Last week Mavin team member Lynn answered the call from Stratford upon Avon Foodbank by…
Mavin Powercube are proud supporters of the Now on Earth Youth Adventure Grant. Mavin team member Chloe set out on a fundraising adventure for the grant – ‘Yomping the Hajar’ – an attempt to fastpack a traverse of the western Hajar Mountains of Oman. Here’s the full story…
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 adventure was 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 a very current issue, and I truly 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 challenge.
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 would be carrying several days of food and water between accommodations, where we could send food packages ahead to collect en-route.
From the outset the Hajar Mountains introduced themselves in no uncertain terms. Our first day’s progress was slow over unrelentingly technical and steep terrain. We clambered on upwards, finally reaching a saddle way 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 13 hours 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 a focal point from then onwards.
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. There were few opportunities to do anything fast; the planned fastpack quickly became a very slow-pack. 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. 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 who huffed 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, rough-hewn 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 food package which we’d posted ahead was thankfully waiting for us in our room.
Setting out 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 stay.
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. 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.
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. These people are intrinsically connected to this landscape, and travel across it with loping ease and minimal baggage — a far cry from our burdened, unsure state. 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.
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 under way. 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. 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 did however raise over £4000 for the Youth Adventure Grant, for which I am so grateful to so many people. The support and generous sponsorship from wonderful companies like Mavin Powercube was essential in enabling us to offer this grant, as well as giving us the drive to keep going through the tough bits! The grant is now open to applications from 18-24 year-olds who want to experience their own self-organised, human powered expedition, at https://www.nowonearth.com/youth-adventure-grant