Wadi Naam to Fins

Crossing the Eastern Hajar Mountains (Al Hajar Al Sharqi) with a visit to the spectacular beehive tombs at Shir/Jaylah and a look at the Magandeli (Majlis Al Jinn) cave, the largest in Oman and one of the largest caves in the world.

30-31 October 2003-update Feb 2007, update December 2008, December 2009 February 2010

 

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We took the trip in three pieces 1) from Muscat to the tombs at Shir/Jaylah (258 km) on 30 October, camping on the plateau, 2) crossing the plateau and descending to Finns at the Arabian Sea (46km), with a picnic on the beach on 31 October and returning from Finns to Muscat in the late afternoon of 31 October (153 km). A total distance of 457 km.

Added December 2008: Please note that this route is very vulnerable to poor road conditions associated with rain. Check with local people.

Added December 2009: Please note road down to Finns was completely washed, with another group of cars getting stuck beyond the point of no return and no continue. They requested police support and they got a helicopter. We were camping higher up and were also visited by a helicopter checking whether we were all OK. Access to the Majilis Al Jinn cave is also very difficult through the narrow gorge near Al Hajar Ash S. The alternative route down to Tiwi was OK (see story and details at bottom of this web page).

Route description

This is a difficult route, both in terms of demands on car and driver as well as finding the right track. It definitely requires a 4-wheel drive in good condition and a careful driver. The ascend from wadi Naam and the descend to Fins at the coast are spectacular and very steep. The tracks are not signposted and it is easy to deviate from the one and only route that crosses the jebel. Most of these unplanned excursion will offer surprising views, ending in small villages and beauty spots. If you want to do this trip in a weekend it is important to have a good GPS track or map (Google Earth track linked here) to avoid loosing too much time exploring this beautiful area.

We took the main motorway from Muscat to Nizwa, following the direction to Sur at Bid-Bid. This is straightforward driving to Ibra, which will take about two hours. Fill-up your petrol tank if you have a thirsty car, but a Toyota with double tank will be able to make the full tour back to Muscat without any problem (and so does our Defender Diesel). After Ibra turn left into the road signposted wadi Naam (N22 42.709 E58 32.318). The tarmac lasts to some 16 km from the junction. Turn to the right into the wadi just in front of a large date palm plantation at An Niba (16 km from junction). At 24 km from the junction one can see a large bowl of Tertiary limestones left of the road, perhaps a nice opportunity for a coffee stop to search for some fossils.

The limestones are gently folded and looking from a distance this looks like a large bowl. Fossil hunters may want to try their luck. The rock is oolitic and contains some large shells. In most cases one finds only hard cores, with the original calcite or aragonite shells dissolved.

Some 32 km from the junction (N22 42.813 E58 50.103) the track joins an approximately north-south trending track that leads directly to the steep escarpments of the Eastern Hajars. The impressive scarp in the distance is capped by a thick package of Tertiary limestones that also form the top of the whole of the Eastern Hajar Plateau. Keep an eye on the black ophiolite rocks. You may recognise nice pillow lavas just before the steep ascend starts. Follow this track for about 22 km (N22 53.329 E58 53.183) to a junction turning to the east (right). From here the steep climb starts, from 460m to 1700m altitude over some 22 km, with some very steep gradients.

At N22 50.409 E58 58.708 is a right-junction to the village of Maqtaah.

Modification August 2006:

The original road at the junction has been washed away & now ends after 50+m in a 5m drop. The junction is blocked with some rubble. The new turnoff is not very obvious (if you are not looking for it) and is more than 100m back from the original junction & so far is not signposted. (UTM position is 40 Q 702544 2527192, // N 22 50.5308, E 58 58.4268).

Abandoned terraces indicate that cultivation was on a larger scale than it is now. To get to the village take the junction at to the right, otherwise continue left, going down into the wadi. The village is close to the contact between the ophiolite and the overlying limestones. The ophiolites probably act as a barrier for the water that sinks into the limestone plateau creating natural springs at the contact between these rock units. The road climbs steeply against the limestone scarp and low gear is essential. Weathering of the limestone results in a fine clay covering the track. Even a slow driving car will create dense dust clouds hampering visibility for the next cars (the dust turns to a sticky clay when wet as you will discover washing your car back home). The dust is there to stay all over the plateau on top......

Some 12 km from Maqtaah  you will see the impressive ruins of beehive tombs/towers at Shir(r). Camping sites are difficult to find and suitable flat spots can be found near the beehive tombs (N22 48.946 E59 03.255) at some 1725m altitude. 

Impressive drystone tower still standing great after 4500 years!

Internal view of the tomb shown at the left. Note the stepping inwards of the successive layers of stone
 

Prof. Paul Yule (Univrsity of Heidelberg) first described a burial ground of the Umm an-Nar period/culture at Shir/Jaylah in the eastern Hajjar. Of course the local people have always known about these tower-like structures, but modern world only discovered them in the early 1990's. The story goes that Prof. Yule  recognised these tombs from an aerial photograph in the book A Day Above Oman, by John Nowell. The discovery made international headlines in the Times. Some 80 such towers are now known in the area, some of which are in very pristine condition.  This is the first burial ground of its kind to be published in south-eastern Arabia. If their dating is right they would date back to the bronze age, some 4500 years ago, a time when the copper trade was bristling in northern Oman. Their preservation is remarkable, certainly when one considers their impressive age. It appears that first the inner structure was built as a almost 'vaulted' structure with successive ceiling stone slabs gradually stepping inwards, 'corbelled' as the chambers in the pyramids.

