The Western Hajar Mountains had already treated us to more vertical than going up and down from Everest Base Camp, rougher trails than clambering up the Baltoro to K2 , and longer and harder days than the Bhutan Snow Man Trek, the “hardest trek in the world.”
Yet the way ahead, around endless hidden corners opened up new worlds of rock and trees and terrace, rocks of orange, black and gray underfoot, juniper trees clutching the cliffs and birds whooshing overhead at dawn created a sense of the earth not experienced before. Walking days without meeting people, yet past stone walls sheltering caves where people lived in ancient times, traversing ridges with 1,000 meter drops off into the valleys, while looking back over 100 kms. to our start, with only the occasional curious and very wild burro for company was pure magic.
Ahead of us was the promise of hanging gardens suspended in the depths of the wadis, of ancient, tiny villages tucked under the cliffs and more exposed wild terraces leading around blind corners, with the ever changing and improbability of where the track on the GPS said to go. After all, we had a track, a map and a route, how hard could it be?
The track started 10 km. up a rough road from the Sama Mountain Resort Lodge. Fortunately, we had met a like minded adventurer, Ian Wilson, on the slopes of Jabal Shams, who was up for our dawn start, and drove us up and dropped us off at the trailhead.
The trail led down and down, 400 vertical meters to wake us up, onto a terraced garden with a lone Pakistani gardener tending the fields. We passed on the offer for coffee, though if we’d know he was the last person we would see for four days, may have re-thought that.
It was the shortest day of the year and we had the longest distance to cover – we hadn’t quite timed this right? Exiting the greenness of the garden, the terraces and the plant life, the track soon faded. The terraces narrowed, bushes and scraggly trees filled the hillsides. We were bushwhacking through unstable slopes on skinny terraces – best not to topple off.
A wrong way up a cliff strewn wadi left me stranded on a cliff and down climbing a juniper tree to escape. This was not part of the guide, only a slight diversion. By 2 p.m. the afternoon shifted, shadows lengthened, a breeze blew, it was like nightfall was rushing towards us long before it’s time. At this point I admit to a moment of despair. The pack held five days of food, it was weighing me down. The bushes had torn up my ankles. The water had quit sloshing, it was nearly gone already.
The GPS track was jumping around every wadi we entered. The way ahead, the five days ahead, with bushwhacking, wasn’t looking very pleasant.
“Should we consider options? Like turning around?”
I guess I muttered that out loud, as Jo, far more stalwart than I, said we had done 10 km. already, so supposedly, just 6 km. to go. We resigned ourselves to camping without water, to hiding under a bush for the night or stumbling around in the dark. Committed to the adventure we bashed on, rocks sliding away below, thorn bushes tearing at our legs, sun slipping away. Oh ye of little faith.
A half-hour later the terrace widened, a path appeared, a sandy path. If we had our running packs we would have been off – we settled for a quite mad walking pace, accelerating into the rapidly setting sun. We were headed for a water tank, an old donkey camp, a peninsula of stone shooting out from the massive mountain of rock we had traversed through.
By 4:30 p.m., we had hopes of not being benighted, a final gallop, a final wadi dipped around and a water barrel, a cave under an outcrop, snuck us in as the moon rose orange on the horizon and the sun dipped into the valley below. We laid the sleeping bags out sheltered by rocks above, with our feet and the view west to the setting sun.
Before we had set out on our journey, we had talked with Mark Evans, a long time Oman resident and Chairman of Outward Bound, Oman. In our first conversation he had mentioned the importance of water. We had taken it in, but not really internalized it.
Of course you need water – but the basic, simple, life giving and absolute need to either carry a heap of it, or reach our destination and a water source every night was essential. We hadn’t seen a drop all day, not making it to the donkey camp at Daan As Sani would have left us very thirsty out in the hills. Simple, but water equalled life, we were connected to it like never before.
The evening was sublime. View straight out into the setting sun preceded Orions Belt turning itself on, as the sky darkened. Our heads were tucked under the cliff, a rock wall at our feet. Sand underneath was flat, still warm from the day. Breezes wafted up from the valley, gently swirling around. The stove bubbled up and soup was made.
There were a few lights far below in the villages, but so far removed they only glowed like tiny earthly stars. There were no civilization noises, only a donkey brayed loudly behind us, we were perhaps in his bed of choice, then stomped away. Lying flat, unmoving, was blissful. There was no cell service. We were sharing the shallow cave with ghosts of cave men, thankful for a water source, a clear sky and a cool breeze. Eat, sleep, walk, find water, four days to go.
Having survived day one on this section, having made camp by dark, having moved into the remoteness of the western, Western Hajar mountains, the next day would take us much deeper into the hidden reaches of the canyons, we were really only getting started.
I’d spent a month walking in the Grand Canyon many years ago, and this had similarities – it just felt far more remote and removed. We might be following what were age old donkey tracks, but in this section they were long unused and the terrain ensured they had long ago faded to oblivion in most places.
John Edwards, in his book, Wilderness Trekking Oman, has down a masterful job of telling the story of these remote areas and mapping over 600 kms. of trails, all available for free on his site. It opens up this area for the very first time and provides a host of trails and adventure yet to be realized. But following a track set on a weak GPS signal, using an equally weak signal on our own GPS, on terraces 5 meters horizontally and 100 meters vertically apart leaves a lot for interpretation. It was easy to be seemingly right on a GPS track and completely lost all at the same time we were to find. John’s book did warn us – entering into the mountains here is a guaranteed adventure.
We limbered our legs up along the terraces on our 2nd morning out, in and around deep canyons, heading for the very back of the immense cliffs both above and below us.
