Spirit of the Union
Touring the Emirates November /December 2011
Spirit of the Union – the theme of this year’s celebration of 40 years of Arab Emirate Union. We could not have chosen a more appropriate moment to aim to discover the soul of the Emirates, since the population was alive with enthusiasm for the advancements of forty years of political unity and preparing to celebrate the greatest event of their young history when we touched down in Abu Dhabi in late November.
It was already dark when we left the airport in our rented vehicle, a Toyota Fortuner. Finding the hotel in Yas Island was no mean feat, however after a couple of corrective u-turns, one or two explorative drives across monumental flyovers and a drive down an endless, dark avenue towards a blue, neon wheel, we eventually pulled up outside the Radisson Blu and Willi was happy to leave the car keys in the hands of the valet parking staff.
The Radisson provided us with the perfect bedroom with perfect bathroom and a perfect breakfast, one of the best I have ever had. It was hazy as we left. There was very little traffic on Yas Island, a new development catering for the Marina racing circuit, which had had its début earlier this month. This was Friday, an Islamic holiday. Crowded Abu Dhabi petered out as we left the city. We soon found ourselves in a semi-desert region adorned by a chorus-line of pylons, their cables joining like dancers holding hands. There were a few camels here and there. The sea must have been hiding somewhere beyond the villages to our left.
Not far from the outskirts of the city, we stopped at a filling station to buy bottled water and look for a road map, which we did not find, for the very good reason that you do not really need them in this region, as we were to find out. I believe they build new roads faster and more often than they print new road maps and they are all extremely well signposted. The warnings are also excellent and the roads themselves a pleasure to drive on.
We drove into the state of Dubai, mercifully avoiding the city, and soon moving into Sharjah. It was here, around Madam, that the desert first really came into view. Past wire fencing, we could see that many local people were used to quad driving through the sand dunes and even camping. Camping is allowed everywhere and anywhere in the UAE. There were isolated tents and a few dormobiles and a few basic, organized camping areas. At the filling station, where we used the squat pan, vehicles turned up one after the other bearing quads on trailers. The villages in the vicinity were selling tents and camping equipment and hubs and food supplies.
Shortly after leaving Madam, we arrived at the Oman checkpoint. The Hajar range emerged in ever-fading shades of blue, fascinating and beautiful. On the other side of the small Omani enclave, we suddenly found ourselves in the tiny state of Ajman, where rows of shops displayed pottery and carpets on their gravelly forecourts. Only a few kilometres further on, we re-emerged in the state of Dubai. The UAE is like a patchwork quilt composed of states with enclaves and smaller enclaves-within-enclaves, including Oman, in their abstract pattern. You never quite know where you are, politically speaking.
Our destination was Hatta Fort, a mountain resort for residents of Dubai, that delights not only with cooler temperatures and a serene landscape but also swimming, shooting, garden chess, tennis, riding and a dirt track for motor-cycles. We were welcomed in a British colonial-style lobby with a fruit cocktail and shown to our delightful room, overlooking a lookout hill in front of the mountains. We settled in and commenced our tour of the resort, walking to the rock pool with its splendid views and letting ourselves get distracted by a large bird with vivid blue wings that did not want to be photographed.
Realizing that we actually had plenty of time on our hands till dinner, we decided to make the best of our four-wheel drive vehicle and explore the off-track roads that would lead us to Hatta pools. At reception, we purchased a wonderful Off-Road book, one that had actually caught our eye two years ago, and set off up the mountains. The book directed us through Wadi Kameez, which was totally dry, but at the deep pools at the bottom of the narrow gorge, the voices of some brave local swimmers echoed up to the ridge, where we peeped over to take a quick photo. The acoustics were amazing, as was the rugged landscape. The Islamic Friday being comparable to the Christian Sunday, the mountains were full of day-trippers, many of whom were having a picnic or even a barbecue. We parked not far from such a group, all men of varying ages with a young boy, and having greeted them shyly, walked across the road and down a little slope to where a huge mixed, colourful party of local people were setting out their picnic. Only one of the ladies in the group had veiled her face, the others merely had their hair wrapped in the traditional cloths. The track between us was full of puddles and across the deepest one, a lady in bright turquoise robes called us over to have a cup of local tea. She reached across the puddle and handed me a paper cup with light, spicy, black, sugarless tea. In the background, a portly gentleman asked if we would like to stay for “lunch”. Of-course we declined but we stayed long enough to determine that they were local people, former Bedouins, who have now settled in the villages and whose place in this strange society is difficult for us to fathom out.
Heartened by this experience, we dared to speak to the group of men near our vehicle and were pleased to find that they were equally friendly and prepared to chat with us as much as their limited English and our non-existent Arabic would allow. They even permitted Willi to film them.
So it was with a great deal of elation that we returned to Hatta village late that afternoon, passing mountain slopes glowing rosy in the setting sun. We decided that the light was still good enough for us to have a look at the heritage village and drove off in search of it, but were stopped by a policeman with very little command of English who jumped out of a police car. He checked our papers solemnly and somewhat gruffly, as is the way of the caretakers of officialdom in these countries, then handed the papers back, apologizing for having stopped us. We asked for directions for the heritage village but he did not appear to know what we were talking about.
When we did eventually find the complex, we were not the only visitors to be strolling around in the dusk. An Indian family was there and they insisted on taking a photograph with us. A bright schoolgirl introduced us by name to her entire family and was delighted when our paths kept crossing during the visit. Like all the heritage villages and most of the museums in the UAE, entrance to the village was free and there were no guides. Signs in Arabic and English gave us the information we needed. On display in this partially restored village were several typical mud houses and buildings used by the community as a whole, sometimes with very well-made dioramas showing local customs and the way of life of the local people before their lives were changed by the petrol boom. We particularly appreciated a hut dedicated to the production and by-products of dates, which are farmed in the whole region. Never before had it occurred to me that dates presumably constituted the staple diet of the Bedouin population.
It was virtually dark when we left the heritage village. Municipal workers were busy hanging up bunting of red, green, white and black flags ready for the all-important National Day celebrations. On the other side of the road, the muezzin had begun to sing and the hundreds of pigeons previously perched on the dome of a mosque further up the road had disappeared.
