December 15, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 8: Dubai Desert

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This was my last full day in Dubai, and I was going to be out pretty much all day. Hans came to pick me up at 10am (instead of 8am as originally scheduled) for the drive to Hatta. Today he was slightly better at conversation, so that there wasn't total silence in the car like the other day.

As we leave the Grand Hyatt, we drive past the vast wetland reserve that is Al Khor, a WWF-administered reserve full of migratory birds. I had wanted to visit the reserve, but couldn't because of scheduing conflicts. As we drive past, I see hundreds of flamingos on the water of the creek. Would have been nice to have been inside with my telephoto.

We drive on the highway past the sand dunes that we would visit in the afternoon. After about an hour or so, we come to the small town of Hatta. Our first stop is the Hatta Heritage Village -you know it's a stupid tourist trap just looking at the name... Anyway, we walk around the compound, which showcases traditional housing elements such as a mini fort, majlis, barasti...etc. There are displays inside some of the rooms showing traditional way of life. They even have a small date plantation and you can climb up one of the two watchtowers. In general it's a bit of a waste, and we leave to continue to the mountains.

We drive out out to the mountains, but unfortunately the landscape is very similar to that of Oman. I guess I shouldn't be surprised at this, since this is just the western end of the Hajar Mountains. Maybe I had OD'd on this landscape, but I found myself completely uninterested to take any pictures of this area.

At one point Hans stopped the Hummer, and we got out to look at the "rock pools" which I read about in guide books. I was utterly disappointed. I was expecting large, deep pools of water similar to the Bimmah Sinkhole in Oman. Instead it was just a mini canyon carved into the rocks, and there was very little water. I don't even know why it's considered an attraction.

I wanted to go deeper into the mountains to look for better wadis, since I was told by a group of French tourists that they had seen some beautiful sights coming from the other direction. I ask Hans to drive on, and he grudgingly obliges. Unfortunately we drive only a little further and I finally give up on trying to see something prettier. I suspect that the wadis here are nowhere near as pretty as the ones I saw in Oman. The only good thing that came out of this detour is that I saw a beautiful bird with bright multi-hued blue feathers. Should have stopped to take pictures with my 300mm.

We turn around and Hans drops me off at the Hatta Fort Hotel - the only place to stay in town - for a quick lunch at Cafe Gazebo overlooking the pool. Absolutely nothing to write home about, but this is where the expats come for a weekend getaway.

We drive back towards Big Red, the area where people go for dune buggy and dune bashing. We park and wait for another Hummer from the same tour operator to join us. A mother from South Africa joins us along with her son and camera-toting daughter. After Hans releases some air from the tires, we set off on my first dune bashing.

We drive over numerous large and small dunes, zigzagging our way through the red sand. After a while, we stop on top of a large dune and take in the vista. A few other 4x4s are parked close to us, and some of the tourists try their hand at driving up the dunes. One particular driver in a small vehicle kept failing to get up to the top, and the lot of us sit around watching him gun the engine time and again...

We move to the top of another dune, and get out and try our hand at sandboarding. I get onto a snowboard, and down I go, pretending to know what I'm doing while desperately trying to balance myself. I'm doing pretty well as I start, getting about halfway down the slope. All of a sudden, something happened and the next thing I knew, I flipped over, landed on my head, and tumble down the dune. As I overcame my shock and got up, I realized that there was sand everywhere - all over my face, in my hair (down to the scalp and roots), in my ear, nose and mouth! I try to climb up the slope with the board, but it's a hard climb as I don't have a firm footing. I am absolutely winded by the time I'm back up to the top.

I sit out while the mom and kids from the other car try it a few more times. It was time to go to the tourist camp for our dinner. Along the way we stop and watch the sunset, but the surrounding isn't great so my camera stays in the bag.

The camp is very touristy, giving people an opportunity to ride camels, have henna painted, take pictures with a falcon, get photographed in native dress...etc. I wasn't interested in any of these, so I get a taste of an Arabic dessert and sample the aromatic Arabic coffee. Since it was still some time until dinner was served, I sit down to smoke some apple-flavored shisha. Not sure why, but I needed a lot of effort to draw the smoke out of the pipe. But it was very enjoyable.

We were seated around a stage area for our dinner, which consisted of BBQ as well as cold mezzes and curries. When we were almost done, the bellydancing show started. I wasn't sure if our dancer really was from the Middle East - she could be Russian for all I know - but I gave her the benefit of the doubt. The reality was that she wasn't very good, but lots of people (including me) still took out our cameras to snap pictures.

Dinner is over at 8pm, and we begin our drive back to the city. While it's very touristy, an open-air dinner under the stars in the desert was a fitting end to my tour to Arabia.

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