I always have to go to the furthest point and this one had been on the to-do list for a long while. It’s a long drive and there has always been some other exploration to take preference.
Finally got the chance to go this weekend on a drive through for the marshals of the 2016 Gulf News Fun Drive, an annual event run by the Gulf News. Anyone marshalling has to know the route, so run throughs are always part of the build up to the event. As its still in the future, and the route isn’t published prior to the event, no detail will be given until after the event. Suffice to say its a location in the Western region, and just some photographs to show the stunning desert area.
Instead of making the journey back to Dubai , it was an opportunity to take the south-eastern connection from Hamim at the eastern edge of the Liwa crescent to Al Ain, an area I haven’t explored before.
Taking the road behind Qasr Al Sarab desert hotel, the road runs through the dunes that are an overspill from Saudi Arabia’s north-eastern part of the empty quarter. This desert area is magical, traveling in the hours before sunrise, the light throws shadows and patterns across the vast heights of the dunes and it truly is a desert wilderness.
About 15k south of Qasr, the tarmac road will lead you to the Saudi border fence and eventually the road disappears in the vast dunes.
Turning left onto sand tracks, there is a wide and well used track, but 4WD is necessary to cover this section as drifting sand has covered any blacktop that was once there and there are some fairly steep climbs. The road runs along the Saudi border, but dune ranges are between the road and the border fence. The track undulates over crests and down into vast valleys of sabhka plains. To the left the whole road is fenced off from the track. This region is a protected area for the Arabian oryx and access for most of the route is only via small tracks, with a gatehouse and some poor, usually third world immigrant souls who live their lives out here in this vast desert area, allowing access to the interior.There is nothing here, except dunes, dunes and more dunes. No phone signal in this wilderness either.
Eventually the sand tracks turn to a fairly new tarmac road. Discovering a huge Adnoc base camp a couple of km further on seemed to be the reason why road investment in this forlorn area had been made. Passing by the camp at sunset on Friday, the holy day and weekend day, many men lined the sides of the road, chatting, sitting, walking, jogging … it must be a very lonely existence based here, Al Ain is a 3+hour drive away, the nearest metropolis. A mosque and clinic were established on the top of one of the dunes, buses full of workers returning from somewhere after their day’s break, were heading back to the remote camp. Back into phone signal land.
As it was now dusk, finding a camping place, far enough away from the road to not cause attention: it’s a singularly male environment down here and a location that wasn’t too close to the Saudi border to warrant attention from any border patrols. A small track to the south appeared, up and over the rise and a sabkha plain protected by dunes appeared. Ideal, tent up, barbecue on, chairs out, Kerama Uggs on for toasty warm feet and an evening spent in utter solitude.
Not a sound, no light pollution, just clear views of the crescent moon and milky way with the mammoth dunes surrounding the campsite as a backdrop. Bliss, temperature dropping but warmed by the fire. Unable to buy wood in advance, the hope was to find some discarded pallet at entrances to the fenced part of the desert. There are no trees out here, no wood at all. As each kilometre was achieved, the prospect of wood was becoming more remote…finally at the tarmac rejoin, a huge pile of discarded rubbish was found, probably shifted when the road construction was under way. Enough was found for the fire, so piled into the back for the bonfire.
The fire was needed, the temperature was plummeting fast and once the banger buns and liquid refreshment were consumed, always a standard camping fare, gives a little frissom of bypassing the system, especially given the proximity of our neighbouring kingdom, it was 13 degrees, dropping and time for sleeps.
Totally undisturbed by any sound whatsoever, a perfect sleep was achieved and as the dawn broke, coffee simmering on the little burner, the colours cast by the rising sun hitting the steep dune faces around the camp made a magnificent start to the day.
Camp packed, time to head further on the down the track to see how far the Saudi border was. At the top of the first rise, the view across the dunes and plain showed us it was around 5km away. Best not to go any closer, radar protects the border area and I didn’t want to be singled out as hotspot in this remote place. Also at the top of the rise, an area full of … discarded pallets… enough wood to last a week, but too late the morning after… never mind, point of pallet recorded on GPS if this journey is ever repeated.
