The Treasures of Oman

This may be a desert, but we've spent nearly every day in water. Oman may be a surprising choice for adventures. But its tropical seas, jebels and wadis are perfect outdoor playgrounds for everything from rock climbing and canyoning to sailing and scuba diving.

The Treasures of Oman

The entrance to the canyon is a narrow slot in the rock walls, with a boulder blocking the view. We scramble in and out of the sunlight, up the boulder, and look over the other side. A dark, narrow green pool of water lies perhaps thirty feet below. The pool is bookended by a partly submerged rock towards one side of the canyon wall, and a massive chockstone stuck between the walls obstructs our view ahead. A ridge of solidified conglomerate arches outwards from the boulder we’re on, before disappearing out of sight.

This is the entrance to the Left-Hand Fork of the Snake Canyon.

Rob Gardner, mad adventurer, hauls his slightly portly and grey haired self over to the lip of the boulder. He counts himself down and launches into the air, aiming for that precise spot in the water between the rock, the wall and the chockstone. The jump is far enough for the airtime to last a few seconds... He executes a perfect landing, arms tucked in, splashing in and going under, before bobbing to the surface.

It’s my turn.

I am nearly two decades his junior, but I hesitate. It takes me nearly a minute of self-cajoling to make the same leap—and as I land in the water, the force blows a contact lens out of my eye. I surface, turn on my back and manage to grab it as it slips out.... Holding the lens, I swim backwards one-handed towards the gravelly ‘shore’ deeper inside the canyon. Behind me, the last member of our group makes the same jump; while Justin, the guide and two others, a great deal saner than us, have rappelled in directly. It is the start of a six hour adventure—and quite contrary to my description above, it is a completely safe, beginner level canyoning trip run by Rob’s UK-certified company, Muscat Dive & Adventure Centre. Helmets and flotation vests are mandatory.

Wadi Bani Awf or "Snake Canyon" is one of the best canyoning adventures in Oman. The Left Fork leads into a six-hour adventure filled with jumps into deep green pools, swims through caves and rappels over glimmering water and smooth polished rock. Photo © Meesha Holley/The Outdoor Journal

A rectangular swathe of land on the coast of the Arabian Sea, bordering the vast Rub-Al-Khali on its west and Yemen to the south, Oman’s tropical waters are pristine and filled with marine wildlife; and wadi canyons cut deep rifts within the Jebel mountains in its northwest. Southern Oman’s Dhofar region even has a tropical rainforest. From canyoning to snorkeling, dune-hiking to camping to sailing, Oman is the antithesis of the overbuilt city-states to its north.

There’s a lot of wilderness for exploring when there are only three million inhabitants in 300,000 square kilometers. And Snake Canyon, or Wadi Bani Awf, is one well-known adventure. From higher up on the dirt road, driving to the entrance, we saw it. A deep, narrow, black crack in the rocky brown desert, surrounded by mountains. Like god had sliced into Earth’s rough hide with a knife.

Snake Canyon is a classified as a beginner-level adventure with the Muscat Dive & Adventure Centre. Photo © Meesha Holley/The Outdoor Journal

After the entrance jump, the first rappel is down a slot between the canyon wall and flash-flood-crafted cascade. A second rappel leads to a water-carved slide down into a long pool. Rappel, jump, splash, swim, boulder, repeat for nearly six hours, over a distance of 3.5km. We move between halls of wonders. The sun is hidden by the vast walls, and we’re deep within the earth. A medium leap a few meters into the dark unknown — splash — a deep-water filled grotto with a beam of sunlight rippling down and reflecting onto the walls. This is a scene straight out of The Goonies. Where’s the pirate treasure, I wonder? It’s this orange dragonfly, or these small fish, darting between my feet in shallow pools as we wade or swim through, or this young brown Wadi Racer that Justin catches and holds up, the eponymous cliff snakes of the canyon. At one point, I began to shiver mildly - the constant jumping in and swim- ming across of pools of deep water inside the gorge left me somewhat cold. That was remarkable considering that out there, at our entrance and exit points, it was over 40°C.

