Dubai road-trip: to Jebel Shams, via secret pools and a UNESCO site

Sure, the Oman road trip generally consists of a to and from Muscat – with not much in between. But here’s why you should head for Jebel Shams on your roadie, and the lesser-known stops in the area like Wadi Damm…

Stop one:

The Mezyad – Hafeet border in Al Ain. About two hours’ drive from Dubai, and you’ll be at the border. This one doesn’t get as busy as the border at Hatta, so you shouldn’t have too much of a wait.

Border tips

  1. You only need to get out of your car once you get to the Oman side.
  2. Make sure you have your vehicle licence handy, and a print-out of your insurance. That’s mandatory in Oman.
  3. You’ll need 35 dirhams for the UAE exit fee. You’ll also need 20 OMR (about 200 AED) for an Oman tourist visa (unless you’re lucky enough to be from a little place called New Zealand in which case you need zilch for that).  At the UAE border, you’ll need to park your car and enter the little shipping container to your right to pay this. Take exact cash.
  4. MOST IMPORTANT: Come armed with a veritable explanation of what a tampon is; if for any reason, a border guard finds one in your handbag – consider yourself prepared. Because believe me – if, like us, you’re overcome with the giggles and a partner whose explanation is crude gestures at best, and rude gestures at worst, they won’t take kindly to you, and you will be held up for an extra 15 minutes at least. You’re also probably quite lucky to get through at all.

Stop two:

Archaeological Site of Al-Ayn, otherwise known as the “beehive tombs”

Mistake not, this unassuming pile of crumbling rocks on the side of the road, with neither obvious access road, signage or carpark, is apparently a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In short, the protohistoric site of Bat, together with neighbouring sites, forms the “most complete collection of settlements and necropolises from the 3rd millennium B.C. in the world”, according to UNESCO.

“Together, monumental towers, rural settlements, irrigation systems for agriculture, and necropolises embedded in a fossilized Bronze Age landscape, form a unique example of cultural relics in an exceptional state of preservation.”

Most of these tombs are small, single-chambered, round tombs with dry masonry walls dating to the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE.

You can see the tombs from the road as you exit Al Ayn, on a craggy outcrop on the left, though you won’t see any signposts or any indication there’s anything of note there. Take the gravel road just as you pass by the tombs, or park up and walk from the road. You can walk right up, in and around the tombs – but as you’ll see, this is possibly the reason they’re in quite a state of disrepair.

Get there: Al Ayn’s Beehive Tombs are actually a place on Google Maps.

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Stop three

Wadi Damm Pools and ‘Waterfall’. The ‘secret pools’ that probably aren’t so secret are just 18 minutes up the road, and they’re well worth the jilted drive as you struggle over 1578785 speed bumps to get there. This is where the Wadi Damm is, and though you’ll see a sign or two warning you not to plunge into the water – swimming is quite the done thing here.

Walk up the righthand side of the rocks for a few hundred metres, past the  dam, until the pools start growing in size and depth. About five minutes or so up, you’ll have your first viable swimming hole.

However, 10 minutes or so up and you’ll reach what seems like the top, where you can’t go any further without hauling yourself up a sheer rock face on a rather flimsy looking rope. In fact, you can carry on to what is apparently a waterfall – but we found absolutely no remnants of gushing water in January. In saying that, January probably isn’t the prime time to be visiting as the water is what can only be described as Arctic.

Also, as far as ‘secret’ pools go – it’s certainly isolated, and when we visited we were the only ones there. However, the amount of trash ignorant visitors seem to have sporadically placed around the place suggests it’s not completely unknown.

Warning: the rocks around here are exceptionally slippery and unforgiving, so tread with care. In short, don’t do it with a marathon the week after like I did.

Get there: Wadi Damm Pools Parking in Google Maps.

Stay & Eat

Jebel Shams Resort

For once, a lodging’s online presence far belies its real-life one. Scrolling through Jebel Shams Resort’s online photos, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re booking yourself in for a mediocre night’s stay atop a mountain that doesn’t have much in the way of luxury lodgings – despite the highend-ish price tag. Luckily, for you and your wallet, you’d be quite wrong.

While this resort is located so far off the beaten track, you’re actually on a very, very beaten track, the quality of the accommodation and its facilities will come as a welcome surprise after you’ve been bounced around your car trying to get there. Try and arrive to watch the sun dip below the horizon, because not only will the name of your chalet be redundant if you miss it, but it’s also one of the most spectacular vistas in the country to watch the sky glow red from above. From your sunset chalet, you’ve got a front-row view to the evening show of the setting sun, and then on the other side of the ridge-line, a short walk from the resort, you’ve got the second show in the morning as the sun pops up.

Luckily, the hotel rest on its laurels on the remainder of its offerings, either. The sunset chalets – though they seem dated and unremarkable online – are all stony facade on the outside, and cosy woods and crisp whites on the inside. The rooms are huge; complete with a TV, large bathroom, seating and dining area and comfortable beds. Pull open the curtains and you’ve got yourself a picnic table right outside your front door, and the best view in Oman of the nearby mountains and the dramatic skies. Better yet – if you’re feeling lazy, you don’t even need to move from your bed for a good view.

One thing to note though, is that if you’re travelling with a partner, fortunately or unfortunately for you, you’ll be lodging in separate beds in all of the rooms.

Outside, there’s plenty of common places for socialising (in the warmer months. Not in January), with cabanas, tents, a kid’s playground and various seated eating areas. It’s an excellent spot for yakking with the Omanis in the chalet next to you – who will inevitably invite you over for some traditional tea with their uncle, and give you a good handle on all the best spots to check out in the area (if you happen to be as lucky as we were). The overall feel of the entire hotel is a friendly, laid-back community with plenty of people who want your stay to be unforgettable.

Half-board is included in the 70 rials (for two people) you’ll pay for a room, and includes a simple buffet dinner and breakfast. While simple, it certainly doesn’t come at the expense of quality – and you’ll find a good mix of meats, salads and regional specialties on offer. If you’d prefer to hide in your room and feast on packet noodles, by all means – but you’re only saving yourself 10 rials each for both. And to be honest, that’s probably barely twice what a packet of mangy noodles costs you in Oman anyway.

The only piece of advice I can offer is to not make the same mistake we did and stop over at Jebel Shams on the way onwards to Muscat. Come for a couple nights to take in the hotel and its surrounds properly. The nearby villages (or small cluster of houses, if you will) offer a cheerful place to head out for a morning run or walk, and the nearby wadis and landscape provide enough hiking or exploring you’ll need for a solid weekend. Of course, if you’re feeling especially game, there’s Jebel Shams to summit.

Note: You WILL almost certainly be taken over an unsealed mountain range via little more than a goat track, by Google Maps, to get here. But fear not: for gravel roads, they’re navigable by your average 4WD – and even a sturdy Yaris if you’re careful.

Price: 55 rials for one, 70 rials for two in a sunset chalet.

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