Snake Bit

Jabal Shams Travel Blog

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Pet store along the way to Nakhal. Notice how clean the cars are? You can be fined for tooling about in a dirty vehicle here!

The gang arose at 7AM and got ready to meet up with our guide for his planned 8:30AM arrival in the parking lot of our hotel.  A beefy white Nissan Patrol pulled in on schedule and I was delighted to discover it was Naseeb, the owner, whom I had exchanged numerous e-mails with to customize our two day adventure.  Though I figured Naseeb would hire on somebody else, it turns out there are very few folks who want to be the guide for Snake Canyon, so Naseeb was stuck with us.


Off we went.  Naseeb jetted us away from Muscat and through Barka to Nakhl, our first arranged stop.

Peering out over the oasis at Nakhl Fort
  Think it took just under two hours, but everyone was gabbing and I can’t begin to claim close attention to driving time.  Nakhl is an oasis town embedded in the beginnings of the Hajar Mountains.  We were enthused to enter Nakhl not only to enjoy the mountains which we could barely glimpse from Muscat, but also because there were a bazillion palm trees!


The splendid Nakhl Fort was the first place Naseeb took us, then he put our anticipation on hold and drove right past it.  I’m glad he did, because his slight diversion brought us to the hot springs about 3 kilometers beyond the fort.  The Nakhl Hot Springs (Ain A’thowarah) are popular and you can only get there by taking the tarmac road past the fort.  There was a decent crowd of locals hanging out and this was our first chance to really get up close and inspect a falaj, the ancient irrigation system still used extensively in Oman.

Nakhl Fort


The fort beckoned, however, so we didn’t tarry long at the hot springs.  Soon we were back at the monstrous Nakhl Fort.  Even though Mark had previously toured this fort and I had read about how easy it was to overdose on the many forts in Oman, this was the entrée for John and myself and we were quite excited to jump in.  The Nakhl Fort was constructed pre-Islam, so it is among the oldest around and brilliantly woven into the chunk of stone it was built upon.


Naseeb accompanied us and pointed out some fascinating tidbits.  He showed us how you can distinguish a hand made coffee urn from a manufactured one (no seams) and introduced us to the “date room”, where bags of dates would be stacked up.  The weight of the upper bags served as a press and there were funnels guiding the resulting syrup into urns resting in holes dug into the floor.

Still life with Nakhl Fort....
  A clever operation to manufacture this commodity that could be used as a foodstuff or heated and dumped on warriors besieging the fort!


Everyone snapped some last pictures and piled back into the Patrol for the push to Snake Canyon.  It may have been 20 or 30 kilometers outside of Nakhl when the blacktop disappeared.  Now we had a twisty dirt pathway strewn with rocks galore.  I know better, but swear Naseeb accelerated after we hit the rocky road. Simultaneous with the change in road conditions, I found it amusing that Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” started playing on the car’s radio, lol.


It was probably an hour or so banging down the dirt track before we entered a valley where five white 4WD’s were congregated.  Naseeb had made a call on his cell phone earlier to coordinate a pick-up here, the end of the trail, and get driven to the trailhead at the top of the gorge.

Driving up to the trail head of Snake Canyon - clearly not the place to go off-roading!
  I figured one of these vehicles was our ride, but disappointed there could be so many tackling a hike I had envisioned as seriously intimidating.


I was wrong on just about everything.  Naseeb engaged one of the guides in the caravan and we soon learned this group of twenty five was only sightseeing at the gorge.  Had I taken a moment to discern the age, dress and physical condition of the group I should have inferred that.  Our ride, however, was absent.  Thank heavens for Naseeb’s contacts and the gracious attitudes of Oman.  The guide Naseeb was chatting with told us he’d shoot us up to the top, no problem.  Off we went.


The way to the top was gut wrenching.  The road was nothing but a perpetual switchback…and still seemed to head straight for the heavens!  Looking out my window I could see the gorge was a narrow crack at the bottom of a valley.

Naseeb steers us into Snake Gorge...the adventure begins!
  Excitement was building along with our elevation gain.


Our group started off immediately after being dropped off.  The first five minutes we walked beside a small, rocky stream.  In one spot the stream vanished beneath the ground for about forty yards, then re-appeared.  Before long the gorge tightened up and began descending, the way turning into a bunch of loose rocks.  Now you had to watch your step and look ahead to identify the best way down among several options.


