In a land that boasts a natural landscape both unexpected and grandiose, it is Jebel Shams, Oman’s largest canyon, that offers visitors a peaceful retreat from the fast lane. Perhaps the most beautiful of natural escapes in a land filled with them, take a journey with us as we seek out peace at the top of Oman’s highest point.
As we lurch up the steep incline of the towering Al Hajar Mountains, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. Not in the scenery or the drive, but in my notions of what Oman was like, before I visited. The sweeping dunes and swaths of uninhabitable land that had occupied my imagination but weeks ago is now tumbling down the rocky wayside of the reality which we are ascending, and I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that I had subscribed to the postcard image of a dune-ridden Middle East void of towering mountains, rocky gorges and stunning coastlines. Twisting and turning we climb, higher and higher en route to Jebel Shams, one of the many natural masterpieces that call Oman home. But in this land of unimaginable natural beauty, it is Jebel Shams that sits perched above the rest, both literally and figuratively (the highest point not only in Oman but also the GCC region), as a destination unlike any other.
Vast expanses of dry land run directly into towering mountains which cascade down the other side into the sea, and while we’re driving through the valley on the interior-side of the mountain range from Muscat, it is still a sight to behold filled with isolated villages, date-palm oases and the occasional smiling Omani walking to who-knows-where.
To reach Jebel Shams, I hop into a meaty Toyota 4-by-4 with my guide Qais and begin our journey from neighbouring Al Hamra, a 500-year-old stone and mud village that rests quietly in a grove of date palms. Once called the Manhattan of the Middle East, this village is itself worthy of a day-long excursion, and though a few people still call the town home, it feels more ghost-town than mid-town. Narrow corridors and partially-collapsed buildings stand in rows next to buildings which have yet to crumble. “In time,” my guide Qais says as he nervously watches me weave between the flights of half-eroded staircases, “they’ll most likely all collapse, but before then, we’ve got a beautiful remnant of the old world.” Beautiful indeed, but for us, it’s not the destination we’re going for today, and so we slowly emerge from the oasis and hit the winding road that takes us to one of the highest points in Oman.
More of these old-world villages line the road as we continue our ascent, some tucked into craggy valleys and others atop sharp ridges, but what really grabs my eye as we continue to rise is the view of the lowlands behind us. For many visiting the Middle East, there are fantasies of ever-changing dunes and camel caravans that dot the land, but in northern Oman, you’ll find more mountains than dunes. With the Al Hajar Mountain Range spanning over 700 kilometres, and running parallel to the coastline, driving through northern Oman is a breath-taking journey. Vast expanses of dry land run directly into towering mountains which cascade down the other side into the sea, and while we’re driving through the valley on the interior-side of the mountain range from Muscat, it is still a sight to behold filled with isolated villages, date-palm oases and the occasional smiling Omani walking to who-knows-where.
As we climb higher and higher, Qais continues calling out the altitude, we’re now nearly 3,000 metres up and a few short minutes away from our destination. “You can’t go all the way to the top,” he explains, “as the military uses the land for a base,” but it mattered not when we arrived at the second highest point. We pull off the asphalt onto the dirt patch that leads up to the canyon edge, and park the truck mere metres away from a gruesome plummet. A few flimsy cable fences that stand about waist high span certain parts of the canyon edge, but I find the section that doesn’t, and climb out to the edge to peer down into the two-kilometre-deep gorge. To my surprise, a village rests squarely in the centre of the rocky valley, and Qais informs me that the inhabitants moved elsewhere only several years back. There aren’t any tourists aside from myself. The breeze is gentle and refreshing, and looking out over one of the largest canyons in the world, you can see the backdrop of the expansive oasis-dotted lowlands and various other peaks of the undisturbed Al Hajar Mountains. It’s serene here, and in the silence you can’t help but feel the pull of this natural destination. With a few goats meandering behind as their shepherd naps under a wooden shanty, it is here in Oman that one can truly find peace.
Aside from merely taking in the views — which is as good as any reason to visit — there are also several resorts that sit high up in the Al Hajar Mountains that offer biking tours, hikes and lodging options for those wanting to stay in the Omani heights for longer than a day. And for those who seek thrills, Jebel Shams is also fast becoming a mountain climbing and bouldering destination amongst the hard-core, and Qais reckons that in due time, it will be for these reasons that the “Omani Grand Canyon,” as he calls it, will really take off. For those with families, however, you can never go wrong with bringing along snacks to have a relaxing picnic on the canyon’s edge as the sun drops behind the expansive Omani landscape.
“While we didn’t go on any absurd mountaineering adventure, I feel that we experienced Jebel Shams as it should be experienced. In peace.”
At about 240 kilometres from Muscat, if travellers are set on making a day trip of Jebel Shams from the capital, they’ll have to leave at the crack of dawn and make the return trip in the evening after sunset, though luckily there are several options for travellers looking to make the trip a more lengthy engagement. Aside from the few lodges that sit near the canyon atop the Al Hajar Mountains, the nearest city of note to Jebel Shams is Nizwa, which is a destination in and of itself. Known as the ‘Egg of Islam’, for its ties to early Islamic practice, scholarship, and academia, this city boasts an impressive old-world fort and mosque, and a humming weekend market where cattle, goats and sheep are auctioned off to the most anxious bidder. Al Hamra is also not far from Jebel Shams, and at about an hour’s drive from both Nizwa and the canyon, staying here at the ridge-top hotel The Peak isn’t a bad way to take in both destinations, as well as the views of both the old town below and the mountain tops that surround.
And so as the wind picks up and the temperature drops, it appears it’s time for us to leave and make our way back down the winding mountain pass. While we didn’t go on any absurd mountaineering adventure, I feel that we experienced Jebel Shams as it should be experienced: in peace. And overlooking the pristine Omani landscape, it feels to me as though there isn’t any other way it should be done. Neither a trip that will overwhelm with things to do, nor a trip that will flood your mind with historical, cultural and artistic elements, journeying to Jebel Shams is a natural escape in a world that is quickly becoming void of them. And for those who have mistaken Oman’s rugged interior for that of its sand-laden neighbours, it’s definitely an eye-opening experience. Though it seems to me that if one is to make Oman a destination to see, this would have to top the list, and not just for the whimsical views that are hard to find elsewhere in the world, but because of all that it represents of both Oman and the Omani people. Jebel Shams is unassuming, unheralded, and relatively unknown to much of the global traveling community, but perhaps it is for those reasons that it is even more captivating once you get there.
(Featured image: Jebel Shams is the highest point in Oman and the GCC region, and while the apex cannot be reached due to military use, the view over Jebel Shams comes in at a close second. With several small cable fences lining the edge at waist height, the view is unobstructed and allows visitors to overlook the surrounding Al Hajar Mountains and the lowlands that run into the mountain range.)