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The Great Escape

You would agree that going off-road with a novice off-road driver, a slammed 4×4 with 21-inch alloy wheels wrapped in medium profile tires fit for city driving and an idiot for a navigator is a horrible combination. To make things worse, add one of the most demanding mountain trails in Oman to that mix, you have a potential disaster at your hand. There are a million and one things that can go wrong. Yet there we were.

It all started with a beautiful morning overlooking a colourful desert mountain range in Oman. We were staying in the mountains of Al Hoota, about 60 km away from the city of Nizwa. When I say we I mean myself and my better half Jeevika. Among us, we share about 20 years of driving experience, where 20 years belonged to my lovely wife and rest to yours truly (Do the Math !).

By this point, we had been travelling for two full days from Sharjah in the UAE covering more than 500 km. We’ve visited quite a few interesting Forts along the way and not to mention beautiful desert and mountain landscapes. Despite being a bit tired we decided to make an early start. So far the trip has been a terrific success and the day’s plan was to meet two of my friends residing in Oman.

A couple of years back I got to know Senarath aka “Sena” via Facebook, a fellow writer who works in a rural hospital located in the village named Stal. The other was Shamika, one of my college mates travelling from Muscat with his family to meet us in Rustaq Fort. Our plan was pretty simple, go to Stall village, pick up Sena, and then drive to Rustaq to meet Shamika.DSC_0716

Checking the route suggested by trusted Google maps, I realized that it required travelling back more than 60 km to Nizwa and then driving around the part of Hajar mountain that separates Al Hoota and Rustaq. Till then I was oblivious to the fact that it’s a 300+ km journey that would take more than 4.5 hrs. And that is only one way!

I knew it would not go down well with my partner in crime. When I mentioned it casually during our breakfast I was brought back (more like slammed back) to reality by my beloved pilot with a bit of firework. Although I survived the well deserved Multi Barrels, RPG and Heavy Artillery attacks, not willing to accept defeat and I started looking for a much shorter route. I was adamant that there must be some alternatives even which Google is ignorant about.

Well what do you know, they say “Those who seek will find !” and that I did. Instead of going around the impeding mountain range, I found a much shorter route going through the mountains. That meant it also cut down the time taken by more than 1.5 -2.00 hrs which was good enough to satisfy and calm our Pilot down.DSC_0679

We packed our stuff back into the jeep and I went to return our restroom keys, the receptionist was quite a friendly middle-aged local gentleman. Having a casual conversation about our plans for the day I mentioned we were heading for Rustaq. I clearly remember him asking whether we are going through Nizwa, but learning that we were planning to go through the mountains, he cautioned that the road is a bit rough and we need to be extra careful. Although it was my mistake at the time that I didn’t press him for more information, looking back I’m glad that I did not. Had I done it, we sure would have missed a whole lot of fun and adventure.

As we left Al Hoota Rest House to start our journey, we made our first stop earlier than expected where we came across a viewing platform overlooking beautiful views. Also, there were a couple of groups who had done overnight camping. They were preparing morning tea and most of them were badly shivering. Being early December the night time temperature must have dropped around 12C, I bet it wasn’t very comfortable for those who are used to the Middle Eastern climate.

DSC_0807Having taken a few photos we started the trip again and just across a bend about 100m into the journey we came across the first ominous sign, the paved road ran out (And we would not see any again for another 40 km). To make matters worse we could see a slippery road spiraling down the steep mountain pass. Although we immediately started second-guessing our choice we could see a couple of vehicles ahead of us which helped the difficult decision of continuing ahead.

As we started right beside the road we were surprised to find another group of campers who have set up their tents on a narrow ledge. Though it looked impressive and adventurous we could not imagine ourselves ever doing that. However, I must admit that I felt a bit jealous of them for their courage and sense of adventure, but finally we moved on again.

Our enthusiasm made our road look scenic and not too difficult at first but once we started the descent towards the valley it progressively got worse due to washed out patches. Having lowered suspension and wide tyres is fine while driving in the city but this was a whole different terrain. Steep washed out parts of the road presented many mini ravines to cross. Every time we go over them, the wheels dictated where they wanted to go rather than taking a cue from our poor driver clinging on to the steering wheel.

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Our situation was bleak and things were not looking good. If we had any notion that things couldn’t get any worse, again we were proven wrong soon. Our GPS stopped recognizing the route and would even start restarting itself intermittently as if saying it gave up. Google maps on our mobiles were of little use without a data connection. It’s not that there were many roads and turns to choose from, but still, we were crawling blindly in terms of following a map.

As the road got worse, trying to keep the vehicle on the road while maintaining a steady pace was quite a task, to say the least. More often than not we found ourselves sandwiched between tall mountain walls with loose rocks and deep abyss on the other side. To make matters worse, in many places the road was not wide enough for two vehicles to cross. So much concentration was required to keep up with the route and to look out for potential trouble, there was not a moment to relax.

On top of all that, there were many hair-pin bends to tackle along the way. Each presented challenges on their own until we got used to them. Steep uphill ones on peaks were particularly difficult. When reaching the peak it’s quite difficult to guess which way it was going to turn while keeping a lookout for any incoming vehicles.

