Weekend Wandering the Desert

A beach but the tide is out

Before it gets too hot we wanted to take Jeanie Jeep on a desert camping expedition. Friday dawned windy but undetered we drove down the E11 towards Abu Dhabi (AD) and beyond with Jeanie’s sand-wake streaming out behind us. Somewhere near Tarif to the west of AD we realised we could indulge in a spot of Geocaching to liven up our morning’s meandering (for those uninitiated in this slightly crazy nerdie/techie sport click here). We headed off the highway for Al Mirfa a little fishing port west of AD.  Having failed dismally through the illegibility of the clue we cheered up with the realisation that there were more caches not far away to seek out. Previously with the help of a friend we had uploaded the coordinates of most of caches in the UAE to our GPS so instrument in hand we headed off for the Salt Mine further west along the coast.

Jeanie Jeep’s wake captured in the rearview mirror

Things can change a lot here in quite short time frames so we suspect that the Salt Mine cache is now submerged under a bund. But whilst looking at the GPS, our copy of the UAE Offroad Handbook and a very tatty road map we did finally decide on our weekend destination – to head south towards Liwa.

The Empty Quarter or Rub al Khali, is not called so lightly and even modern life has made little impact on this part of the world – miles and miles of sand with an occasional road or line of pylons and the odd oil well head. This is the world’s largest sand desert stretching across several countries. For the most part this corner of the UAE is truely “empty” with little traffic and a few camels. The camels struck us as different somehow, then we realised their hides were so dark as to be almost black not “camel” – do you get different breeds like you get breeds of cows or sheep?  No idea.

Camping Emirati style

After driving for much of the day with one more stop to hunt fruitlessly for a roadside geocache we reached the great Liwa Oasis and promptly turned right, away from it, heading for Arada to the west. Sucess at last! We logged a find of the “Desert Rally Special Stage Three” cache. This was especially nice as it is one deposited by our lovely friends Ged and Leslie (who’d got us hooked on this activity) and had been reported as being in disrepair. We can report it was safe and sound, with a good bit of duck tape holding the box together.

The silvery “lake” at the foot of the dunes is Sabkha

Retracing our steps we finally entered the western end of the Oasis, a series of valleys in the sand that have sufficient water to turn them into green marvels growing much of the local vegetables we buy. Each valley has its own little community with the central Oasis town of Meziera’a having shops and important offices like the municipality and the police etc. A few miles or rather kilometers as that is the measurement used here, just short of Meziera’a, in Qatuf we turned south again onto the Moreeb road. Over the sand hills, down past the industrial area and up into the desert. The scenery is spectacular, undisturbed reddish sand – the boy racers from AD and Dubai with their 4x4s ands quad bikes don’t often make it here – and silvery grey deep valleys where the sabkha (Arabic for salt flat) is revealed. The latter is where the water table lies close to the surface and the moisture is drawn up by capillary action only to evaporate in the scorching heat leaving deposits of salts and gypsum (is gypsum a salt…), hence the colour. Drive on it at your own risk as the surface is easily broken and a vehicle can quickly find itself deep in the underlying quagmire and the end will be grisely.

Camping just off the road

We found a suitable flattish area of sand for our camp not too far from the road as being lazy we didn’t want to deflate the tyres and being only one car it’s not sensible to venture too far onto the sand anyway. It was a great spot and once the desert safaris, the camel herder on his quad bike and the last of the workers buses (from where?) had driven north towards Liwa we were alone, just us, a BBQ supper and the stars. If you think the desert is truely deserted then think again. Lots of plants, small lizards, a few snakes, scorpions, some flies and the odd gazelle live out in the grueling heat though there were few trees here unlike the landscape around Dubai. Once the sun goes down the sand surface rapidly cools and we found ourselves shuffling our feet down under the surface to warm them!

A night time visitor left tracks around Jeanie Jeep’s tyres

03:30am, dark, even the moon has gone and we are woken by the noise of a heavy engine – raising our heads and slightly worried for our safety as it sounded very very close (could we be mown down in the dark?) we spotted a lowloader toiling up the hill on the road towards the oasis! In the morning unusually we weren’t woken by sunrise and it was almost seven when Kevin made our respective morning mugs of coffee and tea using water from the thermos filled the night before – we practise a very civilised form of camping. During the night we’d had several visitors, one small lizard had made a through inspection of our bages lying in the the front part of our tent before making his way under the sleeping section. We discovered him, sand coloured but almost translucent when striking the tent after beakfast! He was so desparate for shelter from the by now scorching sun that he kept climbing into the folds of fabric as we made ready to pack the tent away. Eventually Kevin scooped the hapless lizard up and took him for a walk to some nearby low succulents.

