A walk on the wild side of Oman
FOR a country that’s in large part arid wasteland and barren mountainous terrain, Oman offers a surprisingly wide range of opportunities for eco-tourism. Nature lovers can choose from a diverse spectrum of recreational pursuits that include bird watching, mountain-climbing, dolphin and whale watching, spelunking (cave tourism), scuba diving and snorkelling, adventure tours of wadis and deserts, turtle watching, geological tours, and camping, among others.
Now, thanks to a two-year-long initiative by the Ministry of Tourism, a new recreational pastime is taking hold in the Sultanate. Trekking — or hiking — is drawing scores of nature enthusiasts and adventure-seekers to scenic areas around the Interior region, as well as Muscat Governorate. More than 90 kilometres in nature trails have so far been created by the ministry with the assistance of a leading European expert on nature tourism. Further trails are proposed to be added in other areas of the country.
Around a dozen trekking routes (also called ‘Walking Paths’) have been marked and sign-posted, mainly around the Western and Eastern Hajar Mountains. These offer local trekking buffs the opportunity of a ramble on the wild side of Oman, well off the beaten track. Trekking is by far the most ideal way of enjoying Oman’s varied landscapes. It is also touted as a healthy, accessible and safe activity that can be enjoyed by everyone absolutely for free.
In Britain, for example, walking is the most popular outdoor recreation rated far above swimming and other physical activities, according to a survey.
Around 38 million people say they walk for pleasure at least once a month. In 2001, 65.5 million domestic tourist trips throughout the UK included walking for recreation as one of the activities undertaken. In Oman, the trekking season corresponds to the tourism season, extending from October to April. However, nature trails located 1,900-plus metres above sea level attract trekkers all year round.
While inveterate hikers will find these self-guiding trails relatively simple to tackle, the inexperienced can turn to any of a number of tour operators and guides who now organise treks as part of their offering of tour packages. A handful of these operators also go so far as to provide donkey porters, guides (who double as cooks), tents, sleeping bags and transport to and from the starting point.
The nature trails have been classified into three grades each suited for a certain category of trekker based on their experience and endurance. Grade 1 treks are essentially short distance, low altitude trails with hardly any steep ascents, and thus suitable for novices. Still, they come with all the excitement of a regular nature ramble through spectacular countryside dotted by, say, terraced gardens and picture postcard villages set alongside precipitous gorges.
Grade 2 treks are generally higher altitude trails punctuated by steep ascents and descents that usually take between 4 to 9 hours to cover. These walking paths afford spectacular views of majestic mountain summits, but previous trekking experience is recommended. Grade 3 treks, on the other hand, are suited only for seasoned hikers with previous mountain walking and scrambling experience.
These long-haul trails involve arduous ascents and some scrambling too. Of the 12 nature trails that are already marked and signposted, one is in Muscat Governorate (C38), three are in the Jabal Shams area of the Western Hajar (W4, W6 and W6a), one in central Al Jabal al Akhdar (W18b), three in the Western Hajar (W8, W9 and W10h), three in the Eastern Al Jabal al Akhdar (W24a, W24b and W25), and one in the Eastern Hajar (E35).
These tracks are well delineated with yellow, white and red markers to help keep hikers from going astray. More such walking paths are proposed to be progressively added to the list, notably in Musandam Governorate and Salalah. In the Muscat region, two new trails are under development in the hills overlooking the turquoise waters of Bandar Jissah.
Keen to popularise these nature trails, and highlight their importance to developing sustainable tourism in the Sultanate, the Ministry of Tourism is compiling a guidebook that offers complete details about the trekking paths, along with maps of their location, and useful tips on how to make the most of a safe and enjoyable ramble along these trails. The book is due to be published before the year-end.
Oman’s nature trails at a glance:
C38 (Riyam Park — Muttrah): Ideal for beginners, this 2.5km trail starts from near the corniche branch of BankMuscat. Walking time is around two hours. The trek affords splendid views of the harbour and skirts an abandoned village en route. (Grade 1).
Western Hajar — Jabal Shams:
W4: This 9km hike starts from the Jabal Shams Plateau and skirts the rim of the Grand Canyon all the way to the summit of Jabal Shams. En route are breathtaking panoramas of Jabal al Khawr and Jabal Misht, as well as views into Wadi Sahtan. Walking time is around 5-6 hours (one way), while the trail climbs from 1,900 to 3,000 metres. (Grade 2)
W6: Snaking along the steep canyon walls, this relatively simple, yet exciting stroll starts from Al Khatim village in Jabal Shams Plateau and culminates at the ruins of an ancient village. The 4km hike takes about 75 minutes to cover. (Grade 1) W6a: A slightly tougher challenge, this 6km trail runs along the western rim of the Nakhr gorge down to the mouth of Wadi Nakhr. It also starts at Al Khatim village, descending from an altitude of 1,950 metres to 700 metres. (Grade 1 to 2)
Central Al Jabal al Akhdar:
W18b (Al Aqar — Al Ain — Saiq village): This delightful trek takes hikers through the terraced gardens of Al Jabal al Akhdar with magnificent views of Wadi Muaydin in the distance. This 4km trail, connecting all the villages on Saiq plateau, starts either from Al Aqar or Saiq village. Walking time is 2-2½ hours.
W8, W9 and W10h: These treks are set along donkey trails crisscrossing the Western Hajar. One adventure-filled trail, W8, starts from Bilad Sayt in Wadi Bani Awf and travels 5km to the high point joining the trail down to Misfat al Abriyeen in Al Hamra Wilayat.
The route, rated as Grade 3 and thus recommended only for seasoned hikers, traverses old stone pathways along the northern edge of mountains and affords stunning vistas of Wadi Bani Awf and Bilad Sayt. It then runs through a high plateau and descends on the south side past old hamlets towards the picture book mountain village of Misfat al Abriyeen. Alternatively, the walk can commence at an altitude of 2,000 metres at the highest point along Haat road.
W9 is a relatively mild Grade 2 hike (9km) with an altitude differential of 1,100 metres. It can be combined with the challenging W8 trek, which descends down to Bilad Sayt, or with W10h, a standard Grade 1 trek (4km) that runs along ridges towards the highest point of the Haat road in Wadi Bani Awf to Al Hamra. Walking time for W8 and W9 combined is 7-8 hours, while W10h can be covered in just two hours.
Eastern Al Jabal al Akhdar:
W25, W24a and W24b: These trails involve roundtrips encompassing delightful terraced gardens in Wakan all the way up to the Saiq plateau rim with splendid views of the Gubrah Bowl (W25), then descend through rock balconies to Hadesh (W24a) and further on via Al Qurah back to Wakan (W24b). From the intersection of W25/W24a it is also possible to walk to Manakhir on the Saiq plateau (4km). Walking time is about 7-8 hours for W25 — W24a, and just three hours for W24b. All three are Grade 2 trails.
E35 (Wadi Tiwi — Wadi Bani Khalid): Billed as every trekker’s dream ramble, this 30km hike begins on the coast and then goes up, traversing en route a 2,200-metre high plateau before descending to a green oasis. Rated Grade 2 and Grade 3, total walking time is 12-14 hours.