By Simon Donato, PhD
The old adage goes that third time is the charm. I’ve never given the phrase much thought, but as I danced along an alarmingly narrow ledge, with daylight rapidly fading, I began to wonder if my third visit to Oman’s Musandam peninsula would be our jubilant swan song, or if I would come up short – again. I certainly wasn’t feeling like we had luck on our side at that very moment. I had left Mike Chambers, a fellow Merrell Ambassador and mountain athlete, to finish rigging our second rappel of the day in order to notify the team that they needed to don their harnesses and prepare to abseil. We had run up against yet another cliff band that had become a major impediment to our progress that afternoon. We were five days into our Beyond Roads expedition on Oman’s Musandam Peninsula and had made it further than the previous two expeditions. If we were to succeed we would need to figure out a way around these cliff bands that we were currently clinging to.
Oman is truly a land of mystery, beauty, both in the natural and cultural sense. The middle east has always had an exotic appeal for me, so when I had the opportunity to complete my grad studies near Muscat Oman, I jumped at it. After three field seasons exploring coastal lagoons for evidence of ancient tsunamis, I felt as though I had only scratched the surface of what this country had to offer, and felt a pull to Oman’s rugged and desolate mountains that touch the sky. I needed to find a reason to explore them, to learn their secrets, and to go where others dared not.
The Musandam region first caught my attention while I was reading through some old Royal Geographical Society manuscripts about Oman. In terms of access, the Musandam is the end of the road – literally and figuratively. The mountainous peninsula is the most northerly point in Oman, and forms the Southern portion of the Strait of Hormuz – an important waterway since ancient times. Very little scientific research has been conducted in the region – primarily due to accessibility. In 1971 a British led expedition explored the coastline of Peninsula and all it took was a single sentence in their final report to capture my imagination and set the Beyond Roads project in motion:
“The steepness of the hills imposed a further limitation on which would could be undertaken in a relatively short time. Local inhabitants, who were at all times most helpful, referred to old sites in the mountains but it was not possible to visit them or ascertain their precise nature.”
Miss B. de Cardi, Secretary of the Council for British Archaeology (1973)
The Musandam (Northern Oman) Expedition, 1971/72
Seven years, three attempts, and one broken ankle later, I was back to tackle the Musandam – hopefully putting this obsession of mine to bed – once and for all. Our goal since 2011 was to complete a 60+ mile (100 kilometre) north-south traverse of the roadless and mountainous peninsula in order to identify and describe archaeological sites located in the highlands along this rugged route (In 2016 we partnered with a local group to search for evidence of the critically endangered Arabian leopard in the region). This trekking expedition would be the first of it’s kind in those mountains. Our inaugural visit was eye opening to say the least, with the terrain being far more difficult than expected, and the limestone bedrock so sharp that my trail runners were destroyed on the first day of the expedition. We learned a lot, but didn’t make it very far – stopped by the terrain. We returned in 2016 and again, were stopped short by the terrain and an injury.
This season, we were back with the support of Merrell and Adventure Science (my organization which pairs athletes with researchers to conduct scientific field projects in remote locations around the globe www.adventurescience.ca), and a well-chosen team possessing the technical and physical ability to move quickly and safely through this terrain. In addition to mountaineer Mike Chambers, our team included archaeologist Gino Caspari, adventurer Jim Mandelli, athlete Gemita Samarra, and photographers Luis Moreira and Chris Shane. We were also field testing a purpose built shoe – the MQM Flex on this expedition with the theory that if the shoe could survive a week of trekking through this terrain, then it would survive anywhere!
