It has taken some time to settle down in the UAE. The adaptation to my new environment has been dictated by the experiences found in my new employment. Six months later I feel that I am beginning to find my feet in the UAE. The last two months I have found the time and been in the right frame of mind to really begin to explore my surroundings and try to get a feel for the physical environment that surrounds me. So much of my time before this was spent resorting to western expat solitudes, sacrificing adventure to the climatic constraints and making compromises on the things in life I find the most happiness.
One of the overriding pleasures in my life in recent years has been cycling and the adventures it has brought me. While I immediately tried to get involved in some of the numerous social cycling groups in the UAE, I soon found the limitations of the cycling infrastructure and the frustrations of group riding quite tiresome. The majority of my cycling experiences have been solo or with only one or two other people, I have quickly found that group riding, whilst aerodynamically faster and more sociable, is pretty dull. There is only so long I can tolerate staring at someone else’s rear wheel and the additional concentration needed to avoid touching wheels takes much of the joy away found in taking in your surroundings. Anyone who follows my Strava will already be familiar with the repetitive circular nature of the routes of the Dubai Autodrome, Nad al Sheba Cycle Track, the Ajman Camel Racing Track and the Al Qudra Desert Tracks. However, there have been some more vertically challenging group rides out in Showka and Hatta that have piqued my interest and these formed the build-up rides for the Urban Ultra UAE Cross-Country Cycle Challenge. On the 18th of November around 300 cyclists set-off from the coast of Sharjah and followed a 200km route across the desert, through the southern Hajar mountains and northerly along the coast of Fujairah to the Meridien Hotel in Al Aqah.
My preparation for the event had been less than ideal, my training had been heavily affected by an acute respiratory infection that took me out of work for almost a week and even landed me in hospital for a day. The ‘challenge’ element of the name certainly felt fitting, I was still however quite confident that I would complete the route, just unsure of what state I would be in at the finish.
The cyclists departed in groups of about 35 under Sharjah Police escort. Our group (H) was pencilled for an average of 30km/h for the whole route which seemed achievable and proved to be quite accurate. The early brisk pace through the empty Sharjah streets was comfortable and this continued on the long stretch out into the desert, a brief stop after 75km to refuel at a petrol station was followed by the approach to the beginning of the mountains. In all honesty the climbs we faced were nowhere near as challenging as the ones that I undertook in Andalusia, but after 100km and rising heat they were not underestimated. The last descent toward the coastline that had appeared after the last mountain tunnel was thoroughly welcomed and after another refreshment break the long grind north along the coastline began. I felt surprisingly strong until a now very large mixed group (there had been some fracturing among groups and I was now amongst rider from groups A, C, D etc…) was broken apart by a sudden surge in pace. Due to some amateur wheel-holding ahead of me I lost touch and had to regroup with a smaller bunch, that being said, it was an enjoyable bunch to ride with and we crushed the last 35km.
The ride ended at the Meridien Hotel and as part of the challenge fee every rider received a BBQ buffet on the beach, I stole my way to the showers first after leaving my bike to be collected and trucked back to Sharjah before making a sizeable dent on the steaks, lamb skewers and grilled fish (yes, I ate fish I was that hungry). After a few well-earned beers some organized coaches returned us along a similar route back to Sharjah. We started in the dark and the day ended in the dark. I slept for 12 hours.
Having somehow managed to drag myself across the breadth of the country the previous week, I decided to take a break from the bike and allow myself to explore some other activities and dedicate a bit of time to my social life.
