Last night we were on the beach in Muscat, Oman, a green salad followed by freshly grilled Kingfish covered our plates. The moon was headed towards full, the sea glowed.
The next morning started with a swim in the hotels lap pool, followed by a breakfast buffet that brimmed with a myriad of international delights from conjee and dim sum to waffles and omelettes – with a side table laden with French pastries just in case there was room left. Cappuchino’s arrived at regular intervals.
Our first night out on the trail we were under the stars, a whole bunch of stars, on the ground, no tent in sight. 5 star luxury on the beach in Muscat to a billion stars overhead. Needless to say perhaps, but the latter is certainly preferred.
It so rarely rains on the Arabian Penninsula that a tent would only prove redundant. And heavy. We had walked up a wadi (dry river valley, canyon, cliffs, occasional snakes), weaving amongst house-sized gray granite boulders, sand under our feet. We carried the water up to allow for a dry camp, on a small and ancient terrace, when Omani tribes farmed in the upper valleys of the Hajar Mountains. Hajar means rocky in Arabic so it is a return to my roots, just a very long ways away from Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
The adventure is motivated by Covid. If any good can be found in it at all, it is the need to adapt, and adapt quickly. Living in the United Arab Emirates, Oman is only a few hours away, just over the border, deeper into the mountain range we have already explored and fell in love with from our home in Dubai.
The mountains are surprisingly steep, very rocky, deeply coloured. While they top out at just over 3,000 metres, our start at 680 metres, and a trail that goes relentlessly up and down, into the dark depths of the wadis and back out and up, and up into the heights – all happens multiple times a day. We soon learn that flat is rare.
We have been inspired by a magical book, just released, that we discovered while hiding from the virus. John Edwards Wilderness Trekking Oman provides a guide for the Western Hajar Mountains of Oman, with an accompanying map that outlines a 209 km., 16 day route across the mountains. It is our gateway to the mountains, the culture and the possibilities. With Covid restrictions, it is essential to have possibilities. And though Oman is shut for 2020, by the year, 2021, it is open and we can now traverse the border from the UAE to Oman at will.
A few hours up the wadi it opens out, there are caves here where cave men lived, and now where goat herders shelter. Nicer than the caves is a fine terrace historically used for growing crops. It’s perfectly flat, ringed by ancient rock walls and with a soft flat base. Camp site one of 15.
There is something easier, more natural and simple about not having a tent. Just a pad, a sleeping bag, a rock for the back and a place for the stove. Done. There is no cell service. The birds squawk and chirp around in the sparse trees.
There is an absence of noise, of cars, air conditioning, city hum, city sounds. As the sun sets, ever red and orange and golden, the birds too sleep and it becomes completely, unetherally and peacefully silent.
Dawn is equally simple, though a light dew on the sleeping bags encourages some sunning in the morning, as much to stretch the muscles, as to dry the bags. The dew is a mystery, it happens low down we decide, as we have camped under 1,000 metres, our lowest of the journey and won’t return to these elevations again.
The occasional marker leads us upward, towards a distinctive W shape of the ridge. We reach a hidden, grassy plateau, undulating up under the cliff face, shielding us from the sun. Tumbled rocks mark a few ancient square huts, from times when every wadi with a few metres of flat ground was farmed, each tribe of the area scraping their life from the sandy soil. Along the cliffs are rock walls, framing the caves people once lived in.
As we reach for the ridge, the markers run steeper up a final cliff, weaving between terraces. Loose rocks and the occasional goat footprint show the way. Since morning the way has been lightly marked, but not so much as to not occasionally head off in a wrong direction, run into a cliff, turn around and start all over again.
Between the GPS track we have, the multiple GPS we are using and the cliffs of the wadi, clarity is never quite certain. Navigation, as it will prove thoughout the journey, is tricky. With cliffs, thin terraces and big drops, it’s easy to be just a few metres off and headed in entirely the wrong direction. We wanted a Christmas challenge and we are getting it.
We crawl into a notch on the ridge, with a note from the book resonating “if you thought getting up was steep, just wait until you go down.”