At the foot of Moreeb Hill (aka Scary Mountain)

At the end of the road was Moreeb (or Mureb*) Hill at 210 metres top to bottom is probably the tallest dune in the UAE, its peak is around 300 metres measured from sea level. The long steep side rising up at an angle of around 50 degrees makes it an ideal location for a uniquely Arab sport – drag hill climbing. At the base are the makings of a large show ground purely there to support national and international events that are regularly held here. On a Saturday morning in April the only other person present was a gardener patiently driving a tractor mower around a huge expanse of grass. We drove through an open gate to the very foot of the dune and looked up in awe. Too lazy again to deflate the tyres and so make a climb attempt ourselves (we should invest in a new compressor that will inflate them faster than 20 mins per wheel) Jeanie Jeep and the skipper posed for a photo, another cache bagged.

Wind swept sand looks like waves

Greenhouses,  Liwa Oasis
Jeanie Jeep somewhere enroute to Al Ain

The only other route out of the Moreeb area is across the restricted area of the oil and gas fields, so after a quick recce from the top of the hill opposite Moreeb, we retraced our steps once more to the main road through the Oasis. A brief pit stop at the shops in Mezaira’a enabled us to stock up on bottled water then we headed east towards Hamin. The Off Road Guide mentioned a track to Al Ain which is a major city some 200 kilometres away – we fancied taking it as our main morning activity! It is I hasten to add, not unsurfaced all the way,  over recent years oil and gas exploration have gradually extended the tamac of the E95 down from Al Ain following the route of the ancient track so we hoped to link up with it long before we reached a police post positioned in Umm Azzimul close to the point where the UAE borders with both Saudi and Oman meet. It was a long and interesting morning that shall remain slightly veiled, suffice to say we missed somewhere a left turn and found ourselves busy with GPS and map trying to get our bearings just a few metres from Saudi. I will mention though that there is a handy stretch of tarmac along a lengthy unscalable fence watched over by camera towers and that the guy driving a water bowser in army camoflage gave us a cheery wave when he passed! According to both GPS chart and our map we were somewhere in the desert probably not in Saudi. Eventually we came across our Al Ain track again. This time busy with construction lorries but handily a strip of fine quality blacktop has been laid parallel with it, an as yet unopened extension of the E95. It was easy to get onto and relieved that as yet we hadn’t been arrested we sped northwards even managing not to be stopped at the road block by the police post.

A new meaning to the term “Road Hogs”

The one problem with new roads here is that someone eventually wants to widen them. By the time we reached the towns 100k or so south of Al Ain our route had become a major highway with little traffic except ourselves. We were temporarily held up in one village by two lorry drivers who occupied both lanes whilst they shouted friendly greetings at each other which then developed into a lengthy conversation as we all traversed the vicious sleeping policemen laid to slow down traffic through an area built up on both sides of the road. The pale camel coloured camel in the back of the truck regarded us inquisitively, we and the water bowser to his left were probably the only other vehicles he’d seen since being loaded onto the truck. On our route north the “camel fences” designed to keep the eponymous animal from being harmed by speeding vehicles were, on our right hand side almost one with the UAE/Oman border fence. Just a sliver of culivated land tracked between the road and the border on the UAE side all the way to Al Ain.

After a roadside lunch amongst the irrigated date palm lined fields, we eventually spotted the rocky heights of Jebel Hafeet rising up through the murky dust ahead of us. This outcrop of rock when approached from the south looks like a sleeping dragon sprawled across the flat desert. The mountains of Oman are some distance away and this sole pinky grey fold in the Earth’s crust has a mystical appearance rising up as it does to over 1000 metres almost straight from the ground.

From just south of Al Ain we picked our way via older roads across the flat lands of the AD Emirate towards home. By now we can pick out the differences in the desert landscape – it’s not all sand and each Emirate has different features. Soon the more rolling sands of Dubai were up on us as was the traffic on the truck road (lorries can’t overtake so these giants form lengthy “trains” transporting all manner of goods across the GCC). We found these towering trucks were well mannered and drove mostly in the hard shoulder of the two lane road enabling pickups and cars to pass through the corridor between the opposing lines of traffic. Gaps left between the groups of lorries formed refuges for when there were oncoming cars and everyone seemed to be happy, waving thank-you’s for pulling over. The first garage we tried for fuel had a queue of tens of lorries but only stocked diesel and the second had such a long queue reaching far back down the road that we felt it rude to push in so we drove past the queue into the garage checking to see if there were sepearate pumps for cars, there weren’t so we headed back onto the road again. In this oil rich nation its never far to the next pump as long as you are on a highway so Jeanie Jeep was topped up shortly after reaching home territory whilst we treated ourselves to an ice cream each (on a stick, in a wrapper, in a sturdy box – overkill I’d say).

We covered over a 1,000k in two days (petrol is cheap here fortunately), done a bit of light walking whilst hunting down some geocaches, had fun camping on the warm sand and seen some amazing sights – all in all a good wander!


* Place names can cause a bit of a navigational headache as Arabic is foremost a spoken language so any transliteration into English can result in multiple spellings of the same name, even on sucessive signposts to the same town! My tip is to say it aloud and then check to see if the signpost or map label sounds similar when you say that. If it does it is probably the same place! However I might be wrong; the settlements in the Liwa Oasis appeared along our route in a different order to that indicated by the GPS or our UAE map so be wary when looking for a place or a street here.