Waking up late the following Friday (Friday being a weekend day in the UAE for those not in the know) I planned a trip to a beach resort up the coastline in Umm Al Quwain with India. Our initial foray to a beach resort was disappointing with the resort under some renovation and the beach seemingly a building site. All was not lost and we had a back-up plan – some ‘Urban Exploration’ at the abandoned Umm Al Quwain airport. On the E11 heading through Umm Al Quwain you can see the abandoned airport and a dilapidated and forsaken Russian cargo plane resting within the semi-collapsed security fences. The story behind this plane is quite interesting and pertains to real-life events dramatised in the movie ‘Lord of War’. The real ‘Lord of War’ had seemingly landed this plane at the provincial airstrip one morning, unbeknownst to all, and had presumably unloaded whatever illicit cargo it held before leaving the plane behind and disappearing into the desert. The plane, although towed away from the airstrip itself, still rests on the airports grounds. The engines have long been removed and various birds have found it a suitable nesting place, but no one has seen fit to scrap it or take responsibility for it. With the airport closed and overgrown it appears it will remain to continue its slow sink into the sand. The interior is difficult to access, there is a makeshift ladder made from a road barrier but it wasn’t safe enough to climb with no counterbalancing weight holding it down. It still makes for some fine photos and a creative advertisement hoarding for the beach resort we had earlier been let down by.
While the cargo plane is difficult to get into there is another abandoned plane (and a third locked up by rusty padlocks in a tired hangar), this second plane is a small propeller aircraft. The exterior has been painted in the UAE flag colours some time ago and now has a heavy dusty coating that dulls the colours. Accessibility is less of an issue and the only main danger is from the prospect of ruining your clothes on the thick grime and dust, or from some hidden scorpions or the like. Feeling brave I made an effort to get into the disheveled cockpit seen in the image below where I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the mechanical elements all still move even if the electrics have long been stripped.
The planes seen might no longer be able to fly or even make it to the runway but I quickly decided that my Toyota Yaris could negotiate the off-road sections that would lead to the runway. There are some concrete barriers intermittently placed on the runway to dissuade would be ‘Lord of War’ wannabes, but they are spaced far enough apart to allow a car to drive. I had a little blast testing my pathetic 1.3 automatic while India had a more productive time practicing her U-turns for her upcoming driving test.
To end the day we drove into Umm Al Quwain and spent the last few hours in the low-sky sunshine at The Umm Al Quwain Beach Hotel watching a few kite surfers tear through the mild-surf and a endless stream of birds buzzing the Persian Gulf water-line and heading toward the marshes to the north-east. The comparison between this sleepy Emirate and its coastline is hugely disparate to that of the glitz of Dubai.
With the weather (although still searingly hot around midday) being seasonably cooler and my sabbatical from the bicycle being extended, I decided to begin exploring what the Hajar mountains had to offer by foot. My first foray was in the mere foothills of the mountain range around Showka, an area that I was familiar with as it had served as the beginning of the training rides for the cross-country cycle challenge.
India and I arrived at a small car park close to a minimal dam and reservoir from where we set off on what was supposed to be an anti-clockwise route of around 10km. We followed a small trail west, one that was barely visible amongst the barren landscape. No muddy or eroded trails in this environment.
We initially came across a small farm with a few camels, including one rather rogue and inquisitive one, and some surprisingly lush patches of coriander that were being attended to by some farmhands. Beyond this however there was nothing but Mars-like landscape that can be seen in the two pictures, one above and one below this text.
As the barely visible path eventually faded we were left with a few choices, the first being to climb a peak and try to plot a route to complete the intended loop or to head straight back along the valley. We chose the former and scrambled up the slope to the top. We were rewarded with excellent views but only two options, one of which being a bit of an adventure into the unknown and possibly stumbling across the planned loop back, or heading down through a rather shallow boulder ridden wadi generally heading back from where we had come. Erring on the side of caution and considering our low water supplies we took the rocky route down, picking a route through the small boulders being entertainment enough.
On the return, via the original pathway we spied another small camel farm and India made some new friends. They looked a little sad, and one tried to escape through the barb-wired fence. It was a good first foray and I soon planned the next hike.
Next on my agenda was a hike into the mountains further north in Ras Al Khaimah. Having cycled up Jebel Jais a few times I had spied a few wadis disappearing away from the road-side and up into a landscape that was significantly more dramatic and imposing than that seen around Showka. Following some internet research I was able to discover a description of a route and some GPS way points that I would be able to add to my Google Maps, thus aiding me in staying on the right route, an issue that had been troublesome in Showka. This time I was loaded with water and on my own.
My planned route seemed quite a reasonable one, 14km, 8km up one wadi and 6km down another. Wadi al Shah to Wadi al Far. However it would in reality be slightly more than reasonable and indeed turned out to be quite a challenge.
