dakhiliyah region to Rustaq in the Al-Batinah region. I am a little worried about accomplishing this feat, but only because I have heard I “might get lost.” But since I have my trusty guide with a pretty detailed map and instructions, I figure we shouldn’t get lost. We will double-check all landmarks along the way and if we can’t find any one of them, we’ll simply turn around and come back the way we came. The plan is, once we get to Rustaq, to go visit the hot springs there and maybe make a quick stop at Nakhal Fort.
My friend Adil, who I met at Wadi Bani Khalid in November, and who lives near Rustaq, drove over this road one afternoon and popped in, with all his friends, to pay me a visit in my old villa. He made it sound like it was no big deal, just an hour and a half, he said, and only about 70km. No problem.
Things start out fairly well, as we take the road toward Al Hamra, and then take a right on a road signposted for Hat and Balad Sayt. This is a good tarmac road that climbs up the mountain in a series of switchbacks. At the beginning of this road, I think it says 38km to Balad Sayt. At the top of the mountain, right before the point where the map says the road turns to a dirt track, we stop at the viewpoint of Sharafat al Alamayn and get out of the car to see the spectacular view, considered one of the finest panoramas in Oman, across the entire Western Hajar and down towards the coast below. The wind is blowing hard and the air is so frigid, we feel a little worried at this point that we haven’t dressed properly for this excursion. It is freezing!!
We get back in the car and turn on the heat and start driving. At the crest of the mountain, we see three bikers standing at the top, talking and checking their gear. Taking a break of some kind. As we drive by, we all three look at them and wave cheerily. The next thing we know, and not one of us sees this coming, we are bumping over a dirt road full speed ahead and heading toward a knee-high gravel embankment, more like a big bump, on the other side of which is a sheer drop-off. “Watch out!!” the boys yell. I feel it before I see it, the pavement giving way to dirt and gravel, because frankly I am just turning my attention from the bikers to the road. I see what is before me and it isn’t good. I turn the wheel toward the sheer rock wall of the mountain, away from what could have been a long precipitous drop to our deaths!!
Oh my god!! I almost killed myself and my precious cargo, my two darling sons, who have entrusted themselves to my care here in Oman! As soon as we can, we stop the car, and all of us take a deep breath. We are shaken and looking at the treacherous road ahead, wondering if it’s wise to proceed. We decide to go ahead, but slowly and carefully.
We drive cautiously, using my 4WD numerous times to slow our descent down the steep-angled and bumpy dirt track. Luckily, a kind of guard rail of sorts is all along the edge, really just a long continuous knee-high pile of gravel, which gives us some feeling that we’re protected from going off the edge. I doubt that it would really stop my Terrain, however, from the pull of gravity and momentum if we lost control of the car.
It is a long and slow descent, the road worming its way down an almost vertical escarpment, with spectacular views all along the way. These are the kinds of views that take your breath away. We pass by the village of Hat on the right, with a big falaj that tumbles down the mountain. We go through a very rough wadi bed, hard even on my Terrain, and pass two women coming from the opposite direction, from the Rustaq end of the route. They warn, “It’s really rough going ahead.” I say, “Oh no, it was really rough where we came from. I don’t know how much more of this I can take!”
The thing we want to see most is the charming village of Balad Sayt. Described in The Rough Guide to Oman as such: “Tucked away in the folds of the mountains, this Shangri-La-like settlement is one of the most famous traditional villages in Oman, although its size and relative modernity come as something of a surprise given the remote and inhospitable location. The core of the village remains magical, however, with a picturesque pile of small houses, crowned with a tiny fort, sitting above a lush swathe of immaculate terraced fields.”
Oman Off-Road describes two ways to approach the village. They recommend the approach by foot, because “your first views of the town will come after you emerge from an improbable canyon cleft – it’s like discovering a lost city, seeing Petra for the first time.” Having been to Petra in November, and knowing just what it feels like to walk through a canyon and to come upon a hidden treasure, I can’t resist this approach. So, near the wadi bottom, we find the cleft in the canyon, park the car, and climb up into it, following an Omani who we have seen gracefully gliding up into the canyon.
It turns out there are many pools along the way that we must wade through. I roll up my pants legs all the way to my knees, and they still get wet. We have to wade through about 4 of these pools, some quite deep. Finally, after quite an adventure, we arrive in the beautiful village, which is lovely but is not quite Petra!! The actual view as you emerge directly from the canyon is not that magical, although after you’re well out of the canyon, we discover it is a totally charming little village.
We come immediately upon some Omani boys shooting a gun at a target and they let both the boys shoot the gun. We then walk up through the village, where a young man comes out and introduces himself and then takes us on a tour through the village, beside the newly built mosque and through his own family’s plantation. It is lovely, with terraced fields of crops set against the backdrop of the stacked village and the Hajar Mountains. It sits in a bowl in the midst of the brown mountains, an oasis of lush greenery and golden houses. Shangri-La.
After our walk, I tell the boys I will wait at the entrance to the village while they go back through the canyon and the pools and get the car. The young man who has given us the tour offers to accompany them and show them the way. I sit alone for a bit, but then several boys from the village join me. They can speak just rudimentary English, or none at all, so we just take pictures of each other and sit in silence.
Finally the boys return with the car, and we take off for the second half of the drive. The girls we met earlier were right. This part of the drive is much more treacherous and scary than the first part! We drive along a dirt road on which one side is a sheer wall of rock, and on the other side is a straight drop-off into a deep and bottomless canyon. The views are unparalleled, simply spectacular, but driving the road is terrifying.
We pass by Snake Canyon (Wadi Bimmah), which takes its name not from actual slithering reptiles but from the twisting shape. The canyon is a popular destination for adventurous hikers, and supposedly involves daring jumps into rock pools and swimming through ravines. Apparently a number of hikers have died here from raging torrents caused by rain in the mountains above. I don’t think Snake Canyon will be a destination for me.
Later the terrain finally flattens out and we pass by Little Snake Canyon, another smaller cleft in the rock face which is apparently easier to navigate than Snake Canyon proper.
By the time we finally get to Road #13, known as the Ar Rustaq-Nakhal loop, it is 4:30 in the afternoon. We are too tired to search for the hot springs in Rustaq. As a matter of fact, we don’t go to Rustaq at all, but head in the opposite direction, to Nakhal. I want the boys to see Nakhal Fort, but sadly, it closed at 4:00, so we can only see it from the outside.
We decide we all are starving, as we haven’t eaten all day, so we’ll go directly to Muscat to eat at the Turkish House Restaurant, one of my favorite restaurants in Muscat. We drive around and around in circles in Khuwair, and finally, by asking people walking along the road, we finally find it. Though the boys are a little disappointed in the lack of vegetarian options on the menu, they do find a delicious hummus platter on the menu that they devour happily. Food is always a happy ending.