Negotiating the patchwork of four-lane M4 impressions which masquerade as quiet backroads on maps of Dubai I just about succeeded in avoiding the worst of the the regions fearsome mega motorways and found a big but quiet dual carriageway heading generally south south east. Small roads just aren't in the transport vocabulary of the UAE.
Beyond my general direction of travel I had no plan or expectations as to where I might end up. So it was with a sense of incredulity that I found myself peddling beneath this
What the what?
This felt like an especially surreal discovery given that Dubai is about as far from a bicycle oriented city as one could hope to find.
Yet here, in this unassuming section of desert, I was confronted by:
A perfectly paved, perfectly empty bicycle path.
Scratching my head I consulted the map and couldn't for the life of me fathom where it went beyond into a vast nothingness but given I was going that way anyway I gladly hopped on and enjoyed hogging the empty lane.
Gathering rain clouds had me eyeing up places to pop my tent so I rolled off the path at a likely looking spot where a bench and gazebo-type-structure had been thoughtfully provided. I changed into my off-bike clothes and started preparing to prepare dinner when I noticed a lycra clad form on the horizon. I stepped out to say hello and the form slowed gracefully before, still clipped into its pedals, it proceeded to gently topple over. Jumping up and dusting himself down this vision in lyrca genially introduced himself as John, a chatty fifty-odd year old Glaswegian engineer who had acquired a slow puncture. We chatted as I helped him with the necessary repairs and he explained that 10k further up the path was a 'cycle city.' He would be returning there once he'd completed his lap and suggested I head up there so that we might share a coffee on his return.
A free drink and a place to sit? I was off to cycle city.
There she blows
No moat, turrets or murder holes but casa del velocepede did boast a bike shop, cafe and first aid building.
On John's return we sat down for coffee and he went one better and bought me a pizza and insisted on lending me his phone for a call home to mum and dad. Feeling thoroughly spoiled I listened to how this odd piece of cycling infrastructure came about.
The Crown Prince, noticing a small group of ex-pat cyclists riding along the road which leads to his stables, had his car stop to inquire what they were doing. When they explained, that with nowhere in Dubai to ride they frequently drove out here to get their peleton on, he nodded quietly then drove off enigmatically. A few months later voila; cycle city was born. I've never found Plato's arguments about the benefits of benevolent dictatorship convincing but perhaps I need to go back and re-read The Republic.
If I needed any further indication that I was sailing on a benevolent karmic wind it was provided when the security guard who approached me as I was erecting my tent, smiled broadly, and asked me whether I would rather sleep on a bed in the medical station. I made no effort to meet the gaze of this particular donation pony and enjoyed a comfortable nights kip.
And a dry one.
Refreshed after a night on the hospital bed I awoke to the weather yesterday had threatened. My first full day in the desert began with heavy rain.
I didn't rush and instead put my feet up in the cafe for a few hours waiting for it to calm. A friendly Emirati guy who seemed to get a kick out of my trip bought me breakfast which on top of John's earlier generosity had me feeling like a right charity case.
More like it
The weather might have been atypical but racing camels got me in the Lawrence mood.
An hours later it became clear that the weather hadn't receded and rain would soon again stop play. This really wasn't what I had been anticipating for my first few days in the Arabian desert. The rain's return coincided with me running out of alternative routes. There was nothing for it but to join motorway 66 which led, via Al Faqa, to Al Ain. Noisy traffic thundered passed as I wove my way along the soggy glass strewn hard shoulder.
Sometime after the heavens opened I squelched into a truck stop pleased to have an excuse to pull off the motorway and sat, not unhappily, on their veranda reading my kindle and sipping a coke. One chat with a couple of the truckers later and and I was offered a lift down the motorway.
نعم من فضلكYes please.
I hopped out a few k short of Al Ain and rode into this old oasis to investigate the springs which gives the UAE's fourth largest city its name.