A plate of fresh fruit was waiting for us when we reached the hotel. We left it for lunch the next day and more than content with the events that had coloured our first busy day on the Arabic peninsula, treated ourselves to a Singapore Sling on the sunset terrace. Here we got into conversation with a Belgian family living in Dubai. Dinner was a truly luxurious buffet, where we were attended on by an attentive staff of Indians, Philippines and Sri Lankans. It was cool enough to switch off the air-conditioning and, not surprisingly, we slept like babies that night.
By the time we awoke, the sun was already high, lighting up the mountains in front of our little terrace and warm to the skin. We breakfasted outside. I tried the local Foul Mesdames, a delicious bean stew, an Arabic version of our porridge, perhaps.
The road to Fujairah began very winding and rather steep. Within minutes we had crossed the Dubai boundary and were in Ras Al Khaimah. A couple of extremely ornamental houses that were crying out to be photographed decorated the roadside before we turned onto the new Sharjah -Kalba road. Sharjah makes a point of advertising its very smart government buildings, I found. The ones here were built in compounds of brilliant white fort-like buildings with jagged turrets. The new wide, tarmac roads are incredible, featuring broad flyovers that sweep across the gigantic mountains in defiance of their hugeness. Thousands of giant boulders have been placed against the mountainsides to prevent erosion. The hand of man is at work here in competition with nature. These impressive roads, cut into hills and towering above valleys, led us to Kalba.
At first, you arrive at a small fishing village on the outskirts of the town, a quiet, almost dreamy place where moored boats bob up and down in the harbour. One of the first buildings that caught our attention as we approached the modern town, near the creek that apparently feeds the mangroves, was the university, a huge, modern construction. A large, white mosque marks the centre of the bustling town. A few kilometres beyond this, you enter the state of Fujairah, announced by a giant coffee pot on a roundabout with a backdrop of high-rise buildings. Indeed the city of Fujairah presents itself as modern and flashy, but once you leave its centre and venture towards the port and beyond, a depressing picture of industrial dust and rows of ugly petrol containers insults the eye. The landscape is badly scarred, the mountains themselves hacked off and shaved in unsightly quarries.
We were confused by the fact that our Fujairah hotel had not yet appeared although we were obviously back in the state of Sharjah. After the ugliness of the North of Fujairah, it was encouraging to find that the pretty town of Khor Fakkan displayed many gardens and pleasant beaches where families and groups of women with their children were playing in decent playgrounds. The administrative buildings also looked new and friendly. We continued on and on past Khor Fakkan alongside the Hajar mountains on our left and eventually reached a new development that emerged out of nowhere with a very modern, very tall building, attractive in its own way but unfortunately totally out of place on the shore. This was our next hotel.
Le Meridien, in Al Aqqa, has five stars that are worth every twinkle. Whilst waiting for our room, we toured the gardens and glanced inquisitively at the menus in the four restaurants. The room was worth waiting for and the bathroom was a dream-come-true. But for the curious tourist, no hotel complex can beat discovering its environment, so we hastily ate the fruit from Hatta Fort and embarked on an excursion to Dibba, some 30 kilometres further up the coast.
Past a few rows of shops on the roadside, we reached a simple promenade overlooking a sandy beach and flanked by swaying palms. To one side of the promenade, striped Bedouin tents had been erected and at first I thought there must be Bedouins living there. After a few metres, the promenade had been wired off and it soon became evident that preparations for the 40 years anniversary were going on. Opposite the promenade was a long, wide open space and a closer inspection revealed that this was a place where people could camp. Not, in the European sense, a proper campsite, but it looked as if one could get water and probably use a simple squat loo behind some flimsy, flapping canvas fences. A bold notice informed the public that only families were tolerated here.
Dibba is a charming town, actually ruled by Fujairah, Sharjah and Oman in three distinct partitions. We headed for the harbour, fascinated by the wooden dhows with their rows and rows of wooden slats that serve as a frame for a cloth shade. The sun was just beginning to set, giving the harbour a romantic light. The pale sun hovered behind the jagged mountain tops, leaving a liquid reflection on the still waters of the creek. Just outside the port, there was a café patronized by older men wearing the white kandura, the white guthra on their heads fixed with the traditional black rope, the egal. They were chatting and smoking water pipes. Outside the café, an old wooden boat served as the stand for gigantic photos of the various Emirate rulers, symbolizing the Spirit of the Union. As we approached this boat, which was strewn with bunting, a middle-aged man just pulling out of the side of the road in a lorry opened his window and encouraged us to go up for a closer look. His English was virtually non-existent but he was friendly and managed to explain that the figures represented were one leader for each Emirate country.
We drove further inside the town to the area controlled by Sharjah and parked in a fairly modern square. The slender towers of a beautiful white mosque rose again and again from behind shops, trees and heavy duty vehicles in the town, helping us to find our bearings. This was definitely not a tourist area and it was a good feeling to be sharing the pavements with the curious, but amicable local people, even though we were stared at rather. Most of the local drivers were men, turning up in fast, flashy cars to let their wives alight right outside the simple supermarkets and textile shops. Inside, lights were beginning to be switched on. The voices of several muezzins boomed into the evening air, scaring off flocks of pigeons from the rooftops. It was almost dark when we decided to drive to the checkpoint at the Oman border, to see if it would be possible to continue our journey via the rugged mountain route two days later, so many of the gates and gardens surrounding the huge, ostentatious houses on the way were lit up. Beyond huge, imaginatively wrought iron gates, almost all of them closed, families must have been gathering together behind faceless mirrored windows and coloured glass. What a strange, but not hostile, world!
This was actually the Islamic New Year’s Eve. Normally, alcohol would have been prohibited, as indeed it was at Hatta Fort Hotel with Dubai regulations, but the Meridien is in Fujairah and here Western guests were drinking as usual. We had a disappointing sea-food dish at the Grill, in the mellow breeze, virtually on the beach, and listened to some Spanish music offered to us by a not particularly talented duo.
