What if you had an awe-inspiring mountain range almost entirely to yourself? Throw in some inspiring views, a few tender young bleating goats for company, and no milling tourists for miles. An irresistible idea, isn’t it?
Welcome to the Grand Canyon of Arabia, located in the Jebel Shams mountains in Oman. It is one of the country’s well-kept secrets, a premier attraction that offers eye-popping views. A rare geological formation with stark, barren and breathtakingly beautiful dark hills, Jebel Shams or the ‘mountain of the sun’ is 9,872 feet high, and extends hundreds of miles into the Western Hajar Mountains.
After driving away from the capital city, Muscat, on impeccable roads for 200 kilometres via Fanjah, Izki and Nizwa, our land cruiser takes a detour and enters the craggy and jagged mountains. The inclining roads give way to imposing landscapes, their greyish hues unfolding and dominating the view. In a rare display of defiance, I see a speck of green here and a shrub there. Mostly thorny acacia is all that grows on the otherwise bone-dry, rocky mountains. As we zig-zag through the flat mud roads, native goats playfully gather to feast on these patches with great relish.
Piercing the silence of the valley, our land cruiser roars ahead with dust flying around, into the heart of Oman’s hinterlands. A physical and psychologically challenging trail. The vehicle bounces and sways with the sharp bends and deep gorges, dangerously negotiating along the edge. A perilous and adrenaline-filled ride, these mountains offer a perfect place for climbing, mountain biking, hiking, and trekking. During the rainy season, the trek can become dangerous, and is best not undertaken.
After a stomach-girdling three-hour drive up the hills, my bones feel shaken. Once atop, I jump out of the vehicle to regain my posture. A sense of triumph prevails. The canyon is around a kilometre deep, with panoramic views of the mountains and villages that spread below. The rugged appeal and the grey and black hues of the mountains not only stimulate, but also charm one’s senses. Here, you can experience nature, and that too at its grandest.
For those who do not want to go on a four-wheel drive, you can hike for four hours into the canyon, walking along the rim. The trails are very steep and are not for the faint-hearted. The path traverses into what is called the Balcony Walk, filled with perilous-looking terraces and dilapidated stone huts made of stacked rocks, which give a glimpse of those who lived a life on the edge till just a few decades ago.
The Jebel Shams took its spectacular shape due to a rip in the Earth’s surface caused by continental drift. The Indian and Asian plates collided million of years ago and pushed the bottom of a basin known as the Tethys Sea up at a sharp angle. This resulted in this powerful, imposing and yet still relatively young formation.
I round off the trip with a visit to the Al Hoota Cave, believed to be two million years old and the only show cave in the Arabian Peninsula stretching up to four-and-a-half kilometres. It has some stalagmite and stalactite deposits, shaped in different, dramatic forms over aeons. The cave’s lighting accentuates the visual appeal and the sense of theatre for visitors.
My last stop for the day is the Misfat Al Abriyeen village. A green carpet of terraced fields, it is irrigated by a system of aflaj (canals) constructed more than 1,500 years ago. Oman’s aflaj is of such cultural significance that it has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. You will see bananas, pomegranates, papayas, mangoes, citrus trees and of course, palm trees growing in the middle of arid mountains.
Someone once said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do, than by the ones you did do.” For all those adventure junkies seeking a unique adrenalin rush, the Grand Canyon of Arabia should be one that you do.
>) Oman Air and Air India have daily flights from Delhi, Mumbai and other cities in India to Muscat.
>) Jebel Shams is a three-hour drive from Muscat. You travel via Fanjah, Izki and Nizwa. The entire trip can last between 8-10 hours. There are multiple tour operators to choose from (see omandaytours.com).
WHERE TO STAY
>) Sifawy is a boutique hotel located inside the Jebel Sifa resort. The hotel is a blend of European and Omani styles and is a 45-min drive from Muscat (from $130)
>) The Hilton Garden Inn is a comfortable four-star accommodation in the heart of Muscat (from $83).
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
>) Visit the souk at Mutrah Corniche to experience a traditional Arab market that sells a wide variety of Omani products.
>) Catch a show at the Royal Opera House
>) Experience modern Islamic architecture at the Grand Mosque, gifted to Oman by Sultan Qaboos to celebrate 30 years of his reign.
>) The Al Alam Palace, the National Museum and Bait Al Zubair are popular tourist attractions.
>) To soak in the history of the country, visit Al Jalali fort and Fort Al-Mirani.