I hadn’t really meant to hike all the way to the cave. We really meant to be satisfied with only a short trek up the wadi. Just enough to see the pools flanked by the dramatic cliff sides of Wadi Bani Khalid, like the photos we looked up on the internet. We were on our way back to Muscat from a weekend trip out into the deserts of Wahiba, which we spent quad biking and dune bashing.
It seemed to be much more worthwhile to just enjoy the oasis. It was close to where the car was parked. It’s nice and wide and pretty with the exotic date palms fringing around. There was the possibility of being invited to an Omani family’s barbeque picnic.
- Hiking into Wadi Bani Khalid
- Why we shouldn’t hike to Muqal Cave
- But hiking in Wadi Bani Khalid was like a video game
- Hiking along the wadi to Muqal Cave
- The puzzle of the path to Muqal Cave
- Carbon offset information to Oman
Hiking into Wadi Bani Khalid
One of us – the driver and owner of the 4×4 that has been taking us around the region – took her responsibilities seriously. She figured that it would not be safe if the she drove the return journey after being tired out hiking in the sun. So she opted to enjoy the nice wadi and rest under the palm trees.
The remaining three of us decided to go up a little bit into the wadi channel towards Muqal cave, which was reputedly at the far end.
We would not be going all the way to the cave, of course. Just towards it, and then we’d come back, we solemnly promised.
Why we shouldn’t hike to Muqal Cave
There were a lot of good reasons why we should have settled for our modest ambitions of a short light walk, and stay close to where the car’s parked:
1. We needed to leave Wadi Bani Khalid while it’s still light.
There’s a stretch of poorly lighted winding mountain road coming up to Wadi Bani Khalid. It’s perfectly fine in the day time, but may not be a great idea to navigate in the dark.
We also had a long drive back to Muscat. The two of us who were expats there also faced the possibility that the day after may not be a public holiday after all. (Those readers who have worked in the region will get it. For the rest of you, just accept that public holidays can be in quantum superposition in some countries!)
2. It wasn’t clear how far away Muqal Cave really is.
The hikers we met who were on their way back from the cave seemed to either:
- possess superhuman agility,
- have an appalling grasp of the passage of time, or
- be British.
Somehow, the cave was always ‘not far at all’, ‘wouldn’t take much longer’ and ‘can’t be more than half an hour’… every half hour’s hike.
3. We didn’t prepare for a long hike.
While not difficult, the hiking terrain consisted almost entirely of boulders, cliff sides, sometimes cobbled and pebbly. We had… flip-flops.
On top of that, we had about half a bottle of water between the three of us.
4. The cave was going to be lame anyway.
A few of the returning hikers we queried seemed underwhelmed by what they found at the end.
But hiking in Wadi Bani Khalid was like a video game
I have a tendency which can be very confusing to people because it is so contrary. I can seem completely ambivalent – even hesitant – over an idea for the longest time, but the moment something about it tips over the (admittedly vague) threshold in my mind, I become its most committed advocate. And then I am most inventive about finding a way to make it happen.
For this trail, it was the fact that the hike turned out to be more of a puzzle than I expected. In fact, at times it felt almost as if I was in a computer game – like Prince of Persia, or Tomb Raider. Let me explain.
Why we hiked to Muqal Cave
The ravine itself was gorgeous, with its incredible cliffs casting shadow and reflecting the bright sun, by turns. Oman in general is blessed with incredible geology just sitting around to be admired. I don’t think I know a single geologist who would turn down a business trip to Oman, whatever the business purpose might be.
Some common sense would be expected, of course. For example, you may encounter shallow water; it’s understood that you would simply cross it.
Seems clear and boring enough. There was no need to traverse the entire wadi to view the geology.
But when we started hiking, the trail began to get interesting for me. Not least because the line between what Omanis consider passable, and impassable, seemed less clear than we first assumed. And the steps that marked the ‘official’ path were not always obvious. Now we’re talking a bit of fun!
