There may be only one Grand Central Station, one Grand Ole Opry and one Grand Theft Auto, but theGrand Canyon? There are loads of them.
For hikers looking for eye-popping views rather than physical challenges, the vast canyon at Jebel Shams in Omanis unbeatable. Not only is its Balcony Walk an easy four-hour return trip, but as the path traverses thecanyons impossibly steep sides, it takes in spectacular overhangs, an abandoned village and a jaw-droppingoasis. Whats more, hikers have it all to themselves. Well, almost.
What the Balcony Walk (officially part of the W6 hiking route) has is emptiness, with only occasional sightingsof both hikers (I saw six all day) and swooping spotted eagles. Oh, and goats.
From the moment you step outof your 4×4 at Al Kateem and turn onto the path, there are goats. You want a goatin a juniper tree? Have two. In search of tender young juniper leaves to nibble on, tender young goats will seemingly on cue as you wander past with a camera climb the bushes and get stuck in their lunch.
Pausingfor frequent goat photos is what makes the Balcony Walk about two-hours each way, even though walking straight through would take closer to an hour. Theyellow, white and red tricolor way-markers keep you on-track and away frommile-high drops.
Mountain of the Sun
At 3,009m/9,872ft, Jebel Shams translating from the arabic as “Mountain of the Sun” is the highest mountain inOman, a peaceful and relatively empty Middle Eastern country of a mere 3 million people (and anestimated 1.6 million goats) that borders affluent United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to thewest, and war-torn Yemen to the south.
Jebel Shams is in the Western HajarMountains, hundreds of miles away, and Oman is completely safe, aside from the occasional threat of driving into a goat.
Some crazy list-tickers go for Jebel Shams’ peak, with a seven-hour return trip from the plateau to anunremarkable top, which is fenced-off by the Omani military. But what the mountain is really known for is theview from its rim: A canyon sometimes called Wadi Nakhr gorge, other times Wadi Ghul or just plain JebelShams thats been intricately carved over millions of years.
Best of all, its right in your face. At the entrypoint at Al Kateem there is no visitor center, no geology museum and no glass walkway.
It’s all about the view of a spectacular rip in the Earth’s surface caused by the Indian and Asian continentalplates crushing together to thrust the bottom of the ocean up at a sharp angle.
This is a gorge whosealmost vertical sides must be traversed; the real shock comes when you look back at a section of path you justwalked. It looks utterly impossible, and yet its trivially easy. Such is the scale of this place that the path is hardto see from a distance, let alone other hikers. Yes, there are vertiginous points of uncertainty, such as whenyou glimpse the dry wadi a mile below, but for the most part the path is away from drops and, best of all, thetrail is almost entirely flat.
There is one catch, though. Getting to Jebel Shams plateau, at its high elevation, to begin the Balcony Walk doestake a bit of judicious four-wheel-driving. The road isnt that bad apart from after rains but a regularvehicle will struggle. Besides, if you want to see anything remotely off-the- beaten track elsewhere in Oman,youll need a 4WD.
The nearby Jebel Shams Resort has impressive glamping-style tents (including vast double beds), but you can camp anywhere on the plateau for free.
Life on the edge
A couple of hours into the Balcony Walk, the path rounds a bend to reveal not only a curve in the canyon,but one with a huge overhang. It looks like the Great Arch in Zion National Park, Utah, and there are manyother similarities with the midwestern U.S. (such as the weak and feeble coffee).
Above the perilous-lookingoverhang are even some carved terraces. From a distance, it looks like a small Macchu Picchu or Winay Waynaon the Inca Trail. This is Sab Bani Khamis, also known as As Sab, a village deserted about 40 years ago.
Guarded by goats
Half an hour later, a sentry greets us above at the ruins of an old watchtower. With a long beard and greeneyes, the sentry eyeballs us for slightly too long, then lets out a welcoming bleat. Were in.
Before us is a rowof dilapidated stone huts built almost into the rocks, and shielded from the Sun. It looks like a street. Is isdeserted? By humans, certainly; in one of the huts is the structure of a basic bed, while between two of thehuts is small mill housing a grinding stone once used for making bread. There are a few old rusty signs here perhaps adding some context for tourists many years ago but theyre as ruined as the village itself.
Ultimate infinity pool
Happily, there are plenty of goats living in As Sab, and as they lead us into the village we can hear rushingwater. It was raining heavily up here a few days prior, but the sight of a waterfall wasnt what we expected.
Nor was a lush garden surrounding a glowing green pool with one of the best views in the world a carvedcanyon of truly epic proportions as a backdrop. While we lunch beside the waterfall with the goats, we spyanother goat on an outcrop across the paradise pool. She’s perched above a mile-high drop into the grandestof canyons, and she bleats at us, oblivious to the infinity in all directions.
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