Keeping up with the Canyon

Writer Nolan Lewis | July 4, 2018

Holiday travel always breaks the momentum I achieve in my fitness regimen. I aspire to visit the gym at every hotel I check-in at, but my itinerary somehow gets in the way of my date with the treadmill. My yoga mat is the first thing I pack in my suitcase, so that I can at least do a few asanas before I begin my day, but always put that aside for the meditative sleep only a fluffy, king-sized bed in a hotel suite can offer. As for bingeing at the buffet, let’s not even go there – I’ve tried sticking to the salad counter with the conviction a kid displays in a candy store. To be honest, the curiosity of exploring a foreign land has always been accompanied by a prickling sense of guilt about my impending obesity. The one chore I’ll willingly put on the backburner once I’ve returned to the familiarity of home is stepping on the scale.

But the thing about travel is that it can be extremely transformative and never ceases to surprise, dispelling many notions you previously had about yourself. My recent journey to the Sultanate of Oman in April taught me that travel can be therapeutic and that holiday activities can result in passively burning more calories than a strenuous workout.

INTO THE OASIS

Oman, in many senses is like any other desert country. At first glance, it matches up to the Middle-Eastern cliché in its gold galore: ornate palaces and imposing mosques. Further from the cities: expansive white desert sands dotted by luxury tents and Bedouin camps. Only on closer examination, one understands that there are deserts of different kinds. Apart from sifting sands, there are also what the Omanis refer to as the Wadis – vertical deserts and smooth limestone cliffs pierced by deep canyons that harvest the sparse rains, collecting them in emerald lagoons and rockpools that offer respite to the denizens of the desert: the oryx, ibex, mountain goats, songbirds, wild cats and foxes.

The original inhabitants of Oman, the nomadic Bedouins, followed the wadis until they ran dry. When the Arabs, with their immense storehouse of intricate Islamic architecture invaded Oman, they invented the falaj, a network of canals that sustained the date plantations growing on tiered terraces and the ancient towns built around them. It is here that the nomadic wandering gave way to civilisation.

Centuries later, the wadis don’t invoke the same sense of reverence they used to. Given their picturesque settings, they are still frequented by picnickers and tourists as a weekend haunt. Some of the larger canyons, like Wadi Bani Khaled, are a major crowd puller but just a 90-minute drive away from the capital city of Muscat, is the mysterious Wadi Bani Awf, popularly referred to by professional canyoners as ‘the Snake Gorge’. The subterranean, dimly lit settings of the ravine are home to many (mostly non-venomous species of snakes) from where the habitat derives its name. To the amateur adventurer, snakes are terrified by the sound of shuffling feet and apart from occasional sightings, they aren’t a real threat here.

ARABIAN ADVENTURES

Oman has just started opening itself to tourism in the last decade and its reputation as an adventure-sport destination is fairly nascent but fast gaining favour amongst thrill-seekers and outdoor enthusiasts. Apart from the usual desert sports: camel racing, dune bashing and desert safaris, the underexplored Wadi Bani Awf is now listed as one of the world’s most exotic canyoning trails among others – the Tara Canyon in Montenegro, the Empress Falls near Sydney, the Takachiho Gorge in Japan and of course, the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Canyoning itself is growing in popularity. The amphibious activity is a complex medley of other adventure sports: hiking, rappelling, rock-climbing, abseiling and swimming. Given the tough terrain Wadi Bani Awf is stituated in, just getting there requires some heavy duty off-roading in a sturdy Land Rover.

The gorge spans across the Al Hajar Mountains, roughly between the old towns of Nizwah and Rustaq. One of the largest valleys in Oman, it is dotted by cliffhanging villages, ancient ruins and natural wonders, making for the perfect playground for any sightseer completing the trail. If you’re an adventure sport novice, you may want to explore the other wadis nearby. The route involves scaling a high and narrow but well-maintained mountain track. The canyon is covered on both sides with high cliffs giving you an appreciation of the vastness of this place: huge boulders, small waterfalls and passages that you will have to get on all fours to scramble through. The reward is a long pool an hour into the hike. This pool is almost 50m long and is probably the narrowest point of the canyon. It can oscillate between getting really hot under the mid-morning desert sun, to really cold because some parts of the gorge get very little sunshine due to the high cliffs shrouding it.

Prior explorers have set up serious climbing routes and to follow these needs pro equipment and advanced skills. Covering the entire trail would require roughly four hours, with eight hours at hand to complete it end-to-end. With camping gear and adequate rationing, you could even camp in the vicinity overnight. No luxury hotel stay can compare to some of the most secluded and surreal spots where you can pitch a tent here, under a glimmering blanket of starry skies.   

The trail requires pre-planning on part of the expedition leader and forethought by the entourage. There is no quitting halfway through the trek. The area is also prone to flash floods, so it is important to check weather forecasts before embarking, at the start of the day. However, the Royal Oman Police are hyper vigilant about monitoring the canyon.

OMAN’S OCEANS

A pleasant way to recover from the exhaustion of canyoning is to head to the seafaring port of Khasab that juts out into the Horn of Hormuz at the Musandam Peninsula, and hop on-board a dhow – a centuries-old Arab sailing vessel, Oman’s answer to a luxury yacht. The serving staff tinker around serving hot cups of Arabic coffee from ornate silverware, along with kebabs, hummus and pita wraps. En route, schools of dolphins race past the boat whistling welcomes. The cruise drops anchor for a snorkelling halt at the famous Telegraph Island, a historical telegraph station between Bahrain and Bombay in the mid-1800s, whose warm waters teem with tropical marine life – dory, turtles, French angelfish and other colourful fish.

As I lounge on the floor cushions scattered on a woven Persian carpet after swimming back to the dhow after an hour-long dive at Telegraph Island, I already feel like I’ve lost a few pounds. This time round, I’m not completely averse to the idea of weighing myself back home…