Eastern Arabia, and the UAE in particular, is an Off-Road heaven. Every week-end, between November and the end of March, as the weather finally cools off over the desert, thousands of us from all corners of the Emirates, go out to play in the sand with our toys.
We push their mechanical limits, test our newly installed “upgrades” and acquired gears, showcase our driving skills, as we try to climb up daunting dunes. All that for a nice day of fun before a well-deserved barbeque under the stars among friends and family. However, no matter how great all this Dune-Bashing may be, I am one to believe there is a lot more to off-roading than just turning around the usual local spots. Particularly in a region offering so many adventurous overland routes for the explorer in us.
Living in Dubai and having roamed around dunes for a few seasons, it was time this year to go and search for more. Looking beyond our official playgrounds, I began researching the possibilities our neighbour, the Sultanate of Oman, could offer. For a European expat like myself, the word “Sultanate” alone resonates like an exotic adventure… I think of Sindbad the sailor finding refuge in the many isolated creeks of the coast…The Frankincense of the Dhofar and its world-renown incense… The Bedu’s caravans traveling through the furnace of the desert on their way to some remote oasis… The diverse and exotic wildlife of the lagoons of the Al Wusta shores… Or the rugged mountaineers in isolated settlements, cherishing date gardens in a land where water is a rare treasure.
I began to look at the great and well-described trails designed by Mike Nott, found in his book “Advanced Off-Road Adventure Routes. UAE & Oman” published by our favourite magazine. But most of those were far for me and not necessarily recommended to be done solo. Instead, I wanted to start with something simpler and close enough to be covered during the week-end. The Al Hajar mountains, seemed then the obvious choice, offering an interesting contrast from our beloved desert. Now, maps, “detailed” atlas with all the names of local towns and Hamlets, Wadi or Jebal aren’t easy to come by unless you are in the military. So, to avoid getting lost and to play it safe, I first went with friends with more experience in the area.
Sadly, that first week-end of exploration brought more frustration than joy. I had basically just replaced Dune Bashing with Wadi Bashing. A long drive to reach a remote (and in our case very short) trail, for another barbecue under the same stars before a long drive back home the next day. Having chosen a national holiday to do these just added long hours at the border, and a large party crowd around us all night.
Yet, despite the obvious disenchantment, the majestic landscape had successfully intrigued me enough to give it another shot. What some in our group had discarded as just bare dry rocks, had brought up many unanswered questions. Why those different stone colours, those strange rock alignments, the various lines drawn in them suggesting a pile-up of sorts? Against all odds, I had just discovered a sudden interest for Geology!
The next evenings were spend digging for information’s, trying to make some sense of obscure scientific verbiage, my head buried in dictionaries. Ophiolites, mantle crust, Hawasina, Cretaceous limestone’s, marine sediments, etc, etc… All technical terms familiar to people from the Petroleum industry, but sounding like Chinese to me… The more I advanced through this self-imposed crash course on earth’s local history, the more questions came about. Oman had just revealed itself to me as the magical geological wonderland, curious scientific minds from all over the world have come to study. It was time to go back to the mountains and observe some more.
No point returning to the same trail though, I had to create my own trace based on a combination of researched cultural interests, like the Haffit tombs of Bat and Al Ayn, the ruins of Al Aqli, beautiful villages like Bilad Sayt or Misfat al Abriyyin, the forts of Bahla and Nizwa, etc, and my new geological endeavours. I needed a continuous track through the mountains leading me to my chosen destinations, without having to divert on long and boring road detours. But that is a lot easier said than done! Most interesting tracks following Wadi often lead to dead ends, as very few connect between valleys. However, with perseverance and the necessary luck, I was able to design a serious first path taking me through the Western part of the range. It was now time to go see if what looked so good on Google Earth, was actually feasible by car. Everything looks so easy to pass through on flat satellite images, while rocks, gulley’s, barriers only become noticeable and problematic when you’re confronted with them on site!
Fortunately for me, the first drive turned out very promising. Beautiful sceneries, gorgeous valleys, amazing Wadi, last but not least, extremely hospital people, all along a good mix of well-maintained trails and more rugged transitions, fun climbs and steep descents, all of which, despite a few alterations here and there was a good display of what was soon to follow.
This appetite for knowledge and the need to understand what laid in front of my eyes kept me going. After the Al Hajar al Gharbi, I ventured further on to the Oriental side, the Al Hajar Ash Sharqi, where I found new tracks to climb. Instead of turning around once done, I then prolonged my course through the Wahibah desert, the al Huqf range, the Al Wusta coast, down the Dohfar mountains, all the way to the Yemeni border, all well beyond my original intentions. I had reached the end of the road; it was now time to come back. I couldn’t just take the freeway home, but I knew it wouldn’t be safe to enter the Rub Al Khali on my own either. This next episode needed the company of friends (some excited about the prospect of discovering that part of the desert, others just here to get me back, worried I was to never return!) We met in Salalah where I enjoyed a few days of rest waiting for them before the beginning of our expedition. We had planned to follow portions of the well traced Oman route n° 14 from Mike Nott, and improvised some of our own now and then.
There, lost among grandiose dunes, I saw the sand dance to the rhythm of the winds. The Shamal and the Monsoon, one after the other, shaping dunes as artist’s mold clay, creating beauty for us to admire. Each new mile filled up my GPS device with new way-points, my field notebooks with extra information’s and anecdotes, as well as my camera with more and more pictures.
In the next articles, I will try to describe to you in details what I have seen and learned, along the 4.000 or so kilometres of trails I traced as a result around the Sultanate of Oman during my journey. One that takes you to the best natural, geological but also cultural spots in the country, hoping you too will feel the urge to go out and explore. Not just for the sake of off-roading, but because understanding that what stands in front of you is the result of a fascinating story, a story that makes it all more beautiful to see. ■
Words + Photos by: Paul Robida