In a technology-obsessed era, there are still young people with a yearning to explore the natural world, and are prepared to move heaven and earth to experience it. Y’s Digital Editor, Alvin Thomas, talks to a young man with that very mindset.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
What follows is up to you. While some like people like to be in the lap of luxury with fancy hotel stays and business-class flights, others like to keep it simple.
For, as the saying goes: “It’s the journey that matters”.
In the case of Hamdoon Sultan Salim al Hashmi, a 21-year-old unemployed graduate, these words form the basis of his adventures.
And following a successful trip to Yemen on a bike from last year, the young Omani has now gone on to scale new heights in his pursuit for adventure.
Setting his sights on Morocco’s Mount Toubkal – the tallest peak in the Arab world at a height of 4,165 metres – the young Omani began his trip packed with his usual gear: his bike, tent and winter clothes to tackle the unforgiving mountain climes, with a few Riyals for food and other essentials.
While considerably shorter than peaks such as Kilimanjaro and the Mount Everest, Mount Toubkal is notorious for its unforeseen snowstorms, low temperatures, and complications arising from altitude sickness.
His mission: to scale the mountain and show the world that one needn’t spend several thousands of Riyals for a trip.
This would also make him the first Arab to cycle up to the foothills of the mountain, thereby defying several of his family and friends who advised against such a taxing task.
A gamble for most of us used to the basic pleasures of life, like beds and air-conditioning, Hamdoon’s journey began on April 26 when he landed in the Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport with his bike and his mate, Riyadh al Hinai.
There, they began pedalling their way through the streets of Morocco and to the village of Imlil, which lies at the foothills of the mountains. The journey would span over 350kms and take them through several villages in the country.
“Every journey is special and comes with its own set of challenges, but going to Morocco during the winter season on a budget must be the most dangerous and challenging escapade I’ve ever undertaken,” says Hamdoon, with a smile on his face.
“There were constant rains and the temperatures were constantly low and the winds strong. And when you exert so much pressure on your body as I was doing, I was only bound to crack.
“Plans proceeded as we’d imagined but what we didn’t quite expect was for me to fall ill – and I can safely say today that my adventure truly began when I was struck down with a lung infection on the third day of the trip.”
Perched up on the side of the road in their tents, Hamdoon and his mate stayed put for two days – resting near a river – before finally taking the decision to power onwards in search of medicines.
A long 90kms cycling session ensued, and their search led them to a remote town of Ben Guerir, where they were met with more than just medicines.
“You only learn about a place when you interact with the local people in the city. In our case, we were welcomed by a wonderful family, who took us in and tended to my illness; keeping the house warm and providing me with food and clean water – all for free.”
This is also where he says that they taught him the art of preparing Moroccan coffee.
“We have the liberty of being served Moroccan coffee in restaurants around Oman, but it’s there that we learn that one must not serve the coffee to the customer or guest if the liquid bubbles.
“The Moroccan hospitality and culture is one that I can relate with that of Oman – the people are all lovely, and the food and drinks delicious.
Focusing on the job at hand, the two embark on the rest of their journey as soon as they whiffed signs of Hamdoon’s recovery from the infection.
Their next stop: Marrakesh.
“The changing scenery is a picture worth a million words,” he tells. “From the cityscape near the airport to the small houses, the Atlas mountains, and the beautiful valleys; Morocco’s countryside has much to offer.
Essentially a large town that leads up to Imlil, Marrakesh would be the duo’s last chance to stock up on food and essentials before the final climb.
“Have you ever felt an obstacle in your way but put it aside because you know that another greater one exists on your path (?)” he asks us, implying how his cycling journey would be considered a salt in the sea when compared with his gargantuan task of hiking up the mountain.
Still only down to a few Riyals for medicines, and the Arabic bread and other food items, Hamdoon and Riyadh decided to get as much food as they possibly eat before the final leg of the journey to Imlil that would span 65kms.
“Food up in the peak of the mountain would cost nearly twice as much as it would down in the city, and keeping with our mindset to spend as little as we needed, we bought everything from bread to snacks and energy drinks to keep us going and in the process, also share it with everyone we met on the trip.
He’s right, too. A simple meal can cost as much as RO8 on the mountain.
“We decided to last leg of the journey to the foothills as fast as we could. So, we covered the distance as quickly as we could – in a day – tackling everything from the rising terrain to the drop in temperatures.
The duo reached the base camp a shy from midnight.
But as luck would have it, the temperatures would fall further owing to a snowstorm, delaying their start by two days.
A now ecstatic Hamdoon says: “This was my first experience with snow, but there’s something eerie about witnessing a mountain turn from brown to white.
“The whole peak had changed colours, and we were about to scale it with only enough equipment to keep ourselves warm.
They began the hike up the mountain on the third day as the clock struck 3.30am. A massive 4,163 metres lay ahead of them, and without a haste, they began walking up the mountain with only their bags on their backs.
Both the hikers made excellent progress in the 11-hour trek, but Hamdoon says that he was soon struck down with altitude sickness due to the lack of oxygen. As per Higher Peak, a resource page for hikers, the effective oxygen rate at those heights stand at 11.8 per cent – a stark 9.1 per cent lesser than what we’re used to inhaling at ground level.
“My body began shivering and I couldn’t walk forwards once this started kicking in. I couldn’t do it anymore. I had completed 90 per cent of the journey – from Muscat to Casablanca and then to Mount Toubkal. I only had the last 10 per cent to do.
“I decided to give up at some point, but still took one step at a time,” he says, before telling us how his shoes had ripped to reveal his socks. A quick and cost-effective fix showed when he used a polythene bag to cover up the opening and protect his feet from the elements.
“And, it was at that moment that the skies cleared up for a moment to reveal the summit – our final destination.
That sight, he says, gave his body a burst of adrenaline he had never experienced before. “My body felt like it was shot with adrenaline, and instead of taking small steps, I decided to sprint up as fast as I could.
“From there, it was a mere 30-minute long hike for me, and I could soon hold the Omani flag up high in pride.”
Hamdoon then goes on to reveal how he shed tears of joy as he looked down to the ground. “I’m not an emotional guy, but I had just cried in joy as to what I had achieved.
“A story that began with negativities. The people advising me against the journey and my infection – it all came down to one thing: the story of my success against all odds.
It’s a victory across all grounds for Hamdoon and Riyadh. From completing the trek up Mount Toubkal to completing it on a shoestring budget, he had proven his point.
With overall expenses – from the flights to the base camp stay and food – standing at RO88 per head, not only did they outdo what tour operators offer (with basic packages starting at RO250), they also proved that one can discover and indulge with the best of the country when interacting with the locals who want to offer nothing more than great memories.
But there’s more to it than just that.
“It’s not about how much you prepare yourself or what others say about you. It’s about what you want your body to do. I can stand here and preach about it all – but I’ll tell you this: the human body can achieve anything it sets itself to do.
“That’s what I have tried to prove here. Your mind, body, and soul can be very powerful elements that can brave even the toughest of situations – and you must respect it.”