Jebel Shams, at 3,009 metres elevation, is Oman’s tallest mountain. Keen hikers can climb to the summit if they like – or somewhere near the summit; the very top of the mountain is military land and thus off-limits to the public. For everyone else there’s the Balcony Walk.
The trailhead for the Balcony Walk is unmarked, but the beginning of the track is easy enough to locate. Simply drive yourself to the town of Khateem – just a scattering of simple adobe huts and goat pens – which you’ll find perched on the lip of an extremely deep canyon (Wadi Nakhr).
Then just walk over the edge.
The Balcony Walk
The canyon wall is not quite a sheer cliff in this location, but just a little way down the slope it does become truly vertical, with a 900-metre fall to the valley floor below.
The trail clings to this not-quite-sheer band of the canyon wall, with sections of vertical cliff above and below, for the length of the Balcony Walk.
The trail is narrow, just wide enough for single file passage. There are many points where the path drops off steeply – most of the Balcony Walk actually – with little in the way of handholds to prevent yourself tumbling over the sheer cliff below should you happen to slip over the edge. If the idea gives you shivers then I wouldn’t recommend attempting this hike.
For everyone else, the path is wide and flat enough that you aren’t likely to be troubled.
As you make your way towards the giant cul-de-sac at the end of the gorge you begin to discern a vast, natural, half-arch in the rock face. And above it: a strange patterning in the cliff that looks a little like agricultural terraces.
Of course the idea is ridiculous.
Who would be so crazy as to build agricultural terraces half way up a kilometre-high cliff?
But then you draw a little closer and you come across the remains of an abandoned village, tucked into the same narrow, non-vertical band in the cliff the Balcony Walk has been taking advantage of.
At first it is just a goat pen or two, with tiny mortar-less stone huts built alongside. These are just storage sheds surely?
People couldn’t live inside them, could they?
Perhaps a goat-herder might spend a night or two in them from time to time?
Then you reach what is undoubtedly a village. A complex of crudely built stone huts, many built on top of each other. This is the village of As Sab.
Why did they build here?
Was it a particularly hostile time? Were defensive capabilities of paramount importance when they moved here? Were they in exile?
What did they do for water?
Finally you reach the agricultural terrace, which still supports a few trees; a tiny pool of stagnant water at the back of the terraces proof that there is a water source here at certain times in the year.
What did the villagers do when it was dry though?
The terrace steps down and down and down and down, then goes over the edge.
Tough gig working on that last terrace. You’d get a nice view of the enormous, natural, half-arch though if you made that fatal misstep.
The Balcony Walk ends here. Only it doesn’t really end as you now must about-face and do it all in reverse.
Practical information and how to reach the Balcony Walk:
Many online sources (and locals) will insist that you need a 4WD to reach the trailhead at Khateem. I can confirm that I drove to Khateem in a small 2WD car without any difficulty. There are sections of the access road that are gravel, which is occasionally steep and bumpy and corrugated and covered in patches of bulldust (superfine dust). But if you’re careful and drive to the conditions you’ll be fine.
The Balcony Walk trailhead is 1.5 to 2 hours drive from Bahla, and 2 to 2.5 hours drive from Nizwa. More transport info here.
A reasonably fit individual should be able to walk from Khateem to the abandoned village of As Sab and back within three hours (not accounting for stopping time).