The Al Hajar range, about 50km inland from the Gulf of Oman, couldn’t be further from the glitz of the cities synonymous with the Middle East. These remote mountains are Oman’s majestic calling card, with vast panoramas and topography to rival any of the world’s best canyon lands. Peaks rise to 3,009m above sea level; deep wadis sheer vertically through the arid, untamed landscape.
It’s the perfect place to undertake two extreme physical challenges. My plan is to test out a via ferrata (or climbing route) that opened last year created to explore the mountains’ thrilling vertical elements; then, the next day, join together a series of four remote footpaths – each classed a “day hike” – into a single gruelling, testing run, covering 30km and 2,500m ascents. The trip can’t come soon enough.
Rucksack over my shoulder, I’ve everything I need for the weekend – trainers, water bottles, GPS watch and a few other essentials.
I settle in for the seven-and-a-half-hour Oman Air flight from Heathrow to Muscat. A couple of movies, and it’s time to get some kip.
My driver, Al Rashdi, collects me from the airport. It’s 20 degrees, the skies are blue and we begin our two‑and‑a‑half-hour journey inland to the hotel. Cruising along the pristine highway, the Al Hajar mountains grow on the horizon, and they look everything I had hoped – dramatic and intimidating, their jagged peaks rising up from the low‑lying coastal area.
I arrive at Alila Jabal Akhdar to a very warm welcome – a hot towel, mellow sweet coffee and pitted dates. At 2,000m above sea level, perched dramatically on the edge of a high escarpment with a canyon panorama as far as the eye can see, it’s breathtaking. But as tempting as the pool, sunbeds and spa look, they’ll have to wait.
After a quick bite, it’s time to face the via ferrata. Italian for “iron way”, via ferrata is a form of climbing a steep mountain route equipped with cables, ladders and fixed anchors, with the climber always secured by harness and carabiner. It’s a vertigo-inducing thrill; one is typically suspended high up on remote vertical cliffs. I’m introduced to Mahamoud, my mountain guide, and one of the hotel’s leisure concierge team, and we head outside for the safety briefing. We fasten our helmets, climb over the fence stile and get our first glimpse of the route, just metres from the tranquil hotel terrace.
“A few people have started crying here,” Mahamoud notes succinctly at our first clip-on point. I can see why: the flat ground suddenly angles straight to the bottom of the deep canyon below. My head for heights is good, but it’s still a leap of faith to take hold and begin lowering myself down the cliff.
We arrive at the bridge, this via ferrata’s dramatic centrepiece: comprised of just four wire sections, it’s suspended 20m above ground and spans 15m across, with drop-offs either side. Mahamoud goes first; once he’s across, he shouts back: “OK! Your turn.” Heart slamming, I nod and double-check my safety line is securely clipped onto the wire above. I take a couple of deep breaths to calm my nerves and focus, then tentatively place my foot on the wire. I gain confidence with each small step and by the halfway mark I’m starting to feel a bit blasé. But then that confidence abruptly gives way; my sweaty palms grab the wires either side of me as if my life depends on it, and I inch my way along the final metres. Thrill and relief mix when I finish. We begin climbing back up the big rock face.
Halfway up. I’m gripping the iron handholds in the rock with all my might, but my forearms are beginning to give out. I pause to catch my breath, shaking out my quivering hands, then continue. Finally the route levels off and the hotel comes back into view.
Every muscle of my upper body is near to exhausted as we complete the final stretch. It’s been an extremely intense two hours – but there’s not a moment to rest; my attention now turns to tomorrow’s canyon run. As I’ll be on my own, Mahamoud is keen to recce a couple of points on the route with me so I can orientate myself and get a feel for the area. We jump in the 4x4 and head out.
Back at the hotel, I can’t resist a cooling swim before sunset. Then it’s an early three-course tasting menu – bread hot from the oven with labneh and honey, followed by slow-cooked stew and sticky date pudding with ice cream. I’m well fuelled for tomorrow.
All my kit is laid out on the floor, a pre-adventure ritual. I double-check the route, load the course onto my GPS watch and it’s early to bed.
The alarm goes and I’m up, though my body clock protests it’s only 2.30am. I wolf down a bowl of muesli and a coffee and meet Mahamoud in the lobby.
We drive half an hour to the start point. It’s only 15 degrees but I can feel the sun already strong. I’ve got butterflies – a good thing. It means I’m ready, and I need to be – this will be one of the most challenging runs of my life.
“Goodbye,” I shout to Mahamoud, waving as his 4x4 speeds away in a cloud of dust. When he’s gone, I stand for a minute in the deserted silence, taking it all in, acclimatising to my surroundings and my undertaking. This is the big ticket I came for. One deep breath and I’m away.
About 10km into the run, having descended 500 vertical metres, I reach the bottom of the first canyon. Palm trees and lush crops grow everywhere; a freshwater course flows from the base of a nearby canyon wall along ancient terraces. I pause to drink from the stream and begin making my way up the canyon.
After two long hours, 7km more, a couple of wrong turns and 800m of non-stop arduous climbing, I catch sight of the day’s highest point, at an altitude of around 2,380m. At the fastest walking pace I can muster – it’s far too steep and rocky to safely run – I survey my body and gear. The telltale signs of a major physical challenge are clear: bloodied grazes on my hands and knees from where I went down on a rock; a coating of dust; empty water bottles; a searing fatigue in my quads and lungs burning too, in this thin air. Not a moment too soon, I rendezvous with Mahamoud, and quickly refuel, gulping down water between mouthfuls of the most delicious chicken-avocado sandwich ever. Then I refill my bottles and am off: I need to get moving before lactic acid sets into my muscles and to make sure I don’t finish too late, should any unforeseen problems arise – these canyons aren’t somewhere I wish to get stuck on my own after dark.
The sheer scale and mass of these mountains is utterly mesmerising; but increasingly, my attention is focused inwards as the midday sun takes its toll and my exhaustion grows. The going has been slower than I expected, and I’ve been largely speed hiking with intermittent sprints – much of the terrain has proved far rockier and more uneven than I’d accounted for. The collapsible Nordic walking poles I stashed in my backpack, just in case, are a godsend.
Finally, I make the abandoned village that marks the end of my downward climb and the return leg home – a 3km, 500m ascent. I’m in a collection of crumbling homes in a totally unconnected place; I can scarcely believe whole families once lived here. I briefly rest and refuel, sheltering from the sun in an old doorway. Then it’s off, one last burst for the final stretch. After six hours my energy deficit is deep, but the end is in sight.
I’ve been climbing for over an hour and my legs are screaming out for mercy. Just as I’m really fading, I hear a shout from the rocks above me. What relief – it’s Mahamoud. Despite a parched throat, I muster energy and yell feebly back.
After seven hours, 30km and about 2,500m of climbing, I’m finally in the hotel – exhausted, aching, dehydrated but thoroughly elated. The feeling of achievement – the reason I came – is overwhelming.
Another gentle swim, the most blissful recovery massage in the spa and then I make my way to the bar for a well-earned drink, then enjoy an enormous and delicious dinner: a four-course tasting menu, this time for two people.
After the deepest sleep and a huge breakfast, I am homeward bound. Oman doesn’t suffer fools, but it delivered two of the most exhilarating, life-affirming days I’ve lived. I’ll be back for more soon.