“Wrong way,” they said, “wrong way.”
We were leaving the Omani Village of Hadish, slowly. A suitably expansive mix of eggs, toast, croissants and cucumbers, preceded the wander up the etched sand of the glowing stone steps leading out of Hadish. The GPS track sent us hard right and through a gate, then the workers started calling out. “You must go the other way,” they said.
They were a mix of Indian and Bangladashian workers, imported to tend the gardens, but some had lived there for 10 years. Meanwhile, we had been spot on our GPS track and it was looking at a big sky, so accuracy was pretty much assured.
We had tried going our own way before, or taking short cuts. This had never worked, we were becoming hard-wired to the track we had from Hajar Hiking, even if there was a trail, or no trail actually underfoot. But we demurred to the field workers. We were polite. We chatted. Then we rejoined our GPS track, went through the rusting gate, circled the grapes and the real trail appeared again as we left the village. Perhaps ancient, perhaps little used, but very much a trail, at least at times. But probably not one often taken or used by locals.
Villages, both getting in and getting out of them, were proving a challenge. Just a hint of civilization and tracks disappeared, new ones formed, the trail markers led off over hills and around corners that went nowhere. Goats were more reliable than people as to where to go, they took the easiest way, they really lived here.
We were soon in the cool shade under the mornings cliffs, heading ever upwards and back to the rim of the immense basin we were circumnavigating. The trail wove up yet another improbable band of rocks, gaining the seemingly ubiquitous 3 – 400 meters of elevation. At the top we stepped through a stone gap and entered the gently sloping and slabby rock expanse of the plateau. From the ridge our imaginations envisaged a contouring trail, tracking across flat black rocks and through sandy patches leading around to the Cliff House.
In reality, we were in and out of an endless series of wadis, dropping 100 or so vertical meters, going up, down and sideways inside of them, before weaving back up, out and across a short flatter section, before starting the process all over again. In the bottom of these it was a different world, surrounded by rock, tumbled car size boulders, thorny trees, the way out a maze.
The terrain never failed to vary, the rocks and strata went from black shelves to gray shale terraces to red bands stacked atop each other. The wadis curved inward, then dropped abruptly into the dry gravel bases, where any semblance of a trail disappeared into rock strewn shadows.
All this diving into the wadis was concurrent with the GPS track going wonky, reception being at a low point. So we took more than a few tours in the shady depths of the deep canyons, circling, looking for stacked stones, scrapes on rock, or a random cairn on a ridge leading us out and back into the sun.
By 3 p.m. we were sure we would be there. Or maybe 4? There had been a mention of 3 wadis to climb in and out of, we counted 7 by the time we finally rounded the corner and saw the improbably and precariously perched Cliff Guest House tucked into the rocks before us.
“Hello. Up here,” shouted a voice from far above us when we circled around the steep trail and down to a narrow double wooden door. The entrance was through a stone wall, a final steep set of hewn stone steps led up into the sanctuary through the cool of the rock walls. It was an ancient Arabian castle suspended on the terrace of the cliff face.
The Cliff has been rebuilt from the original houses that have long been there, and after being a local village for 500 years or more, is owned and run by the Omani families in the area. Mohammed the manager greeted us and we folded ourselves onto the low seats in the terrace cafe, sharing Arabic coffee and dates.
We had booked but one night at The Cliff, an oversight, considering the unique sense of disappearing into the past, while still enjoying the hot water, fine traditional food and the gracious hospitality. With a number of shorter walks in the area, it would have been a very easy place to rest, relax and explore. Or just spend an evening in the bath.
Breakfast came too early, the real chill of morning still about us. Crawling out of a real bed was an added hinderance to our traditional dawn awakenings in our outdoor, under the stars camps where we did little more than roll over and fire up the stove.
If we thought we had faced challenges following and keeping to the trail before, we now headed into a long day across a plateau with no trail, only a small village to head for. Again we dreamed of sandy ways heading west into the setting sun, contouring lines, feet dancing happily along.
First we struggled just to leave the village, the obvious trail marker covered by recent stonework, and the trail leading improbably down a steep and terraced cliff. Then we picked up a few trail markers, following them boldly up onto the next ridge – which we soon discovered was entirely the wrong ridge. Back onto the GPS, which despite indicating contours and topo lines, we learned were actually fiction.
Any normal semblance of normal map reading, with the limited data of the underlying map, was pretty much irrelevant, if not downright confusing. The track was right, it just had no relevance to where ridges and wadis were – which tended to be a 100 meters or more out on their placement. We had a line, we had an arrow. Stick to the GPS track.
It was to be a 16 Km. day, which we often found a bit longer with our detours, though the estimated walking hours had been very close to what we achieved on most days. But with the December sunsets and little more than 10 hours in the day, we were pushing both ends of the sun to cover the distance – luckily this one ended in a village with a short road leading up to it.
Evening prayers were on as we passed the first mosque, then we reached the gates of a second mosque. The GPS pointed us inside so we quietly crept in and filled every vessel. And with that it was dark.
I’d stumbled around so much in the dark on Everest, that a walk with an extra 10 kilos of water over some desert rocks was more fun than challenging, and the promise of camping in an abandoned stone village outside of town leant a certain romance as the stars came out, followed by an enthusiastic moon.
Dinner was steaming chicken noodle soup, followed by salmon, cous-cous, corn and a chocolate muffin with Chamomile tea. All out of a single pot jet-boil stove. I had very little to do with this, I had married well.
We woke to goats, a herd of 50 or so on our doorstep, slowly meandering out of town and up the hill, feeding on the sparse grass clumps.
An hour into the day we had options – the GPS track or following the ultra-marathon track, suddenly appearing out of the rocks, a series of tiny green reflectors and tin-can sized green dots on rocks along the trail. The trail is still rough, rocky and with the dots a few years old now, occasionally disappears, but at least they were something to follow. With a trail people can actually run along, it took some of the stress and time out of finding our way and we could just hike along. So we did, and the day was glorious, at least to start.
The occasional 200 meter vertical diversion up through the occasional scramble meant it wouldn’t all be a running route no matter how lightly clad you were, but it allowed us to reach the Al Barbad hut before dark.
Below the hut was a murky green pool, but the water flowing from the pipe was clean, pure and never ending. Water in these surroundings is always a gift. Finding it anywhere but at the camps was rare and often the option for camping is only where there is water. Nature and water had honed our journey, we simply followed the path.
We slept outside the mountain hut, preferring the stars, the crickets and the birds chirping to fall asleep too and flying around overhead in the morning as the sun rose. We were headed for the top of Oman at dawn.
Part 2 of the 15 day walk across the Hajar Mountain Traverse. Subscribe to the emails to read about our ascent to the top of Oman.