The problem is solved. It was stupid, but I thought why should I have to set / in /etc/fstab when the filesystem isn't mounted yet, so the file can't be read. But it seems the kernel reads this file "loader-like" *before* the filesystem is mounted.
I believe that the loader actually reads this file (it has to be able to locate and read files from UFS anyway in order to load the kernel) and passes the root f/s information to the kernel when it boots. This should probably be documented in fstab(5)
Considering the above to be correct I can't understand the ability to enter e. g. ufs:/dev/ad0a at "mountroot>" when it doesn't work.
I've also been stung by the fact that the "mountroot>" prompt is broken. <sigh> I looked briefly at the code, but the bug is not particularly obvious.
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