After parking my car slightly off-road I began a shallow ascent through the lower reaches of Wai al Shah. The beginning of the wadi was quite simple to navigate through, in many places just resembling a dried-up pebbled river bed. This was not indicative of the terrain that lay ahead. Gradually the walls of the canyon steepened and the pebbled surface littered with occasional boulders became a bouldered surface littered with rocks the size of cars and small houses.
As the hike intensified so did the prevalence of goats and the odd goat carcass. Goats lay where they had presumably fallen…from the cliffs. I checked my footing a little more carefully after the second skeleton.
The ascent began to steepen and the bouldering more challenging, yet not quite unmanageable. The main interest lying in picking the right route and not coming to a dead end of some form. There was even some time to appreciate the incredible views both above and back down the wadi.
Eventually, the wadi widened and a scramble up some loose rocks brought me to what appeared to be a semi-abandoned farm. There were remnants of old stone outhouses but also a much more modern complex , as well as some dried up dusty fields, resemblant of East Asian rice paddies. The sun was out now in full-force and the temperature quickly rising so I didn’t linger and pressed on.
Beyond the farm area there was a steady climb to a GPS point at a small peak, in the wadi there had been tiny cairns giving hints to mark the way, but at the top of the peak there was a larger one surrounded by a strange natural rock formation on the ground beneath my feet. Over eons it appeared that a huge slab or layer of rock had cracked symmetrically, presumably from excessive heat expansion, to leave this wonderful lattice of giant-like paving slabs.
Almost as curious as the rock formation beneath my feet were the fossils I spied on one rock on the slopes of the peak a few metres away, presumably this area, before rather dramatic tectonic movement, had been far below the sea. It was now well over a kilometre into the sky.
My hike continued to another GPS way point, a ridiculously positioned farm atop a mountain ridge, the only way down being over a staggered cliff-face. It took some time to plot a route down, I hadn’t expected quite such a precarious descent. Below the cliff-face I met some other hikers heading in the opposite direction, with one poor woman asking me how difficult the terrain was on the other side. I said I couldn’t compare as I hadn’t taken the route before, obviously struggling she almost begged her partner to allow her to return the route she had come, with me. I described the route so far as I had experienced it and he somehow convinced her to press-on. After I had descended the much shorter, smoother, shallower Wadi al Shah I soon began to feel a little worried for her…
I came out of the dusty wadi and walked the short distance between the entrance to both wadis along the tarmacked road. I dusted myself down and rehydrated in the car, the drive back home was full of reflection on a unique and epic hike. One for the memory bank.
A long weekend shortly before Christmas gave India and I the opportunity to travel a little further away in the U.A.E. and explore an entirely new area to us both. We chose ‘The Garden City’ more officially known as Al Ain. Al Ain, although the fourth largest city of the U.A.E., is distinctively different to that of the more coastal metropolises of Abu Dhabi or Dubai, it’s less high-rise and the noticeable greenness of some areas of land served by irrigation systems fed by underground boreholes is refreshing to the generally dust-afflicted eyes.
The first morning of our visit we spent at the Al Ain livestock market, a sprawling trade area full of goats and camels. The market is supposedly busier earlier in the morning but we arrived mid-morning and thus probably missed the buzz of trade, it did however allow for more time to wander openly at our leisure, all-be-it at the open risk of inquisitive and sometimes pushy tradesmen. Our first encounter, literally just as we had left the car, was in the goat section where we witnessed the live birth of a goat. The afghan man tending to the live-birth of three goats (we missed the first and passed up the chance to witness the third), was literally laying across the mother’s stomach to push the kid out. It was swift and ultimately gooey, the kid was held to the mother’s face and the maternal instincts took over. The market workers encouraged to take photos but we were slightly wary of the unspoken cost (tips are expected), but even so it seemed a bit intrusive to take a photo of such an event.
