When the temperatures rise one place that is theoretically cooler in the UAE Pennisula are the mountains, I say theoretically because last Saturday we experienced temperatures over 45° C at several thousand feet above sea level. The Al Hajar al Gharbi (Western Al Hajar) Mountains, rise in places to 2,500 metres and separate the eastern Al Batinah coast in Fujairah from the rest of the UAE. From the mountainous Musandam Peninsula the Al Hajars extend southeastward for about 150 kms to the southernmost UAE-Oman border on the Gulf of Oman. The range actually continues well into Oman reaching the across the country towards its eastern coast but is known by other names.
In this hot arid zone the mountains are where it rains the most, as much as three times the amount that falls elsewhere in the UAE ie around 13 inches in a year. The locals over many hundreds of years have become expert at capturing these rains in deep well-like cisterns or behind dams in valley bottoms and using the water over the coming months for agriculture. The ancient irrigation system of falaj mean the narrow valley bottoms are quite green and shady whilst the bare pinkish rock of the mountain tops is usually high enough to catch cooling breezes off the sea. A network of tracks has for the most part not been subjected to tarmac though modern roads have been and are being pushed through to the larger villages while towns like Dibba and Masafi have dual carriageways connecting them to the cities on the west coast.
As you drive north east to the mountains from Dubai via the lovely town of Al Dhaid with its rows of shops lining the streets (not a western brand or chain in sight) the rocks suddenly push up from the flatish dunes like teeth bursting through the surface of the Earth. If it’s windy and dust fills the air then you don’t see the mountains until you are almost upon them. There is nothing old and worn about these pinnacles of rock, their sharp, ragged shapes are hewn by the forces that thrust them up, while the wind has served only to hone and striate the surfaces further. Ice and water have had little part to play in their formation.
Once off the tarmac a four wheel drive is essential although you might see the occasional low slung saloon driven cautiously by a local heading for the nearest road. Expats and locals alike love “wadi bashing” – driving a 4×4 over the rough tracks originally created for and by donkeys and human feet. Winding up along the dried river bed to its source then snaking up the moutainside to the pass and finding another wadi down toward the sea. At times the rushing water has carved out deep corkscrew-like canyons so that you can drive a couple of kilometres yet only be a few hundred metres further on. At other times a series of hairpin bends with scary drops haul you out of one watercourse to the mountain tops where amazing vistas open up. The driving is extremely rough and bumpy, sometimes even Jeanie Jeep struggles to find a smooth enough surface to follow but the rewards are worth it. Tiny green plots filled with grass or sweetcorn at this time of the year shaded by ficus or palms then vast views over rocky tops populated only by a few birds and pylons.
It’s not a hospitable place (though the locals are extremely friendly), you need to take plenty of water, fuel and something to sit on (rocks are hot) but the effort is worth it. As you drive through places like Wadi Tayyibah it’s difficult to reconcile that the villagers with their dependence on water for the sucess of their small farms, live within an hours drive of a city with some of the most excessive, crazy life styles anywhere on the planet. So before the tarmac reaches much more of this amazing corner of our world it’s worth taking a peek at a place and a way of life that harks back to an age before jet planes, motorcars and sealed roads.