Time to hit the road.. Again the desert is fenced in to the left, environmental protection and oil exploration camps are the raison d’être in this lonely place. A sharp left turn towards the north-east and the road becomes slightly more busy, well, a truck or two and some of those massive behemoths hauling diggers, pipes and all the giant paraphernalia necessary to drill for the black gold, even though the price is dropping and fossil fuels are on the way out.
Finally the border triangle was reached, the Saudi, Oman and UAE borders converge and there is a UAE Army post situated at the highest point of the road. Putting away my camera, we passed the post only to realise it is abandoned. A large plain runs across below and the radar posts of all the borders are visible, high on distant dunes. The road now turns away from the Kingdom and runs parallel to the Oman border until Al Ain.
The only town on this route, Al Wagan was growing closer and with it the camel and goat farms intensified in the sabhka plains between the dune ridges. Two men were laying a dead goat by the roadside and further along the road another one lay by the road. I can only assume there was to be a roadside dead goat collection at some stage during the day.
Al Wagan is a large town, and here the date farms start, bordering the road all the way to Al Ain. Hundreds upon hundreds of acres of date palms, an incongruous green bordering the road in this stark area, adding their own beauty to the stark desert landscape.
On the final stretch the road runs towards Jebel Hafeet, a limestone mountain outcrop in the midst of the flat central plain. Jebel Hafeet has an amazing road constructed to the top, for someone’s villa access, and it is a public road, worth the drive up, to experience it and check out the views. There is also a hotel perched high over the road.
A quick stop to check out Sijya fort, right on the border fence. No development on the Omani side of the border here, the dunes undulating endlessly across the horizon. Greeted warmly by the custodian, invited for chai, but with my cappuccino waiting in the car (from the first ADNOC petrol station discovered 2kms back, a priority fuel, loo and coffee stop) we declined. Its a lonely little place, I wonder how many people pass by in his day.He was very proud of his coat, not often worn I expect, as temperatures here travel up to 50 degrees C in the long hot summers.
Finally Al Ain , the Oasis city of the UAE. Beautifully kept with wide tree-lined boulevards, it’s always a wonder which way the GPS will direct us through this directionally confusing city. This time it kept it simple and fast, out through the city and it’s suburbs, onto the E66 back to Dubai. Another point ticked off, and a chance to experience some magnificent landscapes and enjoy the solitude of this region.
Route Information https://goo.gl/maps/VaEjVQFPLXq
Dubai to Hameem : E11 past Abu Dhabi and Mafraq, hit the new roundabout as big as Wales and as indecipherable, cross your fingers and hope you are going to plop out on the right road, then onto the E65 down to Hameem. Great parathas served at the Al Fathiya ADNOC at N23 39.083 E54 24.057, ask for spicy! – but my recommendation, take everything you desire with you.
Hameem to Al Ain : Take the U turn just past the Hameem ADNOC petrol station on your left, head back towards ADNOC and take the first turning on the right. This road leads past the back entrance of Qasr al Sarab, continue along this tarmac road until Google maps ref N22 44.909 E54 23.802.
Take a left turn onto a well-defined sand track. Sand track until N22 43.392 E54 38.181.
Tarmac re-appears and the road is named as Al-Qua’a to Um Al-Zamool Rd.
Camping spot at N22 40.814 E55 00.498, neatly tucked away at the bottom of the dune
Return to Al-Qua’a- Um Al-Zamool Rd and continue to Al Ain, 2hours 45 minutes.
No shops after Hameem and there’s not much to be found in Hameem, nearest wood for camping, kindly directed towards Liwa, another 95 km in the wrong direction …. Basic supplies such as water plus typical petrol station food can be found in petrol stations along the route. After Hameem ADNOC petrol station, on this route the next petrol is at Al Wagan.
Travelled as one car, with desert driving experience. I am doubtful about recommending this as a solo route, given the condition of the sand tracks after leaving the Qasr Al Sarab road. There are no villages, no phone signal on the sand track stretch, so, unless highly experienced I would recommend not travelling alone, just in case, it could be a long hot wait….