The geographical location of the peninsula in the Persian Gulf has made it a historically important region, and mariners have plied the water for millennia—transporting everything from frankincense to crude oil. Despite this, very little known about the history of the people of the Musandam, especially those who once lived in the remote, and difficult to access highland plateau. Our discussions with local Kumzari people (those thought to be most closely related to the former farmers of the highlands) didn’t provide much insight into the timing of their occupation beyond their belief that it ended several generations ago. We know that in past centuries, seasonal grain farming occurred in the highlands and that a drying climate ultimately forced these populations down to the coast permanently. While there has been archaeological study of sites south of Khasab, there is little published about this region, making it an archaeological frontier. Gino and I were responsible for documenting the archaeological sites we had previously discovered, as well as anything new that we encountered. We documented all sites by taking GPS coordinates, describing the site in our notebooks, and using a drone to photograph important sites to allow for a novel 3D-mapping.
We structured the team and daily transects in such a way that allowed the athletes to move quickly, exploring for sites which Gino and I would rapidly survey before moving on to the next. While the larger sites tended to correspond with cleared agricultural areas and were visible on satellite images, we were surprised to discover a number of ridgeline cairns of various designs. We also came upon a number of small farms in unexpected locations with what appeared to be defensive features, likely dating to the time of the Portuguese expansion and occupation of the region, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During our three field seasons, we have recorded over 50 sites scattered throughout the highlands. Our current thinking, based on architecture and pottery observed, is that most of the sites are contemporaneous with each other, and date within the last five hundred years, although we have suspicions that one particular style of cairn discovered on this expedition may date to an earlier period. Our hope is that the subsequent analysis of the data collected during this expedition, coupled with the 3D reconstruction of several of the sites visited will aid in refining our ideas surrounding the timing of occupation in the highlands. Our survey method worked exceedingly well in this terrain and we learned that in this region, its hardy past inhabitants built a vast network of farms and villages in the highlands, and left traces of their presence in all but the most vertical terrain.
Our previous two expeditions had been self-supported. We would hire a boat in Khasab (the last town before the road ends) and drop a number of food and water caches along the coastline before finally dropping our team in the most northeasterly part of the peninsula to begin our trek. We would be self supported, and carry very heavy packs. which slowed us greatly. This season we decided to hire a traditional Omani fishing dhow to provide a floating base camp. This allowed us to move significantly faster than we had been able to in our previous expedition and in the span of four days, we were able to speed through terrain that had previously taken seven to traverse.
By the fifth day, we had reached what we deemed the crux of the route. We were entering new terrain and no longer simply retracing our steps from previous expeditions. The objective of day five was to figure out a way to overcome Jabal Letub, at 3000 ft (915 m) the tallest mountain in the Musandam, and negotiate the three subsequent peaks that towered over the coastal village of Sibi. If we could negotiate these peaks, we knew that we would have broken the back of the traverse, as the remaining kilometres that led to Khasab were on much gentler terrain. Until our forward progress had been stalled by this steep cliff band, we had moved steadily and efficiently, summiting Jabal Letub early in the day and dispatching several other challenging sections as the afternoon wore on, yet here we were, so close to success, yet still so far away. We had the right team, the right gear, and the right plan – but it’s always the mountain’s decision whether they let you through, and at that moment – we were at the mercy of the Mountain Gods.
Mike and I worked quickly on the cliff edge, ferrying team members down, watching one after the other unclip at the base of the rappel and begin their downward trek in the twilight of dusk. As the last member of the team shouted “off-rappel”, I felt awash in relief. The Musandam had presented it’s final significant challenge and we had overcome it safely. Two days later, we became the first westerners (and possibly humans) to complete this entire route on foot, reaching Khasab on the seventh day of the expedition—achieving a goal that began in 2011, but more importantly, our survey work has contributed to the archaeological discussion surrounding this poorly understood, but fascinating and beautiful region. Most of us only learn through doing and despite my many years of adventure racing and leading Adventure Science projects, this project taught me something new each year. Ultimately, the keys to cracking the region for us was persistence, knowledge of the terrain, moving light and fast, using the right gear and footwear, and bringing the right team. For me, these projects are always as educational as they are fun, and my big take away from the Musandam is that while it’s always nice to nail something on your first try, sometimes it’s just not in the cards. Failure is only failure if you walk away, and in sport, and life, persistence does pay off when chasing goals. It did at least for us in the Musandam.