For a demonstration of the differences between the left and right sides of the brain, there are few better places than the sheer cliffs of Snake Canyon in Oman. Traditionally the left brain is associated with a rational analysis, while the right brain is more intuitive and emotional. What this means in practice when you're tethered to a thin wire cable 100m up the side of Snake Canyon is your left brain is telling you this is over-engineered and completely safe but your right brain is screaming: "Oh my god, I'm about to die."
Joe, our guide from the Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre, seems accustomed to seeing his clients grapple with this cerebral duality and is treating this tour of the cliffs with calm and casual certainty as if it were just another day in the office. Which it is, for him. For the five of us visitors from the UAE, living in the unrelentingly flat metropolises of Abu Dhabi and Dubai has left us entirely unaccustomed to mountains, let alone cliffs, and all of us are experiencing varying levels of adjustment to this suddenly vertical world in which we've put ourselves for the next few hours.
The route we're following is called a via ferrata, an Italian term which translates as "iron route" and which was created in the First World War when the front line was in the alpine crags of the Dolomites. Metal ladders were driven into the rockfaces and thick hawser ropes trailed alongside so that the soldiers could reach the heights in safety. Once the shooting stopped, recreational climbers found these were a lot of fun, offering all the buzz of mountaineering with almost none of the risk. The Italian Alpine Club took over maintenance of the wartime via ferrata and a new sport was born, spreading from the Dolomites around the world and reaching, about five years ago, this corner of the Hajar Mountains in Oman.
Fortunately for us, between leaving the UAE's pancake-like coastal cities and tackling the cliffs of Snake Canyon, we have a day kicking around Muscat, reacquainting ourselves with the concept of hills. After arriving late at night, this means waking up at our campsite in a wadi and looking around at the steep rocky mountains a little west of Muscat in the same bewildered and gobsmacked way that a Masai Mara tribesman would if he were plonked beside Sheikh Zayed Road. "I'm just not used to having a vertical dimension to my environment," says Dan, one of our group, voicing what all of us are thinking.
We head further east to the indented coastline around Bandar Khayran and find a tiny fishing village where a group of old men are sitting around chatting and repairing their nets. One of their younger colleagues agrees to transport nine of us on a two-hour tour for the absurdly cheap sum of US$26 (Dh95). Once on the water, it seems like every boatie on the Arabian peninsula had descended on these picturesque bays and promontories, but there are so many nooks and crannies that we are still able to find a small sandy beach to ourselves in the sun.
Just offshore is a small island rising steeply out of the sea that, with the combination of perfect rock and a slight undercut at the waterline, makes for fun bouldering. Once we manage to get over the sharp oyster shells of the intertidal line, the only penalty for a fall is a dunking in the clear aquamarine water. Having briefly reacquainted ourselves with a taste of climbing, we rise at dawn the next morning to meet Joe and Abdullah, our guides from the Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre, and travel in convoy towards the Hajar Mountains.
At the foot of the mountains, the road deteriorates into a rough 4x4 track along Wadi Bani Awf as it traces a route between soaring ridges towards the middle of the range.This road is worth journeying to Oman for on its own, and for nearly an hour we bounce our way along the bouldery riverbed, occasionally fording shallow pools and going past tiny villages set amid date groves and populated by children who wave wildly as our convoy passes by.
Once at Snake Canyon, Joe quickly assembles our equipment in front of each of us. There is a simple harness, a helmet, fingerless gloves, a pulley and a nest of short pieces of rope that he explains in a cheerful voice is the difference between being safe and plummeting 100m to very messy deaths. The nest includes two cow's tails - metre-long pieces of rope with one end attached to the harness and the other topped with a locking carabiner. The idea is that if one were to fall, this piece of rope would avert the aforementioned messy death. Having two means that when climbers meet a point where the wire cable is bolted to the cliff, one is always attached to the cable when the other is being unclipped and then reclipped to the next stretch of cable.
All of this makes my left brain happy. My right brain, on the other hand, is looking ahead at the thin deep gorge into which we're about to descend and doing a fine impersonation of Chicken Little. This cerebral duality is all part of the appeal because both sides of the brain are correct: there is all the perception of risk with effectively none of the reality. This is the same equation that makes bungy jumping such an exhilarating activity.
We're fortunate not to be complete tyros. I once spent a month doing via ferrata routes in the Dolomites; Wendy spent last summer climbing in the French Alps; Katrin looks absolutely at home on the rock; Thomas's caving exploits means he is so used to this kind of activity that he goes like a rat up a drainpipe and Dan spent his gap year as a ziplining instructor. That experience helps because of the three via ferrata created and run by the Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre, we have been told this is the most serious and when we booked, we were warned that we needed to be fit and reasonably strong.
Within a minute of starting the via ferrata we realise the warning is based firmly in reality rather than an exaggeration aimed at weeding out overconfident and underqualified tourists. The other via ferrata I did mostly all had footholds and ladders bolted into the rock whenever the terrain became difficult, relegating the cable to being solely there for safety in case of a fall. But here we have to put our weight on the cable and lean back so our boots grip the rock, prompting a mini left/right brain mutiny.
The analytical side looks at the sturdily placed bolts anchoring the cable and acknowledes that hundreds of people have already done the same thing without dying, while the right brain is telling me the bolts will pull out and I'll pitch backwards into the abyss. This is quickly put into perspective when, after about 30m of hugging the side of the cliff, the cable turns and spans the gap to the other side of canyon. This is the first of several ziplines, where we attach pulleys to the cable and begin with a leap of faith to scoot across to the other side before the right brain can fully voice its displeasure. All this is good until the sag in the cable ends the free ride about two-thirds of the distance to the other side of the canyon, at which point monkey-style hauling takes over to reach the far wall. By this time, the shock of being suddenly vertical after the unrelenting horizontality of Abu Dhabi has worn off a little, my heart has decided to vacate its position in my throat and even the right-brain protests diminish.
In practice, this means we realise we are having fun, scrambling along the cable around the various obstacles along the way. At times, the natural features of the beautiful, grippy and trustworthy limestone means progress requires some basic rock climbing, relegating the cable to being purely for safety. When the terrain becomes difficult, ladder rungs and footholds are present. Three more ziplines later, the route has gone across, up and down and even through a small eyelet in the rock, eventually leading to a final crossing of the canyon via what Joe describes as a "monkey bridge": two cables, one mounted about 1.8m above the other which istraversed in the style of a tightrope walker.
This is an entirely different experience to the ziplines and our last crossing is not just the highest but also involves looking 100-plus metres down to the narrow floor of the gorge as we shuffle our feet across. A couple of minutes later, we reach the end of the cables and stand back on level ground, buzzing from the experience of the past couple of hours. Because we are heading back to the UAE, we have the chance to continue on the Wadi Bani Awf road which becomes even more scenic as it winds an improbable route along cliffs, through wadis and past a series of villages set amid date palms until we reachHighway 21 near Nizwa.
As we make towards home, the bulk of Jebel Hafeet - a rogue outlier of the Hajar Mountains - signals our return to the UAE and the unrelenting flatness beyond. firstname.lastname@example.org