First, a pause to savour our first big view, and a sense of climbing from the wadi into the mountains, really entering into the journey, with 2 weeks to go. How rare to have a single goal, our lives on our backs, boots on our feet and only an entire mountain range to traverse in front of us.
But first, we must get down. We can see the village, it looks close. The cliff proves problematic, to put it in rational terms. More properly, it is simply scary. Steepness fine. But loose flakey rock, downsloping terraces and drops you can’t see the bottom of while traversing along under a pack? Yikes, to put it scientifically.
The way weaves, drops, goes up, follows a long terrace with plenty of space under our feet. The occasional wrong turn ensues, we go back and up and try again, before a long last weaving descent through loose rock and scree drop us onto the slopes above the village. Day 2 is proving challenging. Oh, so little do we know.
At the tiny mosque, a man shows us the water, then encourages us down the road to take it direct from the thin man-made funnel that directs the spring through the village. We fill to the brim and hike above town to a terrace behind a boulder. We look up at the cliffs above, below is a watchtower set over the village. Sun burns the top of the ridge we have crossed. The legs are very happy to be flat, the stove bubbles with soup.
Voices above us? Locals? Cave men? They come closer. As much as camping out in Oman is absolutely allowed anywhere, and having no tent is freeing, there is something about just lying out in a small field in a new and remote area that feels very unprotected.
A couple weaves down the trail and alongside our camp. Two Czech Republic hikers, out for a few days, true adventurers, who build a campfire and when we join them later, cook a full meal with one pot and a few embers. Company and conversation on night 2, how civilized. It will be the only 2 hikers we meet in our 15 days who are camping out, and they are doing 1 overnight. After this we are deep into nowhere land for hikers it seems.
At dawn, which really isn’t that early when sleep starts at at 8 p.m. the night before, the stove bubbles up, coffee is served, granola is poured out, bags easily packed, off up the hill. The day is up and up, along the rim, then down and down. In general, as the ups also include downs, and the rim walk is an ever meandering mix of rocks, sand and low bushes.
The up is still a glorious up though, walking through a land of myseterious trails perched over cliffs, tentative steps along ancient stone paths, juniper trees twisted and knarled along the trail. Winter light slants over the rocky rims a kilometre above us.
We are discovering the terraces are a maze, an intersting maze but still a maze. Looking up, it is impossible to tell where the trail goes, at times looking wholly improbable. Thin terraces lead through cliff bands that end, then a zig and zag to reach the next one, or drop suddenly down, only to hop back up again 50 metres later. It is mentally challenging, knowing somewhere there must be a way, but seeing no way. It is also exciting, at least in the morning, when adventure is fun.
By 3 in the afternoon, a million rock hops later, a few skids down slabs, loose sand slipping off smooth granite, it is psycologically challenging and the afternoon stretches out.
Suddenly a stone hut looms, water gurgles from a spring and we step off a barely trail to a 2 meter wide, set in stone walkway down through palms, pomegranate trees and grape vines to a tiny village suspended above the immense valley. We have had two nights under the stars, it is back to a touch of civilazation.
When we first looked at the traverse, the opportunity to do a few days out in the wild, then suddenly descend to a lodge, suspended in the heights or set amongst the cliffs would give a unique relief, balancing the long walks and nights out, with big meals, comfy beds, fluffy pillows and monster breakfasts before we set out for the next day. We liked the mix of wild and wonderful, sampling the fine lodges and local accomodation along the way. And it gave us places to leave food drops, stock up on supplies and keep our packs from towering too far above our heads.
This first lodge was set in a small village, a converted old house, with tiny doors, big ceiliings, windows looking far out over the valley. The shower was hot and very welcome, dinner was simple, tasty, Biriyàni rice and chicken with fresh lebanese bread served on the outdoor terrace. We were the only guests, service included whatever we needed whenever we wanted it.
Breakfast arrived steaming and we soon set off back up the stone trail, through the village and past the tiny mosque. We were headed back up to the heights, over the rim and into the sunset for the day. With perhaps a wadi or three to dip into we had been warned.
Little did we know.
Part 1 of the 15 day hike across the Hajar mountains of Oman. Subscribe to my emails to be updated on the ongoing journey.