Wadi Bani Khalid: The Muqal Cave Hiking Game
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 enjoy the wadi thereafter. It's nice and wide and pretty with the exotic date palms fringing around, possibly being invited to an Omani family's barbeque picnic... and close to where the car's parked.
The Trip to Wadi Bani Khalid
There were a lot of good reasons why we should settle for the modest ambitions of a short light walk, and staying close to where the car's parked:
1. We needed to leave the wadi while it's still light.
There's a stretch of poorly lighted winding mountain road coming to the wadi. 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 are expats there were also faced with the possibility that the day after may not after all be a public holiday (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. There did not seem to be a clear idea for how far the 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. 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 were not equipped for a 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 hikers we queried seemed to be underwhelmed by what they found at the end.
The Hike of Wadi Bani Khalid to Muqal Cave
One of us - the driver and 4x4 owner - took her responsibilities seriously. She figured that it would not be safe if the driver was driving tired, after 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 supposed to be at the far end. We would not be going all the way to the cave, of course. Just towards it, and then come back.
How we ended up going all the way to Muqal Cave
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 it 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.
The game appeal of the Muqal Cave trail
There really is only one way up to the wadi source, and where the cliff sides become impassable or dangerous, there would be steps. So essentially, just hike up and look for steps.
Some common sense would be expected, of course. Shallow water may need to be crossed, for example.
Seems clear and boring enough.
But when we started hiking, the hike began to get interesting for me. Not least because the line between what Omanis consider passable, and impassable, seemed less clear than first assumed. Now we're talking a bit of fun!
Still, 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 the 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.
Along the wadi trail 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.
The water pools in spots along the way where locals stake their space around seemingly impossible swimming holes. Some narrow, deep holes were even fitted with flotation devices hanging down from metal chains anchored to boulders above.
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 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.
It was fortunate that all the hikers seemed to feel the distance was short, as it made it easier for me to talk my friends into going just a little bit further. 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 itself took on a lesser importance, its value reduced to being the excuse for the trek. As all travellers are fond of saying, for me it quickly became all about the journey.
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 then 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.
For here we faced the final and ultimate conundrum.
Muqal Cave: The final puzzle
There it was. 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.
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 the small ledge from the bed of the wadi, suggesting that the correct approach was from the wadi itself. But the wide ledge had a high and sheer drop down to the wadi bed. It could be attempted, with some physical risk, but it did not seem to be the intended way.
We swapped routes in case the other missed something at the end of the trails. Neither of us did. So near, and yet so far. It did not matter at this point if the cave was the most boring cave in the world. It was the last level of the game, the very last one.
I am tempted to reveal the key to the last puzzle.
But let it remain secret so that the gentle tease of the game remains. Suffice to say that I did work out where the path was hidden, and that it was a sensible path. As with many puzzles, once the answer is found, it feels bleeding 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 we went back down the trail and told other aspirants, 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 up to the cave. The fourth relaxed by the lovely big pool, 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.