hike to muqal cave | Wadi Bani Khalid hiking

Wadi Bani Khalid: The Muqal Cave Hiking Game

The Hike of Wadi Bani Khalid

I hadn’t really meant to hike all the way to the cave. We really meant to be satisfied only with a short trek up the wadi to see the pools flanked by the dramatic cliff sides of Wadi Bani Khalid, like the pics we looked up on the internet.

It seemed to be much more worthwhile to enjoy the wadi. It’s nice and wide and pretty with the exotic date palms fringing around, possibly being invited to an Omani family’s barbeque picnic… and close to where the car’s parked.

There were a lot of good reasons why we should settle for the modest ambitions of a short light walk:

  1. We needed to leave the wadi while it’s still light.

There’s a stretch of poorly lighted winding mountain road coming to the wadi. It’s perfectly fine in the day time, but may not be a great idea to navigate in the dark.

We also had a long drive back to Muscat. The two of us who are expats there were also faced with the possibility that the day after may not after all be a public holiday (those readers who have worked in the region will get it. For the rest of you, just accept that these things can be in quantum superposition in some countries!).

towards muqal cave
To Muqal cave

2. There did not seem to be a clear idea for how far the cave really is.

The hikers we met who were on their way back from the cave seemed to either possess superhuman agility, have an appalling grasp of the passage of time, or be British. The cave was always ‘not far at all’, ‘wouldn’t take much longer’ and ‘can’t be more than half an hour’ – every half hour’s hike.

3. We were not equipped for a hike.

While not difficult, the hiking terrain consisted almost entirely of boulders, cliff sides, sometimes cobbled and pebbly. We had flip-flops.

cave hike terrain
The terrain looks like this

On top of that, we had about half a bottle of water between the three of us.

4. The cave was going to be lame anyway.

A few of the hikers we queried seemed to be underwhelmed by what they found at the end.

wadi bani khalid
Wadi Bani Khalid

The game appeal

I have a tendency, which can be very confusing to people because it is so contrary. I can seem completely ambivalent – even hesitant – over an idea for the longest time, but the moment something about it tips over the (admittedly vague) threshold in my mind, I become its most committed advocate. And then I am most inventive about finding a way to make it happen.

For this trail, it was the fact that it turned out to be more of a puzzle than I expected. In fact, at times it felt almost as if I was in a computer game – like Prince of Persia, or Tomb Raider. Let me explain.

The instructions

There really is only one way up to the wadi source, and where the cliff sides become impassable or dangerous, there would be steps. So essentially, just hike up and look for steps.

wadi stream
Wadi stream
steps to cave
Handy steps

Some common sense would be expected, of course. Shallow water may need to be crossed, for example.

Seems clear and boring enough.

But when we started hiking, the hike began to get interesting for me. Not least because the line between what Omanis consider passable, and impassable, seemed less clear than first assumed. Now we’re talking a bit of fun!

Still, I wonder if the hike had been straightforward, I might have agreed to turn back when we first had doubts over the risks of hiking all the way to the cave. However, the moment I had to make decisions on which side of the ravine was likely to be a dead end and which one was not, and hunt for the sometimes ‘hidden’ steps – I was hooked.

The trail
wadi bani khalid cliffs
Passable v. impassable

The ravine itself was gorgeous, with its incredible cliffs casting shadow and reflecting the bright sun, by turns. Oman in general is blessed with incredible geology just sitting around to be admired. I don’t think I know a single geologist who would turn down a business trip to Oman, whatever the business purpose might be.

The water pools in spots along the way where locals stake their space around seemingly impossible swimming holes.  Some narrow, deep holes were even fitted with flotation devices hanging down from metal chains anchored to boulders above. I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was to give a fighting chance for whoever may have leapt into a pool upstream into an unexpected current, and still remained conscious upon reaching the spot.

Decisions, decisions…

cave trail decisions
Which side?

It was quite hot – of course – but thankfully because the air was also dry, I was all right in my khaki jacket. I was also not as thirsty as I worried I might be.

It was fortunate that all the hikers seemed to feel the distance was short, as it made it easier for me to talk my friends into going just a little bit further. After a while we all began to feel that it would be a shame not to finish the hike, having come so far.

Soon the cave itself took on a lesser importance, its value reduced to being the excuse for the trek. As all travellers are fond of saying, for me it quickly became all about the journey.

cave trail more decisions
Dead end? Or steps ahead?

