Having pondered for many a moment, it is the stark realisation that I am unable to instil in you any of the real thrill and fear that we experienced on our last outing that disappoints me most. Of course, you know we are safe and well because you are reading this and you also know that one would never entertain the idea of a ghost writer. Here we are then, laughing out loud (LOL for you youngsters) at our adventure into the mouth of the dragon. Yeah, he spat us straight out again – nasty after-taste apparently!
As I’m sure you will recall from a previous post, we often venture into uncharted territory, take a cursory look around and depart with a promise to return at a later date. So it was that we returned to Wadi Bani Awf, an off road journey to nowhere in particular. We had previously headed into this gorge, saw that the tarmac road abruptly ended, turned around and gone home with that slightly famous resolution to ‘return one day’. We had certainly been here before but not so soon after a deluge of rain from two, very recent, ferocious weather fronts. You may recall this earlier picture, driving through our first stream, where the track surface was still firm and intact and rain had not yet fallen.
What fun we had back then and yes, of course we resolved to revisit this pleasing ‘off road’ drive up an enormous, dry-river bed. To quell our thirst for adventure, we added a side excursion so we could visit Snake Canyon – so called because of…
We’re adventurous alright but not daft! There are no snakes here (we think) so the name is derived from the way in which the canyon ‘snakes’ around the gorge. At times of heavy rain, such as the rain we recently experienced, the entire gorge becomes flooded with a torrent of water careering down the mountainside, along the canyon and out onto Wadi Bani Awf. You can see the smooth rock, to the left of the picture, which gives you some idea of the height and force of the floodwater. Many a tourist has been caught out in flash floods, not to mention one or two locals too. The Oman National Defence sends text messages to the population advising them to stay clear of such places during bad weather. The weather doesn’t have to be bad in the local area though, rain from many miles away, high up on some of the mountains we have already camped, finds its way into canyons such as this. Reported deaths from drowning are frighteningly common.
Having discovered that there was a bigger Snake Canyon we didn’t want to waste too much time in the little one but then we read that the larger of the canyons was always flooded and could only be entered by swimming up the gorge, underwater at times, with all equipment being carried in waterproof backpacks. This is exciting, proper adventure stuff, but then we had our conscience with us (two little legs and no respect for danger). We made do with Little Snake Canyon for now but even this involved wading through water and climbing over slippery smooth, wet boulders for some distance. The little one, at times, needed emergency hoisting to safety but we were in total control…were we not?
Did we have a false sense of security? Were we just a little too cavalier with our attitude to danger? Of course not! It had rained the previous week and there was no expectation of further rainfall for the immediate future. That’s what the petrol pump attendant told us whilst we replenished our tank and who were we to think otherwise? He also told us that he was the rightful heir to Rajastan and Prince of all India, actually! Maybe he was, who were we to….
Anyway, as you can see, the kid is safe and sound but just look at the water course on those rocks. With wet legs and our usual derring-do approach, we made it as far as we safely could with child in tow. We happened across some local chaps who were engaged in communal eating, we exchanged pleasantries, in the local language, then made our way further up the gorge where the water ran fast. Too fast and far too furious to be climbing and looking after a child at the same time. Having looked, photographed, paddled and enjoyed the scenery, we made our way back out of the canyon, past the tribal chaps, retracing our route back to the start. Coming the other way we saw three German men, military types perhaps, I could not say for sure. Regardless of what anybody says about the Germans, it has to be said that you would not want to be dressed in traditional Omani headgear, walking up a canyon, where there is no way out at the other end, to suddenly come across some local boys having lunch. Now, as a tourist, you may think it looks cool to wear the local attire, and it might well be so as you saunter around the pool at your flash hotel, but not out in the countryside and certainly not in sight of the locals. Especially not when you are likely to meet those people whose traditional garments you’re wearing and who wear these because they probably have not and could not afford anything else other than the scarf on their heads and those dress like robes. It kinda looks like your taking he piss!
There were rapid rifle shots. Three to be exact. We distinctly heard them behind us and to our front, running a little bit faster than one would expect in a slippery, wet gorge, was a Bedhouin type with his rifle in hand. Be bade him farewell and ran ourselves as more shots were heard in the distance behind us. Later, over a sandwich, we discussed the possible demise of the Germans. We could never say for sure what really happened to them but we did not want to hang around and get caught up in something unsavoury. Most certainly, we did not wish to be considered German ourselves! In the middle of nowhere, with locals who have rifles, instinct dictates a hasty retreat.
We made our way further up Wadi Bani Awf and saw the result of heavy downpours on the fragile tracks that connect remote villages.
We knew the journey would be tough but the alternative would be to retrace our tracks and we didn’t relish the idea of coming across the gun-toting locals again and we had already seen the scenery that way back. We pressed on even though we felt pangs of foolishness. Now comes a timely reminder that our trusty steed is, in fact, nothing more than an SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) and is not an all-terrain off-roader – as much as we treat it as much. The odd rock or section of loose gravel is fine but when the track becomes nothing but fallen and washed up rock, we start to question just how competent we really are. It also begs the question: is this the way to treat our vehicle which is yet but a year old? Yep, we pressed on and as we did so, the track deteriorated even more so.