When we woke at around eight the following morning, I was surprised to find the sun so high in the sky. It was hiding behind very dark cloud, but by the time we were ready to leave the hotel, it was beautifully sunny. Our first destination was the fifteenth century Bidhya mosque, the oldest place of worship in the Emirates. As we arrived, a small crowd of Asians streamed out of the church, the ladies sporting black gowns that were ripped off before they got into their bus. I doned a headscarf and buttoned my jacket to the neck before we passed the scrutinizing eyes of the man who handed us a tourist information map. The tiny building, built of stone and mud bricks and coated in many layers of whitewashed plaster, is squat and very simple. The modern electronic equipment and a box of tissues inside the mosque contrasted heftily with the low roof and thick pillars and decorative perforations in the limestone that constituted the interior of the building. It was a very peaceful place, huddled against the rocks behind with a well outside.
Having found the road that leads to the Wadi Wurrayah, we were greeted by a warning sign with a list of points to be observed that sounded like the Ten Commandments. The landscape was impressively stark. Brown stony mountain faces and cliffs plunged dramatically into narrow ravines, there was no vegetation and no water to be seen. We had planned to do some off-road exploration here, but the rubbly track in the wadi was so uneven and badly blocked by huge stones, that there was really no alternative to turning back onto the coast road. This took us back to Khor Fakkan, a town that we had admired on the way to Fujairah, with its charming promenade at Al Mudaifi. We fled past the industrial area and, in search of the fort, entered the modern town of Fujiarah, a tiny replica of the other Emirate cities, dressed in pastel shades.
The fort was closed, a disappointment since an attractive heritage village has been built around it. Ruins of the original mud houses lay baking in the sun, the high-rise buildings of the town centre perceptible behind the naked rafters on the roofs. The otherwise bare walls of the fortress bore huge photographs of the seven upright figures of the Emirate leaders and an array of curling Emirate flags flattered in the wind. In the absence of the possibility of an Arabian snack here, we drove on, passing a construction site where immigrant workers were clinging onto swaying scaffolding, like Santa Clauses on balconies in Sulzberg at Christmas time
We ended up outside a hypermarket in the north of the town, consisting of a well assorted supermarket and a few other facilities. Next to the ladies toilets, which were very well kept if you ignored the riverlets of water flowing from the toilet showers that had been abandoned on the floor, a grim sign indicated a ladies’ prayer room. A couple of ladies in black drifted past accompanied by unruly children but on the whole the hypermarket was strangely empty.
Fortified by a shish touk in an empty would-be Italian restaurant with the name Luna Café, (Willi had a filet steak), we headed into the mountains once again, this time to visit Hayl Fort. The old village of Hayl consists only of a clump of abandoned hovels, but further up the mountain, past an impressive dam, a conglomeration of new houses has been erected where the earth is now fertile. The old palace is about 300 years old. Abdulla Ali from Bengal, wearing a coloured kurta under his T-shirt, showed us round, hopping vigorously from one building to the next, Willi in his wake. While they climbed the rudimentary ladder of branches affixed to the corner of the main room, nimbly hoisting themselves onto a roof-cum-bedroom, I strolled around outside looking for photogenic objects. The palace was the simplest of buildings, a functional home for a warrior with a guest room or two, a shower room with latrine and a kitchen and one room for a guard, not more. We followed Abdulla Ali up a hill to a tower, which would have functioned as a meeting room and from the top of which the ruler would have had a good view of the surrounding area. Today one can see an oasis with a sizeable date plantation, vegetable gardens and huge stalls for goats. A tiny herb plot and a mosque completed the palace complex. Before we left, Abdulla Ali, who said there were on average two or three visitors daily to show around, had already started his ritual washings.
Still clutching the mint leaves that Abdulla Ali had wrenched from the garden for us, we drove back down the mountains, following an inland road that runs parallel to the coast. In this area it is common to find forts and we discovered a really nicely situated one at Al Bithnah, with its two typically rounded towers, neat little turrets like a sandcastle and a flag fluttering from the top, nestling in a date plantation. We continued along the tarmac to Masafi, which is famous throughout the Emirates for its mineral water company and its Friday market. The name is confusing. In fact the market takes place every day, but is particularly busy on the Muslim holy day. It was quiet there when we arrived. Many of the shops here were selling carpets of all sizes and colours and patterns, but there were also household goods and gadgets and, of-course, fruit and vegetables. The shops were situated on a main road which seemed to have been chiselled out of the huge, corrugated mountains. We were offered a piece of mango to try; it came from Kenya of all places.
Further along the Hajar range we were perplexed by some open-air celebrations outside a government building, involving young boys being led on elegantly dressed Arabic horses to solemn-sounding Arabic music. Curious to find out what was going on, we pulled up outside a local fast-food restaurant and walked across the road, hovering at the edge of a group of spruce, young, pomaded men in spotless kanduras. The scent emanating from these young men was heavy and sweet. In a huge yard in front of us, rows of local gentlemen in their finery sat on folding chairs. To our left, at right angles to the gents, ladies in black abayas, many of them also in black or golden burkahs, sat with their children. We were invited to sit down and watch the celebrations, which were obviously for the fortieth anniversary of the Union, but decided to remain standing at the back so that we could leave without causing a fuss. Suddenly a group of liveried Europeans appeared at our side. They were traditional Sicilian flag-throwers from Siracusa. Willi soon engaged them in conversation. Before they went into action, the horses and their young riders left the yard and an official spoke into a microphone whilst mineral water was distributed in plastic cartons. We stopped to admire the flag-throwers, then left discreetly so that we could reach Dibba before nightfall.
Amazingly formed mountains glowed in the sunset as we continued on our journey back to the hotel, passing shops and houses and small villages stamped out of nothing in the bare rock. At the roadside, immigrant workers stood patiently waiting for transport back to their hostels. The landscape became increasingly lunar as the light gradually faded.
We treated ourselves to a Thai meal on a terrace overlooking the pool area. It was so peaceful and the air pleasantly warm still as we gorged on prawn toasts with sesame and sweet chili, chicken coconut soup flavoured with galgant and lemon grass and Thai basil, stir-fried chicken with cashews, beef, prawn curry and pineapple and other culinary delights.
