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STORY : YOMPING THE HAJAR

A slow fastpack through the Hajar mountains of Oman in aid of a Youth Adventure Grant

Story

CHLOE BOXALL

Thick heat enveloped us as we set out through the village of Al Afyah which marked the start of our route; a traverse of the Western Al Hajar Mountains of Oman. I was finally embarking on an adventure which had been waiting in the wings since the start of lockdown.

The project had also morphed into a fundraiser for the Now on Earth Youth Adventure Grant. I’d been inspired to set the grant up in part by a rising awareness of the challenges my teens were facing in an increasingly connected-yet-disconnected world. The mental health of young people is such a current issue, and like many I believe that adventure can have a hugely positive impact on self-confidence, resilience, and fulfilment. The grant is intended to remove some of the financial barriers to adventure and provide encouragement and inspiration for young adults to embark on their own self-organised, human-powered challenge. The other driver was my own bumpy mental health journey, related largely to an unexpectedly early menopause and the ensuing hormonal chaos, for which adventure and the outdoors provided the only real relief. In less than a year I was due to hit the half century and was keen to meet that landmark having completed my first expedition. I’d got stronger and felt ready to test myself.

I was being joined by soon-to-be-dubbed ‘Eagle-Eye’ Alice (on account of her excellent trail spotting abilities), who responded to my last-minute plea for a partner on the Explorers Connect website. Despite us only briefly meeting a couple of times before we left Alice turned out to be the perfect teammate, having a calm and stoic attitude, and enough mountain experience and determination to instil a good measure of confidence in our little team. We were following a new route that few had travelled due to its publication unfortunately coinciding with the arrival of Covid 19. The route is the work of John Edwards, who published ‘Wilderness Trekking Oman’ in 2020 having spent many years piecing together the mix of ancient trading paths that criss-cross the mountains between settlements. His aim: to create a trail that could breathe life into these remote communities of the western Hajar, where traditional homes and ways of life are being lost to the call to modernity.

Day gave way to night, and we continued cautiously down the improbable rock face in darkness, our head torches searching out trail markers through the gloom.

'Eagle-eye' Alice, my adventure partner in crime!
Chloe Boxall, Hajar mountains

From the outset these mountains introduced themselves in no uncertain terms. Our first day’s progress was slow over unrelenting technical and steep terrain. We clambered on upwards, finally reaching a saddle above the village of Hadash, our endpoint for the day, as the sun was dropping towards the horizon. Down to our last sips of water, we began a cliff descent. Day gave way to night, and we continued cautiously down the improbable rock face in darkness, our head torches searching out trail markers through the gloom. After almost 13hrs on the trail we arrived at a public washroom at the edge of the village, where we slaked dry throats, before retreating up a gravelly bank to lay out mats and collapse thankfully into sleep. The preciousness of water in these sun-baked mountains was immediately apparent and became a focal point from then on.

Awakening to the first morning in the Hajar, over the village of Hadash
Ancient watch tower above Hadash
Following the cliff paths
Lunch stop under a shady Juniper

The next few days continued in much the same vein; dawn starts and long, hot days, multiple wadi crossings and phantom unmarked paths. GPS navigation was sketchy at times, but we began to pick up on a few almost imperceptible trail signs; a polished rock or purposely cut bush, a trail of donkey poo, or occasionally what we dubbed “reassuring rubbish” such as a tin can. There were few opportunities to do anything fast, so the planned ‘fastpack’ had to surrender to the conditions. Feet clad in tough trail running shoes were taking a battering on the sharp rock. Clothes and backpacks were being steadily shredded by thorny plants and Alice became an in expert gaffa tape darning. Some days the trail was well marked for a few hours, providing the opportunity to relax and enjoy the breath-taking vistas that unfolded over rocky crests, the tiny delicate flowers protected by their spikily possessive leaves, and feral donkeys huffing in suspicion at our approach. As we neared settlements the call to prayer would echo up into the mountains, signalling civilisation. We broke for water refills at tanks and springs, and at dusk slid with tired relief into our sleeping bags, enjoying being still and gazing in awe at the night sky, peppered with a billion brilliant stars.