I wonder if the hike had been straightforward, I might have agreed to turn back when we first had doubts over the risks of hiking all the way to Muqal cave. However, the moment I had to make decisions on which side of the ravine was likely to be a dead end and which one was not, and hunt for the sometimes ‘hidden’ steps, I was hooked.
Hiking along the wadi to Muqal Cave
The wadi was not dry. Water flowed along the channel below us, on its way to the oasis where we left our friend. It pooled in various points along the way where locals staked their space around seemingly impossible swimming holes. Impossible, because you wouldn’t have thought that some of the ledges where people were found, are accessible.
A few of the narrow, deep holes were even fitted with flotation devices hanging down from metal chains anchored to boulders above. They hovered just over the water flowing past, visible to us through the holes that resulted from collapsed sandstone.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was to give a fighting chance for whoever may have leapt into a pool upstream into an unexpected current. If he remained conscious upon reaching the spot, that is.
It’s about finishing the game
It was quite hot (of course) but thankfully because the air was also dry, I was all right in my khaki jacket. I was also not as thirsty as I worried I might be.
Fortunately, all the hikers we came across seemed to feel the remaining distance to the cave was short. This made it easier for me to talk my friends into going just a little bit further. And a little further. And further still.
After a while, we all began to feel that it would be a shame not to finish the hike, having come so far. Soon the cave took on a lesser, and greater, importance, its value reduced to being the excuse for the trek, and yet it was the end game.
We sometimes had to turn back because the way we chose did not after all continue on to the cave. I looked always for the carved steps, which served as a signpost to assure us we were on the right trail.
This sometimes required us to pass over the same section a few times, because we could not see it – it was sometimes tucked in a crevice between boulders, or hidden round a short bend right at the tip of a seeming dead end.
We picked up a geology student along the way, who left us at some point. We were pressing on, while he meant to idle and look at the rocks.
Near the end of the trail we met a photographer, also trying to complete the very last part of the trail.
And here we faced the final challenge.
The puzzle of the path to Muqal Cave
There it was. We could see the cave, opening into the cliff on the right. But in between was the wadi channel, a drop of more than a few feet. There were two trails, one along the right wall of the ravine, and one along the left.
At the end of the trail hugging the right wall of the ravine, if you crane your neck around the overhang, the cave opening could be seen. It was small, gaping dark and unassuming. But the ledge decidedly ended at the overhang. There was only air between it and the ledge where the cave mouth was. So near, and yet so far.
The trail hugging the left wall, which the photographer had tried, came to a wide ledge, where the cave mouth could be seen even more clearly. There was even a set of steps leading up to it from the bed of the wadi, suggesting that the correct approach was from the wadi itself.
But how to get into the wadi? The wide ledge at the end of the trail on the lift had a high and sheer drop down to the wadi bed. It could be attempted with some physical risk; so it did not seem to be the intended way.
We swapped routes with the photographer in case the other missed something at the end of the trails. Neither of us had.
By now, it did not matter if the cave was the most boring cave in the world. It was the last level of the game, the very last one. We were obsessed.
This is not a travel guide ;)
I am tempted to reveal the key to this last puzzle. But let it remain secret so that the gentle tease of the game remains.
Suffice to say that we did work out where the true path was hidden. And yes, it was a sensible, easy path. As with many puzzles, once the answer is found, it felt bleedin’ obvious.
We did reach the cave and we went in. We were likewise underwhelmed, although the part where the humidity was trapped in a sort of cave pocket was somewhat interesting in its marked contrast with the prevailing dryness.
And then, we went back down the trail. Along the way, we told the people wondering about Muqal Cave, that the cave was not far, just a little bit of a hike further.
Addendum: Four of us went to Wadi Bani Khalid, but only three of us went into the ravine and up to Muqal cave. The fourth relaxed by the lovely oasis, and were predictably adopted into an Omani picnic. The most amaaazing spiced mutton BBQ skewers were gifted us when we returned from the hike. Omani people are so hospitable!
Carbon offset information to Oman
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Muscat produces carbon emissions of approximately 4,184 lbs CO2e. It costs about $20 to offset this.