Hail Al Aqbur

May 2010

 

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A walk to the Tahr reservation on the Eastern Hajar Mountain, up for Mahlah and Ajma in wadi Tayin. To Hail Al Qash and Hail Al Aqbur.
Wadi Sarin, Sareen.

Kester had seen a road above Ajma, climbing steep up to the plateau topping the Eastern Hajar Mountains. Signposts immediately indicated this to be a protected area, a reservation, requiring Diwan permission to enter. He contacted various people, obtained permission for a visit and invited both Frank and myself to join him on this exploratory trip. He was not sure how far the road would go and we may face a significant walk. Temperatures would be lower at some 2000 metres altitude, but the sun would still be beating down for sure.

An early start from Muscat got us all on the road by 06:00 hrs and arriving some two hours later at the foot of the climb near the village of Ajma in wadi Tayin. That's where he had agreed to meet with Suleiman and a ranger of the reservation who would take us up. Wadi Tayin was carrying significant water, but Kester did not mind about a few splashes and mud on his still new car. Suleiman arrived spot on time, even though he had to leave his car because we were waiting at the other side of the flooded wadi. The ranger proved to be more difficult, but then there was this pick-up with Yahiya on route to his family on the plateau. After a bit of phoning with the head ranger Yahiya became our guide. Something to keep in mind. Where would you meet somebody who drops everything what he is doing to join you for a full day, totally unplanned? That's all possible in Oman and that's what characterises it's people. So here we are, Kester, very British and very planned, Frank and Jan, Dutch and therefore always on time, with a plan that has changed, but still turns out all right. Communication will be a bit more difficult, but Suleiman explained that he asked Yahiya to take us to Hail Al Aqbur, the highest point above the Wadi As Sereen (Sarin) Tahr reservation. Yahiya joined our car and we started our climb up. 

About the Tahr

One of the reasons to visit the area is to try to see the Tahr, a rare mountain goat, much more robust looking compared to a normal goats.

From Robinson (2005):
The Arabian tahr is one of three species in the genus Hemitragus, which live in mountain environments of southwestern India (H. hylocrius), the southern slopes of the Himalayas (H. jemlahicus) and southeastern Arabia (H. jayakari). Hassanin et al (1999) suggested that tahr were probably of Eurasian origin and most closely related to ibex, goats and bharal (Pseudois). However, more recent molecular genetic research (Ropiquet and Hassanin, 2005) surprisingly concludes that the genus Hemitragus is polyphyletic, and that the Arabian tahr is genetically most similar to the North African aoudad (Ammotragus lervia) and more distantly related to the other tahr species.

They prefer the upper elevations (900- 1800 m) of northern-facing steep slopes and cliffs, where tree and shrub vegetation is more diverse, and domestic and feral goats are less common. Arabian tahr are primarily browsers, consuming leaves, fruits and seeds from a variety of trees, shrubs and grasses.

In 1975 active protection was granted over a wide area of the eastern Hajar mountains of Oman. The wadi al Sarin reservation is one of the oldest in Oman. Men from villages near tahr habitat were employed as rangers under the Office of the Advisor for Conservation of the Environment, Diwan of the Royal Court. 

At the base of the road. Please honour these signs and do not visit these sensitive areas without permit

View across wadi Tayin below. A hot day, even in the early morning, with a haze obscuring distant views

The road winds up though gently dipping limestone beds

Google Earth map. 178 km from Muscat. Route to Ajma from Muscat as Google Earth track file Tahrdrive.kml

Detail Google Earth map, Route up as Google Earth track file Tahrwalk.kml
Yahiya had told us that the plateau was inhabited by quite some families mainly from the Al Neyeri and Al Naa'bi tribes, very friendly people, perfectly happy to live up there from almost nothing. The government offered housing in wadi Tayin, but the families choosing to stick to their way of life.

The road was in a very good condition, but with rather steep climbs, slowly taking us up to the first flat area, Hail Al Qush, at some 1420m altitude. Hail in Arabic seems to signify a flat area, and not surprising there are many areas named Hail 'something' up on the plateau. We noted a single palm tree. Climbing further we got to a left junction @1740m altitude, leading to a place called Muqsil, according to Yahiya, but we continued straight on. The plateau is barren, except for some low bushes. Hardly any trees. Small trees and bushes abound in the wadis that deeply incise the plateau. People live under the trees in these wadis, where there are also small pools of water and an occasional spring. In dry periods the government helps with helicopter. We picked-up an old man walking on the road and passed the junction (left) to Shia. The road ends at Hail al Jinz (1740m), but it looks like road building is still ongoing. In time most families living up there will be able to get to their camps by car. For now it is still a lot of walking. 

At 09:15 hrs we were ready for the walk. Kester wanted to go to the edge of the plateau and had planned a route to the northeast, avoiding the main wadis that cut parallel to the axis of the plateau. This turned out to be the route along which Yahiya took us, except that he knew the footpaths. Once you are on one of these it is clear where to go, but I guess we saved a lot of time by not having to search for the paths.  

