Sandwiched between the flowing red dunes of the UAE and the stark mountains of Oman lies an area of off-roading heaven.
Technically on the Omani side of the border, a visa is not required to visit the area of Wadi Sharm, assuming passage through the border post at Bureimi from Al Ain.
Thousands of years ago, inhabitants of this region valued the dual-purpose living that could be had facing the open desert at the foot of mountains. Fresh water would run down the mountain wadis when rains fell within the large catchment area, and mountain hideouts were on hand to escape and defend from the raiding parties of enemy tribes. At the same time, the desert grasses were close by for goats to graze, and a few hardy crops could be teased out of pockets of fertile land where the mountains gave way to plains.
For us modern-day adventurers, the Wadi Sharm area gives us spectacular views and terrains of both mountains and sand dunes in one area; and in the spirit of this duality, I like to save these rides for a motorcycle.
Only with a two-wheeler can you in fact fully appreciate the environment you're speeding through, unobstructed by a roof.
The KTM 990 SMT is a supermotard boasting the same twin-cylinder engine as its more off-road brother, the 990 Adventure, but adds an on-tarmac agility and grip that make the twisty mountain roads a sheer pleasure to ride. And despite sporting road-biased tyres, I was crazy enough to run it over sand dunes and rocky mountain trails.
We start at the Bureimi border crossing, on the north-eastern corner of Al Ain, close to where the motorway from Dubai enters the town at the district of Hili. Beware those on tourist visas who must make double-sure they can re-enter the UAE at the end of the day.
You simply show your passports and a smile to the border officer and you're through. At the second roundabout, hang a left, following the sign to Sohar (waypoint 1). This route takes you straight out of Bureimi, where you will come across the roundabout that signs left to Mahdah (waypoint 2), which you will take.
View National Wadi Sharm May'11 in a larger map
The road winds through a few valleys and tight mountain cuts, and eventually you will be surprised by a sign indicating Dubai, to the left (waypoint 3); indeed this road can bring you to Hatta, and then back round to Dubai. We will follow it only for a short while, until the first roundabout (waypoint 4) where you should turn left, towards Kahil.
You will soon be skirting an impressive mountain range on your right, and a swathe of red sand dunes will creep up on your left.
At waypoint 5, keep an eye out for a dirt track that suddenly sprouts out to the right, towards Safwan, and that will bring you closer, but still parallel, to the mountains, while in front of you will appear a layer of vivid red dunes dwarfed by a higher mountain range in the distance: Wadi Sharm.
As you travel along the dirt track, you will require an off-road-capable machine; I had a very difficult time negotiating soft spots with the smooth tyres, but somehow made it through. You will soon spot a line of electricity poles marching towards a camel farm (waypoint 6), which backs right up to a range of open sand dunes, with the Sharm mountains towering up behind them.
It is a beautiful area, with the combination of three terrains meeting together (hard plain, sand dunes and mountains) that a few moments of contemplation under the shade of a ghaf tree make it well worth it (waypoint 7).
It will be clear that if you cross the dune range ahead, you will reach the wadi at the foot of those mountains. The camel farm at waypoint 8 is quite large compared with others in the area, and keep an eye out for any newborn camels, which are always a delight to see.
Crossing the dunes range is not as easy as it seems. You will be navigating against the grain and be pitted against the slipfaces of some wild dunes. Feel free to play around in the dunes, if you like; but I will propose a track back along and parallel to the dune line, heading towards the exact place where the sands meet the rocks.
This is perhaps a tamer approach; but the bottom line is this trip is an exhilarating ride for the senses, and so crossing the dune range can be done on a subsequent trip. For now let's head to the mountains.
We head towards another mature tree for a sit-down and a snack (waypoint 9) and we then explore the mountain, looking for a track for a future crossing one day. There are plenty, and surely there is a way-through (waypoint 10, perhaps).
Again, we head around and back, towards waypoint 11, where we snap a left on a good track straight into the mountains. This takes us on gravel along an open wadi, which, when in full flood, must be a formidable sight indeed. The rocks are worn smooth, large uprooted trees are scattered along the way, and the sides of the mountains in places are carved into smooth cliffs. Do keep a wary eye on the weather, and skedaddle at any sign of impending rain, especially if it seems to be falling uphill and ahead of your route.
Eventually, you will skirt around to an old farm, and the mountains bar forward passage (although, there's always a way if you're willing to explore) and so at waypoint 12 we continue on our way back towards the right.
A delightful little village - a hamlet, to be precise - enjoys spectacular views of the overshadowing mountains, at waypoint 13, and we are reminded of the natural hospitality of the local folk when a boy and his brother, both perhaps 12 or 13 years old, drive out in a battered old pick-up to greet us and invite us to their home for tea.
They laugh when I ask them about a driving licence, as their uncle keeps an eye on them from the hut they inhabit on the weekends they spend on the farm. There are friendly and hospitable people all over the world, yet I have never experienced such a sincere and consistent tradition of honouring visitors as in Oman.
On one occasion we were picnicking on the outskirts of a little village, similar to the one in Wadi Sharm, and cordially declined an invitation to visit with one of the local farmers (quite rude of us, actually - I have learnt better manners over the years) and so the villager returned to his home, only to emerge a few minutes later with his family carrying all sorts of mats and bowls and flasks of scalding tea, which they brought to the shady area we were sitting in.
If you are invited to visit, please do so without hesitation: it only takes a few minutes. Just nibble or sip a little of whatever is offered, counter-offer a little of what you have, particularly to the children, ask a few questions about the family and inquire about the area - is there water nearby? Are there trees? Old forts? - and then graciously thank them for their hospitality and take your leave.
Not only you will gain directions to locations nearby that may turn out to be fabulous and only known to the locals, but you will have honoured your hosts by accepting their kind hospitality. In times before, one would not pass through an inhabited area without introductions and exchanges.
From the little village, we continue along the escarpment, where at waypoint 14 we follow the track homewards to the right until we emerge onto a tarmac road at waypoint 15, which will lead us to a T-junction where we turn right (waypoint 16) to return to Bureimi and the border crossing back to the UAE.
The area of Wadi Sharm has much potential for exciting rides and drives, and we hope the border crossing at Hili will remain open to GCC residents - the Bureimi mountain area complements the Al Ain desert region, and together the sister cities provide an attraction for visitors that is more than each can accomplish individually.
Click here to download Paolo's kml file.