Intrigued by Oman’s version of the Grand Canyon Wanderlust’s editor-at-large Phoebe Smith considers what’s in a name…
Here’s a question for you… if you were headed to China and I told you to be sure to visit Yarlung Zangbo would your interest be piqued? How about if you were about to journey to central Asia and I urged you to add Charyn to your list? Or you were in need of a day out in Britain and I pointed you in the direction of High Cup in Cumbria?
Now imagine instead I told you to visit the Grand Canyon’s of China, Asia and Britain – would you feel instantly drawn to them? Because the above places aren’t just destinations I have cobbled together for no reason, they are, in fact, all known by other monikers – as the Grand Canyons of their respective countries.
On a recent trip to Oman a similar question was posed to me. I was asked if I’d like to take a hike around Jebel Shams. In a country where most mountains are known as jebels (and all are dramatically beautiful) at first I wasn’t convinced I needed to add it to my - already jam-packed - itinerary. That was until I was informed that this was ‘the Grand Canyon of Oman’. Suddenly I could picture it – a carved collection of jagged peaks, snaked through by a winding gorge – and I had to go no matter how much it would mean a rush for my flight home.
My guide Justine drove us from Muscat, leaving the urban quickly behind, headed steadfastly into the countryside. We’d packed sandwiches and stopped enroute at a store in a tiny village to pick up homemade cakes to supplement our meal, but at that point my appetite was not for food, but for scenery.
I watched as the road in front of us became rougher and rougher, testing our 4x4 vehicle as we climbed higher and higher. A smeary haze filled the air, and the heat from lower down the valley began to give way to a cool mountainous breeze. It was sublime.
We were headed for what’s known as the Balcony Walk that begins amongst a small cluster of houses where longhaired black and white goats easily outnumber visitors. Though only a few hours drive from the capital, this area of the Hajar mountains (which is also known as Wadi Nakhr gorge or Wadi Ghul) is still relatively unknown. Unlike the ‘original’ Grand Canyon in the USA – here there is no visitor’s centre, no entrance fee, no expensive glass walkway you have to pay to use – instead there is just a path, that looks fairly innocuous at that start, that in just a few steps from the parking area opens up to reveal a truly mammoth geological wonder. It was here where, millions of years ago, two continental plates of the earth’s surface collided, pushing up the ‘Mountain of the Sun’ Jebel Shams and retreating water carved out high reaching cliffs.
The walk itself was surprisingly flat, yet the payoff was a series of kilometre deep drop offs that made my knees wobble and stomach do somersaults. Even through the thick film of haze I could make out the other side of the canyon, its layers of limestone looking like painted zebra stripes.
We wandered alongside trees that sprouted up, broccoli-like, out of the side of impossibly steep hillsides, meandered through the deserted ruins of As Sab village - once home to 15 families until the 1970s and now just a jumble of stone walls, door frames and dried up agricultural terraces - and cooled off in the hidden natural pool which glistened turquoise beyond.
Our way out was by via ferrata, a collection of ladders and handholds drilled into the rocks. I thought the sheer vertical nature of it was a trick of perspective, but was we clipped in to the safety wires, I realised this was no mirage – we were going straight up.
A thrilling hour followed filled with me gripping rock, reaching above crevices, heaving myself up overhangs, and grasping for my inner nerves of steel. But every so often I stopped and marvelled how I would have missed its beauty had it not been for its comparison to its USA counterpart. I’ve often bemoaned the need for calling something the Grand Canyon, Matterhorn or the Niagara Falls of… [insert country here], but I think on that day in Oman I finally got it. No matter what you called it, this was a very grand canyon indeed. And all around the world there are a great many more…
Phoebe did the Jebel Shams via ferrata with twenty3extreme.com who are based in Muscat, Oman.
Ripping through England’s hilly backbone of the Pennines, above the unassuming village of Dufton in Cumbria, is this U-shaped glaciated valley. And though it might not be quite as extensive as its Grand Canyon comparison suggests, in the midst of rolling high moorland it comes as a dramatic geological surprise. The chasm drops beneath your feet, cleaved by the wonderfully named Cauldron Spout and edged by crumbling pinnacles and buttresses. You have to work to reach it – it’s a bit of a hike from the car park, but worth every step.
Actually a giant quartzite cirque, this rocky amphitheatre can be reached in under a two-hour drive from Geneva. Accessed through a farm, where refreshments are served in summer, it suddenly appears from the green countryside like a glistening white bowl. Another remnant of the glaciers land-carving mastery (as well as water erosion over the centuries) its 160m drops amid the Arctic-Alpine flora my not be as jaw-dropping as their Arizona equivalent, but are sure to make your knees knock just the same.
Boasting a 5-day walking route, a length of 160km, depth of over 500m and a gaping gap of up to 27km in some parts, southern Africa’s own Grand Canyon is a definite rival for the North American counterpart. Cut through by the river from which is gets its name, it’s made of a cake-like geological mix of gneiss, metamorphic and sedimentary rock, and shaped as the result of continental plate movement hundreds of millions of years ago, followed by water erosion and glaciation. Due to high temperatures and risk from flooding you can only visit in their winter (May-September), when it’s still hot – though in a more hike-friendly way.
Never one to be outdone, China not only boasts something that looks like the Grand Canyon, but has the name to match it. Bending around a mountain known as Namcha Barwa in the eastern Himalaya, the river that flows through this great gorge for 240km eventually becomes the Brahmaputra. With a giant horseshoe bend, gnarly whitewater rapids, and a rare and endangered cattle chamois known as the takin, it certainly does give the USA’s own canyon a run for its money…
Believed by the Incas to be home to a river that flowed directly into the Milky Way, Latin American’s Grand Canyon offers more than just grand scenery. Home to an abundance of archaeological sites complete with rock art dating back thousands of years, the Andean condor (with a wingspan over 2m) and local people who not only celebrate their ancestral traditions but also live by them – farming terraces which pre-dated the Incas – this not only boasts some of the highest drops of any canyon but also hides a wealth of hidden depths beyond the landscape itself.
More valley than canyon – as the name suggests, the wow-factor here is the width, which has been measured at over 1km wider than the actual Grand Canyon. Reached by little more than a three-hour drive from Sydney, this limestone cluster of jagged escarpments, coated with Wollemi pines, appears as an emerald foil in the majesty of the Blue Mountains. It’s renowned for its birdlife (including the endangered regent honeyeater), rich mining history and walking trails and yet in typical down-to-earth Aussie fashion is completely unpretentious.
Known more as the Grand Canyon’s ‘little brother’ than all out copy, this 90km gorge looks a little familiar. With red sandstone walls dating back 12 million years and known as something of a mecca for rafters and canoers who want an alternative to the ticketed system found in the USA, you may have to pinch yourself to believe you’re not actually stateside. Found a little under 200km from Almaty, on the Chinese border, this Central Asian wonder also offers hiking trails around the rim and down into the base where you can even watch local fishermen at work.
Who’d have thought that when a river began to channel its way through the Colorado Plateau over 5 million years ago, in what is now the state of Arizona, it would have created a landmark that not only attracts tourists by the busloads, but has also spawned a whole host of namesakes around the planet. Inhabited to this day by Native Americans, home to coyotes, big horn sheep, mountain lions and the once near extinct California condor, not to mention one of the world’s most in-demand river trips whose permits are only available via an online lottery, it well deserves its lofty title and place on this and any traveller’s bucketlist.