• Kirsty Lovell

Snake Canyon - A Leap of Faith

Setting off in our big red jeep early on a Friday morning to explore the mountains and wadis of Oman triggered a wave of excitement and merriment amongst our group. A quick rendezvous at an ADNOC to fill up on fuel, and more importantly coffee (this one has a barista, we were happy) an off we went.

The E22 to Al Ain evokes great memories. The criss-crossing highways soon give way to one long, straight road flanked by the increasingly red sand dunes, which characterise ‘the Al Ain road’. Happily, we left behind the white sands of Al Whathba in the hope of snapping a camel or two shackled up together in the back of farmer’s truck. We were not disappointed. Half an hour down the road those camels made themselves visible and my map-reader in the passenger seat snapped away in delight. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been on that road, the camel shots are always irresistible.

Our route took us to the Mezyad border just outside Al Ain. With the new online Visa application process the crossing was smooth. The Emirati lady at immigration gave us our exit stamp and slips of paper with incomprehensible Arabic that need to be handed in at the next window. Woe betide you forget the paper with the scribble which confirms the number of people travelling in the car – or as we once did drive off without handing it in, only to be chased down by the police a few miles later. As now seasoned Omani border crossers, we held on to that paper, handed it over when asked and smoothly exited into Oman onto the road to Ibri.

As we headed towards the mountains there is a plethora of roundabouts requiring the driver’s attention. Mostly, its straight-on but eventually there is a left turn. As conversation flowed in the car, music blearing just above the deep hum of the jeep’s noisy wheels, we very nearly missed it. A last-minute sharp steering manoeuvre and off we headed up into the jagged Hajar mountains.

We arrived at the last small village before the serious off-roading began. For practical purposes we left one car here and decided that we would all travel in the jeep to the guest house an hour down the track at the foot of the canyon. The track into the wadi is not for the faint hearted; experience in off-road driving is essential. The cliff edge has a vertical drop and although the track is fairly well maintained and the edges have a buffer of rocks, a wrong move could be devastating. It was here that all the ladies in the car, used to being in charge, had to move out of their driving seats and trust that I would get them to our destination. The car was not without tension!

The track begins with a bumpy but level surface. Then as we moved slowly inwards, the ladies held on with gripping hands to the back of the seats, seatbelts firmly fastened. “Turn right!” declared my co-pilot and off we climbed through a small gap between the rocks. Yes, the track was steep, there were many sharp turns, and drops were almost vertical, but the scenery was breath-taking, and the group began to stop gripping the handles and stared appreciatively out of the windows. We stopped for photos and then pressed-on conscious of the time and hours left of light.

The little guesthouse was run by Deep, a gentle Nepalese. The guest house was camouflaged between the rocks at the bottom of a dry wadi bed. As we inched towards the iron gate, its charm became more apparent. A simple place combining Omani and Nepalese echoes, which was to be our home for the next 24 hours.

We were warmly greeted and shown to our dorms, which were clean and spotlessly tidy. We shared a bathroom with piping hot water and complimentary toiletries. There were also double rooms available with en suites.

A small majilis outside our rooms would be a perfect place to rest and read. However, no rest yet - with around an hour of sunlight left an investigation into the hills behind the guesthouse was agreed. There were markings on the rocks to help navigate and we explored until the sun began to set when we eagerly returned to the al fresco dining area. Deep told us they had an enclosed kitchen, but that guests had said they preferred to see and smell the food being cooked for them. We agreed with this as the smells were mouth-watering and the chefs very friendly. Our simple meal was delicious, a selection of meat, vegetables, salads and daal.

The day of travel was taking its toll and we gratefully retreated to our beds. Our start would be early, as we were to meet our Omani guide, Rashid and head to Snake Canyon around 8am. The curious meeting point was an astro-turf football pitch back on that windy track towards the ancient village of Balad Sayt. We were to have lunch in the village at the guide’s family home after our canyoning.

Rashid and his brothers were waiting for us as we parked the red jeep by the artificial green football pitch. No one was playing on it then, but later the children from the surrounding villages would meet, and play, and laugh there. After the introductions, we were given harnesses, life jackets and hard hats. And were off.

The canyon entrance is on an unremarkable bend in the road. We climbed out of cars, relinquished the keys to be met with the car at the other end, and fussed over our valuables now enclosed in a dry bag. Really, our guide Zahir, Rashid’s brother could have carried everything but we were happy to have phones for photos and an underwater camera for action shots.

The first manoeuvre in the canyon is a 20-feet abseil! The karabiner is affixed to a bolt on the rock. Zahir went first and Rashid was there to make sure we all were safe and didn’t have second thoughts. My co-pilot decided she would be next to tackle the decent. With trepidation she let out her rope and lent back and then visible signs of relief flooded across her face as she danced down the rock to Zahir below.

Wadi Bani Awf is a mixture of scrambling across rocks, wadi paths and swimming through pools; there are two big abseiling moments. We had just completed the first. A small group of moderately fit adults should complete the canyon in 3.5 hours. Rashid had left us to it, confident in his brother and our abilities. A splinter faction of our group decided they would prefer to hike in the mountains rather than tackle the canyon and he and another brother Talib were to take them on their hike. Zahir was great company and answered many questions about his family and daughters. Perhaps he would train them at guides when they were a bit older…. Perhaps, he grinned shyly.

The second abseil is the most impressive, and challenging, in the canyon. Around 30 metres long, the descent is a little tricky and the route down need footwork attention through cervices and over boulders. As I looked around at the rocks and pools below any fears of height, ropes or landing disappeared. It was wonderful! The others followed successfully and they rested for a moment, high on their achievement and the surroundings. Zahir smiled at them knowingly, no doubt he had seen this sense of satisfaction on many faces before.

The rest of the wadi consisted of more pools and swimming. This kept us cool, and with life jackets we were able to bob around in the water and take in the awe-inspiring surroundings. We scrambled, we swam and then in front of us was a slightly larger drop into a dark blue-black pool below. Zahir flung himself in and Emma and I followed. Then a funny thing happened. My co-pilot, so confident and competent in so many ways, hesitated as she stepped to the edge of the rocks, contemplating her plunge into the water below. I waited, camera ready for the money shot, but then she didn’t jump. She didn’t step forward. Her triumphant abseiling had perhaps masked her fear of these drops into the water. So, there she stood, procrastinating over footholds, whether to sit, stand, kneel or fling herself off the rock. And in those few seconds we watched her facial expressions closely. As her guides, both Zahir and I were aware that this was a crucial moment. I swam back towards her and we spoke words of encouragement. We held our breaths, she looked from one to the other of us and then she smiled and in she leapt!

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