The mountains on this side of Nizwa are much less developed than those on the Saiq Plateau, which makes for more continuously spectacular scenery, although there’s no equivalent here to the Saiq Plateau’s dramatic hanging villages. The highpoint (in every sense) of a visit out here is the drive up the flanks of Jebel Shams (3005m), the highest mountain in Oman.
Beyond Ghul, the road begins to climb steadily upwards towards the summit of Jebel Shams, surfaced for about the first half of the journey, though nearer the top the tarmac gives out and the track becomes quite steep and rocky in places, meaning that 4WD is essential. The landscape hereabouts is very similar to that on the road up to the Saiq Plateau, with huge sedimentary limestone formations, their colours ranging from chalky greys and greens through to sandstone oranges and reds. En route you’ll notice the distinctive outline of Jebel Misht standing in proud isolation away to the west. The final few kilometres (past the Jabal Shams Base Camp) are particularly spectacular, with grand views down into the great chasm of Wadi Nakhr (also sometimes referred to as Wadi Ghul, to which it’s joined), and popularly known as the “Grand Canyon” of Oman.
The main road up the mountain finishes at the Jabal Shams Resort, from where a side track runs a couple of kilometres to the windswept hamlet of KHATEEM (also spelt Khatayam, but pronounced something like “Hootm”, with throaty h), just a handful of tiny houses clinging to the edge of the canyon. Getting out of your vehicle you’ll probably be greeted by local children trying to sell you some of the area’s traditional black-and-red rugs, or smaller woven trinkets made from the fleece of the long-haired goats which browse the mountains hereabouts.
Khateem is also the starting point for the spectacular Balcony Walk (part of hiking route W6 and clearly waymarked with the usual red, white and yellow painted flags). This is probably the most famous hike in the country, winding around the cliffs halfway up the rim of Wadi Nakhr to the abandoned village of As Sab. The scenery here is some of the most dramatic anywhere in Oman: a kind of huge natural amphitheatre, with kilometre-high cliffs, the tiny village of Nakhr way below in the shadowy depths of the canyon and birds of prey – such as the Egyptian vulture, with its distinctive black-and-white-striped wings – hovering silently on the thermals overhead. Count on around three hours for the return journey from Khateem to As Sab, although even a ten-minute walk from Khateem offers memorable views and a good taste of the scenery hereabouts.
The road to the summit itself (topped by a golfball-style radar installation) is off limits due to military use, although you can still walk up to the southern summit (2997m), known as Qarn al Ghamaydah, along hiking route W4, with marvellous views into Wadi Nakhr, Wadi Sahtan and Wadi Bani Awf en route.