They appear to have been about 4 to 5 meters high and 3 to 4 meters in diameter. They are cylindrical in shape and tapered towards the top. Some are double walled. After each tomb was built, a second outer wall was constructed and the space between the two filled with small stones. Some of the tombs are two storied. In 1994, one was opened to reveal skeletal remains and burial goods, including beads and fragments of pottery.

A large tower seems to have been built independently as an outher shell around the inner structure as far as we can see from partly present walls preserved in some of the structures. The drystone walls are very well  made, slightly sloping inwards and therefore stable. They have a thickness of about two metres at ground level. The towers have a small entrance, generally at ground level in the east side, just fitting an adult crawling though. The interior consists of one large chamber, but in some the ceiling of the inner structure subdivides the towers in a vertical sense. The builders have used the local available limestones (Tertiary) which crops out in nice layered sequences forming excellent natural building blocks. Many loose blocks still litter the plateau and could be easily collected.  The nature of the outcrops around the towers suggests that the builders may have done some simple surface quarrying, taking the top layers out. Black blocks of ophiolite can be found around most of the towers, suggesting that these may have been part of them as ophiolite has to be carried from many kilometres away in wadi Naam.  Maybe there were "coloured bands" higher up, or maybe even a black top.  

(See also the beehive tombs at Halban)

For a full description of these towers see Yule and Wesigerber, 1998

 

Night sky on the plateau with Orion just appearing above the horizon; an eerie feeling just sitting there and admiring the majestic beehive silhouettes against a brilliant star backdrop.  

Gently sloping eastwards, the badlands of the Eastern Hajar Mountains

We camped near the tombs in a beautiful and impressively ancient setting. The next day we continued eastwards. Turn left @ N22 49.747 E59 06.006 into the village of Al Hajar Ash S. Just after the village the track leads through a narrow and spectacular gorge. Some (slow) 4 km further the landscape opens up with a great view over a large plateau at an altitude of some 1330m. Drainage patterns indicate large sinkholes in the central parts of this plateau. The entrance to the largest cave in Oman, Majlis Al Jinn, is close to the eastern edge of this plateau @ N22 52.908 E59 06.357

The plateau at the east side of the Eastern Hajars. The flat area in central view shows some large depressions at the end of dry drainage channels, most likely representing sinkholes in the porous Tertiary limestones

 

Main entrance of the Majlis Al Jinn Cave. Be careful it is some 120m deep and is just a small skylight of the huge chamber below.

 

Magandeli (Majlis Al Jinn) Cave, which is some 300 by 200 m wide and 120m high, or some 4 million m3 in size.

One needs a lot of courage and good equipment to descend into that black hole and we had neither one nor the other. The photo to the left was given to me by AJ Cozzens who had made the decent in early 2003. It clearly shows one of the two 'skylight' which are currently the only known entrances to the cave.

A story on my expedition into the Majilis is linked here.

An alternative route to cross the plateau can be found as Google Earth file here.

The eastern descend starts some 1.5 km from the cave (photo upper left) with the Arabian Gulf as backdrop. Again spectacular driving, descending some 1000m over a distance of only 6km. Part of the track leads along a deep gorge (photo upper right). Take your time. The hairpin-curves are very steep and slow driving in lowest gear is a must. Villages along and in the gorge offer some picturesque sights
The descend ends in the village of Finns. If you need a repose at a quiet spot on the beach take the main tarmac road (junction @N22 55.247 E59 12.568) to the south and relax in a small sandy bay @ N22 53.581 E59 13.319, a drive of only 4 km from the junction.

That's what we did to wash of the fine dust.

A great trip, but take your time as the steep roads should not be driven in a hurry.

In December 2009 we tried the route from the Majilis Al Jinn down to Finns again. The road was completely washed and we had to stop and camp on the road because it got too late in the afternoon. To our surprise two people came walking up the road, glad to see us. They were part of another group of cars that had pushed on downwards and were now completely stuck beyond the point of no return and no continue. They told us they had requested emergency support. Two of them had walked down the road and phoned from the next village (there is no mobile phone connection for most of the track down). At 08:00 hrs the next morning we got a surprise visit from two helicopters. One of them landed next to our campsite, checking whether everything was OK. The other one landed near the other group. We made it safe back-up, but it was a difficult drive, repairing the road on the go. Checking in the village on the Selma plateau they told us that the alternative route down to Tiwi was OK and that's how we got down. A google earth track file of the alternative route is linked here.


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References

  • P. Yule and G. Weisgerber, 1998. The Tower Tombs at Shir, Eastern Hajar, Sultanate of Oman, in: Beiträge zur allgemeinen und vergleichenden Archäologie (BAVA) 18, 183–241, ISBN 3-8053-2518-5.
    Digital version: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/propylaeumdok/volltexte/2009/291/
    This is the final report of the mapping, excavation and documentation project of the Early Bronze Age (Umm an-Nar period) tower tombs at Shir/Jaylah.

 

 

@ J. Schreurs November  2003, December 2008. December 2009, January 2010