We sometimes had to turn back because the way we chose did not after all continue on to the cave. I looked always for the carved steps, which served as a signpost to assure us we were on the right trail. This sometimes required us to pass over the same section a few times, because we could not see it – it was sometimes tucked in a crevice between boulders, or hidden round a short bend right at the tip of a seeming dead end.

We picked up a geology student along the way, who then left us at some point. We were pressing on, while he meant to idle and look at the rocks. Near the end of the trail we met a photographer, also trying to complete the very last part of the trail.

For here we faced the final and ultimate conundrum.

Muqal Cave: The final puzzle

Muqal cave
Muqal cave, and The Final Problem

There it was. At the end of the trail hugging the right wall of the ravine, if you crane your neck around the overhang, the cave opening could be seen. It was small, gaping dark and unassuming. But the ledge decidedly ended at the overhang. There was only air between it and the ledge where the cave mouth was.

The trail hugging the left wall, which the photographer had tried, came to a wide ledge, where the cave mouth could be seen even more clearly. There was even a set of steps leading up to the small ledge from the bed of the wadi, suggesting that the correct approach was from the wadi itself. But the wide ledge had a high and sheer drop down to the wadi bed. It could be attempted, with some physical risk, but it did not seem to be the intended way.

We swapped routes in case the other missed something at the end of the trails. Neither of us did. So near, and yet so far. It did not matter at this point if the cave was the most boring cave in the world. It was the last level of the game, the very last one.

Ending cutscene

I am tempted to reveal the key to the last puzzle.

But let it remain secret so that the gentle tease of the game remains. Suffice to say that I did work out where the path was hidden, and that it was a sensible path. As with many puzzles, once the answer is found, it feels bleeding obvious.

muqal cave completed
Game completed!

We did reach the cave and we went in. We were likewise underwhelmed, although the part where the humidity was trapped in a sort of cave pocket was somewhat interesting in its marked contrast with the prevailing dryness.

And we went back down the trail and told other aspirants, that the cave was not far, just a little bit of a hike further.

Addendum: Four of us went to Wadi Bani Khalid, but only three of us went up to the cave. The fourth relaxed by the lovely big pool, and were predictably adopted into an Omani picnic. The most amAAzing spiced mutton BBQ skewers were gifted us when we returned from the hike. Such hospitable Omani people! 

 

Wadi Bani Khalid hiking | Muqal cave hiking trail | Oman

21 thoughts on “Wadi Bani Khalid: The Muqal Cave Hiking Game

  1. It was quiet an adventurous game, almost like a treasure hunt, to find your path and reach the treasured destination. Thanks for putting up all the information so meticulously, it is definitely going to be helpful to others.

    1. Once a gamer, always a gamer! Maybe I’ll put the answer in the Walkthrough section and password protect it with a math question or something…

  2. Woah, you are very adventurous. If I were with your group, I will probably be with the person who stayed by the pool hahaha Caves make me nervous. But maybe someday I can conquer that fear. Glad u had an amazing time. 🙂

  3. The hike looks amazing, even if it was so complicated to figure out the right path. I guess that made it more fun. It’s really nice that the Omani people have shared their picnic with you at the end, you were probably starving.

    1. Yes it did make it more fun! Oh Oman people are beautiful people. We were at the car park and were only clearing out some rubbish, and my colleague happened to be standing around sort of waving an empty water bottle idly. Within a couple minutes a random family in the car nearby came over and gave us water because they thought we were out.

  4. I laughed out loud on the comment that the hikers might be British because Filipinos do that too! Lol. When you ask for directions, people will always say that it’s nearby and 3 hours later – you still can’t find it. Lol.

    I’d probably stay by the pool if I was with you, I’m too lazy for a hike. Hah! And I do agree, Omani people are absolutely hospitable! Oman is my favorite GCC destination and that’s saying a lot as I’ve lived in Dubai and Doha. 🙂

  5. Your pictures with the doodles made this post such an enjoyable read. I really liked how you pointed out where trails are passable and not so passable. It looks like you have to bring a multi-purpose shoe to survive that hike!

  6. As a keen hiker that loves the great outdoors, this type of hike hold great appeal for me. I would love to give this a go, especially as you didn’t give the secret away at the end…as I love a bit of a challenge. The landscape also looks so fascinating. Have to go there one day!

    1. 🙂 Yay! I’m glad to know someone else appreciates that too! Wadi Bani Khalid is very near to Wahiba desert which is also quite popular in Oman for desert camping. I hope you do make it there someday!

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