Sometimes you have to get out of the city, just to see how dearly you need to get out of the city.
The husband made it home for an offset sort of weekend, and since we are nearing the end of our school year–and that means soon we will be traveling for the summer and he will be staying here without us–we booked a last-minute stay at a hotel in Muscat and made plans to explore Wadi Shab, a riverbed and gorge a couple hours from Muscat, Oman.
We’ve traveled to Oman a few times, and it’s always a treat. It’s a long enough drive, but the border crossing has become second nature, and the roads are good. This time, we decided to make the trip just the night before, and I had a fridge full of food, so I roasted a chicken and packed a picnic lunch, and we stopped to eat at a riverbed along the roadside, enjoying fresh air, blue skies, bright red dragonflies, and a stillness we just can’t salvage in the capital city, no matter how early in the morning we head out to the seaside.
Muscat is lovely, built in pockets nestled around and among mountains, with a traditional market area at the port. The mountains help us recalibrate our senses of scale and beauty. It’s so good to be reminded of the grand and gorgeous things man just cannot create. And nothing beats a blue sky over a gorge. Another homeschooling parent recommended Wadi Shab as a destination, and when I described the adventure, my husband thought it sounded like just the sort of break our minds needed: driving through mountains to hike, scramble across boulders, and swim up a river at the bottom of a gorge, into a tucked-away, spring-fed pool in a cave at the end of the trail. We knew the swimming part might not work for everyone, but he was game to take us, and the time together is a balm in itself.
We got up early for breakfast at our hotel and were on the road by 8AM, winding through mountains on what can only be described as an excellent road–even if the signage is a little confusing in places, and it’s all so new that our GPS didn’t seem to know where we were, and the roads would not be found on the (now outdated) map of Oman in our glove box. Still, it’s a friendly place, where people are happy to give directions and answer questions, and Omanis seem to take pride in their country, and pleasure in welcoming guests to enjoy it. We drove two hours and stopped at a town called Tiwi, having read this information on some blogs and Web sites. Tiwi is another wadi. We started hiking up that riverbed, at first thinking we were in the right place. Shortly, we came upon some local boys target shooting, various 4x4s carrying swim-trunked tourists in SPF 50+, and villages along the mountainsides. It didn’t take long for us to realize we were on the wrong wadi, so we turned around and headed back to our car, then drove a couple clicks through the village and back down the coast.
This is where it pays to learn Arabic! There is no proper signage inside the village, pointing the way to Wadi Shab. There are enormous signs from the highway (and if someone didn’t drive so fast, he might have time to see them and not miss his exit), but not in the little, rustic villages dotting the seaside. There was, however, graffiti on a bridge, an arrow and the words, “wadi shab,” spray-painted in Arabic on the security railing alongside a hairpin curve. And yes, I was the one who figured it out. As my husband likes to say, if it had been a snake, it would have bitten us on the nose.
At the mouth of the wadi, we parked our car and paid a local far too much money to take us across the water in a small boat, to where the hike begins. We had perfect weather for hiking, overcast and cloudy; thoughts of the forecast rain did add a vague element of danger, as we were hiking a riverbed that would quickly have been inundated.
Still, it was beautiful.
The hiking was across varied terrain, from deep, loose gravel to narrow cliffs, with some easier areas where we walked on well-beaten trails and along the sides of irrigation canals. There were spots here and there where someone had planted bananas. In other areas, we clambered over enormous boulders. There were a few spots where we had little jumps to make, and we passed by several blue-green pools where people were diving off cliffs and swimming in the water below. In other places, steps had been built of cement, as though to make the hike more accessible. This was, after all, the site of the Red Bull 2012 Cliff Diving competition.
We hiked about 40 minutes or so before we got to the point in the trail where, if you’re going to make it into the cave, you have to do a little swimming. It was at this point that the kids and I abandoned our packs (and my husband), and began the swim up the ascent. This was for me the most challenging part. I’ve been so spoiled to swimming in seawater here in the Gulf, it was hard work to swim against a current in fresh water. Another family was at the mouth of the cave when we got there, and they were just the encouragement we needed to swim through the tight crevice that leads to the enclosed cliff-diving cave. Admittedly, I sucked some of the exuberant joy from this part by insisting that my kids stay between the rock faces, and not dive beneath, to reach the inside of the cave. I just was not ready to deal with losing a kid under a rock formation in an underwater cave. Not just then, anyway. For a half-second, we considered letting it be and turning around.
I am so glad we didn’t make that mistake.
The three of us swam through the narrow passage and into the cave. It was like being inside a secret. There was a waterfall with a knotted rope, welcoming more adventurous souls to climb up and dive from the top. Our own voices boomed and echoed, and blue and green light floated to the water’s surface from somewhere deep below. Nature possesses magic.
We swam and wondered at it, admittedly a little overwhelmed, and then emerged again with a satisfied gasp-and-sigh. Already we hoped for a chance to visit this place again. And if I did, I would invest in a dry bag, and probably a life vest so that my husband could see the wonder of it too, and maybe snap a couple of photographs. It was breathtaking–which can be an interesting experience while treading water.
Now, we’re back in town, rubbing our sore muscles and finishing up the school year. Next, we’ll start packing for our summer adventures, and then trying to figure out what should come after that. We’re hoping to enroll the kids in school for the coming year, but anyone with students in Abu Dhabi knows the challenges of finding seats in a good school. So, we’re looking at all our options and trying to keep open minds and hearts. I am also planning to go back to school, and my program kicks off in July. Meantime, we’re brushing up our French to prepare for a visit next month, en route to the U.S. Really, it’s back to the grind of city living and the approaching summer heat, schoolwork and business trips and clearing out the freezer and pantry. If we can squeeze in another mini-trip like this, a chance to spend a couple of good days together before the kids and I depart again, it will be wonderful.