After twenty minutes of this warm up, the descent got serious.  Now you had to pick the best spot to shimmy down, extending arms and legs to render yourself a plug that could ease down the shaft you had selected.  Your reward for each harrowing descent was dropping into bone chilling water.  Naseeb had already shared his distaste for Snake Canyon because of how cold it is.

Jump or climb down? A frequent question when descending Snake Canyon
  He further shared that the canyon is constantly changing.  Apparently there had been a flash flood just a week ago and the game had changed again…we would learn this more fully in a little while.


In the water I performed an awkward side stroke while holding my camera aloft with one arm.  I had purchased my first digital camera, an Olympus Stylus Tough, for durability in anticipation of Socotra.  Still a rookie, I vainly attempted to keep it as dry as possible, though it would earn its stripes at Snake.  It went underwater plenty and picked up a few battle scars against the rocks as we made our way down.


The canyon was stunningly beautiful.  Often a six-foot wide stream flowing between twin rock faces that shot up roughly 200-300.  Of course this architecture meant there was no sunlight, explaining the cold water.  Both air and water were chilly and after an hour I couldn’t stop shaking.



We continued downhill, challenged by a myriad different obstacles --- but a splendid test of mind and body that confirms you are alive. There were several leaps into a pool of water below, but nothing approaching the 12-meter plunge I had read about in one of my guide books.  More common was pin-pointing were you could spread-eagle yourself to inch down a chute and avoid a leap of faith.  Naseeb was invaluable, aware of good bets for passage despite the continuous re-shaping of the gorge.


Two hours into the hike everyone was freezing and Naseeb showed us a neat trick.  Many of the massive boulders littering our path were quite toasty, apparently hanging on to heat received during the brief period when sunlight struck the depths of the gorge.  When you found a warm boulder you just sprawled out over it and gathered every shred of heat you could!  We were all banged up by this stage and everyone had at least one bloody knee, shin or elbow and the hot rocks were about the only positive development.

Mark swims to shore behind Naseeb in Snake Canyon


Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, we arrived at the entrance to the cave you have to swim through and it was a coagulated mess of plastic bottles, sticks and miscellaneous trash.  Naseeb reminded us that there had been a flash flood last week and this was where all the detritus apparently collected.  We must have been the first group back since the washout, so we won honors for breaking the logjam.  There are plenty of warnings not to attempt Snake Canyon if there is rain and this sight gave us quite an appreciation for the caution.

We stood around sheepishly for several minutes as nobody was excited about wading into the swill, so John reminded Naseeb that he was the guide, lol.  A chagrined Naseeb gingerly stepped in and started trudging towards the mouth of the cave.  I spotted him ten yards, hoisted my camera overhead and gingerly followed behind.  Our pre-hike excitement around snapping some pictures in the cave was put on the shelf as anticipated joy dissolved into a grim task.

Scenic spot in Snake Gorge


I struggled with my ‘camera stroke’ through all of the lumber and heard Naseeb exclaiming he was having a hard time moving forward.  Soon I bumped into him and joined the aqua-bulldozer effort, but it was strenuous going.  I was starting to wonder if we were going to be able to push through when light appeared at the far end!  Naseeb swam over to the side of the cave where you could grab onto some rocks and we both just hung on for a minute to catch our breath and give our weary muscles a rest.


The tension was somewhat dispelled with the end in sight and then John came floating by on a big log he had latched on to.  Didn’t hesitate for a moment to accept his invite to come aboard and it was indeed a pleasure cruise the rest of the way out of the dark.  It was exhilarating to escape from the clogged cave, especially because the tremendous expenditure of energy had halted my shivering...for about five minutes.


There was only another half hour back to the car, more freezing water and several cautious descents (though nothing comparing to the earlier part of the canyon).

C'mon through, John!
  The gorge began to broaden and sunlight was extending its fingers further down the walls.  When it got reasonably close, Naseeb headed to the side and climbed up a ways to find his place in the sun --- and we were all three right behind him!


Reaching the car again was a moment of jubilation.  Everyone agreed it was one of the most challenging hikes we had ever attempted, and we could revel in the glory of having conquered it for the rest of our lives now.  It was particularly rewarding because all of us will soon be too old and decrepit to attempt something this idiotic.............


In all this revelry, John launched the biggest cultural breakthrough of the entire trip.  We had read it was considered offensive to wear traditional Omani dress when visiting and John asked Naseeb about that.   Naseeb was quick to dismiss the notion and presented John with one of his head scarves (a mussar) and tied it up for John! 

