The next few posts are going to be about what we consider to be “essential Oman” – the natural beauty of breathtaking landscapes and the traditional architecture of historic forts and castles.  I am going to start with something we’ve never seen before and that only exists in a few countries in the world, none of which we have previously visited.

I had presumed Oman was going to be mostly desert and seacoast and was excited to find out there were many hiking opportunities, mostly around the Hajar mountain range where soaring peaks and deep ravines made for some beautiful views.  As we started to plan our hikes, I noticed that many of the location names started with an unfamiliar term “Wadi”.   Wadi Bani Khalid, Wadi Ghul, and Wadi Shab were sprinkled throughout our itinerary.

As it turns out, Oman is one of twenty countries in the Middle East and North Africa without any permanent natural rivers flowing through them, but there are seasonal watercourses named wadis.   Wadis are essentially valleys that form when rainwater rushes through, usually during rare but heavy rainstorms. During these times, the wadi fills up with water, creating streams and even small rivers. But for much of the year, especially during dry seasons, these wadis are just rocky pathways winding through the terrain.  Despite being dry most of the time, wadis often have pockets of vegetation, such as trees and shrubs, like tiny oases in the desert.

Once in Oman, we realized that wadis were far more than dry riverbeds somewhere in the wilderness, there are wadis running through many towns and being used as unpaved roads and even parking lots!  It was absolutely crazy to see Google Maps plan our drive through what looked like a river in the app but turned out to be a very drivable wadi once we got there.


Wadi Shab was our introduction to just how beautiful a wadi can be.  ‘Shab’ translates from Arabic as ‘gorge between the cliffs’, and that is a perfect description.  It felt a bit like hiking through Zion Canyon but with gorgeous blue pools of water.  The journey started with a boat ride to get us across the river where we began our trek through local farms on a flat path that eventually turned into a ravine full of boulders with no clear markings of where the trail was heading.  Multiple people headed off in the wrong direction and we ended up looping around a bit until finding rocks with spray paint indicating the correct path.  Eventually, we arrived at the water-filled gorge where everyone shed their non-waterproof belongings and ventured into the water.

At the time, Victor was battling a mild cold and decided against aggravating his condition by getting into cool water, so I was the only one swimming that day.  Victor hiked, climbed rocks, and explored the terrain from above, while I swam through the connected pools and along the narrow channel, discovering hidden caves and secluded alcoves of the wadi.  The hardest part was not the swimming, but occasionally having to climb out of the water and make my way over very slippery rocks and boulders.  Wearing water shoes would have come in handy there, but I had to struggle barefoot, and happy to report I didn’t slip and fall on my face as expected.  In the end, I was rewarded with a secret cave with a small waterfall inside.  To get inside the cave, I had to swim down an extremely narrow channel where the sides of the gorge leaned so close together, it felt like I might not be able to squeeze my head through.  I made it through, only to hear a man behind me panic and turn back around, claiming that “this was a death trap!”

There were openings on the ceiling of the cave and the afternoon sun reflected off cliff rocks and the small waterfall sprayed rainbow drops everywhere.  I floated on my back, oblivious to other tourists in the cave, enjoying the beauty and tranquility of this strange place.  My only regret was that Victor was not able to join me.  And, if I am being perfectly honest, that I didn’t bring my waterproof GoPro to capture this moment.


The second and probably the most famous wadi we visited was Wadi Bani Khalid (we kept referring to it as Wadi “Bad Bunny” Khalid in honor of a widely popular Puerto Rican rapper whose music is on usual rotation in our household).  Unlike other wadis in Oman, Wadi Bani Khalid has a constant flow of water throughout the year and is popular for its large pools of emerald-green water in the rocky canyon surrounded by palm trees and mountain peaks.

I knew that just like at Wadi Shab, several pools are perfect for swimming here, so I brought my bathing suit and towels along.  A short walk from the parking lot, there it was, the first pool surrounded by palm trees, beyond it a small bridge leading to a seating area and a restaurant.  I quickly changed into my bathing suit and ran towards the water.  As I jumped into the first pool, I was immediately surrounded by a gigantic school of fish, all of which started nibbling on my feet and hands.  It was weird and ticklish, but I was stubborn and refused to get out.  I noticed a lot of people dipping their feet into this pool, enjoying a free pedicure, while I was literally getting skinned alive by all these hungry fish.

I swam off, some of the fish still chasing me, into the next connected pool, while Victor hiked alongside on the canyon.  We swam and hiked into the upper pools and canyons of Wadi Bani Khalid where we discovered small caves and hidden grottos carved into the rocky cliffs, offering shelter from the sun.  There were fewer people the further we went, the water was warm in the shallow pools, and the trail led us to small waterfalls, secret swimming holes, and panoramic viewpoints overlooking the desert below.  In the end, a local guide showed us into a narrow cave, where after several minutes of crawling on all fours, I was rewarded with a shallow pool of warm water in complete and utter darkness.


We spent most of the day hiking, climbing, swimming, and exploring and returned to our rental car exhausted and completely content.  We had no idea what to expect from a wadi, we certainly never expected the dry riverbed to serve as a parking lot, a drivable road, and occasionally to be one of the most beautiful places we have ever hiked.

Coming up next: More Essential Oman!

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