Then, just when we thought we had seen the worst of it… it got worse. At lot worse! Even if we entertained the idea of turning back, turning places, safe ones, were few and far between. We did what we do best. We stopped, ate our sandwiches and had a paddle.
We were overcome with an alarming false sense of optimism so we decided to press on no matter what. I distinctly recall hearing the words, “It’ll be a real shame not to see the rest of the Wadi – now that we’ve come this far”. The road ahead seemed endless and we had no idea of how far the end actually was. Most tracks had been washed away and the sat.nav. could not pick up any signal. Once again, we drove on with nothing more than hope and a prayer.
To add to this grand adventure, the road began to climb steeply, the road narrowed and some of the road just disappeared altogether. On more than a couple of occasions we were, head out of the windows, calling centimetres of clearance so as not to take the side off the car on the mountain rock or tumble over the edge to certain death.
For once we made the correct decision and avoided the climb that you can see in the photograph above. We sat at the bottom of this climb and debated the life and death merits of making such an attempt. There were no track edges, an adverse camber to the edge of the track and nothing but very loose broken rock. We turned around and promptly took the road to the left. At this point the co-pilot decided that we had taken the wrong route so we turned around and headed up an extremely steep incline, on loose dirt and stone, only to find there was nothing at the end of it. A ten, or was it twelve, point turn ensured we were once again heading in the right direction which was back on the road we had originally taken. The light was fading and our blood pressure rising. When it was probably time to take things carefully, the urge to speed up took over and there were some close shaves that don’t bear thinking about. Once again, the tracks were barely indefinable from randomly scattered, loose rock.
I do believe it was about this time that things took a turn for the worse – there was no chance of turning back of course and now the track was not wide enough to keep all four wheels in contact with the earth’s surface. It would take some gravity defying miracle to negotiate this shortfall, or the car was going to get damaged. In the belief that skill would overcome all, we proceeded with great caution and then…the car got damaged. Doh!
At the time, we didn’t assess the damage. We could hear all manner of crunching, groaning and expensive scraping from boulder on metal. We hoped we had some sort of sump guard protection at the very least. The alloy wheels were being battered and great chunks were being snatched from our shiny spokes and rims. Still we pressed on…
How many times can we say that things got worse? They got worse!
Although it wasn’t quite dark, the shadows were beginning to make life difficult and the headlights were as good as useless in this situation. Full beam pointing into the sky when all we needed was some light to show us the track beneath and a way forward. Some new spot lights for Crimbo perhaps? You can clearly see from this photo how parts of the track had merely fallen off the side of the mountain and it was these holes that we had to negotiate our safe passage over. Please, take a look at the width of that drivable track and then the width of our vehicle. Clever driving or foolhardy luck?
Somewhere about half way along this perilous journey we came across the most bizarre sight. Three chaps, of Eastern European origin I believe, had driven their two-wheel drive hire car down from the other side over the most insane rocks and dirt imaginable. We could not fathom how on earth they had managed it as our vehicle, with its low ratio gearing and high ground clearance, struggled to make headway. Just like us, the three believed that the easiest option was to keep going forward. How we immediately saw their foolishness but failed to recognise our own. We new what lay ahead of them so we left them with their optimism and carried on ourselves. For all we know, they are still there today, desperately trying to figure out how to get that hire car back to the road, any road. It took us a couple of days to come up with our own solution to their problem and decided it would be a very costly and damaging affair. Still, we had enough problems of our own. From boulder to slippery rock face we moved on and then came our worst nightmare – a boulder had come loose from way up above, fallen and wedged itself bang in the middle of the track. We pondered our lot and prepared to ‘camp it out’ (not to be confused with ‘camp it up’).
In the distance we heard the roar of the Toyota twin cab truck – the vehicle of choice for any self-respecting Bedouin. They appeared from nowhere, the fearless and foolish together, to work at the boulder with enormous crow-bars to finally man-handle the brute over the edge of the mountain. As much as we hoped it had all been for us, we realised that this is their only route to and from civilisation and the call had already gone out from a local who had been trapped on the other side of the blockage. We slowly moved around the gaping hole that remained to finally speed away to the sound of cheering, cajoling and other (pleasant we hope) mutterings of local men, who probably numbered twenty or so by then.
It was very much more of the same, wrestling with the steering wheel, handing around water, hanging on for dear life and then, finally, seeing a tarmac road again just as the sun was setting. What was at the end of this rainbow? What was there to see? Was it all worth it?
At 3000 metres it was a little chilly but exhilarating. The view was quite something but the real cause of our exhilaration was our survival.
To be honest, there were only one or two instances where we really did fear for our safety. The rest was just crazy, billy-bonkers stuff that we are far too adept at these days. Suffice to say, it is the most dangerous and challenging adventure to date. The car is in for servicing and we need to make an insurance claim for that damage. Better the car than us; that’s what I always say.
But what of Big Snake Canyon? We resolved, one day, to return and have ourselves another adventure.
Crimbo Cheer to one and all,
Hoping that you all get what you wish for,