x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hijer Bani Humayd: sea waves at sunset

After a satisfying cruise through rugged Hijer Bani Humayd Paolo Rossetti ends the drive with a refreshing dip in the Indian Ocean.

The trail down into the gorge towards Hijer Bani Humayd can be rather steep.
The trail down into the gorge towards Hijer Bani Humayd can be rather steep.

A wonderful day trip on hard, dirt tracks through the Hajar Mountains, with a stop to explore the source of a hidden oasis and ending with a quick dip in the Indian Ocean, is a suitable summer off-road destination; easy tracks where you can enjoy your car's air conditioning, the shade of palm groves, a brook of fresh water that feeds the oasis's irrigation system and then the fresh fizz of the sea waves at sunset.

This month, we explore Hijer Bani Humayd. Due to the season, I propose an early morning start in order to avoid camping overnight, and also to keep the outside-car stops short except at the oasis, where shade makes the absence of a/c bearable and a nice short hike takes you to the bubbling brook behind the plantations. We start from just out of Al Dhaid, on the road heading towards Masafi and Fujairah, where our first stop at the Friday Market (Waypoint 1) is a lively affair of procuring some delicious yet overpriced corn on the cob, fresh coconuts and a bag or two of fruit, which costs more than Dh100.

Just down the road from the Friday Market is a petrol station (Waypoint 2), where we fill up. We are driving a Ford Explorer Sport Trac, which is based on a four-door Explorer SUV but has a pickup bed instead of a covered cargo area. It is a jack-of-all-trades, comfortable as a car but versatile enough to carry a load of gear in the back. After the petrol station, turn right at the first roundabout (Waypoint 3) towards Fujairah and follow the winding road for 9.5km, where you will have to U-turn at the junction signposted Al Murair/Shabiya (Waypoint 4) and track back until the first visible dirt track on your right (Waypoint 5), which heads into the mountains.

You will be down in the wadi (Waypoint 6) - you may, of course, take a quick drive up and out on any of the small tracks just to get a bird's eye view, but be sure to return back down into the gorge until the main track lifts out of the wadi floor and up past a lovely remote farm, complete with its own small mosque (Waypoint 7). You will soon reach a steep climb, where the Sport Trac's four-wheel drive comes in handy to keep the car sure-footed; from the top, take a moment to look back at the view.


View Hijer, July in a larger map

Back down in the gorge, you will swing left and right, crossing at one point into another tight gorge, which will disorient you somewhat. Stay confident and just keep following the established track, and if worse comes to worse and you get on a different track all that will happen is you will end up at a village where you can re-organise your route on the spot. With The National GPS track downloaded, you will be spot on my own tyre tracks so let the wadi swing you around and try to confuse you, but you will never lose your bearings.

If you have remained on the right track, you will pass an interesting white brick wall with a padlocked gate that has been built to cover a cave entrance in the wadi wall (Waypoint 8), and where just opposite is a deep-water well - dry at the time of us passing by, but still interesting to have a look down. The next feature to look out for is well above the canyon - an ancient, circular lookout tower made of stones, stands up on a ridge (Waypoint 9) and signals that your intermediate destination, the oasis of Hijer Bani Humayd, is near.

At Waypoint 10, at the intersection, turn left to enter into the green oasis. And there, in the middle of the stark Hajar Mountains, where survival is very difficult for plants and animals, let alone humans, there before you sits an oasis of life. The track snakes through the oasis cultivations and you will see fences clearly delineating territory, and perhaps you will be disappointed as there seems to be no entrance into private property, but there is always public access to water.

Around a bend you will spot a large grandmother mango tree, possibly the oldest in the oasis, and right behind it a large cement vat functioning as a pond, collecting the water run-off as it passes through the ledged plots of cultivated land - there to the right is a public path (Waypoint 11) which takes you uphill through the oasis following the fallaj: an ancient system of irrigation channels that utilise gravity to cleverly distribute water equally to all plot owners in the oasis. Nowadays it is concrete, and if you look closely you will see metal plaques bolted into the channels, numbering and categorising them as part of a water resource management system by the Omani government.

Omani? You thought you were in the middle of the UAE? Yes, indeed you are, but you are now in the Madha Enclave, which is technically Omani territory and, as testament to the brotherly ties between the two countries, there are no border restrictions. You will notice the Omani flag flying on public buildings further down the road, and your mobile will switch to OmanTel coverage. The public trail rises gradually to a T-junction, with a hamlet to your right, where you should take the turn left and then right uphill again to reach the natural stream of fresh water that fills the fallaj. The water source is a long crag in the mountains, and the water trickles out from underground (Waypoint 12). Further up and around the mountain is a natural reservoir in Wadi Shees, which could be the source of the water that moves through a network of underground tunnels to emerge and irrigate the oasis.

We found the people in the oasis to be friendly and hospitable, reassuring us that the fences are more of a territorial division rather than an attempt to keep trespassers out. Still, we would never enter into a fenced-off plot without first announcing our presence to the owners, and, if deserted, we would rather respect their property rather than feign ignorance and traipse around all over the place.

When the time comes to leave the oasis, back out the same track to the intersection and up the steepest track in front of you (Waypoint 13), where behind you will be a beautiful view of the entire oasis nestled among the unforgiving rocky mountains. The track leads towards the coast, through gradually more populated villages and picnic spots, and a large but shallow cave (Waypoint 14), until the track gives way to tarmac (Waypoint 15) and passes by the immense Sahna Dam on your left (Waypoint 16). Straying into one of the villages will simply mean you re-join the main road at the other end; for precision's sake, take a right to Madha (Waypoint 17) and then next roundabout right again (Waypoint 18) until you reach a main, separated highway, which is the UAE coastal road between Fujairah and Dibba.

Directly in front of you will be the sea, but to reach there you first must follow the traffic direction right, take the second U-turn (Waypoint 19) and track back along the slip-road parallel to the motorway (some call it a service road - basically where all the shops are) until you spot an intersection to the right just opposite the Al Marasim Ladies Salon (Waypoint 20). Interestingly enough, between the motorway and the beach is a network of oases, and a maze of little tracks. If you miss the ladies salon turn-off, just go by nose and sniff around the oases looking for a way through to the beach - it can take quite a bit of back-tracking until you can perforate the thick network of cultivated land.

From the Al Marasim Ladies Salon it is instead fairly straightforward, and passing through an alleyway of housing (Waypoint 21), you will soon reach the beach at the town of Mirbeh (Waypoint 22). We arrived just before sunset, and basically just ran out of the vehicles screaming and waving our arms like a troop of monkeys, stampeding into the fresh waters of the Gulf of Oman after a day well-spent crossing the mountainous backbone of the UAE.

Next month, we will switch into overdrive and take you to what I promise to be the most amazing wadi water pools you have ever seen: it's a long romp into Oman but worth every kilometre: Wadi Dhum. motoring@thenational.ae