Another birthday gave us the opportunity to pack up our kit and once again head out to explore. The birthday belonged to the Holy Prophet Muhammed and a national day off was awarded to all and sundry in celebration of this occasion. Our three day weekend was to be enjoyed at the Salmah Plateau and if we had time, we would attempt Wadi Tiwi which, the guide book informed us, has some of the most steepest, narrowest and difficult off-road driving terrain in all of Oman. Small person strapped in, navigator looking bemused, driver at the ready and menacingly on edge; we all set off to see what we could see…
Salmah Plateau, given but a few words in our guide book, is one of the most exhilarating drives experienced thus far. It just about has everything with a steep, loose dirt ascent, tight corners, heavily rutted tracks, altitude, a dry wadi, isolation, a steep switchback descent, remote villages, donkeys, camels, goats and scenery to die for. Unfortunately, most of this was only committed to memory as the exciting drive did not allow for impromptu stops to take photographs. Suffice to say, we had immense fun in reaching the summit at some 1500 metres where we pitched our tent and took in the breathtaking views.
The thin air, the peaceful surroundings, the beautiful vista, all combined to refresh the soul and make that barbecue, with added dust and dirt kicked into it, a bit more tolerable. Sitting above the cloud base with no noise, no other visitors and refreshing, clean air to breathe, we decided to keep this place a secret, our secret, somewhere we would come back to again and again, a sanctuary from the madding crowd – Mum’s the word!
As with all outdoor activities, especially so in warmer climes, one needs to be careful where one treads or where one places fleshy parts when al fresco toileting!
We reckoned this was some sort of tarantula and a quick google search once home gave up a couple of other suggestions. The Whistling Spider or the Barking Spider – both of which lend themselves to some hilarious toilet humour, but not enough to dwell on. Very pretty in its black, velvety coat and probably venomous too! It was about three of four centimetres long and appeared somewhat dopey, probably due to the early morning chill having seized its faculties.
Rule number one, don’t go lifting rocks or sticking your fingers under stones unless you are looking for such surprises!
A snapshot for the family album before settling down for a peaceful night. A bright, three-quarter moon would obscure the anticipated starlit sky but not enough to prevent us from picking out some of the constellations that we knew and wondering, as always, at our own insignificance.
It was a little chilly during darkness but then these seasoned explorers had the foresight to bring something warm to wear. A big bonfire toasted our shins and faces and warmed our spirits through. It was to be one of the very few times that would sleep inside our sleeping bags instead of on top of them.
Bright and early next morning we set off to explore the Salmah Plateau, taking an early wrong turn which proved a most worthwhile error. An ungraded track led us to the Majilis al Jinn Cave which, as you can see, is but a big hole in the ground. A VERY big hole!
Only when you realise what is under the rock that you are standing on (NOTHING!) that you fully appreciate this natural wonder. The cave below your feet is 340 metres long by 240 metres wide and 181 metres deep. It would accommodate 50 jumbo jets, apparently, just to give it some perspective. The only way to enter it is to abseil down, which takes about 10 to 15 minutes to descend. It is considered to be one of the largest cave chambers in the world. A picture of the interior helps with comprehension:
I have obviously reproduced this photo-board for you as the piece of rope I had in the car was not long enough to abseil down to take photographs myself; I was forbidden from even attempting anything so stupid anyway! Though we only stood at the cave chamber entrance, starring down a deep, dark hole, it was enough to marvel at and have our personal awe inspired.
We moved on to some beautiful plateau scenery, stunning gorges and ravines, isolated homes and an uncharted dry wadi to navigate.
At other times, this wadi would be gushing with water from rainfall coming off of the plateau; it’s vitally important to watch the weather as there are many deaths by drowning where the foolhardy have ignored meteorological warnings.
We continued on until some children caught our attention, we stopped to say hello and offer some food which was accepted with much excitement and skipping. The philanthropist in us came flooding out and we resolved to return bearing more gifts if we could only decide what it is that those who have absolutely nothing would most desperately need.
Having spent a day and a night atop the plateau, it was time to make the descent.
This small patch of concrete had been strategically laid where the road had previously fallen off the mountainside! Many a sheer drop awaited the unfortunate.
Just as exhilarating and no less scenic, we slipped and slid down the switchback roads toward the coastline.
The road was very narrow and we believed that any mistakes would be fatal. The drops were sheer and totally unforgiving. It was low ratio gearing and tally-ho!
Fuelled by adrenalin we headed for Wadi Tiwi and the thrill of more off-road driving on the reported narrowest, steepest and most difficult tracks in all of Oman. It is renowned for its lush vegetation, its crystal clear water pools, palm trees and long grasses. We were not disappointed.
A long, winding road of dirt and dust took us further and further into the gorge, to places where most tourists refuse any attempt at driving. Indeed, narrow roads and an even narrower village pass gave our driving skills a darn good testing.
Often, there was only a few centimetres either side of our extra wide and extra long bus of a car. There were no passing places and any mistakes would be costly as, once again, there was nothing but a sheer drop awaiting any driving errors.
However, the pretty scenery could be enjoyed every now and then, especially so with the elation of having survived particularly difficult sections of the route.
Crossing through the water and further into the gorge we headed where only the brave (or foolish) will venture, the reward being a remote village set into the mountain side. The village of Mirbam awaited our triumphant arrival.
A quick stroll around the village.
Not so remote that they don’t have electricity – and i-pads probably! It was however, nice to see and realise the achievement of our goal to complete this particular driving challenge. Now, just the return journey to deal with, back the way we came.
The scenery was spectacular and the drive was challenging but we considered that the Salmah Plateau was a much more challenging drive with a greater variety of stunning scenery.
We made our way to the coast, the alluring, azure Sea of Oman, the white, sandy beaches and sea-shells galore.
We pitched our tent amongst the dunes and watched the sun set over the Salmah Plateau that now provided our backdrop.
A swim in the ‘refreshing’ sea, a spot of sun worship and good night’s rest and it was soon time to head back home. Locals went about their daily business and we were grateful for the extra time that we had been given for this birthday occasion.
Not once did we sing ‘Happy Birthday’ though.
We were thankful nonetheless for this opportunity to get out and about and we planned to return on a new moon when stargazing would be at it’s most rewarding.