Thursday, February 6, 2014

DAY NINETY EIGHT - Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter

There is more than a bit of irony, I think, in that I find myself living for a year in a desert country, in one of the most arid and hottest regions in the world.

You see, for the past two years at least I've had an itch to visit a desert. I've lived in the green, wooded area of the Northeast most of my life, but I've hiked in the Rocky Mountains and visited the Pacific Northwest. I've ridden an airboat in the Florida Everglades, snorkled off Maui and walked in the ash of Haleakalas's crater. And on one very memorable trip with my friend Linda, we hiked through jungles in Panama along the canal and then flew up to the mountains and trudged through a bone-chilling rain in the cloud forest of Baru, a dormant volcano. But I had never experienced a desert, and I really wanted to. What I had in mind was a desert in California. I figured one year when I flew out to visit Jeff in San Diego, we could make a day trip of it and drive to the Palm Springs area or Joshua Tree National Park. But as they say, be careful what you wish for. I would add, be very specific about what you wish for.

A trip to the desert seemed a natural for one of Jeff's U.A.E. Christmas Adventures. I had been planning on going out there with Doug anyway, so it made sense to wait until Jeff was with us so we could go together. I set about picking up tourist brochures wherever I found them and Googling "desert safaris". What I discovered, and no surprise really, was that there were no end of desert safaris to be found. Every tour company offered them, but the vast majority were half-day trips just out of town, starting in the early evening. They followed this general itinerary:
Pick-up and drop-off by 4x4 car
Visit camel farm
Camel riding
Dune bashing as the sun sets over the desert
Drive to a desert "camp" for a BBQ dinner (or some kind of snack involving dates and Arabic coffee)
Shisha smoking (this is the hubbly-bubbly or water pipe)
Henna tattoo
Belly dancer

I read these descriptions, and they just felt contrived and touristy to me. I'm sure they are fun, and clearly they are popular, but what I had in mind was to really and truly experience the desert. So I did more research and found a few companies that offered a full-day safari to the Liwa Oasis which sits on the edge of the Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter. 

The Empty Quarter. Just the name intrigued me, and the more I read, the more I knew this is where we had to go.

The Rub al Khali is the largest expanse of desert in the world, encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. Most of it lies in Saudi Arabia, but it also extends into the UAE, Oman and Yeman. The sand is a characteristic orangey-red due to the presence of feldspar, and the dunes reach enormous heights, more like large hills than what we normally think of as sand dunes. 

The Moreeb Dune in the Empty Quarter is thought to be the tallest dune in the world at around 300 meters. The translation is "scary dune". 

Early on New Years Eve Day we were picked up at our apartment by our driver, a very out-going and talkative young Indian named Aziz. As our Land Rover headed out of the city he told us that we were first going to rendezvous with two other vehicles at a gas station. He said that for safety reasons, they always went out in groups of at least three vehicles. 

The day was bright and sunny, but it was quite breezy and just a bit cool. We brought jackets with us, sunglasses, sunscreen and bottles of water. As we left Abu Dhabi the landscape was pretty flat, and the sand was mostly beige in color. We passed some areas that looked like they were being cultivated with date palms. 

As we got further out the wind picked up and sand blew across the road, looking for all the world like snow skittering across a frozen roadway in Upstate New York. The air was hazy with dust. Off to one side ran a parallel truck road, and as you can see, it was filled with a continuous line of very large, heavy trucks. They just kept coming and going - I've never seen anything like it. It was very clear that there is some huge construction project or projects being undertaken out in the deserts of the U.A.E. 

And then in the midst of all the construction traffic we saw this, a camel train, just plodding along the road. Surreal. It was twice as long as this photo, so there were quite a few camels.

About an hour outside of Abu Dhabi we came to a traffic light, which completely took me by surprise as we were seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Then I could see what looked like a pyramid behind some scrubby trees and and entrance. Our small parade of Land Rovers turned in, and we found ourselves at the Emirates National Auto Museum. The pyramid is actually a warehouse which stores the private car collection of Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan. Apparently visiting this museum was part of the day's tour.

In the front of the museum were parked these two giant...... RV's??? I am not sure what they are really. I think they were gifted to the Sheikh. What do you give the sheikh who has everything? A globe on wheels, I guess.

Here's another view of the "globe". You could walk up and have your photo taken at the top of the stairs, but you could not enter. Don't you wonder what it looks like inside??? 

The cars were displayed very nicely. The "road" wove back and forth throughout the entire warehouse, and most cars were labled which was very helpful. Many cars were originals like the VW Bug, but most were customized in some way.

One of the many, MANY, rainbow Mercedes, and note the gold trim. Some had all the colors of the rainbow like this one, but the Sheik also had solid-color Mercedes, each in a color of the rainbow, one for each day of the week. 

World's biggest Dodge truck, sans engine. You could walk under it and not wack your head. 

I don't think this is an original. I believe it is a replica of the very first Mercedes, but cool nevertheless.

And just for good measure, there was a jet and a giant Jeep parked out back because.... why not?

How's this for scale?

As we wandered through the museum I wondered about all the rainbow-colored cars, of which there were many. They would be ideal, and I do mean ideal, for our Gay Pride Parades - there were enough to make up their own parade -  but considering that homosexuality is illegal in this country, I doubt the rainbow colors and imagry have quite the same connotation as they do in our country. Later when I read up on the museum I discovered that the Sheikh is known as the Rainbow Sheikh. I guess he just likes rainbows a lot, which is cool. 

We drove for another hour. The color of the sand changed from beige to a distinct orange-red, and the dunes grew taller. Finally the lead Rover slowed down, pulled off the road into the open desert and took off. We were last in line and followed. We drove for a few minutes, leaving the highway well behind us, and then at the base of a large dune we all slowed to a complete stop.

