Volume 34 Number 3 Article 4
Adventure in Oman
After living in Nigeria for four years, we recently moved to Oman. We are now living in Muscat. The country is a dream come true for the outdoor enthusiast and budding geologists. There are huge mountain chains, stony deserts, sand deserts, a vast coastline and caves. Most trips involve a lot of off road driving... and then there is the heat. A very different environment to that which most of us are familiar with.
So. What do you do in the middle of summer in Oman, when it's 45 degrees or more in the shade? Before describing my first caving trip I will narrate a little story to set the scene of conditions over here in Oman. A few weekends ago we decided to go walking in the mountains close to Muscat. Our intention was to walk up a gorge to a low pass at 2000 m. This would give us some fantastic views down into the huge Gubrah Bowl, a huge eroded anticline some 20 km wide. I had been part way up on a previous walk, about a third of the way I had guessed, following a route described as a "Day Out" in a local magazine. The only maps available here are 1:100,000, and the detail on these maps is sparse to say the least. What gave me hope of a route out to the top, and which hatched the walking trip, was the fact that we had passed several shepherds coming down the gorge with their goat herds. My Arabic was poor, but after plenty of hand waving and pointing up to the hills "Jabal" "Jabal" (I work on the principle that if you say everything twice that it always translates?). I mentioned the names of the two villages on the other side of the pass " Wekan" Wekan" - "Hamra" "Hamra". The experienced nods did indeed indicate a route over. Then we had a session on pointing at watches to see if we could get a feel for the time it would take to go to the pass... answers varied from 1 hr to 7hrs, depending on how much the guy puffed up his chest and flexed his muscles or indicated how strong his legs were. The next problem was how to beat the sun. Start by 5:30 am, climb the 1200 m, then you can sweat your way back down. We talked to some of the walkers and asked how they did things and how much water we would need to carry. We spent the next week planning the trip.
Party: Paul & Elvira Saville, Walter Morrison & Brian McDevitt.
We woke by 3:30 am, an Alpine start. I picked up the rest of the party and we drove to the hills. By 5:30 we were indeed walking. We each carried 6 litres of water. The trendy amongst us had Isostar. I had indeed decided that to drink lots of sugar and salt in your liquid was good, so I made my own "Savilade". Strangely enough on our regular stops the Isostar flowed freely and everyone had quenched their thirst sufficiently to always refuse a good quaff of my Savilade. Humph ... still I thought that when they have run out they will grovel for swigs of my amber nectar. It didn't taste so bad.
By 7:00 am we were at my previous end point. Virgin territory now. The sun however had played a dirty trick on us and was already blasting down into the canyon. There was little shade. There was also no path. We continued to scramble over boulders in the Wadi bottom. (A wadi is the term for a valley, gorge or canyon anything from a few metres to several km across). At several places it was not possible to follow the stream bed. Instead we walked up steeply inclined bed rock shelves of around 45 degrees. After 100 m or so the stream bed would have climbed up below, bent around the shoulder and you could again rejoin it. However, on two occasions these sloping shelves simply carried on up to the sky line and when we approached the shoulder point we were faced with 30 m drops back into the wadi. No other course of action than to return. Very time consuming and tiring in the heat. It was now over 50 degrees in the sun. A local shepherd passed us on the way down, he had no doubt observed us bimbling around on one of these excursions. He shouted and waved his hands to guide us onto the right route. We climbed up a steep slope for 200 m and at the top we found that the wadi had opened up into a huge bowl. The mountain walls had stepped back and several side wadis merged with the main river bed. We had a rest and drank. Still no one drank my Savilade... it really didn't taste so bad, just a little salty. I likened it to drinking warm sea water, with a twist of lemon... yeah I decided to spice it up a bit with lots of jiff lemon juice. After all Vitamins are good for you.
We were then surprised when we saw our shepherd. He had run up to join us. There then followed a classic session of greetings, offering water etc., which he always refused. I hate it when they do that. The doubt really sets in then. How do these guys do it? They carry no water. Nothing, save a knife or a rifle. Meanwhile we had quaffed half our water. The amount that you sweat is beyond description. The shepherd then said that he wishes to guide us up the wadi. Bingo! That way we would always stick to the trail. There was indeed a trail, but unless you knew it from boulder to boulder, which terrace to follow up and were to return to the wadi bed, then it was impossible to find the route. After 1/2 hr, he indicated for us to wait. He climbed up to a terrace beneath the cliffs and returned with some water bottles. I could just make out a low stone wall with some sticks and shrubs piled over the top. That was his home while he was looking after the goats. We continued for another half an hour to a small waterfall cascading down the cliff. He said that this was bad to drink. Another 1/2 hr saw us at some pools and cascading water, a paradise after the hard slog. He filled his water bottles and said that he was going down. We had another hand waving and pointing at watches session. The time to the pass (or was it to the pass and then down to the village on the other side) was again variable, my best interpretation was from I hr to 3 hrs.
By now we were all exhausted. I'd taken the GPS (Global Positioning System) to at least gauge how far up the wadi we were, but coverage was small and on a 2D fix it indicated we were only half way up. That was too depressing to believe. Elvira wanted to bask in paradise. The boys decided to push on for further. After 45 minutes of scrambling around boulders and once again following a terrace which led us to a big drop we decided to quit. We looked back and could still see the trees where Elvira was sitting, only 100m below us and maybe 1/2 km away.
The walk down was tough. We were now tired, hot and dehydrated. We would walk for 1/2 hr and then stop for 10 minutes under any shade we could find. Eventually made it back down to the end point of the "day out" walk. Why was that the end point of the tourist jolly? That was because there was a series of deep blue plunge pools and cascades. We stripped and plunged in. We then discovered just how intense the sun was.... the rocks get so hot that they burn your feet. We've all seen Dudley Moore in the film 10 hopping across his beach towels, well now we were four semi naked, very white expats hopping form rock to rock to try and get into the water. I wasn't sure what was worse, burning my feet or tripping up busting a bone by trying to race across the rock. We plunged into the cool water. I leave you to imagine the noises everyone made.
We rested for about an hour, the shadow in the canyon slowly edged its' way across our pool. It was time to move. We reached the cars at 3:30 pm. It had been a long day, hard work but enjoyable. We all agreed that it was definitely not something for the summer. Just to give you a feeling of the things you get up to when walking, the following things spring to mind from our trip. We did plan to stash water as we went up the wadi, however because for the first 3 hrs or so we felt quite fit, we only stashed it once, preferring to carry it. We covered it up nicely with rocks, maybe it would stay cool that way. We made as good note of that special shaped bush by the cliff. On the way down this water was picked up. It was hot and we could hardy drink it without feeling sick. We also developed a habit of wetting our caps, and letting the water evaporation help keep our heads cool. We used a wet neck scarf to. That made a real difference, but it doesn't exactly fit in the water management equations. Even in winter (25-35 degrees) there are overnight walks which can be done. However, you still must carry a minimum of 12 litres of water plus your other gear!
So how does one beat the sun?? Of course... go caving!!