The world’s second deepest canyon goes by several different names. You may see it called Wadi Ghul or Wadi Nakhar, with Wadi being an Arabic word to describe a canyon carved by water through the desert. More commonly, it is termed Jebel Shams (or Jabal Shams, there’s no simple way to transliterate words like جبل شمس, into our alphabet), which means mountain of the sun. This name is fitting and not simply for the obvious fact that you can count on a vitamin D overdose here in the desert. Unlike the immeasurably more famous canyon in Arizona, Jebel Shams is literally closer to the sun as you need to ascend 3000 metres up a mountain plateau before you can see the canyon drop all the way back down.
The trip up to Jebel Shams is actually a mini-adventure in and of itself. There are no tour buses venturing up here as a sturdy four wheel drive is both a legal and practical requirement to leave the tarmac and begin the climb. Almost immediately after the asphalt ends, the road twists and turns, its serpentines narrowly cut out of the red mountain rock. The views are vertiginous the entire way up and the road requires careful attention to avoid an almost certainly fatal slip. Once at the top you will notice ramshackle villages of Jebel Shams’ traditional occupants, who tend the shaggy looking goats that appear to be the mountains’ sole wildlife. Before the recent construction of the road, these mountain tribes were effectively marooned from the rest of Oman. As a result, they developed distinct traditions, dialects and cultures. For instance, the only sort of touristic activity we noticed on Jebel Shams was some local woman selling small handicrafts made out of goat hair. With their confident stares and their loose and colourful hijabs, these women were a real contrast to the black burka-clad women of Oman’s plains and dunes, who were nearly invisible in the public sphere.
Aside from two or three other tourist SUVs (inevitably with Germans inside), the only other group on our part of the mountain was a detachment of soldiers from the Omani army base overlooking our side of the canyon. This base is located at the highest spot of the mountain and therefore the highest point in all of Arabia. The military has perched on top of the area ever since the Jebel Akhdar War in the 1950s, which concluded with the rebellious religious leader being forcibly ejected from his alpine redoubt by the current Sultan’s father, with some crucial help from British special forces. The Jebel Akhdar plateau, of which Jebel Shams can be considered a part of, was a hotbed of militant sympathy for the rebels so its no surprise the Sultan wanted to install an army base on the mountain to literally watch over the local tribes.
We received a visit from the army ourselves; you can imagine the sinking feeling we had in our stomachs as we watched a camouflaged Toyota pickup bounce down the dirt road toward us, a cloud of dust as its shield. Two soldiers bounded out of the truck and we prepared ourselves for a stern ejection from our camping spot. However, to our relief it soon became apparent they just wanted to chit chat, asking us the usual questions we had come to expect in Oman: “Where are you from?” “Are you married?” “Oh, do you have children?” “What? Why not?” After a friendly conversation they jumped back in the truck and began the drive back up the road to their base. A few hours later we saw the truck and dust cloud back on the horizon again and the same soldiers pulled up. Again, we expected to be told we couldn’t camp so close to the army base. But no, it turned out that they had lost their keys.
We spent much of our time on Jebel Shams 4x4ing to remote villages, tucked away in canyon corners, or reading on the precipice. Our most active excursion was to do something called the Balcony Trail, a dayhike that hugged the canyon wall and terminated in a fortified village that housed local herders up until the 1970s. Descending into the canyon itself gave a completely different perspective of its incredible scale but my favourite part of the trail was scrambling around the crumbling ruins, which appears similar to the famous cliff dwellings of the Anasazi in the American Southwest. While it could not have been easy to live in such an arid and exposed area, the people were motivated by security concerns as Oman used to be wracked by raiding tribes and invaders.
One of the best aspects of Jebel Shams, and Oman in general, is the ability to camp essentially wherever you like. As a result, we choose a spot on the edge of the canyon, trusting that none of us were sleepwalkers. What our spot lacked in facilities (or any sort of safety precautions), it more than made up for in views. Since it was our high-elevation home for two nights, our campsite afforded us front row seats not only to the canyon, whose depth simply defies comprehension or our photography skills, but also to glorious sunrises and sunsets each day. With the amount of dust in the air, the light always seemed diffused, softer and gentler than the harsh unremitting light we were assailed by during our time on the Omani plains. I don’t think I will ever forget waking up and looking out over the edge, sipping coffee and watching the rising sun paint the rock walls of the canyon in golden orange hues. Evenings were just as incredible, watching the stars materialize in the sky with the smell of frankincense wafting from our campfire, our group of four feeling like the last bit of humanity at the edge of the world.