x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Off the beaten path: Exploring Oman's forgotten wadi

Getting to Wadi Kitnah may involve some bureaucracy, but seeing its splendour will make it all worthwhile.

The GMC Terrain’s sporty handling can make the drive to Wadi Kitnah more like an off-road rally.
The GMC Terrain’s sporty handling can make the drive to Wadi Kitnah more like an off-road rally.

Give me a dusty dirt track with a few nice curves and I have to fight the urge to indulge in the fantasy of being a rally driver - does that happen to you, too?

The access track to Wadi Kitnah is one such road - wide open, perfectly graded so it is flat, covered with hard, compact dirt, no rocks and very few stones. And it kicks up a dust cloud that pushes my already weak resolve to drive like a mature adult out of the tailpipe; must skid, must drift. Luckily, I found the GMC Terrain I was driving was up to a little fun, with a firm suspension and tenacious handling.

Wadi Kitnah used to be one of the most popular freshwater pool destinations for Al Ain residents, until the Omani government built an official border post just a kilometre before the turn-off. People stopped going due to the extra time needed to complete the border crossing, the cost of the visa and the requirement for Omani car insurance. Instead, they diverted their attention to closer and less bureaucratic wadis.

Gradually, fewer and fewer people knew of this wadi, and that is a shame as it is one of the best wadi destinations in the region. When the water is fresh and flowing, there are pools deep enough for those brave enough to jump in from a cliff the height of a three-storey building and, in the gorges, you can float through caves, sometimes even having to swim under rock to get through.

Although October is too early for finding good flowing water - just after summer is the driest time for wadis - I thought I would feature this spectacular and little-known destination ahead of time, so you can plan a trip to explore it in the coming months, after the news of rain in the area.

To reach Wadi Kitnah, you will need passports that can exit the UAE, qualify for an entry visa to Oman and then re-enter the UAE. You will also need valid car insurance for Oman and an authorising letter if you don't own the car you are driving. The border processing costs will be Dh85 for each person - 35 for exiting the UAE and 50 for the Omani tourist visa.

Instead of entering through the busy border post of Buraimi, I took the southern entry of Khatam Al Shukla, which can be passed in less than five minutes. I would highly recommend this crossing, even if you're coming from Dubai and will have to loop around to the south-east of Al Ain rather than entering at the northern Buraimi crossing, which is much closer to your line of travel.

From the Danat Resort (formerly the InterContinental Hotel) at waypoint 1, travel east and towards the mountains to the border post of Khatam Al Shukla, waypoint 2. Having exited the UAE, now proceed straight through the roundabout, waypoint 3, in the direction of Sohar.

You will soon pass by a group of roadside shops selling car insurance, in case you need it, at waypoint 4, and then you will reach the border crossing, at waypoint 5. This is a major crossing for Omanis, as it governs travel between Buraimi and Sohar and therefore the northern road network of the country. You will need to fill out an immigration card to apply for a visitor visa, which is normally granted without much fanfare. One note: the officers asked if we could please pay by credit card as they didn't always have change to give people when they pay in cash in either dirhams or Omani riyals.

This is also the border post that killed Wadi Kitnah as a destination for UAE residents, who previously could reach it without a visa.

While the wadi is now only a few kilometres away, one might be tempted to try and bypass the border checkpoint and take the mountain tracks to zip into Oman and back without detection but I must advise against this as, technically, you will be putting you and your family at risk of being caught and declared infiltrators by the Omani Armed Forces, who patrol those areas. To save Dh50 each, and 10 minutes of time, I do not think it is worth having to go through the bureaucratic headaches of explaining why you entered a sovereign country without authorisation.

Having received our entry stamp, we now progress to the turn-off to the right, waypoint 6, which is a hard dirt track heading straight into the mountains. This is where the GMC Terrain kept trying to convince me to let me right-foot drive.

Play it safe but enjoy a little dust-making - the Terrain's all-wheel-drive system, controlled by the electronic stability programmes, worked the suspension to the max and, even on the dirt at speed, it tracked true. I was surprised as some similar crossovers are soft and swoon when g-force is applied.

Keep on the track, avoiding any turn-offs, going through waypoint 7, and passing some beautiful viewpoints, until you cross the wadi bed at waypoint 8. Have a good look around at the terrain: the Kitnah oasis is to the east and you are downstream, where the wadi opens up wide. If you want to hike up the tight gorges, you should park somewhere off the track and follow the telltale signs of water passage, walking past the oasis, which will be up high to your left.

If you prefer to start your exploration from the water pools, then you will have to drive around towards the source of the water. Stay on the same track and, several kilometres ahead, you will come across a sharp turn to the left, signposted Huwail.

The track will take you around to the same wadi, but upstream of the gorges. You will reach destination at a cultivated oasis with a few houses, waypoint 9, and, after a few assalamu alaykums to the villagers and a polite inquiry if they mind you exploring their wadi, you will probably be directed to park at waypoint 10, from where you can walk down to the wadi.

I visited in September, after the hot summer months, and, while there was water, it was not enough - I think that you should wait until either news of rain or until it's later in the year, to maximise the chances of fresh, running water, which makes Wadi Kitnah one of the most amazing wadis in the region.

On the way back, I also provided waypoints to the entrance to Kitnah oasis (waypoints 11 and 12) in case you would like to meander among the date palms.