x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Let the moon guide you in the mountains of Wadi al Helo

Off the Beaten Path A steep, narrow and shale-paved ascent is worth the effort if you have a sturdy vehicle for a summer camping trip in Sharjah.

A wild donkey eyes hikers nervously in Wadi Al Helo - Paolo Rossetti for The National
A wild donkey eyes hikers nervously in Wadi Al Helo - Paolo Rossetti for The National

The falcon's eye view from the top of the stark hill where Wadi Al Helo forks will remain burnt in your memory forever. It's not just a wilderness camping area with great vistas and walking trails; a steep, slippery slope will bring you to a historic fort and far up above the dramatic remains of an ancient village, now an archaeological site managed by the Directorate of Antiquities of the government of Sharjah.

I must warn you it is a very steep track carved out of the mountain, extremely narrow with a nasty drop on one side, and the track surface is loose shale, so to reach the little fort on top you will need a serious 4x4 vehicle; I was in the 2011 Nissan Patrol, which has four-wheel drive and a low-range differential.

On the Sharjah-Kalba road, just before the tunnels, when you're in the thick of the Hijar Mountains, you will pass by the tidy and modern village of Al Helo. On the north side of the road, left-hand side if you're travelling towards Khor Kalba, there is an access track to Wadi Al Helo, clearly signed (waypoint 001 on the map located on The National's website).

It's easy to zoom past the dusty track suddenly leading off the smooth and fast tarmac motorway, so keep an eye out for it, or the double u-turn will take you forever.

Once safely off the motorway, take a few moments to soak up the landscape, get your bearings and get a good feel for the outside temperatures. In June, the daytime hours of 12pm to 3pm are killers, and I would strongly suggest you avoid them.

The locals here have long adhered to a routine where they take long, shady siestas during the hottest part of the day and focus their activities around dawn and after sunset until late at night, particularly on full-moon nights.

You may wish to ignore this suggestion and rely upon your vehicle's air-conditioning and still enjoy the trip, but I'm giving this advice with comfort in mind.

Firstly, you need a full-moon night; city dwellers will be surprised by just how much light the moon projects. For the month of July, that should be the weekend of the 15th and 16th.


View Wadi Helo in a larger map

The importance of the lunar calendar, except for religious occasions, has decreased in modern times as we have become disconnected from the cycles of nature, but still today you will find almanacs with farmers and fishers who follow the phases for planting crops and reading the tides.

Secondly, you need to time the drive so you arrive at the entrance to Wadi Al Helo after 4pm, but not too close to sunset that you risk driving up the steep and narrow track in the dark.

You will need to be equipped and ready for an overnight camping trip on rocky terrain, requiring either bed cots or inflatable mattresses, as thin camping mats would be like torture devices overnight on the stony ground.

In a nutshell, I would aim to arrive on top of the mountain before sunset, spend the night appreciating the full-moon views, wake early the next morning for either an exploratory drive or hike, and then leave before the daytime heat picks up. It might sound extreme to those who are not accustomed to getting out into nature but, believe me, that is how to enjoy the outdoors in summer in the UAE without suffering the heat or remaining confined to an air-conditioned can on wheels.

The dusty track will follow the wadi bed and soon, ahead of you, high on top of a rocky hill, you will spot an observation fort, used in the past as a watchtower and today still flying the Emirati flag. You will be able to drive all the way up there and you'll see the fort in the distance from waypoint 002.

Further along the track you will come across a dying oasis (waypoint 003), a terrifying reminder of what happens when the tap runs dry. From the condition of the wadi bed and surrounding vegetation, it seems that Wadi Al Helo has not received the blessing of rain for some time now.

Continuing along the track, you will soon come to a fork; left will take you to a beautiful hiking trail and right will take you to an archaeological site and the steep climb up to the fort.

Choose depending on the time of day and your group's preference as to which you route you take. I divided the two tracks for you in the GPS download available from www.thenational.ae, so you may take one or the other - or both. There are waypoints named HIK 001-003 for the hike track (left) and ARCH 001-005 for the archaeological and fort track (right).

Points 001 for both tracks refer to the fork and if you heed my advice and sunset is a couple of hours away, take the ARCH route (right) and head past the abandoned historical village and size up the climb to the fort, to see if you will attempt it.

The village ruins are at waypoint ARCH 003 and the climb starts at ARCH 004 but please be wary of pushing your vehicle, or yourself for that matter, beyond your capabilities.

Walk the uphill track first if you are unsure. There is no penalty for wisdom, but there can be serious consequences for stupidity.

I drove up with my wife spotting (walking ahead of the vehicle at particularly rugged terrain to avoid any nasty incidents). She's a professional at this and, frankly, without her help I don't think I would have attempted the climb in a vehicle I was driving for the first time. I know very well the off-roading pedigree of the Nissan Patrol, having owned models from as early as 1981, but the latest incarnation does look a little soft from the rounded-body design.

I need not have worried, though. The new-generation Patrol is a fire-horse of an off-roading truck and we ploughed up the trail easily in a comfortable cabin.

Once camp is set up and dinner consumed, a moonlight walk through the village ruins is a must, especially following a few campfire ghost stories. The following morning, we swung back around to the fork and took the HIK 001-003 track for a brief hike along a mule trail that snakes off to the left of the private gate at the end of the car track (HIK 003). We didn't go too far, just enough to enjoy the many wild flowers, the impressive view of the mountains and to spook a donkey before heading back onto the motorway in search of breakfast.

Summer might seem to be the wrong time for the outdoors in this region, but the night temperatures away from the coast are fresh, and the moonlight adds an entirely different dimension to a camping trip.

Click here to download Paolo's kml file.