One of the things I enjoyed most in my time in the UAE and Oman was hiking in the Hajar Mountains.
Over the period of almost two decades of hiking, I don’t recall ever being some place where there were not many signs of others having been there before me, probably over hundreds of years.
Anyone who has ever done any hiking is familiar with the stone cairns that appear along popular routes; those hiking the trail are unable to resist the urge to add a stone to the cairn, to leave a marker that s/he was there, too.
The construction of small cairns, long before a popular activity for hikers, was to communicate information about a trail to those who followed.
One of the most common features was the construction of a small pile of stones to indicate a change in the trail, usually a change in elevation. These small cairns were often spotted along the edge of a wadi indicating to the hiker that the trail descended into the wadi. It would continue once you had hiked up the other side, but finding the route to the top was not always easy. Hikers could construct small cairns in the wadi bed, of course, but these would be wiped out with the next rain. So it was a matter of first deciding whether you imagined the trail continued upstream or downstream — from my experience in the Hajar Mountains, upstream — and then looking for a semblance of a trail up. It was usually easy to spot the trail to the top; it was not always so easy deciding whether to go upstream or downstream!
A piece of magnesite [magnesium carbonate] weathered in a wadi.
One thing that struck me as unique along the trails on the western slopes of the Hajar Mountains was the use of magnesite to mark the trail.
These rocks were plentiful in the Hajar Mountains, the result of material being spread through cracks in the crust.
The white stones are often found atop a stone cairn or, as in the image above, on a clearly visible spot along the trail, visible from a considerable distance, to assure the hiker that s/he is still on the trail.
A piece of magnesite on a small ledge. In this case, the stone appears to be indicating the location of the rock art below the ledge.
The white rock in this location on the ‘Ramthah Loop’ route appears to mark a small shelter. There is evidence of hikers having camped here (empty food cans). Such structures were built in a straight line or shallow arc and provided individuals with a barrier against a cool breeze overnight.
Typical route cairn with white stones on top.
An information cairn on the ‘Ramthah Loop’ route, but no white stone marker. The path of the trail is visible on the left. The trail at this points descends about 20m into the main wadi channel that feeds the mountain oasis community of Ramthah, Oman.
On the ‘Rainbow Ridge’ route just outside of Mahadah, Oman, the modern trail cairn has been so enthusiastically augmented that it is in danger of collapsing.
The message intended by those who constructed this marker is unclear. It is located in Wadi Khudrah where several trails converge and split again. Perhaps it is intended to advise the traveller that s/he has many options!
The addition of the white stone to this structure is also unclear, though it is visible from several hundred meters away. There are many structures in the immediate area, a spot that seems to have been popular with families given the food containers and footwear (football cleats) left. The structure in this image appears to be a silt trap; water drains from right to left and, when the water evaporates, silt is trapped. However, there is no arable land within several kilometers so the purpose of a silt trap in this location seems illogical.
The white stones here mark the spot where the hiker passes from Wadi Aboul (behind photographer) into Wadi Khudrah (ahead).
Two markers in close proximity, perhaps because this is a tricky spot on the Aboul-Khardrah trail with the trail, difficult to follow as it is with the heavy ‘desert armour’, cuts across a small tributary of the main wadi channel at an odd angle.
At Abu Qala, there are some magnificent swimming holes. The plentiful fresh water could explain the extensive terraces (opposite side of the wadi) that had one of the most challenging falaj systems ever found in the Hajar Mountains. This marker indicated the trail headed down the slope to the water below.
One of the popular short hikes was to ‘Big Structures’, a cluster of very large stone buildings several kilometers into the mountains. At this point in the trail, the trail splits and I am constructing a cairn for our group, planning to put the large piece of magnesite on top!