We reached an afternoon spring buried deep in a wadi by descending an improbable mossy wall, just sneaking between towering cliffs, thankful for the ever grippy soles of our new boots – we needed every bit of traction and the drop below was one not even worth contemplating.
At the base of the spring, the GPS was more lost than we were, with no obvious way out and cliffs in all directions. In the end, we fanned out, Jo going up and back, while I went out and across, until a thin precarious stack of donkey steps appeared, leading to a narrow terrace where we could escape the canyon and get back on track.
Somewhere along the way we had lost a few hours – and an initial hope we might be able to find an unmarked stick ladder going straight down the cliff that cut out 6 km. of walking was a hope not based on reality. So we needed to go 3 km. out the canyon, drop down one terrace and then go 3 km. back into it to reach the secret garden.
It was a long 3 km. out, but the rock strata, the juniper trees, the animal traps tucked in along the trail and the cairns rising hopefully alongside led us to the far reaches of the terrace, before a thin hugely exposed and frightening terrace led back and down onto the lower level. It was very Grand Canyonesque, the exposure both heart pumping and exhilarating at the same time, toes hanging over the drop into the depths. Meanwhile, the afternoon was rushing away, the sun dropping, while we scuttled onward, feeling the sun set and the light drop around us.
Then it was dark. The headlamps shone, but as we descended and were now surrounded by cliffs, the GPS went further and further off track, not helped by the lack of trail.
It’s down there, the track goes straight down over there.”
So I went straight down over there and there was an abyss, with no bottom that even the powerful headlamp could see through. Hmm, perhaps not the way. The track we were trying to follow must have been as confused as our own GPS. We retreated and huddled on a thin terrace, cliffs rising above, abyss below.
We had gotten very experienced at almost sniffing out trails – a few donkey stones laid sideways that still smoothed the way, a goat hoof print, an indentation of sand weaving between bushes. So thinking there was at least some of that to discern in the dark, we followed it. We only had two choices. Sleep where we were, sitting up on a thin terrace with a whole lot of air at our feet, or muddle around in the dark for a little longer.
“I think we are getting closer.”
The GPS track at the base of the wadi, one heading in and another heading out for tomorrows journey, showed up somewhere below us. So we clamboured along, there was nowhere flat to sleep anyway, down over a final boulder and found ourselves in the very depths of the wadi. A sandy floor, immense boulders to wander through, then suddenly a manmade rock wall above. Greenery and date palms. We were in the garden, the hidden secret garden. It was certainly all that. It also had a flat sandy patch, a water pipe, and a stone hut.
Around us the walls towered on all sides, we were sleeping at the base of a funnel of cliffs with stars as the roof. The moon hadn’t made its way over these yet so it was pitch black. But it was only 7:30 p.m., just over a 10 hour day of walking. The garden was a touch of heaven and it was a relief not to be curled up under a rock with half a liter of water for the night. In the depths of night the moon came over the rim, a halo of moonlight outlined the circle of the cliffs towering above and reflecting into our garden.
We awake surrounded by palms, fronds, leaves and plants. Birds were prolific. Water burbled through a nearby pipe, reassuring in its proximity. The water was pure and clear, undoubtably the fountain of youth and we drank deeply.
Sun-rays touched the cliff tops with golden fingers. Coffee, granola, an apple left over from the previous day.
We climbed up and out onto the terraces above, dropping in and out of granite hewn wadis, some with water still pooled in their depths. 18 hours before we were on the opposite side of the canyon, we had moved less than a kilometer as the bird flies and done 7 km. of walking to get where we were.
We passed through a donkey camp, then another, little more than a few strong branches in four corners, more branches overhead, a water tank with a pipe leading off and far uphill to a hidden spring. The trail was better, actually used on occasion it seemed, so some rare and easy walking ensued. We had now eaten enough the food weight in our packs had lessened. We were only occasionally lost.
Late in the day we passed a stone house that served as a village here, we collected water from the spring and walked over the next hill. The only real flat place to camp was right, exactly, on the trail, so we did. It wasn’t exactly a well traveled path.
Christmas Eve day dawned. The path curved into a deep red canyon, terraced gardens hung above, water from springs bringing life. Set out on a lone plinth suspended on the end of a terrace, a lone stone hut reputedly housing a lone man, jutted out into the canyon.
The rock changed from red to gold to shimmering silver shale as the sun traversed the sky. We dropped back towards civilization, the village we are heading for a day away hangs below the haze. But a few 100 meters above it we climb out to the end of a terrace, find a small flat sandy area surrounded by rocks, with a lone plant at the end. If we had Christmas lights, that’s where we would place them.
Our last chicken noodle soup, salmon and couscous meal is dished out. An extra bar of chocolate is desert. Santa doesn’t find us, chimneys being a bit rare, but a present or two does.
Christmas morning and the sun rises over the Christmas tree at our feet. The final descent of a few 100 meters into the wadi drops us into the sand, towering boulders and a return to the flatness of life again.
A woman calls from above as we enter the stone village. They have laid out a large mat outside their home and we are summoned to Arabic coffee and dates, then fresh fruit. Three woman and their daughters entertain us, passing over treats and telling stories.
We spread out our map to show the route, we have come a long way, a very long way. It is a perfect Christmas morning, with a Muslim family hosting us in a far-away land.
This was part 3 of the Western Hajar Mountain Traverse, a 15-day, 168 kilometer, 10,000 plus vertical meter hike in Oman. With many thanks to John Edwards and his guide, Wilderness Trekking Oman, and to Abdullah Al Kambashi, for access to his water stores and information in the wild, wild Western Hajar Mountains.