A long rappel in Snake Canyon leads to a natural slip-and-slide in the rock, and lands you in a large pool. Photo © Meesha Holley/The Outdoor Journal

As we eventually drive back from the canyon at the end of the day, Rob wants his tea. “I want a tomato and cheese sandwich and a cuppa tea. Two cups, actually!” Rob said, in his Liverpool accent, as we joke about the ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ stereotype. “I came as a desalination engineer, after five years in Bahrain. Then some friends asked me to help them set up a diving trip. Then the word got around. Finally my wife at the time told me, you can’t do both. So I quit my job and started the adventure stuff full time.”

Fifty-five years old, with a son in the military and a daughter in nursing school, Rob’s gray hair and a bulging middle doesn’t do justice to his willingness to jump off cliffs with a war cry relating to his manhood. But it takes a certain type to move abroad, stay and set up an adventure company in a desert country. Their standards remain world-class, and Rob employs guides who have all the certifications possible for high ropes work. They need it. With mountains in the north, rising up to the highest point in Oman, Jebel Shams, (“Mountain of the Sun”) at over 3000m, to deep canyons, pools and the coast. The altitude rise is enough that when we went to Jebel Akhdar (“Green Mountain”), the site of the 1960s ‘Oman Campaign’, the temperature went from 37°C at the base to 24°C up at the top, where we found the spectacularly placed Alila hotel.

Oman has this great mix of luxury and adventure, which can range from mild to extreme. Some of the world’s best climbers and base jumpers have scoped it out, and Red Bull even had a cliff diving competition at the popular Wadi Shab (we did a milder jump from below the high point). Right now, Oman is hot, and in a good way—from rock climbing with FA potential to surfing spots, to via ferrata courses, schools, and of course, what started it all for Rob — diving. Right next to the shore, the sea becomes a bright hot metal grey under the harsh sun. Oman has a history of being a great trading nation, its expert sailors taking out the country’s native frankincense and bringing in spice. We took a small lesson with Oman Sail, which was set up to train the next generation of Omanis and teaches hundreds of students. But for diving, we needed to get a little further out.

Divers signal the presence of a turtle on the reef at the "Aquarium" dive site, near the Daymaniyat islands. Photo © Meesha Holley/The Outdoor Journal

The Damaniyat Islands are one of Oman’s best dive spots, and a protected marine reserve. Carl and Faye are two British expats (yes, there’s a pattern) and dive instructors who recently moved here from Sri Lanka, to manage a locally owned PADI dive operation, Omanta Scuba Dive Academy. They run day trips for divers of all levels as well as snorkelers. The instructors also carry out weekly dive courses, from the entry level Open Water Diver course all the way to Divemaster and specialty level training. The blond couple look exactly like what they are, a young glamorous couple living the best life in world, traveling, diving, teaching and working in conservation. However, despite the protected status of these waters, illegal fishing does happen, and the couple also find themselves removing illegal nets and cleaning up the area.

It’s a 45 minute high-speed boat ride to the central Damaniyat Island, about 18 km off shore. Suddenly we’re in an aquamarine bay, with exposed rocky coral-like rock rising into a low island with two small beaches. One group dives while another snorkels. We find a green sea turtle, and follow it for a little while, while a moray eel pokes a head out of its hole. The life on this reef is stunning and bountiful. We move to the middle of the ocean above an 18m deep reef to look for larger fish. Schools of batfish follow us around, while we try to not chase the two green turtles. The visibility is incredible, almost like an aquarium (as the site is literally named). I snorkel, and free-dive down nearly to the reef. We spend half a day in the water, before it’s turnaround time.

On descent we are greeted by large schools of sh enticing us into the world below. Photo © Meesha Holley/The Outdoor Journal

Oman is a cave of wonders, and inside there is the lapis lazuli of the ocean, a cat’s eye of the sun sparkling into deep, green canyon waters and the sapphire blue of the sky after a day filled with adventures. These are all the treasures we could possibly want.

Feature Image: The "Aquarium", an open water dive and snorkel site in the protected marine reserve of the Daymaniyat Islands has incredible visibility. Over a reef at an average depth of 20m in the open ocean, it's considered one of the best sites to view larger animals - from turtles to mantas and more. Photo © Meesha Holley/The Outdoor Journal

This Destination story was part of The Outdoor Journal Spring 2016 edition of the print magazine.