9 Janauary 2010

Nothing quite brings home just how flat Abu Dhabi is than finding yourself on the Snake Canyon via ferrata in Oman.

Just a few hours after leaving the unrelenting pancakedness on UAE capital on the Arabian Gulf, you can be hanging from a thin wire cable 100m up a vertical canyon wall.

What this means in practice is that while the left side of your brain is following its traditionally analytical and rational role by assessing that the cable is overengineered and has been tested by hundreds of previous adventurers, the intuitive and emotional right side of the brain is screaming OHMYGODIAMABOUTTODIE.

Both sides of the brain are right, as it happens, because via ferrata (an Italian concept, born on the WWI front line in the Dolomites but since co-opted by recreational climbers across the globe) involve all the exposure of mountaineering and effectively none of the risk.

This effect might have been even more pronounced had we not taken a day between leaving the Dhabs and taking on Snake Canyon to kick around Muscat and reacquaint ourselves with a natural landscape with more than two physical dimensions.

After arriving late at night, this meant waking up at our campsite in a wadi just inland from the sea and looking around at the steep rocky mountains a little east of Muscat in the same bewildered and gobsmacked way that a Masai Mara tribesman would if he was plonked beside Sheikh Zayed Road.

“I’m just not used to having a vertical dimension to my environment,” Dan said, voicing what all of us were thinking.

The differences between the two capitals goes further than just some facile comparisons of topography. Lesser oil wealth means the average Omani has to work, all of which feeds cod-theories about human happiness being related to earning, rather than simply getting, what they have.

And of course we were a bunch of overpaid expats on holiday, so there was no working for us. Instead we drove along the fantastically indented coastline around Bandar Khayran and found a tiny fishermen’s village where a group of old men were sitting around chatting and repairing their nets. One of their younger colleagues agreed to transport all nine of us on a two-hour tour for just a few Omani Rial.

Once on the water, it seems like every boatie on the Arabian peninsula has descended on these picturesque bays but there were so many nooks and crannies that we were still able to find a small sandy beach to ourselves in the sun.

Just offshore was a small island rising steeply out of the sea, which the combination of perfect rock and a slight undercut at the waterline made for fun bouldering.

Shabroon Shabroon
Once you managed to get over the sharp oyster shells of the intertidal line, the only penalty for a fall was a dunking in the clear greeny-blue water.

Then we headed into the Souq in downtown Muscat for a meal and a browse. Andy and Dan opted for lemon spicy something fruit drinks, which were a bit like putting some tabasco in a smoothy. I opted for boring mango.

Having briefly reacquainted ourselves with a taste of climbing, we rose at dawn the next morning to meet with Joe and Abdullah, our guides from the Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre, and travel in convoy towards the Hajar Mountains.

At the foot of the mountains, the road deteriorates into a rough four-wheel-drive track along the Wadi Bani Awf as it traces a route between soaring ridges towards the middle of the range.

This road is worth journeying to Oman for on its own and for nearly an hour we bounced our way along the bouldery riverbed, occasionally fording shallow pools and going past tiny villages set amid date groves and populated by children who waved wildly as our convoy passed by.

Once at the Snake Canyon, Joe quickly assembled our equipment in front of each of us. There was a simple harness, a helmet, fingerless gloves, a pulley and a nest of short pieces of rope which he explains in a cheerful voice will be the difference between being safe and plummeting 100m to very messy deaths.

The nest includes two cow’s tails – metre-long pieces of rope with one end attached to the harness and the other topped with a locking carabiner. The idea is that if we fall, this piece of rope will avert the aforementioned messy death. Having two means that when we meet a point where the wire cable is bolted to the cliff, one is always attached to the cable when the other is being unclipped and then reclipped to the next stretch of cable.

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All of this makes my left brain happy. My right brain, on the other hand, is looking ahead at the thin deep gorge into which we’re about to descend and doing a fine impersonation of Chicken Little.

Joe seems accustomed to seeing his clients grapple with this cerebral duality and is treating this tour of the cliffs with the calm and casual certainty as if it was just another day in the office. Which it is for him.

At least we’re not complete tyros. I’d once spent a month doing via ferrata routes in the Dolomites, Wendy spent last summer climbing in the French Alps, Katrin looked absolutely at home on the rock, Thomas’s caving exploits meant he was so used to this kind of activity that he went like a rat up a drainpipe and Dan had spent his gap year as a ziplining instructor.

That experience helped because of the three via ferrata created and run by the Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre, we’d been told this was the most serious and when we booked, we’d been warned that we needed to be fit and reasonably strong. Within a minute of starting the via ferrata we realised the warning was based firmly in reality rather than an exaggeration aimed at weeding out overconfident and underqualified tourists.

The other via ferrata I’d done had mostly all had footholds and ladders bolted into the rock whenever the terrain became difficult, relegating the cable to being solely there for safety in case of a fall. But here we had to put our weight on the cable and lean back so our boots gripped the rock, prompting a mini left/right brain mutiny.

The analytical side looking at the sturdily placed bolts anchoring the cable and acknowledging that hundreds of people had already done the same thing without dying, while the right brain telling me the bolts would pull out and I’d pitch backwards into the abyss.

This was quickly put into perspective when after about 30m of hugging the side of the cliff, the cable turned and spanned the gap to the other side of canyon. This was the first of several ziplines, where we attached pulleys to the cable and began with a leap of faith to scoot across to the other side before the right brain could fully voice its displeasure.

All this was good until the sag in the cable ended the free ride about two thirds of the distance to the other side of the canyon, at which point monkey-style hauling took over to reach the far wall.

By this time, the shock of being suddenly vertical after the unrelenting horizontality of Abu Dhabi had worn off a little, my heart had decided to vacate its position in my throat and even the right-brain protests diminished.

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In practice, this meant we realised we were having fun, scrambling along the cable around the various obstacles along the way.

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At times, the natural features of the beautiful, grippy and trustworthy limestone meant progress required some basic rock climbing, relegating the cable to being purely for safety. When the terrain became difficult, ladder rungs and footholds were present.

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Three more ziplines later, the route had gone across, up and down and even through a small eyelet in the rock.

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All this eventually lead to a final crossing of the canyon via what Joe described as a “monkey bridge”: two cables, one mounted about 1.8m above the other and which was traversed in the style of a tightrope walker.

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This was an entirely different experience to the ziplines and our last crossing was not just the highest but also involved looking 100-plus metres down to narrow floor of the gorge as we shuffled our feet across.

A couple of minutes later we reached the end of the cables and stood back on level ground, buzzing from the experience of the last couple of hours.

Shabroon Shabroon
Because we were heading back to the UAE, we had the chance to continue on the Wadi Bani Awf road which became even more scenic as it wound an improbable route along cliffs, through wadis and past a series of villages set amid date palms until we reached Highway 21 near Nizwa.

This gave Wendy the chance to make some new friends then we made towards home, with the bulk of Jebel Hafeet – a rogue outlier of the Hajar Mountains – signalled our return to the UAE and unrelenting flatness of Abu Dhabi.


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