Games without frontiers in Dibba

The Omani coastline north of Dibba has long been a weekend playground for the UAE but formerly easy access to diving, hiking, climbing and cruising is under threat by new border rules. John Henzell reports.

Deep water soloing climbers who lose their grip simply fall into the warm water. Christopher Pike / The National
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The hand holds are good but the cliff face is overhanging so when the rock climber's forward progress is stymied, it's only a matter of time before gravity overcomes willpower.

Normally, there'd be a brief heart-stopping moment of free fall before the rope comes tight with a sharp tug on the harness, arresting the fall. But there's no rope here and the fall goes on for longer, ending not with a tug on a harness - that's also absent - but with a splash into the warm and salty embrace of the Gulf of Oman.

That's the essence of the burgeoning sport of deep water soloing, hailed by advocates as the purest form of rockclimbing because it involves just the climber and the rock, with no other factors intruding into the experience. It's also an activity for which the sea cliffs of the Musandam peninsula are gaining a worldwide reputation.

"It's like ..." Nadine Wiegert, a Dubai-based climber, searched for the right description, finally settling on: "It's more free."

She added: "You can climb without a rope and you're not restricted in any way. And if you fall, you're landing very safely in the water."

It's just one of a range of reasons why each weekend the roads of the Omani exclave of Dibba fill with cars bearing Dubai and Abu Dhabi number plates.

Hundreds more will go on dhow cruises along the coastline, others will don scuba gear to see the recovering coral gardens of Ras Lima, while hikers will scale the peaks that soar straight from the coastline.

But the ability to use this part of Oman as the UAE's weekend backyard is under threat because of stringent new rules that prevent what had been easy and relatively bureaucracy-free travel.

Deciding on a Thursday afternoon to go for a weekend dive, cruise or hike will be impossible because of the requirement to send passport and residents' visa details to the UAE authorities 48 hours ahead of time. Camping in the mountains or self-guided rock climbing on the popular roadside crags of Wadi Khab Al Shamsi will be out entirely because of the requirement to show a booking for either a hotel or an activity, such as a dhow cruise or a dive boat.

Only a few years ago, people such as Nizar Fakhoury, a Dubai-based scuba enthusiast, would barely even notice they had crossed an international border.

"When I first started to come here for dive weekends seven years ago, they'd ask 'What are you here to do?' when you crossed the border, and that's all it took," he said. "Then a few years later, they'd ask if I was a resident - and now this."

Leaving Dubai that morning, Fakhoury had considered abandoning his deep water soloing trip because although the dhow operator had submitted his details to the UAE authorities, he didn't have a copy of the paperwork to show the border guards. "It made me think twice this morning but I took the chance," he said.

Until recently, it was possible to drive along rough mountain roads from Dibba to Khasab, at the tip of the Musandam peninsula, or across to Ras Al Khaimah on the UAE's west coast. But in 2008, the road was restricted to GCC citizens only from a checkpoint about 40 kilometres in.

A few years later, the border was marked with a secure fence, topped with barbed wire, separating the two sides of Dibba township and restricting access to a pair of authorised crossings.

Until the latest changes, UAE residents could cross the border by flashing a passport or Emirates ID card, without the necessity - or payment or bureaucracy - of getting an Oman visa as you do to visit Khasab.

The bigger issue is that uncertainty about the new rules, rather than the rules themselves, is keeping people away. As Christophe Chellapermal, who runs Nomad Divers in Dibba, put it: "If you show up at the border with the right documentation and if you book with a serious dive operator to assist you, you will be able to enter the Musandam Governorate without any hassle."

An aphorism told by UAE-based rock climbers is that, when the international boundaries in this corner of Arabia were formalised in the 1960s as the British prepared to end the Trucial States protectorate, all the rock climbers were on the Omani side of the negotiating table because the best climbing areas have all tended to be just outside the UAE's borders.

The theory is not meant to be serious but it is fairly accurate, with the crags just over the border at Buraimi, and in Wadi Khab Al Shamsi near Dibba, generally better than those to be found within the UAE.

That's especially true for deep water soloing, where rock climbers are yet to find anything on the UAE coastline that matches the riches found just across the border.

The Musandam coast's reputation has spread far beyond the Emirates.

Neil Gresham, one of Britain's top climbers and a deep water soloing pioneer, was one of those lured to Oman by the tales of the sea cliffs. In April last year, he was part of a group that based themselves on a dhow for several days and added more than 60 new routes.

At the time, Covo del Diablo in Majorca, on Spain's Mediterranean coast, was considered to be the world's best deep water soloing cliff.

"So did we find the mythical DWS crag in Oman to beat Covo del Diablo? I would say not," he wrote in the British magazine Climber a year ago. "But would we recommend it for DWS? Yes, definitely!

"The majority of the rock might be loose but there is still enough quality solid stuff to last the keenest climber a decade or two."

In season and with a dhow full of like-minded friends, he added, "an amazing time is guaranteed".

That description described perfectly the group comprising Nadine Wiegert, Nizar Fakhoury and 10 other climbers who braved the new border restrictions for a recent deep water soloing trip.

Part of the appeal of the sport is that it's perfect before and after the peak of summer, when the temperatures make climbing on conventional cliffs unfeasible.

The most experienced deep water soloer on the dhow was Nicky Vanlommel, a Dubai-based Belgian climber making her "sixth or seventh" trip to the sea cliffs.

She's passionate about rock climbing but, like most enthusiasts in the UAE, has to put the sport on hold at the peak of summer. Even so, she climbs each year until the point when her fingertips are so frazzled by sun-scorched rocks that the fingerprint scanner at the entrance to her work can't recognise her prints.

"Deep water soloing is only at the start and end of summer," she said. "Today is just perfect but by November, the water is too cold and you don't want to fall into it any more.

"I first heard about deep water soloing on Facebook. Someone posted a trip as an open event on Facebook and I came along."

Fakhoury is a recent convert to deep water soloing, having started rockclimbing this year.

"It's just the perfect combination," he said. "In the sport of rock climbing, a lot of people get scared but, with water underneath you, there's nothing to be scared about."

The bigger hurdle is the bureaucratic one. By hiring a dhow and a speedboat, deep water soloing groups will meet the activity requirement but the need to book ahead of time means the end of spontaneous trips to the Omani coast.

"The nice thing was you didn't used to have to plan your activity," said Fakhoury. "You didn't have to worry about planning your whole weekend.

"This [the new rules] hasn't been implemented fully but if they do, visits to Dibba will be much less [frequent] and more complicated.

"All the tourists come from the UAE. Everyone crossing the border is coming from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, pretty much, and they don't like it."