As the sun lowered on day three The Suwgra appeared like a mirage in the desert — fully restored village homes transformed into beautiful guest accommodation, clinging to an imposing rock face. We were warmly welcomed by Mohammed, whose family has lived here for generations, and treated to sweet, sticky dates and fragrant Omani coffee. The guesthouse had our food parcel, which we’d sent ahead, and we ate an excellent meal on our balcony while watching a visiting film crew shooting a fireside scene amongst the ancient buildings below us, the flickering shadows evoking times long gone.

Canyon camp 2 - wild camping in the Hajar
The Suwgra guesthouse, Oman
Filming at The Suwgra
Refilling at a water tank

Setting out the next morning after a comfortable night at The Suwgra, I managed to completely miss an important turning off the track. We merrily continued on our way for a good forty minutes, following an easy, marked path, before I checked the GPS and realised we should have left it sometime earlier. Feeling bad for such a rookie error, with time and energy wasted so early in the day, I retraced our steps. We were already on the back foot, on a day that promised to be long and hot.

We were due to arrive in Ar Rus that evening and meet with a local guide who had come highly recommended by a contact. Salaam AlShariqi had kindly agreed to show us where we could sleep in Ar Rus and share a bit about the history and geography of the area. However, as the sun began to drop on our endeavours yet again, we feared our late arrival would put paid to all plans. After messing about for a while at the top of a cliff in the dark, where the GPS seemed to want us to take a dive over the edge, we picked up the track and continued, still a considerable way from our goal. We then heard a distant call and saw a head torch bobbing towards us. Salaam had thoughtfully tracked an hour up the mountain to look for us in the darkness, and he quickly guided us down to Ar Rus, taking us to the Majlis where we could sleep. A Majlis is a community compound, often with facilities and a sitting room. It is a meeting point for village gatherings, as well as available for those in need of a place to rest or refresh. It is another wonderful example of the hospitality and warmth of Oman, where no visitor is turned away.

Salaam left us to sleep, generously loading us with fruit and biscuits before he left, and we set up camp outside the main room, where another tired hiker was already ensconced. We spoke with him the next morning — after four days on the trail alone he had decided to call it a day. The trail is not an ideal solo undertaking.

Sunset in the Hajar Mountains
Hajar Mountain Guide Salaam Alshariqi

The next few days led us on towards Jebel Shams, the highest peak in the country at just over 3000m. We were tired and finding the going mentally and physically tough. Finding a signal and speaking with home made me homesick. I missed the kids, imagining the day-to-day stuff we’d be doing if I was there. How much I would appreciate those simple, mundane moments now. Then I reminded myself that once back home I would undoubtedly yearn for adventure and challenge — the fickle human condition. A couple of minor falls and an ankle twist injury added to worries that we might not make the end of the trail. We spent a night at Al Barbad hut, refilling with reservoir water; our green ‘super smoothies’, and enjoying an evening with a campfire, elevating our spirits along with our blistered and throbbing feet in the fire’s warmth.

After a late start due to my notorious kit faffing, we struggled with navigational challenges and tired legs on the rugged terrain, until thankfully joining a green dot marked ultra-marathon trail. Finally, the first chain ladder came into view — a Via Ferrata style climb up a short section with an intimidating drop at our backs. Heavy packs and the wide spacing of the rungs made it hard work, and the steep, gravelly ground on which it ended added to the test.

A second ladder further along proved easier, and finally we reached a sloping area not far from the summit, where we made camp under an ancient, gnarled Juniper tree. The night was chilly but our tree felt like a magical protector, its low branches making a roof overhead, stars twinkling in between. I slept deeply, with more of the strange dreams I’d experienced since arriving in that evocative landscape, and woke the next day feeling amazingly revived by the night’s forest bathe.

Hajar donkeys
Campfire at Al Barbad hut
Climbing the first chain ladder
Chloe Boxall - Hajar Mountains expedition

The final section of the route was a real wilderness with no settlements or roads along the way, only a handful of infrequently inhabited ‘diyar’- the campsites of the semi-nomadic pastoralists known as Shawawiya. The route from here was unmarked, threading into the fingers of a huge canyon. Our trainers were losing their grip, and the GPS went bananas as the sky narrowed above steep rock walls. The terrain continued to be challenging and several times we completely lost the trail, having to resort to recces and sketchy scrambles up and down the steep, loose rock to get back on track, which cost us valuable hours of daylight. Mornings started before first-light at 4.30am, and continued until the daylight got short at teatime, and we needed to make camp. The days were punctuated by little rewards: a shady, birdsong-filled nirvana in the depths of a wadi, a small flock of swallow-like birds startled from their vertiginous roosts, curious donkeys trailing us in hope of food, and glorious red-gold Hajar sunsets. And there were moments of beautiful stillness when I became intensely aware of the deep silence cloaking this vast and ancient landscape.