Dibba looked completely different in the light of the following morning. Contradicting the information we had received two days earlier, the customs official at the Oman checkpoint advised us not to take the off-road route and recommended the road through Ras al Khaiman. The same mountains that had been lunar-grey at dusk were now facing the sun and glowing softly in shades of pink. The roads through the mountains and as far as the coast were new and extremely good, but as we moved into the heavy traffic at the city of Ras al Khaiman, potholes and jams made the driving less pleasant. For miles we crawled forward, sandwiched between dusty lorries creaking beneath their loads of cement, shiny high-rise buildings peeping though the traffic in the distance. On very flat land we passed Shimal, where the Queen of Shaba’s palace is said to exist, then the Hajar mountains came to join us again on our right. A series of quarries with, inevitably, a great deal of dust, scarred the landscape; the cement works were conveniently situated opposite a huge harbour. It took us about an hour to reach Al Jeer, at the border to Oman, where cows were grazing in the middle of the road as if we were in India and goats and sheep strolled everywhere. This place was like nothing else we had experienced so far in the Emirates. It was buzzing with life and there was an exceptional display of nationalism in the form of numerous flags and posters advertising the anniversary. At the very modern checkpoint , a handsome, stern-faced official in a green uniform, with a greying beard, made us fill in forms and pay a nominal amount to leave the Emirates. On the other side, a grim-faced Omani was waiting to collect our visa fees. The whole operation took about forty-five minutes.
However, it was worth the waiting because immediately after the checkpoint, brand new tarmac blown out of the cliffs took us across breathtakingly beautiful mountain scenery with views across the fjord-like landscape of the Omani coast. Sheer walls of wavy, yellowy stone bore boulders that seemed to be hanging on for life. We fervently hoped that the frequent signs that reminded us that these rocks COULD fall were mere precautions. At a shallow port on the first sandy beach we saw, we stopped to drink and eat a little cake that we had bought some days earlier. A young fisherman drove up to inspect his nets, otherwise there was no sign of life here at all. A few miles further on, at Bukha, from where gas is produced off-shore, we were surprised by a pretty fort. From then onwards, as the road became increasingly winding and steep, there was one incredible view after the other. We paused to take photographs at another little fishing port and were surprised by some fishermen resting in a shelter with windows like a chessboard. Finally we espied a building that was much larger than any other, a grey-walled prison-like construction perched on a cliff top and hoped this was not the Golden Tulip.
It was the Golden Tulip. However as we got closer to the hotel, the neat green gardens also came into view and the austerity of the place lost its momentum. Our reception in the dark lobby was cold and unfriendly, but our room was more than adequate. After a quick check that we would be able to eat here, it was a pleasure to drive into the town of Khasab and stretch our legs. The old town is dominated by a small river inlet where old dhows and smaller boats sleep in the mud. There are mosques everywhere. Old men were sitting outside in the warmth of the afternoon, gossiping, nodding in a friendly fashion. We felt comfortable here. The atmosphere was relaxed, sleepy almost. We dived into a brand new hypermarket almost on the beach, looking for herbal tea and lozenges for my croaky throat, ignorant of the significance of this imposing complex, which was much too large for the size of the town. Finally we found the harbour where huge dhows were lined up ready to take tourists on a tour of the fjords the next day and speedboats nosed their way back to the quay. It was pleasant to take a stroll along the jetty, where three giggly, cloaked young ladies accompanied by a young male threw off their sandals and chatted excitedly as they walked. Dusk set in and it became increasingly difficult to make out the various boats that were coming in, though you could identify their horsepower by the chugging or the roaring of their engines. A police boat sped by. Lights twinkled at us from the harbour.
At dinner we were seated outside next to a table full of sailors. These were the organizers of the Muscat – Khasab Regatta, a Frenchman who had crossed the Atlantic in a six-footer single-handed, TWICE, and the Omani minister of something-or-other. The sheik was the only one who did not serve himself from the buffet but had his personal assistant do this for him. His assistant discreetly whispered the content of the modestly laden dinner plate into the sheik’s ear. The gentlemen were discussing a future regatta and the sheik mentioned a prize of 15,000 dollars. Not that I was eavesdropping, of-course!
During the course of the next day, we named our route the “Hindu Kush Route”. The morning began harmlessly enough. From our bedroom window, facing the straits of Hormous, we could see and hear the speed boats on their way from Iran, some fifty kilometres away, to the port of Khasab, where they were presumably involved in smuggling cigarettes. This was officially tolerated by the Omani police by daylight. There was something exciting about the way the sea foam frothed up as they flitted across the waters, knowing that this was actually contraband close up! After a very good buffet breakfast, we got talking to an Omani who had taken part in the regatta on behalf of the Omani navy. He explained that the wind had suddenly dropped completely off Dibba and they had had severe difficulty getting to the marina in Khasab.
As we left the hotel car park, the officials from the night before were leaving too. Spontaneously, we decided to follow them to the marina, where the prize-giving would take place at midday. Indeed a marquis had been erected and people were organizing seats inside. Curious as we are, we had a good look around and got talking to a young Brit who had sailed up from Muscat with his parents in a large boat and hoped, despite their handicap, to have succeeded in winning the regatta. Meanwhile local musicians had assembled at the entrance to the marina and were practising local songs. All over the world, artists love the limelight and so it was natural that they would have no objections to our cameras. As we stood there, a policeman came over to us, introduced himself as Sulim Ali Mubarak and shook our hands, welcoming us to the marina and telling us that we were welcome to stay for the prize-giving. However, our main interest for today were the lone mountain tracks, so we stayed a little while to watch as the musicians were joined by others, filmed them as they sang and danced in the merciless heat, then beat a quiet retreat.
Quite soon after leaving the town for the desert south, our asphalt road became a dirt track. It first took us to Acacia Valley, a completely flat valley populated by thousands of tenacious acacias. It was completely silent here apart from the buzzing of a hundred invisible bees and the occasional bird song. At the hamlet of Sall Al’La, we spoke to a couple of boys who were hanging round the mosque. It was our intention to drive along the narrow winding road down to the hidden cove at Khor Najd, but we were put off by the warning signs at the military firing range and decided to give this adventure a miss. Instead we headed for the Dibba road, the one we had been advised not to approach from the other side. The dirt track was harmless at first but as we headed further into the mountains, it became narrower and steeper and at times there were more stones than dirt. Parts of the track were suffocatingly close to the mountainsides and dangerously perched boulders were a constant threat at either side of the road. Without a four wheel drive car, this would have been impossible. I must admit that the thought of getting stuck somewhere here made my heart beat quite fast, but oddly enough, several vans or lorries on their way to some deserted building site did overtake us. Eventually we reached the Sayh Plateau, a fertile green valley segmented into fields with a few dwelling houses and tattered goat stalls. We followed our map, we thought, but ended up at a military base, which was not at all planned. This was a clear sign to turn back and follow the mountain track back down with the sun behind us, giving the landscape a whole new look.
