Part 1: Al Hajar mountains from Oman
If you look at an aerial map of the Arabian peninsula, you could imagine that a fiendish dragon or dinosaur had laid its weary head down to sleep on the soft, warm sand and fallen asleep. Over the years the wind blew the sand dune over its sleeping body like a blanket, leaving only the spiny backbone visible from the sky.
That is how I like to see the Al Hajar Mountains, which stretch more than 500km from the Omani tip in Musandam, crossing through the United Arab Emirates to the most easterly point of Oman near the fishing village of Sur.
This weekend’s adventure started on one side of the mountains, and ended on the other, without actually going over the top, which obviously would have been the more direct route.
When we have the opportunity we like to escape Dubai, with its technologically advanced skyscraper landscape, to find ourselves in the hills. With the help of a babysitter, we left the children at home for a short overnight trip to take part in a running race to the top of Wadi Bih, near Dibba, Oman; More than 75km of wadi bashing on foot for fun.
However, before our race could begin our first hurdle was not getting across the mountains but getting across the border. Sharjah authorities now demand that UAE residents present proof of a hotel stay or booking with a dhow operator to enter Oman at this crossing, so if you plan to camp you may face some challenges. We had given our passport details to the race organisers who did everything they could to smooth the path, but regardless we were turned back at the border until we had found a policeman wandering around with our name on his list. Now you may think that we would have to prove our identity and we would be stamped or given of permission slip to pass thorough the iron gates of bureaucracy. No. I pointed to the list, and said: “That’s me.” The policeman said: “Tell the guard Khalid said it’s ok.” And that was it.
This is not even a visa issue. If you hold a tourist visa, rather than a resident’s visa you’re exempt. So the reason for the change in crossing logistics is unclear. It could be to stop people with debts absconding and escaping by boat, but seeing as the Strait of Hormuz is the watery home of pirates, smugglers and Iranian sailors, it’s not a great route, especially when you can head to Muscat with no problems.
All that is clear is that local businesses are suffering as adventurous thrill seekers search for rocks and wadis to scramble over somewhere else.
Frustratingly the border restrictions mean you have to return via the same border post. There is a gravel track that runs from Dibba through the Musandam peninsula to Khasab and forks to link up with Ras al Khaimah. But the route is closed unless you are an Omani or UAE national.
Part 2: Al Hajar from Ras al Khaimah
The second part of our trip took on a completely different flavor. The dust, energy and eventual exhaustion of our first trip was replaced by a relaxing, peaceful time within the sanctuary of a beach resort. The Hilton Ras al Khaimah Resort and Spa describes itself as where “barefoot luxury meets fun and adventure, and goes hand in hand with relaxation”. And that’s what we got. It’s a popular haunt for tourists and Dubai residents.
Ras al Khaimah, which means "Top of the Tent" possibly in reference to the mountains, isn’t a bustling city but its history dates back to the 3rd Millennium BC, when it was know as Julfar. It’s a good base to visit the mountains, but routes can be dangerous, so it’s worth going with a guide.
The Stairway to Heaven is one example. It offers magnificent views and was created Bedouins to give access from Wadi Galilah in Ras al Khaimah to the high mountain villages located just over the border in Oman. With drops of 300 metres, and with over 2,000 metres of ascent and descent, it is not for the faint hearted and accidents are not unknown.
If you’re looking for day trips that don’t leave your pulse racing or your heart pounding, Ras al Khaimah is also a good base to visit the nearby thermal springs at Khatt, and the Musandam peninsula for a spot of dolphin watching.
However, with its spa, watersports, beach, pools, kids’ club and a good range of restaurants you might never leave the hotel. I never say no to chilling out…but then again I never say know to the chance to climb on a dragon’s back either.
The practical bit
Information on border restrictions
Information on Stairway to Heaven
Information on Musandam trip
Where to stay: Hilton Ras al Khaimah Resort and Spa,
What to do: Dhow trip around Musandam peninsula; thermal springs at Khatt, mountain walks.
What you need to know: You can cross into Oman at the Tibat border post, and back again, but at time of writing you can not create a circular route through to Dibba, unless you are an Omani or UAE national, due to border restrictions at that crossing. If you want to cross into Oman at the Dibba border post you’ll need to book accommodation in advance, and the hotel or your tour operator will make crossing arrangements for you. It is currently not possible to cross the border to camp on the beach with a UAE resident’s visa.
And finally: Don’t forget your passport.
Please note: Hotels and activities mentioned are only suggestion. They have been tried and tested by us anonymously. Other places to stay are available, depending on your preferences and budget. We are not able to provide an exhaustive list of hotels – those mentioned are a result of our travel experience.