Several days into a trip to Oman, my father and I pulled into a fly-bothered cafe on the coastal highway to Sur. We were in Tiwi, a seaside fishing village near one of the country’s most mouthwatering gorges, Wadi Shab. Lined with terraced plantations and pea-green pools, the ‘gorge between the cliffs’ is a beaut. The plan was to grab a few photos before continuing southeast.
That was when we met Said.
Said was a local Omani boy — maybe 16 years old, tall for his age, wearing a cap, sandals and toothpaste-white dishdasha robe. Matter-of-factly, he approached us at our rental car and offered to guide us into the gorge.
“First swim. Then walk. Then swim, then walk, then swim,” he said.
Swim? Dad and I looked at each other. Said didn’t seem like a tourist guide and he didn’t ask for a fee. Two possibilities played out in my mind — one involving a headline reading ‘Gullible father and son hacked into 2,317 pieces in Omani gorge. Wallets missing’. But there was something about Said’s manner, about the moment in which his offer came, that felt good in my gut.
When I was a kid, Dad might have taken this decision for us. But I wasn’t a kid any more. This was the first big trip we’d taken together as adults. We’d had our share of ups and downs so far; our moments of connection and our moments of fist-clenching irritation. We’d gotten lost in the souqs of Muscat and wondered at the clouds of butterflies on mountain roads. We’d slept inches from each other in grotty hotels; passed unhelpful remarks on each other’s driving habits. I’d gotten food poisoning and lost my lucky hat. He’d been eaten alive by mozzies. By the time we got to Tiwi, on the far eastern coast, the holiday could have gone either way.
Dammit, we said, let’s do this.
Said nodded and set off with a long stride, leading us away from the car park and into the gorge. He stayed about 20 yards ahead, texting and playing Bob Marley loudly through his phone speaker. The cliffs rose higher and tighter around us. The terraces ran out. Phone signals flickered and vanished. After 45 minutes or so, the path stopped and we stood metres above a stream.
Said produced a plastic bag, motioning at us to put our phones inside, and held it over his head as he waded into the water. I fully expected never to see him again. But we followed, in sandals and shorts, stepping over rocks and between reeds, picking our way through a canyon that grew thinner and taller with every step. We swam, and walked, and swam and walked, finally coming up against a rock face split by a tiny crack that felt like the width of a human head.
“Through here,” he said.
Said disappeared into the slit. Hearts in mouth, we swam after him. Our heads fitted the fissure like keys, and we doggie-paddled forward, banging shoulders and ears off the increasingly claustrophobic walls. Nightmare scenarios began playing out in my head: skeletons being discovered; mothers weeping. Stupid trip! Stupid me! Stupid Oman!
Then we emerged into a cool pool in a cave. A smashing sound turned out to be a waterfall. The endorphins flushed. We paddled, jumped off a ledge, whooped, high-fived and tried to shoot photos in the semi-darkness. Said stared at us in bewilderment, and we felt guilty for doubting him. Looking at each other on that ledge, in that moment, I think it’s safe to say we were back in the groove.
Read more of the Travellers’ Tales cover story in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)