It never ceases to amaze me how different a route can look when you drive the other way round, so to speak. The sparse, rocky landscape, which had seemed almost hostile on the way from Khasab, now mellowed under the warmth of the afternoon sunrays and we noticed all sorts of things that had hidden from us before. The scenery took on a lively, colourful 3-D aspect. We now noticed goats and a funny grouse-like bird with zebra-striped feathers. We saw the solemnly laid dark jagged stones peeping upright out of the earth at a children’s graveyard. We came across cisterns at the side of the road providing drinking water for the local farmers. We drove past cave dwellings, many of them abandoned but some still intact with painted wooden doors. At one such dwelling place, a man was washing garments in a bowl of water and I found it amazing that he just threw the precious contents of his bowl away into the thirsty soil, instead of recycling it. We came across hundreds of domestic goats, but no wild animals and I wondered what on earth the legendary snow leopard, that is supposed to inhabit these mountains, could possibly find to eat. There were incredibly beautiful views across the Wadi Khasab and I tried to imagine how much more wonderful the wadi would be after the wet season.
Back in Khasab, we headed for the museum, in the old fort. This has been lovingly restored using original materials and the women’s association of Khasab is responsible for several dioramas representing various aspects of village life. Detailed information about medicinal herbs and women’s jewelry and the history of the area made the museum thoroughly interesting and it is certainly very photogenic. We did the tour of the walls and visited the library and the men’s quarters, with a judges’ meeting room and a watchtower, then popped into the central tower to watch a video. Here we met a group of heavily perfumed young men slurping ice-cream, who hardly deigned to speak to us. While we were learning about the Omani way of life inside, a goat was picking at the tender shoots of a young tree outside. Before going back to our hotel, we drove a little way along the coast to a wadi where prehistoric paintings can be seen. Alas, we could not find them.
At dinner, we were seated right next to the low wall that overlooks the sea. We could hear motor boats purring away in the distance but no lights revealed the presence of vessels. Suddenly, as we were relishing our lamb curry, there was an almighty crash, followed by irate voices expressing fear and alarm and a good deal of splashing. It was like watching a live film. The restaurant turned deadly silent. What exactly happened that night, we will never know, but there was certainly a collision of smuggling boats out there and we can only hope that no lives were lost.
Whilst tucking into a modest breakfast of bronchial tea and fruit and biscuits on the balcony the next morning, I noticed a dolphin in the ocean quite near the coastline. We left Khasab quite early and having informed ourselves more precisely about the whereabouts of the rock paintings, set off once again for the village of Tawi, quite picturesque in its own rustical way. We were delighted to find the paintings, many of them strewn about the heaps of huge boulders that lie below the mountains at the side of the road. We also noticed several examples of the traditional summer houses and two old mud baking houses. Excited by these finds, I clicked my camera at three women who were sitting outside one of the poorer houses. This is a terrible thing to do and I am truly ashamed of myself, especially after one of them angrily voiced a tirade of obvious abuse in my direction.
Our car rounded the curvy coastline past frighteningly high towering cliffs back to the Emirates, passing the pretty port of Al Jery. Back in Ras Al Khaiman, I persuaded Willi to take a little excursion into the sweet little town of Al Rams. The centre of the town was actually a series of huge date plantations. Old mud dwellings alternated with posh houses. Fishing boats were moored on the beach. This seemed to me to be typical of the less affluent Emirate towns. This time, crossing the city was no problem and we had soon left the hustle and bustle for the semi-desert and finally the desert itself, where mobile sand dunes occasionally block the roads. The odd camel could be seen striding across the horizon at this point, but later on, trees had been planted on both sides of the roads to prevent the shifting of sand. Indeed we saw nurseries that seemed to be in existence merely to plant Abu Dhabi’s many long roads.
Al Ain is much larger than I had expected. The city is immense and spreads to cover an area of around 13,000 square kilometres. It is green and very modern and very busy. Our hotel was situated just across the road from a park, which might have been pleasant had most of it not been blocked off in preparation for the celebrations which would take place the day we were due to leave. The hotel left no desires open, though it was pretty pricey. At reception, the most servient Ahmad from Bahrain regretted that our room was not ready and offered us a drink in the lobby, so we sat down at a little round table and drank our cappuccinos and watched the representatives of the Arab business world fiddle around with their smartphones and laptops.
Armed with a plan of the town, we crossed the gardens and headed for the Al Jalili fort, which, unfortunately, was due to close within the next half an hour. It was quite romantic up there, lit up by the orange glow of the imminent sunset. Like many of the towers we had seen in the Emirates, the watchtower was built like a tiered wedding cake. We would have loved to have browsed through the permanent Wilfred Thiesinger exhibition here, but the authorities closed the doors to the exhibition hall a little bit early to make sure we didn’t! So instead we raced round the courtyard then decided to visit the souk in nearby Burami. This meant fetching the car and trying to find the border to Oman, which was easier said than done. After driving around for ages in the dark, we finally found the checkpoint, only to be told that we would have to check out of the Emirates once more and pay for a new visa for Oman, which at 40 Euros each, was too much for a few hours in the souk, we felt.
Disheartened, we returned to the town centre in time to see the son et lumière at the Al Jalila fort. There were only about seven of us watching the premiere show. Forty years of Emirate unity were flashed onto the walls of the austere building in six minutes. It was fascinating, extremely expressive and creative and we enjoyed it very much. The producer of the show also happened to be there and was delighted with our praise. A rapid trip through the centre of the town showed us that the Palace Museum was all lit up in every colour of the rainbow, while the main shopping streets were bright with Christmas lighting. Electric snow dripped from palms and icicles had frozen onto other trees. Strange for a Muslim region in the desert, we found!
Back at the Rotana hotel, we opted for a Lebanese meze menu on the lawn. The atmosphere was very pleasant with a musician playing his stringed instrument, children romping on the grass and laughing with glee and bearded Arabic gents smoking their hookas. Even the drunk American women screeching with laughter at the pool bar could not perturb us.