In some places, I got off the vehicle to check the road before giving thumbs up to continue. It didn’t take long for me to get covered with powder-like mountain dust that was abundant everywhere. Whenever we managed to pick up some speed we would leave a cloud of dust behind. We were lucky that there were hardly any people or vehicles around.

Tackling downhill hairpin turns and steep slopes weren’t any easier either. Even with 4×4 and low gearing we had to further control the speed of descent regularly by applying brake heavily. The steepness of descent was such that without brakes the vehicle would easily hit speeds of 60+ kmph. Although we were quite worried that we would face a bad situation of brake binding, luck was still with us and we survived.

Once we got used to the road our confidence grew and realized that the vehicle could take all the abuse thrown at it. In no time we were enjoying it, things started to look beautiful again. We noticed a few beautiful small villages named Al Hajir, Bilad Sayt and a remarkable mountain gorge called “Snake Gorge”. Despite being quite dry we also came across a couple of small water sources leading to lush date palm plantations in the adjacent villages.DSC_0877

By this time we came across a few vehicles passing us as well as coming from the opposite direction. Overtaking still provided a challenge in narrow sections, but whenever we could see an approaching vehicle we would stop in a suitable place and wait patiently. This helped our weary driver to relax a little too.

Three hours into the journey we covered less than half the 45 km distance we had to cover. If we had taken the longer 300+ km route I’m pretty sure we would have reached Stal village which Sena lived already. It was too late to feel sorry but to carry on with the adventure. By now we had reached a flat part of the route and we decided to take a break near a tree grove in a wadi(dry river bed in a valley).

After inspecting the vehicle we were satisfied that there were no visible damages, yet as suspected brake disks were still too hot for our liking (Who knows perhaps we worried unnecessarily). Also for good measure, I lifted the hood and kept the engine bay open to cool down a bit. Apart from that, the only other annoying thing was our entire vehicle was Beige colour, every inch was covered with dust we picked along the way.

DSC_0833As we took a well-deserved rest while enjoying a snack we noticed all the vehicles that pass us, apart from villagers living close by travelling in their pickups, all others (perhaps city folk like us) were travelling in convoys. No one would go alone, it made us think about the choices we made. What would happen if our vehicle broke down? Will there be any garage or a recovery service around? Many concerning thoughts went through our head.

However as we decided to concentrate on other stuff to put our minds at ease, we were determined to finish what we started somehow or the other. As drivers of passing vehicles would wave at us and we would wave back at them. Whenever we missed doing so they would slow down and speak with us in Arabic.

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Although our Arabic vocabulary was non-existent, it was not difficult to figure out they were checking whether everything was ok with us. And then I realized with the vehicle hood open it looked as if we had a breakdown. Further, we realized those waves were not a mere courtesy but a way these fellow drivers communicate on these trails. What a bunch of rookies we were and hats off to all those good-natured travelers.

In the Middle East, there are two countries that we are very much at home and feel extremely safe when it comes to travelling. That’s the UAE which we reside and the other is Oman which we were travelling in. So we can’t say we were really surprised about these friendly gestures of Omanis, it’s a wonderful place with friendly people to travel and explore freely. The only downside is it can be a bit difficult to find English speaking natives in rural areas.DSC_0821

After the rest, we got on the road again going through mountain passes and wadi beds covered in stones and rough roads one after the other. Although the road got easier the more we travel, it would take us more than two hours to reach a paved road. At this point, we were enjoying the drive but we were tired, hence it was like dying men finding a desert oasis.

The remaining drive to Stal village was one of the most scenic mountain roads I have seen anywhere in the Middle East. Winding road running through a wide wadi bed sandwiched by tall mountains look pretty impressive. It was fun to drive and our enthusiastic driver will put the pedal to the metal trying to cover time lost. Often this would cross the speed limit and we had to dial back. Yet it took us another half an hour to reach Stal Hospital where Sena was eagerly waiting for our arrival.

Ever the gentleman Sena even kept some snacks ready for us, after a few quick bites we rushed back to Rustaq Fort to meet Shamika. And if you think things went smoothly from then onwards you would be utterly wrong again. Keeping up with the theme nothing went according to the plan. Since it was a Friday Rustaq fort was closed, what a bummer. So the next best thing, we wanted to go to the Springs of Wadi Hoqain. As luck would have it, our expert off-road Guru Shamika will take us round and round in circles as all-knowing Google maps led us astray.

Despite all the Drama, we reached the place eventually. Although the water level was not that great, there were many local and expat families gathered around enjoying the nice evening weather. Yet for me and my wife, it was a First. The first fresh running water source we have come across the Middle East, and that too after spending a decade in the region.DSC_0874

This is how we managed to convert a 300+ km, 4.5-hour road trip to a 44 km, six hours off-road marathon. On our way back we took the long easy road back to Falaj Daris Hotel in Nizwa where we were staying that night. Again the winding road between the passing towns Awabi and Nakhal the road was beautiful and quite similar to the drive up to Stall Village. But the road was good so it took us only 3 hours to reach the Hotel. We were dead tired but we were happy!

We have traveled to Oman a few more times since then and yet this is by far the most interesting and memorable one. Having given us more experience than any driving course available it made us more open to off-road driving and gave us the confidence to take the road less traveled. So despite all the grief, we owe Wadi Bani Auf and Stal Village big time.

~ Kanda !

Other posts : Wadi Al Helo – වාදි අල් හීලෝ

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