We wandered around the market, mostly checking out the camels, eventually giving in to the unrelenting prompting to take photos, it cost me 40dirhams eventually, but this cost also came with the prize of being left alone. In some respects it was also worth it to gain some insight into the market, we discovered that some camels are used for breeding, sometimes milking, others for racing and that the bulls (often huge and ugly as hell) were generally shackled up to prevent them from causing to much mischief. I met a nice Afghan guy who wanted to chat cricket and we watched as a shrieking camel was forced to the ground by six tradesman who tied the camel up and then proceeded to crane the camel into the back of a pick-up truck. It was certainly an unusual environment within a country that is now famed for its modernity, an example of a trade that is still supported by the traditions of heritage.
In the early afternoon we drove up Jebel Hafeet, a 1300m stand alone mountain rising out of the desert sands that ominously surround the garden city. We stopped off at a mountainside hotel for some rather difficult to acquire lunch, not hungry enough for the buffets we ended up in the hotel lobby cafe where half our order was forgotten. After we were eventually fed we drove up the remainder of the steep and twisty climb to take in the views from the summit car park.
We later returned to the centre of the city and spent some time walking around the largest oasis in the city, Al Ain Oasis. This sizeable oasis is served by one of the ‘falaj’ (underground irrigation systems) and is home to fields of date palms, the spanning leaves of which shade you from above. It really is quite a pleasant place and in a country of unrelenting sun, sand, dust, noise and concrete it is a welcome haven.
The following day began quite disastrously, we planned to take on an epic hike over the nearby border to Oman in a region of the mountains dubbed the ‘Hanging Gardens’, however there were some issues at the border, especially as we were unable to take my hire car over the border. It turned out that the logistics of walking over the border are also not so simple as the U.A.E. border control and the Oman border control are quite a distance apart (40km+). We ultimately abandoned that plan and returned to the hotel. We did some research and eventually booked a rather touristy desert experience adventure. This was planned late in the early evening so we relaxed around the hotel before setting off on a drive into the desert.
Along the way we stooped at the Zaman Lawal Heritage Village. This was a whimsical stop, we passed some signs on our route and, as we were going to be a little early to our booked desert experience, we pulled off the main road and up a dirt track to what turned out to be a reconstruction of an Emirati Bedouin village. We walked around the village but there wasn’t much happening, although the website does suggest multiple events are held here, maybe our timing was just off. We walked out the back and up into the dunes to take in the view.
As we were leaving we saw some young Emirati men with their huge Nissan Patrol vehicles pull up. Not an uncommon sight, but what was unique was that there was a hooded-falcon sitting calmly on the driving armrest in one of the vehicles. Falconry is visibly indoctrinated in Emirati culture, falcon racing is shown on television, the falcon is part of the government emblem and it is seen on various Emirati branding and there are signs for falconry centres around most Emirates, but this was the first time I had seen a falcon in the country…and it was perched calmly in the front of a 4WD.
Our desert experience event was as touristy as expected, but it was also quite fun. It began with a brief stint of dune bashing in one of the atypical luxury 4WD vehicles. The vehicle and young driver expertly handled the dunes and predictably extracted whelps from some of the tourists (and India) as it lunged almost vertically down the dunes. This was followed by some quad-biking in the dunes, with one quad-bike for the guide and one for a guest we took it in turns for a 10-15 minute blast through the dunes. I certainly enjoyed it, the quad-bike squirming beneath me and initially constantly threatening to go the opposite direction to which I was aiming for, by the time I had grown accustomed to the handling time was almost up. India seemed to enjoy it too. I’m quite looking forward to booking a more experiential dune buggy adventure sometime in the early new year.
The evening continued with some traditional food served in a buffet as we sat around a dance-floor awaiting a belly-dancing display. The food was satisfactory and I certainly enjoyed the dessert, umm ali (a bit like bread and butter pudding), the belly dancer performed and invited various attendees to join her, thankfully she didn’t pick on me. The night ended with some shisha before we were asked to move along so the camp could close down. It was a convivial experience and even if some of it wasn’t particularly authentic we had a good time on the quad bikes.
Our trip to Al Ain rounds off this blog post, there are a few more works in process though, some Christmas adventures to Paris, one more interesting hike and another cycle race in the U.A.E hopefully I’ll get them up soon.