Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Jebel Shams and Oman’s Grand Canyon

Jebel Shams Oman 004
This road leading to an imposing  mountain reminded me
of Nevada's Basin and Range landscape.

It would be easy to spend a week or two exploring and hiking Oman’s Western Hajar Mountains and wadis. We had only two days. Definitely on the list, though, was Jebel Shams. At 3,009 meters (9,872 feet) Jebel Shams is Oman’s tallest peak. Down below, Wadi Nakhur Gorge is known as Oman’s Grand Canyon.

Jebel Shams Oman 006
This isn't a small fissure. It's a giant, gaping chasm.

Driving toward the massive peaks looming ahead, we began to see huge fractures in the landscape which, as we grew near, we realized were even bigger than they appeared from a distance. What can cause such a rift? Certainly not water, as with the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. We could see that the earth was literally cracked open. For scale, note the trees and ruins in the distance.

Jebel Shams Oman 013
We supported the local weavers.

Part way up the mountain, we stopped at Ghul, to look at the Omani weavings. This mountainous area supports sheep and goats, and Ghul has one of the highest concentrations of weavers. The Omani gentleman pictured here with Mark offered us coffee and dates, and told us that he wove these sheep’s wool rugs. I read in the guidebook that women typically do the spinning, and men do the dyeing and weaving.

We bought the second weaving on the right, with the red center, as well as a camel bag with two pockets that drapes over the animal’s hump (what will I use that for?) and some delicious dates which came in handy later in the day.

Our weaver also told us about the old stone houses across the wadi from the newer village. The people were moved out of the old village, he said, 30 years ago. Back then, there were only 20 people. Now, he said proudly, there are 100! Notice the football (soccer) field in the wadi. Every village, no matter how small, has one of these – at the sea, they are built on the tidal flats.

Jebel Shams Oman 017
Panorama of the old and new Ghul.

Jebel Shams Oman 101
Mark could not bring himself to even approach the fence.

On uphill we drove, until we were literally at the edge of the earth. I wanted to stop and take some photos, and Mark reluctantly pulled over. He seems to be getting more nervous around heights. He only took a few steps away from the car!

Jebel Shams Oman 102
I would need a diaper to go any farther, myself.

Meanwhile, I ventured past the fenced area, to try to get a better look down below. But, no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t get myself close enough to the edge to look straight down. My legs and gut just wouldn’t let me do it.

Jebel Shams Oman 155
Local businessmen

Up here, people in barasti huts were selling woven souvenirs – mostly little trinkets like bracelets and key chains, so Mark and I each bought a handful, but not without spending some time bargaining. I bought from the husband and wife, and Mark bought from the young boys – they were all selling the exact same things, but they said they were three competing businesses, and each wanted us to buy from them!

Finally we came to Al Khitaym, the end of the road. This is one end of a hike called the Abandoned Village Walk, which we’ll do next time, inshallah. There’s an eco-camp named The View up there that I had wanted to check out, but they were booked – and very pricey. So I was interested to see what looked like a group of campers up on the rocks. In Oman and the UAE, you can pretty much camp anywhere. It’s interesting to drive on a weekend night outside of Dubai and see hundreds of cars pulled off of the road, and dozens of campfires just a few meters from the cars whizzing by at top speed. People here love to sit outside around a fire at night, even if it’s just for a few hours, and right next to the street.

Jebel Shams Oman 112
Camping on the hard

This group was obviously European, though. Instead of a Bedouin-style galvanized steel barbecue, they had modern camping gear, which they were packing up while the goats lingered nearby, waiting for something to drop. I sensed that the humans had had enough of the goats.

Jebel Shams Oman 120
Litter is everywhere. I picked up some, but ... sigh.

One hugely disappointing and worrisome thing that we see everywhere we go is the trash problem. It’s twofold: most often, people seem to just discard their trash as they go, throwing water bottles to the ground and plastic bags to the wind. Or, if they do bag trash, they leave the bag where it will crack in the sun and blow apart, or be ravaged by goats.

Jebel Shams Oman 152
Good campers, too few.

I was glad to see these guys hauling their trash away, and I only hope they were going to a secure debris box that wasn’t already overflowing, as is so often the case… still, the whole place was just littered.

Maybe next time we will camp up here for a night. We have chairs, and cots for sleeping, but we don’t have a tent yet. It’s so wonderfully peaceful and quiet up there.

Driving back down the mountain we talked about the need to invent an alternative to plastic – not just biodegradable, but digestible. Then we were struck, as we often are, by a reminder of home in the landscape.Doesn’t that look a little bit like Half Dome? Or, maybe Little Half Dome, on Highway 50 at Strawberry?

It was lunchtime, but Mark wanted to explore the bottom of the canyon, so we took the turnoff back at Ghul, into Wadi Nakhur Gorge or, as the guidebook says, “the heart of the beast.”

Jebel Shams Oman 167
They can hear you before they see you.