Our programme for the next day was organized around the mountain Jabal al Hatif. We began our morning with a trip to the livestock market, just outside the town, next to a new shopping mall. Willi steered the car through an antiseptic wash, then the stench hit us! It was the stench of hundreds of camels, cows, sheep, goats and poultry herded into open air pens according to their origins and their functions. We were stopped by a shady character, who we thought was not happy with our choice of parking space. We duly moved the car, but he followed us and began to guide us through the market. No matter how much we ignored him we could not shake this persistent guy off. He was almost certainly not an Emirate.
The camels that we saw came from all over the place, not only Oman but also as far away as Pakistan. There were racing camels and dairy camels, sweet little baby camels and temperamental old beasts that were snorting and stamping. We were invited into an enclosure to stroke them, but I declined. Willi was very brave and actually went into a pen to film. One particularly vicious animal was tied by all four legs and foaming at the mouth. Needless to say, only men could be seen here, most of them foreigners.
The road to the top of the mountain Jabal al Hatif is brand new and immaculate. It takes you 11.7 km up the mountain, rising to 1219 m., has 21 corners and three lanes, two for climbing and one for descending and ends at a huge car park, which is being newly paved. It was rather misty, so the views could have been better. Having spent so many hours of the past few days seated in the car, we decided to take the mountain track that takes pedestrians to the very top. This was quite a challenge for me actually, since the path was quite steep, even if it was only a couple of kilometres long, and there were some nasty places with awkward stones. My efforts were rewarded by approving nods and head-waggings from several young Asians who passed us on their way down. There were warnings that people should not write on the mountainsides, which for responsible Europeans is fairly obvious. Nevertheless there was graffiti everywhere and when I saw a group of Indians scrawling their names on a beautiful boulder at the summit, I felt quite aggressive.
The walk did us good. Before we reached the car park again, we noticed an Arabian family setting out a picnic, sheltered by the mountain. This made us think that a snack might be a good idea. We pulled in at the Eden Rock Hotel just a few metres down the asphalt road. The hotel looked beautiful, with a very tasteful lobby. I wish I could say the same about the mediocre salad I was served with on the cold, windy terrace. Along with the disappointing snack came some really dreadful music performed by a South American gent and his two tone-deaf dolly birds.
After lunch we followed the road down to a green belt called the green Muzzareh. This is one of the most amazing feats of man-over-nature that I have ever seen. The area is a gigantic drive-through park, a vast area of green trees and grass with a huge boating lake in the middle of a stone desert! On two massive screens, people were following the national celebrations taking place elsewhere. Throngs of people were walking or sitting round a barbecue or chatting on picnic blankets. Kiddies were enjoying the playgrounds or swinging on trees. Everyone looked so happy and relaxed and although I have serious misgivings about meddling around with nature like this, I do believe that the quality of these people’s lives has been improved by the possibility of using and enjoying the park.
Back in town we discovered another green lung in the form of the oasis, the date plantation area that is bang in the centre of Al Ain. Tourists are allowed to even drive through the narrow streets that wind and turn past perhaps hundreds of small plantations, though there is hardly room to turn should a vehicle approach from the opposite direction. After a motorized foray to get our bearings, during which we clearly but inadvertently disturbed people at one of the many tiny mosques within the walls, we left the car outside the oasis at the gate where a few heritage houses are on display and explored the place on foot. Apart from ourselves there were several groups of Asians on foot in the plantations. We met a small, thick set, very perfumed Emirate gentleman who passed the time of day with us. Most of the gates to the plantations were open and it was interesting to realize that each farmer has his own method of trapping the water that runs through the falaj system to water his palms. Plaques on the gates informed the passer-by which plantation had been sprayed for what, when and with which chemicals. Mice seemed to be a problem.
This was also a good place for bird-watching, but the nearby palace museum was also on our programme, so we could not spend as much time here as I would have liked. The palace was inhabited by the Sheik and his family until 1966. What was most striking to me was the simplicity of the rooms the royal family had lived in. There were plenty of them of-course, but the living quarters were in no way comparable to those of Western monarchs and regents. The sheik and his family must have been agile and even athletic to cope with the strange ladders that we had also seen in Hayl, in order to sleep on the roofs in the coolness of the night. The basicness of the rooms still fascinate me today, on reflection. As the sun went down, the lights in the gardens were switched on giving the palace grounds a romantic look. A woman sat in a wheelchair while her family visited the palace. As the voice of the muezzin drifted across the gardens, she sat quietly in prayer. On the way out of the museum, the most beautiful calligraphy caught my eye. Painted white on black and in the form of a perfect triangle, it was a present from the GHQ armed forces and was a quotation from the greatest Emirate leader Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan which read: “The federation of the UAE has been built by God’s will, it has helped to bring up our children and brothers and has provided our citizens with happiness, stability, health and education and all that man needs.” How appropriate for that particular week!
We had a few small things to buy in town. It was difficult to find a parking spot, but a gentleman manoeuvred out of a space right outside a chemist’s while we were looking for nose drops. On the way to the market hall, we walked down a badly lit back street, not at all threatening in any way. We found an incense burner and charcoal and a charger for my camera and admired the strange cuts of camel meat at the butcher’s shops in the market, thoroughly enjoying ourselves. This time our evening meal – Lebanese again – was made particularly entertaining by the two wedding parties that were taking place at the hotel. One was clearly a European wedding, with guests from the area all in Western dress. The other, more fascinating do, was a traditional Emirate wedding party. The women were all stashed away somewhere inside the hotel building, the ballroom, I should imagine. Outside on huge, round tables on the lawn were the men, mostly dressed in brilliant white kanduras and guthras, equipped with fine black walking sticks for the festive occasion. What dignified people these are!
And perhaps a little vain, too. As we left the hotel the next morning, I watched a smart middle-aged man take his snowy white headdress off the luggage rack that followed him across the lobby and adjust it with the egal in front of a gilded mirror. It took him several minutes until he was pleased with the way it sat.