At lunchtime on the penultimate day we arrived at a diyar and offloaded our bags under a shady tree in order to prepare lunch.  A small group of Omanis, who we were to learn were several generations of the same family, arrived shortly afterwards from a shooting trip and greeted us enthusiastically, with an invitation to join them for lunch. We sat together in their compound, communicating mostly with sign language and smiles, while they generously prepared a delicious rice dish with more coffee and dates. Afterwards, as we headed off and up the next wall of rock, they shouted instructions from their plateau camp: ‘No! No! No…. Yeesss!!’ while we scrambled around to find the path, repaying their hospitality by providing some entertainment. These people are intrinsically connected to this landscape, and travel across it with loping ease and minimal baggage — a far cry from our heavily burdened set-up. A huge, stately and strong-smelling billy goat observed our ascent from a Lion King–esque boulder above, before setting off to lead us along the correct cliff path. A spirit guide, showing the way.

A huge, stately and strong-smelling billy goat observed our ascent from a Lion King–esque boulder above, before setting off to lead us along the correct cliff path. A spirit guide, showing the way.

Lunch with our Omani hosts
Goat guide along the cliff path
Goats on a section of well marked trail
View across the 'Grand Canyon of Arabia'

The last day was a long but mostly gentle descent, and it began to sink in — we were almost there. The heat rose as the altitude reduced, and we were tired, hot and dusty by the time we arrived in the village of Al Jammah, where some sort of celebration appeared to be underway. Immaculately turned out Omanis did not seem put off by our dishevelled and unsavoury appearance and they shouted friendly greetings from their cars as we commenced the final push — 1.5 miles along the road to the town of Yiqa. It occurred to us that Yiqa would have shops, which led to dreaming of chilled fizzy drinks and ignited a discussion about which particular brand of sickly fizz had most appeal at that moment, a conversation that lent wings to those last aching steps. When we reached the main road we spotted the promisingly named ‘Al Moheet Cold Store’. Leaving filthy backpacks outside — quite safe to do in Oman — we stumbled in and came face to face with the holy grail: a chilled drinks cabinet. A fantasy ending to our adventure. The next half hour was spent sitting on the dusty kerbside delighting in sweet, chilled sensations, while the very kind store owner found a taxi to take us back to Muscat. We were, literally and physically, done.

As far as we know, we were the first all-female team to complete the traverse, although apart from a couple of little jogs we failed in our original aim to run it as a fastpack route. For novice fastpackers the terrain was too technical, and the weight of water and food too high. We covered approximately 170km over 13 days and managed to raise over £4000 for the Youth Adventure Grant, for which I am so grateful to so many people. My partner Russ did a sterling job on the fundraising; securing some wonderful corporate sponsors, and many more lovely people supported us with donations and kit. The fantastic Summit to Eat provided the much-needed light-yet-nutritious adventure food, and The Next Challenge provided us with the grant that enabled it to happen in the first place. Our Youth Adventure Grant is now open to applications on the Now on Earth website (nowonearth.com), which I hope will mean that some enthusiastic young people will get to experience the magnificent highs and lows of their own big adventure soon. I can’t wait to hear their ideas.

Alice Hudson and Chloe Boxall - Yomping the Hajar

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Chloe Boxall - Now on Earth

CONTRIBUTOR

Chloe Boxall

Chloe is a mum of two juggling working from home in creative marketing with running ‘Now on Earth – Adventure Out’ and fitting as many adventures in between as possible. Now on Earth recently launched a Youth Adventure Grant which offers partial funding for young adults aged 18-24 attempting a human-powered, self-organised expedition. Chloe and her partner Russ can regularly be found hiking, cycling, running and exploring the UK or further afield, sometimes with their blended tribe of five kids and 2 dogs in tow. Chloe is a passionate advocate of the #adventurerevolution.

www.nowonearth.com

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