Great Outings for the Summer Months
Many people may think that getting outdoors, and especially camping, in the summer is just not an option… well they would be wrong. Across the border in Oman, in the Hajar mountain range, Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar both offer opportunities for camping in the hottest months of the year.
Jebel Shams (The Mountain of The Sun) is the highest mountain in Oman, at about 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) high. This means that even if it’s a sweltering 45 degrees Celsius at the base, by the time you make it to the end of the road, there’s usually about a 20 degree difference and it even gets chilly at night. The tarmac road leads to a viewpoint with some pretty spectacular views down into Wadi an Nakhur, which is often referred to as the Grand Canyon of Oman.
The drive from the border crossing in Al Ain (Jebel Hafeet / Mezyad border post) to the base of Jebel Shams usually takes a bit under 3 hours including the border crossing. Once through the border be sure to fill up with fuel as it is cheaper in Oman and the frequency of stations lessens. Take the immaculate two lane highway in the direction of Ibri, and once you get there, a good pit stop is the small Rainbow Café on the roundabout which signposts the way to Salalah. This little café arguably makes the best egg paratha sandwiches in town (N 23° 12.947’ E 056° 29.475’).
The less adventurous may prefer to indulge in a Biryani at the Ibri Oasis Hotel, which also provides clean and adequate accommodation, and is a good place to stay on a Thursday evening if you decide to get a head start on the drive to Jebel Shams. (Tel: +971 2 568 9955 – one of the first buildings on the left as you reach Ibri).
On leaving Ibri, keep a look out to your right for the ruins of the old town of Al Sulaif, perched on the edge of a small cliff overlooking the wadi. There is a small turn off to the ruins at the point at which the main road goes down to one lane. It’s a good place to explore in the winter months, but give it a miss if you’re passing by during the midday heat of the summer.
Beware of some creative driving habits on this Ibri to Niwza stretch of the road, and take care when overtaking, as the undulations in the road can sometime hide whole lorries coming towards you.
Once you reach Jibreen, if you have time, visit the beautiful Jibreen castle, which is signposted from the main road. Constructed in 1670 and once a centre of power and knowledge in the region, its intricate woodwork and colourful ceilings illustrate the prosperity derived from the falaj system, which enabled the inhabitants to develop agriculture and industry many miles from the original source of water in the surrounding mountains (N 22° 54.931’ E 057° 14.969’). The fort is closed on Fridays, but the clean bathroom facilities are usually left open, and the trees in the car park offer shade for a quick picnic.
Rejoin the main road and continue in the direction of Bahla. Fabled by some to be a centre for black magic, the colossal Bahla fort is a far more tangible attraction. The fort is a World Heritage Site and the restoration process, which has been underway since 1993, looks close to completion.
The clay rich soils which are found on the plains surrounding the Western Hajar Mountains formed the base of one of the region’s main industries, which was pottery. Nowadays Bahla is one of the few towns where the pottery industry is still relatively active, and if you venture into the side streets opposite the fort you may come across one of the few remaining workshops. A Bahla produced incense burner or hanging water jar (jahlah) would make an authentic souvenir of your visit.
Take the next major left turn after Bahla, which is signposted “Al Hamra, Wadi Ghul and Jebel Shams.” The road goes past the turn off to the Al Hoota Caves, which offer trips into a large underground cavern via tram (tram not always functioning), and then look out for the petrol station on the outskirts of Al Hamra, where you should make a left turn onto the Jebel Shams road.
If you were to continue through Al Hamra, and take the road up the mountain in front of you, you will come to Misfat Al Abriyyin. Misfat is a stunning small village nestled in its rich green date plantations, laced with an intricate falaj system. Unfortunately, as a result of irresponsible tourists tramping through the village, visitors have sometime received an unusually hostile reception. There is a viewpoint in the car park opposite the village, where the best photographs can be made without disturbing the inhabitants.
Continuing towards Jebel Shams from the petrol station in Al Hamra, you will come to the first significant bend in the road after about 9 kilometres. Keep your eyes peeled for the abandoned village of Ghul on the opposite side of the wadi. Built from the same rocks as the mountainside it stands on, it’s easy to miss this little picturesque gem. If you have the energy to explore the ruins, there are some trees in the wadi which provide a little shade for parking. This is also the start of a footpath which leads up to Al Khitaym on the Jebel Shams plateau (a 4 hour ascent).