We left him to it, having the longest stretch of road and at least six hours drive ahead. The road took us past the fantastic modern university of Al Ain and a women’s college bearing the name of Fatima, the wife of Zayed. Behind the lines of trees that hid the desert were also vegetable farms with canning factories and dates. The nearer we got to Abu Dhabi town, the larger the towns appeared, modern functional towns in the middle of a sandy desert. On the outskirts of the city were a sewage works and a cement factory, still in the desert, and amazingly gigantic flyovers that separated the citywards traffic from the heavy transit vehicles on their way to Saudi Arabia. We took the road past the city outskirts to Hamin or Hmeen or Hamim, depending on which sign we were reading.
This highway across the desert is not the main vein of traffic to the Liwa Desert. It is a long, rather boring stretch of tarmac with no bends and nothing much to see other than sand, with the occasional dune. So it was a pleasant diversion to visit the Rainbow Sheikh’s automobile museum. Our guide book had informed us that there was no entrance fee, which we considered very generous of the Sheikh, but when we got there, he had obviously changed his mind and we were charged fifty dirham to get in. Not that I begrudge having had to pay, especially since it was here that I began to grasp the extent of the wealth of the Emirate rulers.
Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan must be second cousin to the great founder of the Emirate states. His museum contains around 200 vehicles. Expensive vehicles. In fact very expensive ones. One of his crazy ideas was to order seven Mercedes 500 SEL, one for each day of the week, each one in a different rainbow colour with matching interiors. There is also a series of customized Mercedes with golden windscreen wipers and handles and so on. Each car is a unique specimen and extremely expensive. There are also luxurious Landrovers and racing cars and big trucks. One Dodge Power Wagon is eight times the original size and contains four bedrooms inside the cabin. A specially created dormobile contains eight bedrooms with bathrooms and four garages. It is said that the Rainbow Sheikh inherited an island from his late father, Futaisi Island. The island covers an area of 50 square kilometres (larger than Abu Dhabi central city). He recently had “HAMAD” carved into the island. The letters are dug so deep that they form waterways, and the inscription can be read from outer space.
Realising that the luxury resort we were due to spend the night in also belongs to the ruling family, we wondered what would come next. For now, we fixed our eyes on the sand and Willi spotted a herd of Thomson’s gazelles right near the road, which, thankfully, was fenced off. Literally at the end of the road, we reached a private tarmac road belonging to the hotel, which took us about 8 kilometres further, across and between the most beautifully sculptured dunes. An impressive stone gateway and a couple of palms welcomed us into a courtyard where fountains played and plants bloomed and liveried gentlemen came to give us wet towels for our dusty hands and faces. Qasr Al Sarab – as exotic as its name!
Inside the cool, opulently decorated lobby, where a gentleman in traditional dress hovered around the guests with a falcon at his wrist, one of the beautiful Chinese receptionists came over with saffron juice for us. She showed us to our room, explaining the facilities to us in an English that was impossible to understand. The room was incredible, equipped with the usual five-star luxuries and even an espresso-machine and a huge round Jacuzzi, plus a step-in raindrop shower. The lighting was all programmed, so you pressed “rest” or “play” or “welcome” or “sunset” to switch on the optimal lighting for that particular mood. There was a corner for my netbook with a charger for the phone. A little basket was filled with dried apricots and mangos and candied pineapple and ginger. Outside our room, a beautiful terrace with a sofa and armchairs and footstools looked onto the desert. Decidedly, this room was too beautiful to leave in a hurry, so we took our time before setting off to discover the rest of this enchanting resort.
A falaj runs through the entire resort, a pretty, flowery arrangement of villas and rooms and courtyards and wells and a lovely swimming-pool area. For those who have the time, there’s a spa, of-course. And the resort offers everything from dawn walks even further into the desert to camel trekking and archery. While Willi climbed the hill that we could see from our terrace, I checked out the restaurants, had a look in the shop and poured myself a cup of Arabic coffee in the lounge, ignoring those calorific dates. While we were relaxing in our room before dinner, a room attendant brought along some fresh dried fruit and we ordered a bottle of red wine. We dined outside by the pool, having found a table that was sheltered from the strong, cold, desert wind, on tuna carpaccio followed by hammour marabous (grouper) with saffron rice.
How would it have been possible not to sleep like two babies under the feather-light duvets on a soft mattress in the desert? We got up reasonably early in order to take advantage of the early morning light for our photos. Outside the resort, we bumped into a Swiss gent who told us he had been on an early morning excursion to watch the sun rising above the dunes. Breakfast was sheer luxury. I counted four different kinds of smoked fish! Don’t even ask me how many different fruit juices there were! This was all consumed in a leisurely fashion outside to the sound of Arabic lounge music that I would have bought on the spot.
The sun was brilliant but not blazing as we left the resort at one end of a crescent-shaped main road. We followed the half-moon to its centre, where another track led to the famous Moreeb dune. We passed enormous date plantations, several small towns and bails of animal fodder. At the largest town, Mezzair’aa, there was even an industrial area which we had to cross on our way to the dune. The desert road was brand new tarmac and took us past a few small farms, where camels, goats and a few cows and horses shared the same shelters. There were few Bedouins here, judging from the absence of tents.
At the end of the road, a circular route takes you to the venue for camel racing. The only other attraction is the massive, steep dune, where drivers with nerves of steel can compete in driving to the top. A fence of netted wire stretched up the side of the dune at one point and an Asian family was trying to walk up the slope. This was only possible by clinging on to the wire.
We drove back to the town, passing a sweet little fort and the huge Emirate palace on the hill, advertised by a vast expanse of green, the only wooded area in the desert. The palace grounds were fenced off with lovely iron posts bearing wrought-iron falcons, coffee pots, camels and sabres. We called in at the Liwa Hotel to use the facilities, then followed the signs to the “Tamm centre”, which obviously referred to the town centre. This led to the four lane road that climbs up to the coast via the Khair Oasis.
Medinat Zayed, halfway up this road, is the administrative centre of the Western region of Abu Dhabi and a paramount example of a brand new modern Arabic city, with many colleges and every modern facility. The town looked extremely attractive. However, the sand lost its sandy colour the nearer we got to Abu Dhabi and by the time we reached the boring motorway E11 that runs parallel to the coast, there was nothing attractive to catch our eye. So we concentrated on deciphering the Arabic numbers on the milestones and looked out for interesting number plates on the huge, rumbling lorries that we passed, many of them coming from Kuwait.