All three drivers exited their Land Rovers and proceeded to let air out of all the tires. Apparently this is what one does when driving in the desert because it gives the 4x4's more traction. They also lifted the hoods so the engines could cool down. We passengers took the opportunity to stretch our legs.

I could tell from Jeff's expression that he thought this was pretty awesome.

And then we climbed into our Land Rover and we were off!

Dunes as far as the eye can see.

The contrast between the clear blue sky and the rust-colored sand was striking.

On the flat the Rovers moved along pretty quickly, carving their way across and up dunes.

When we came to a very steep dune, like this one, the strategy was a little different. Note that the dune is at about a 45 degree angle to our Land Rover's window sill (bottom of frame). We would stop at the bottom, and wait while the vehicle in front of us gunned it and fish-tailed its way up the dune. Clearly timing was important because the driver needed just enough momentum to get to the very top of the dune, and then he would stop, perched on the crest. It was a little nerve-wracking for me because you could not see over the crest and didn't know how tall and steep the dune was on the other side. 

Now when I say "perched" on the crest of the dune, I mean perched. It's hard to tell from this picture, but the Land Rover in front of us is literally teetering on the dune, it's rear wheels in the air. Imagine how I felt looking up at this vehicle, watching it sit there precariously, and then slowly disappear over the other side. After a few minutes our driver gunned the motor and up the dune we went. When we reached the top and paused, it was just like being on a roller coaster and finding yourself at the top of first big dip, waiting to plunge over. The difference between dune bashing and roller coasters, though, is that when we went down the dune, the driver pretty much inched his way down very slowly and carefully. Aziz told us that the sand in the desert out near Liwa is very fine, unlike the courser sand closer to Abu Dhabi, and this makes for more treacherous driving. As we were going down these dunes I looked above me and for the first time noticed the roll bars, and I was very glad to see them.

We would stop at regular intervals so the drivers could lift the hoods of the Rovers and let the engines cool. They picked spots with a "view". Here Aziz pointed down excitedly, telling us there was an oasis. I approached the edge cautiously because it looked like it just dropped off, and I imagined myself losing my balance and rolling down the dune. Scary thought. 

When I peeked over the edge, this is what I saw. I guess when I heard "oasis" I was expecting something bigger.

I edged over a bit more so I could see a little better. The wind was blowing briskly as we stood looking down, grains of sand blowing across the tops of the dunes and into the air. I wondered how is it that these little oases survive? How is it that the desert doesn't overtake them and bury them in sand?

In places the sand drifts away exposing dark gravel below, and from a distance it can look like a lake.

Doug and Jeff in the expanse of the desert. Humbling.

It was well past noon and my stomach was rumbling with hunger. We crested yet another dune, and down below us was an oasis, this one considerably larger than the one we'd seen earlier. 

This oasis was our rest stop. Not to be confused with a pit stop, because there were no "facilities", and believe me I looked. No, we were stopping for a little snack and to have the opportunity to walk around an oasis. 

Apparently an oasis is a prime piece of real estate, and this one, like all the oases in the country, was owned by a member of the Royal Family. It was surrounded by fence, and I'm not sure why..... just to define the border? Or maybe wild camels wander in and munch the date palms? Anyway, there was a full-time staff at this oasis, tending to the date palms and doing whatever else one does at an oasis. When we arrived one of the men got busy rolling out some dough. Then he picked it up, pizza style, and stretched the dough even more. Our hungry crowd gathered round. 

There was some kind of heat source inside this nasty black, rusty-looking barrel because our cook draped the thin "crepe" over it with his rolling pin. He let it sit for a few minutes and then he flipped it over with the rolling pin. He repeated this several times until he deemed it done.

He told us it was roti, and he plunked it on a rough wooden table (if you could call it that) along with a plate of small dates which he said were harvested from the date palms at the oasis. We all helped ourselves to the flat bread by ripping off pieces. Flies had to be shooed away to get to the dates. 

Jeff is not an adventurous eater, so it is a testament to how hungry he was that he even ventured a taste. See how tentatively he's nibbling at it? The roti turned out to be quite good, and Jeff went back for seconds. He did, however, pass on the dates.

I wandered around and inspected the oases. Irrigation hose ran everywhere. In addition to the grove of date palms, there were several palm frond buildings, all of which were pretty primitive looking.

But..... there was a generator on the premises, and I spotted this A/C unit tucked into the wall of one of the huts. Doug said he spotted a TV dish too.  All the comforts, right?

One of the oasis caretakers had a small garden protected by a palm frond fence, and he ushered us all over to see it. He was clearly very proud of it.

I took this photo as we drove away. You can see the dune in the background that we drove down to reach the oasis. 

After our oasis visit we headed back across the desert and towards civilization. The Range Rovers intersected the highway at an ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company) petrol station where they stopped to add air to their tires. It was only a short drive from there to the city of Liwa and our lunch destination at the Liwa Hotell.

Even though it had been a day of mostly sitting, it was still nice to relax poolside for an hour before heading back home. Doug got his double-shot espresso.

So now I've seen a desert, and it was awesome.  I think that word is used so casually these days that it's lost it's true meaning and power. I almost hesitate to use it, but I can think of no better word. 

I told Jeff I still want to visit his California deserts because I know all deserts are not the same, not by a long shot. Rather than think "now I've done deserts", I am motivated more than ever to visit Joshua Tree or Palm Springs or the Mojave Desert. I would love to see what they're like - in what ways they're similar to the Empty Quarter and how they differ. 

I don't think I'd want to spend the rest of my life living in a desert region, but I surely do enjoy visiting them. 

1 comment:

  1. Please visit Desert safari in liwa which offers a full day desert tour with a personal driver who drives you into the desert and to Liwa.