You may also like to consider continuing up Wadi an Nakhur to admire the sheer rock faces which make up the Grand Canyon of Oman. The track becomes narrow in parts, with only a small turning area in the village at the end, and therefore this is not a route for groups of more than three cars.
Not long after the village of Ghul the road begins its ascent of Jebel Shams, with an initial section of hairpin bends. Although it is a tarmac road all the way up, it is worth checking your brakes, and ensuring that you know how to engage four wheel drive on your car, before you tackle the mountain.
Once you reach the first plateau, you will already notice a drop in temperature. Small barasti shelters offer shady pit stops, and sometimes house the rug salesmen and women which are intrinsic to the character of Jebel Shams. The sheep and goats which you will see hopping across the rocks are the source for the main component of the rug weaving industry, with wild mountain indigo and the skin of pomegranates traditionally producing the dye. The dense wood of the wild olive trees (sidr) is ideal for the manufacture of the tools and looms required in the weaving process.
If you are lucky, you may experience one of the not so infrequent summer rainstorms. These heavy downpours, often characterised by bouts of thunder and lightning, although welcome, can also be treacherous, and it is important to stay out of wadis and obvious water courses and quickly reach higher ground if you even suspect it has been raining further up the mountain, or if it looks like rain is on the way. There have been numerous cases of ill-informed tourists being swept to their deaths by walls of water which race through the wadis after rainfall.
Keep following the tarmac road across the plateau and up the second steep ascent. A second small plateau offers mediocre camping opportunities, but is the start of the summit trek for those adventurous enough to scale the mountain on foot.
The final small ascent brings you to the canyon edge and the end of the expedition. Hold onto children and pets when approaching the viewpoint, as the edge of the sheer cliff is sometimes badly defined.
Unsurprisingly, given the climate, the plateau is well inhabited, and may find yourself being the focal point of an impromptu gathering of persistent entrepreneurs, determined to sell you a rug or key ring. However, if you set off on your explorations in a purposeful manner, you may escape with at least a few Omani Rials left in your wallet.
Unless you are one of the rare breed of Middle East campers who is willing to shoulder their tent and supplies and hike to a nice spot, the large plateaus on Jebel Shams mean that you will find it difficult to find a secluded camping spot. Nevertheless, only the goats are likely to disturb you if you pitch tent within view of the road on the lower plateau. The Jebel Shams Motel, which is a little past the Grand Canyon viewpoint on the main road, offers camping spaces and bathroom facilities, and is a good alternative if you want to enjoy the pleasant weather on the mountain for at least one night.
Make your descent of the mountain slowly and carefully, using high gears (one and two) or even low range on the steeper sections. You should be able to tackle the steepest sections in low range, barely touching your brakes.
• This is a long trip from Dubai or Abu Dhabi. It is worth leaving on a Thursday evening, or taking an extra day off to reduce the amount of driving.
• Please remember to camp and explore responsibly. Protect the flora and fauna by taking your rubbish home, picking up other people’s rubbish and by staying on the beaten track. If you plan to make a fire, then take your own wood. The mountain climate is very harsh, thus everything has taken a long time to grow, and the local population harvest the wood and shrubs for their own use.
• The days usually consist of intensive sunshine, and the nights are often cool. Rain is not unusual. Good sun cream, some warm clothing, and a shelter to camp under (tent or awning) are therefore advisable. Mosquitos can be a nuisance if it has rained.
• Unlike the desert, finding a flat, rock free spot in which to pitch a tent can be challenging. When camping in the mountains many people opt to sleep in the back of the car, or on camping beds. A rooftop tent is of course the most luxurious option, and is favoured by those who camp on a regular basis. Due to the nature of the terrain it’s often not easy to find a large camping spot in the mountains. It is therefore advisable to travel in smaller groups, of a maximum of three or four cars.
• If your car has a small fuel tank you may wish to take a jerry can of petrol. It is not unusual for petrol stations to run out of supplies in Oman.
• Remember to take your passport, car registration papers and valid Oman car insurance. Check whether you need to apply for an Omani visa in advance.
Article courtesy of Blingmytruck.com