Trying to find the hotel in Abu Dhabi was nothing short of adventurous, but Willi kept his cool, a taxi-driver at a filling station kindly pointed out our whereabouts on a street map and with my expert map-reading, we finally found the Millennium Grand Hotel. That is to say we found the building, but finding the entrance to the building was a challenge.
The agreement had been that we should leave our hired car at the Budget office very near to our hotel. However, someone had forgotten that today was a holiday and that the office would be closed. So after traipsing round the busy, fumy streets looking for the office, which, incidentally had moved, there was no option but to drive the 30 odd kilometres back to the airport to deliver the car and get a taxi back. This was no problem, even though our Pakistani driver spoke virtually no English, but took rather a long time. One of the highlights on the way was the lovely, fairy-tale mosque built by Sheikh Zayed, a place that really deserves to be visited, but that will have to wait till our next visit. This was particularly beautiful on our way back to the hotel, when it was lit up.
We were ready for a drink by the time we got back to the Millenium Grand, but unfortunately the hotel had not yet got a licence to sell alcohol and, moreover, all the restaurants in the building were closed except for the pizzeria. We were too tired to start looking for somewhere else, so we ordered a pizza with water. This revived us sufficiently to venture outside, where the streets were alive with shoppers, and have a little stroll before turning in.
Perhaps the nicest part of living in this part of the world is that every day is a sunny day. As we drew back the curtains on our 22nd floor, gigantic high rise buildings loomed up to the left, to the right and in the background. The drone and grind of traffic was vaguely audible through the windows.
Now with no car, we took a taxi to the heritage village, about eight kilometres away, opposite the marina. It was hot and windy but the place was so refreshing with lots of leafy shade. There were workshops here showing local trades, though the Egyptian carpet-maker was actually in the weaver’s workshop, the tailor was nowhere to be seen and the glass and pottery workshops were now run by immigrant workers. Even here, a falaj runs through the gardens and this and the wells make the grounds cool. We passed the domestic animals and the ancient burial tombs and the shabby restaurant and went into the museum, which was actually very well presented. We were followed by a school-class of infants or young juniors and as they entered the building they all gasped “Allah!” in fake wonderment. It occurred to me that all over the world you see school classes visit quite good museums without any interaction taking place at all and the children come out without having seen a thing. It would be so easy for the teachers to focus on one or two objects in each room and tell a little story about them.
The most interesting part of the village was, in my opinion, the reconstructed village houses. It was truly fascinating to find out how, centuries ago, the local people had worked out how to build a cooling tower into their mud houses, for example. Outside one of the houses, a young couple was seated on the bare earth, having a rest. I asked them if this was their house and they laughed and we got talking. The young lady spoke good English, her husband hardly any. They were local people. I asked if I could take a photo, but they refused. We visited Bedouin tents and a handicraft workshop, manned by a woman from Sri Lanka. I found postcards, the first we had seen, at a little shop and we bought some gaudy, sequined cushion covers to brighten up our conservatory.
The road back to the corniche, a popular promenade, leads you past the new marina with its shopping mall and down a street which offers romantic views of the Emirates Palace, the most luxurious hotel in the city, which is so large, that the residents would lose their way down the corridors without video screens to help them, so they say. Strategically situated on the beach, this was presumably once the Emirate’s residence. Instead of popping in to have a look, we found a “Le Boulanger” and stopped to have a well-earned drink there.
From here, we started our marathon walk along the promenade, where much building work is taking place to extend the municipal beaches. The ones that already exist, further along the road, are exemplary. There are recycling spots at regular intervals on the pathway, which is not a severely cut avenue, but a clean, curling, rambling pathway under shady trees. Every now and then, you can find a cluster of cafes and kiosks and toilets. The promenade is also manned by policemen to keep it safe. We were most impressed. At a beach café, we enjoyed a snack in the breeze, served by Asian waitresses in remarkably pretty uniforms with a straw hat. At the table next to ours, a group of three cloaked and scarved ladies were enjoying a chat and a drink with their toddlers. European joggers were defying all the rules of propriety by wearing shorts and sleeveless tops, as were the group of English girls next to us.
We walked and walked, aiming for Etihad Square, which nobody seemed to know. After a stop to check out the local souk, somewhat disappointingly consisting of quality shops in a modern, dark, air-conditioned mall, we did eventually discover this square. Surrounded by high-rise offices and flats, it is full of refreshing fountains and features gigantic sculptures of the objects that are characteristic of Arabian life – a coffee pot and an incense-burner, for example, but also a canon and a fortress. According to our map, the Qasr Hosn palace should have been situated here, but again, none of the passers-by I asked seemed to be aware of its existence. In actual fact, we were standing right outside it. It was hidden behind enormous wooden boarding, awaiting reconstruction.
A taxi took us back to the hotel, where we had a quick drink and dived into the Lu-Lu hypermarket next door to buy choco-dates for those left at home. There was just enough time to freshen up before we caught the next taxi to the Iranian market, on the other side of the corniche. I don’t really know what I thought we would find here, but it was not the rows pragmatic stalls selling vegetables and flowers and household goods that we actually did find! The oversized cauldrons and cooking pots that originated in India and were presumably meant for huge wedding parties and the like were interesting, but the market was hardly exotic in the sense that I had imagined.
It did not take us long to look around. Instead of looking for a taxi, we imagined we would be able to cross the harbour bridge on foot and walk to one of the hotels we had seen en route. Oh the power of imagination! In a word, we were lost. Despite the many kilometers we had covered in the heat of the day, we walked and walked in search of a suitable place to eat and it was already well past nine when we eventually found a hotel that served not only a dinner buffet but even wine!
We fell into bed that night absolutely exhausted.
The night, however, was short, for our plane was due to leave early the next day. They say time flies when you are enjoying yourself. Our first trip to the Emirates had passed in a flash. It was a trip that we had planned ourselves, full of adventure, full of surprises. A special trip, the details of which will never be forgotten, however many journeys we may make.
The Spirit of the Union has seeped under our skin and fixed itself to our memories in a never-ending string of images and a range of new experiences, in the brief encounters with the mainly immigrant population and the Emirate heritage they have adopted.