The first thing that happened was, as we entered the canyon, a group of village boys ran toward the car. Mark stopped to give them the few candies we had left, but as soon as they looked in the window they started yelling “Dates! DATES!!!”

Jebel Shams Oman 169

So Mark opened the jar to give them some. In a split second, they almost emptied the container, and Mark had to slam the lid back on! I have to agree, though, that those dates are way better than candy.

We threaded our way through the canyon, marveling at the soaring cliffs around us. Once again, we had to turn around and head out before we were ready, swearing we will come back and spend more time, but we didn’t have lunch and our emergency rations, the dates, had been severely depleted.

When we come back, we can do the Abandoned Village Walk into this canyon. The best way to do this, I think, would be to leave one car at the top and one at the bottom. For that you need a friend with a car – which we now have, in Nizwa! But I’m getting ahead of the story.

At this point we were badly in need of food, and it was about 1:00 p.m. We were worried that nothing would be open, as is so often the case between 1:00 and 4:00, so we were relieved to find a little “local” restaurant. They were roasting chickens on a spit outside, so we went in and had a seat. Half chicken and rice? Yes, please. They bring you a little place of freshly sliced cucumber, carrot, and tomato first, and then a half chicken, rice on a separate plate, and a bowl of delicious, spicy sauce. It’s plenty of food, and the locals eat with their fingers, balling up the rice and then grabbing pieces of meat with it. This, as you can imagine, makes quite a mess. As Mark's colleague Abdul Aziz says, “You can always tell where the Arabs have been eating. It’s a (expletive deleted) mess!”

Of course, I was the only woman in the restaurant, and the other tables were filled with locals. But we did see someone we knew! The weaver from Ghul who sold us the rug and dates.

Jebel Shams Oman 188
Al Hoota Cave has formations like these underground.

We still wanted to see the formations in Al Hoota Cave, a local attraction. It used to only be accessible to experienced spelunkers, but the Omani government refurbished it, added facilities including a visitor’s center, and opened it in 2006.
Unfortunately, recent rains had leaked in and damaged the cave, and it was closed for repair. Instead, we went to the geology museum, which I found fascinating, having studied a bit of geology many years ago.

Oman attracts geologists from all over the world. As I walked around the landscape, it had struck me that I was seeing some of the same rocks that I saw in places on the California coast – pillow basalt, formed under the ocean. In the museum, my suspicions were confirmed. Geologists who come to Oman have the opportunity to study rocks that are usually only found in the deepest trenches of the ocean. When the Indian and Asian continental plates came together, the ocean floor heaved up over what is now Oman, instead of being thrust below. Then, over hundreds of millions of years, as the plates continued to move, the crust uplifted and built the mountains we see today. It’s such an interesting and diverse landscape, because there are layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks overlaid by ocean floor, then uplifted and cracked open for us to see. Amazing!

It was a very impressive and professional little museum, with interactive displays. If you like geology, take a look at these photos of some of the exhibits.

Al Hoota Cave (17)
Well if they were getting a photo, so were we.

When we came out of the museum, this family visiting from India wanted us Americans to be in a photo with them.

That evening, we met a new friend. I knew her from her blog, catbirdinoman – a nomad in the land of nizwa, which I’ve been reading for a year. I felt like we had a lot in common. Other than being around the same age and American, we are both teachers, and she loves the outdoors, writing, photography, art, wine … the list goes on. When Mark and I decided to go to Nizwa, I emailed Cathy, and we agreed to meet for dinner.

Catbird (3)
"Oh, hats. Let's put them on for the picture."

What a fun night! I felt like I had known her for … well at least a year. I had somehow neglected to mention my blog in my email to her, so she didn’t know anything about me or Mark. But it didn’t matter! We talked and laughed over a bottle of wine, and exchanged similar stories of the frustrations of being an American living in a foreign country, and an Arab one at that. I admire Cathy because she’s living her dream of traveling. She’s also very open in her blog, writing about her challenges.

I do believe we are kindred spirits. We got together one more time, when Mark and I were on our way back through town and went shopping at the Nizwa souk. She wrote about both meetings in her blog. You can click these links to read them:

A Night at Falaj Daris with a Fellow Blogger
A Morning at Nizwa Souq

Thanks for reading, and may your 2013 be happy, healthy, and filled with simple pleasures.
Jebel Shams Oman 214
One of my favorite things about Oman is the tiny forts dotting the landscape.


Cathy said...

Anne, this is a great story about your trip to Jebel Shams. I think I will take the boys and Mike to Wadi Ghul on one of their last 3 days here. It's fun to see all your pictures and read about Oman from your point of view.

Of course, it was wonderful for me to meet you and Mark too! I do feel we are kindred spirits. :-)

Heather Duncan said...

That was a great blog post, thank you!

I found you on a Google search whilst I write up my own post about camping on Jebel Shams.



Amruta (Green Living in Dubai) said...

Great post Anne! We are planning a camping trip with our little one in Jabel Shams and came across your story. Found it helpful, thanks!