The limestones on the plateau often have cavities and fractures lined with combs of calcite crystals. Some of these crystal pockets are several metres across.

Yahiya explained this to be a bush called Handrash. Milk from its stem would be good for the eyes

Our walk, some 12.8 km from Hail Al Jinz to the edge of the plateau.

The views from the edge of the plateau are magnificent; a drop of some 1500 m to the village of Siya deep below. The Tahr live on the steep northern slopes of the plateau. Very inaccessible from either above or below.
The path climbed gently, across wadi Nuss and subsequently in the direction of the edge of the plateau. Small children peeped in our direction from far away, disappearing in the wadi below when we got closer. They belonged to a family living in the wadi. A friendly father and the oldest son greeted us warmly and of course invited us for coffee. The pot was hanging in the tree behind them. We explained that we had little time and wanted to proceed to Hail Al Aqbut. A lot of for us incomprehensible talk and arm waving followed, probably discussing the best route. As it turned out the oldest son, Khalfan, accompanied us all the way. Like Yahiya, he also carried high quality Olympus binoculars and we concluded that he is yet another ranger of the reservation.

After gradually climbing to some 1900m we got to the highest level of the plateau. Yahiya described the strongly built chamber of rocks that features on the picture above as a 'wolf' trap. It has a top hinging trap door, that can be operated by a rope, but the function of a very small exit just to the right of the main entry is unclear. Not sure whether it is a wolf trap as it looks too recent.

One of the camp areas, under the tree, with all belongings hanging from the branches, safely out of reach of goats.

The steep scarp that forms the edge of the plateau. Almost vertically down. The habitat of the tahr.

View towards the northeast, in the direction of Quryat and the sea, but both are difficult to see in the haze.

Standing near the edge does not feel comfortable. Frank peeps over the edge, keeping his body safe out of harms way.

Yahiya (left) and Khalfan (right) checking the cliffs for any tahr signs. We understood that at this time of the year the tahr prefer to spend the day in protected places away from the blazing sun

The edge of the scarp jutting into the spectacular abyss.

A bush called Maziq, with little berry-like fruits that taste like almond after peeling the soft cover.
On the map it looked easy, but the plateau was hiding a few deeper wadis that we had to cross to get to Hail Al Qabur. More difficult as well because of the blazing sun. We kept close to the northern edge of the plateau, crossing several other flat areas and even a little wadi with pools of water. At the end we did not get to the highest point at about 2000m. More than compensated by a lunch with what must be one of the best views in Oman. One could happily sit there and enjoy the views for hours.  Deep below wadi Sarin and the village of Siya.

Crossing another perfectly flat area towards Hail Al Aqbut. These low areas have more vegetation and their rounded shape suggests a karst origin

A lonely tree near the remains of a hut. Between the branches is a kind of platform that probably was used to store food away from goats.


View across wadi Sarin below

The village of Siya some 1500m below us

Yahiya, our guide, one of those rare pictures that captures both feelings and scenery (courtesy Frank)

Hail Al Aqbur, still almost two kilometres further east. We decided to call it a day as this would take a few more hours in our already tight schedule

A bit of Geology 

 
Geological setting of the tahr reservation area in the southern limb of the Saig Hatat dome. This is a large, 70km x 50km, deeply eroded antiformal structure (double folded) directly south of Muscat. The red box and arrow indicate the approximate position of the tahr reservation in the southern limb of this antiform. The rocks on this part of the plateau are late Jurassic to early Cretaceous in age (Sa2, part of the Upper Sahtan Group)

Walking back we noticed weird features in the black limestones. Fossils or diagenetic/structural? Regular cone shaped and building up to larger cones, rounded in cross section. Oriented flat to the bedding, sometimes in opposing directions.

Close-up view, showing a very regular repeating pattern, almost fractal. A lively debate started in the field and is still continuing. For the time being it is best to admit that we don't know what these features are. 

Note opposing directions

In cross section
The rocks will hold a bit of their mystery as it is unclear what these features are. They will be studied for sure further.  A better series of photographs can be downloaded in PDF format

On the way down the views were less hazy. These pictures (above and right) are taken from the plateau is southern direction, across the Tayin ophiolites below.
A long walk, but very rewarding, not only because of the great views, the rocks, but also because of the glimpses of the simple life of what we would consider to be poor people, yet living perfectly content with the little they have. People that value time in different ways and who don't mind about spending a full day with total strangers.

With thanks to Kester, for asking me to join this walk and to Frank for good company and challenging geological discussions. 

References

Gray, D.R., R.T. Gregory, J. McL. Miller, 2005, Comment on “Structural evolution, metamorphism and restoration of the Arabian continental margin, Saih Hatat region, Oman Mountains” by M.P. Searle et al. J. of Structural Geology, 27, pp. 371-374  

Robinson, M., 2005. Arabian Tahr. Caprinae, Newsletter of the IUCN/SSC Caprinae Specialist Group, Oct 2005, pp 2-3

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@ J. Schreurs May 2010