Then it was back into the Patrol for a two-and-a-half hour drive up to Jebel Shams Resort, where we would park our tired butts before tomorrow’s hike.  To start we re-traced the same climb from earlier in the day to reach the trailhead and already there were fond memories of a grand adventure.  Naseeb continued to make exceptional time along the tortuous dirt track and I eventually realized this was the road system out here: we would occasionally pass by a shiny new road sign indicating directions and distances to nearby villages.

John, Mark and Naseeb, exultant to have survived the 'cave of no return' at Snake Canyon! You can see the clog of logs in the mouth of the cave.


Seems like we climbed continually for the first hour and once Naseeb pulled off and clicked a picture of our party on an outcrop above the world --- very cool.  Shortly after the photo opp the road miraculously returned to blacktop and started heading back down.  Naseeb cruised down through switchbacks galore into Al Hamra, the largest village in this area.  Once through Al Hamra it was back up again, and naturally the blacktop went bye-bye.


Bounced and careened through the dark for the final 45 minutes of our steeple chase, arriving at Jebel Shams Resort around 7PM.  Naseeb had secured two doubles for our trio and since I had valiantly volunteered for the couch in back in Muscat, the boys graciously allowed me to assume one room for myself.  Jebel Shams Resort is about the only game in town for this remote speck that is the highest point in Oman at around 10,000 feet.

Looking straight up in a narrow stretch of Snake Canyon
  The rooms were spacious and clean, all that was required for our worn out bodies.


After unpacking we rendezvoused with Naseeb at the restaurant on the grounds, which was quite nice. It was typical buffet fare, but served family style at our table.  Better yet, they allowed you to consume alcohol (of course they didn’t serve any, but Naseeb had tipped us off and we packed a cooler along) and a beer never hit the spot like it did at Jebel Shams that night.  While we relaxed with a beer, Naseeb entertained us with humorous stories from his lengthy annals of tour guide nightmares.


Returning to our rooms, John hit the sack, but Mark and I played a single match of Spite & Malice.  It was a winner take all contest for Jebel Shams and Mark prevailed.  After one quick game neither of us had a drop left in the had been quite a day.

vances says:
It was all coincidence, David. Responded to a question on Oman in forums and had to open this blog to recall the name of a hotel we stayed at...then I saw a typo in the Snake review, lol ---> happy it got you to the gorge!

Posted on: Dec 01, 2012
cneoridium says:
Very good! I've actually had a bookmark on my desktop to remind me to come back and look at all these for... what, two years now! Glad you did an update! Worth the re-visit!
Posted on: Dec 01, 2012
boxinbcn says:
Super blog!
Posted on: May 26, 2011
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Pet store along the way to Nakhal.…
Pet store along the way to Nakhal…
Nakhl, my very first Omani fort!
Nakhl, my very first Omani fort!
Peering out over the oasis at Nakh…
Peering out over the oasis at Nak…
Nakhl Fort
Nakhl Fort
Still life with Nakhl Fort....
Still life with Nakhl Fort....
Driving up to the trail head of Sn…
Driving up to the trail head of S…
Naseeb steers us into Snake Gorge.…
Naseeb steers us into Snake Gorge…
Jump or climb down?  A frequent qu…
Jump or climb down? A frequent q…
Mark swims to shore behind Naseeb …
Mark swims to shore behind Naseeb…
Scenic spot in Snake Gorge
Scenic spot in Snake Gorge
Cmon through, John!
C'mon through, John!
Wadng through Snake Gorge...much e…
Wadng through Snake Gorge...much …
John, Mark and Naseeb, exultant to…
John, Mark and Naseeb, exultant t…
Looking straight up in a narrow st…
Looking straight up in a narrow s…
John descends cautiously in Snake …
John descends cautiously in Snake…
Out of the cave and my camera stil…
Out of the cave and my camera sti…
On top of old jebel....

Thank y…
On top of old jebel.... Thank …
Falaj at Nakhl Springs
Falaj at Nakhl Springs
Snake Canyon has a wealth of beaut…
Snake Canyon has a wealth of beau…
Nakhl Hot Springs
Nakhl Hot Springs
Falaj at Nakhl Hot Springs
Falaj at Nakhl Hot Springs
Nakhl Hot Springs
Nakhl Hot Springs
Nakhl Fort...a splendid setting!
Nakhl Fort...a splendid setting!
Nakhl Fort
Nakhl Fort
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Driving to Snake Canyon trail hea…
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photo by: vances