The system of falaj, similar to the qanats I'd encountered in Yazd, irrigate wide stretches of farm and palm and are bisected by pleasantly shaded pathways. The abundance of vegetation has earned the sobriquet 'garden city' and while I didn’t see gardens per se it didn’t feel undeserved as I lazed in the shade with the early afternoon drifting by.
The need to move on intruded all too soon and brought with it an unanticipated complication; Confusing borders. I rejoined the main road heading south through the city and followed the signs for Oman. Not a controversial means of determining the best way to proceed one might have thought...
Arriving at a border control post I passed through with only a little difficulty and was relieved of some money. Apparently while you don't have to pay to enter the UAE you do have to pay as a tourist to leave overland. So with about $15 of bad taste in my mouth I passed out of the UAE and into Oman.
Or had I?
After peddling vigorously south for some ten minutes I reached another border which I took to be the Omani control. Oh contrair. It was explained to me that this was to re-enter the UAE and as I wasn't from a GCC (Gulf Cooperation something or other) state I couldn't pass through.
Essentially I had mistakenly crossed into Al-Buraimi, an Omani city enclave which which until 2006 shared an open border with Al-`Ain. The newly introduced passport controls meant I would have to cycle some 70k east to get Omani documentaton and then take a circuitous route back on myself to reach the westen side of the Al Hajar mountains.
Frustrated by the implacable border guards I had a ciggarrette before doubliong back to the original border control and set about pleading, cajoling and generally acting up to the eccentric English baffoon abroad persona; all the better to luck my way back across. Even reclaiming my $!5.
I did still have an exit stamp from the UAE and no return documentation was forthcoming but when has being an undocumented technically illegal visitor in a dictatorial arab state caused anyone grief?
With this thought at the back of my mind I thought it might be best to try and pass into Oman that day if possible. This time using the more useful and comprehensible border crossing at Al Dhahir some 15k south of the city centre.
Unfortunately the day had somewhat gotten away from me and as a result of my bureaucratic wranglings I found the sun setting as the border hoved into view.
Deciding that being a momentarily undocumented tourist was preferable to being a documented one with zero local currency in a new country after dark I stopped 200m short of the control point where a mosque (musallah?) was being built.
The structure consisted of a large open air gravel square with three sizeable domed arches/entrance ways. On the fourth side the symmetry was completed by a Mihrab(domed niche facing Mecca) incorporating a minbar(pulpit).
Above: Looking from the Mihrab to the opposite entrance.
Below: Home for the night. the nook behind the Minbar - the stairs for which you can just make out.
The half built, unloved, roadside result gave the impression of a deserted drive-in-movie theatre. That the suburban sprawl from Al Ain had yet to abate forced me to be open minded in my pursuit of a place to sleep. Closer investigation turned up a dumped, rather out of keeping, leather chaise longue-come-armchair. The conclusion I naturally reached was that this would make a great bed for the night and I drifted off to sleep hoping that the mosque had not yet been consecrated, or the Muslim equivalent, thus minimising any offence were I to be discovered.
Fortunately this hazy logic was not put to the test and I raced across the border the next day with the new day's sun still low in the sky. Of course you never really race across a border but rather scuff around waiting for paper to be pushed and fortunately it got pushed to the right place with nary a raised eyebrow at the incorrectly dated UAE exit stamp.
With the Rubʿ al Khali (Empty Quarter) spread out to my right and the broken lowland extremities of the Al Hajar mountain range to my left I charged south along the motorway. I was excited to be in Oman. Variously gleaned impressions from children’s books, games, history, news, even advertisements and of course Sinbad informed this.
Across the border was a landscape no different from the one I had left and yet utterly altered due to my crossing of an arbitary, fundamentally imaginary, line in the sand. The aggressive materialistic modernity of a Dubai and Abu Dhabi dominated UAE replaced by a more traditional, imperially flavoured, Oman with roots in centuries of dhows ploughing the sea lanes of the Arabian, East African and Southern Asian coasts. Oh course when I pull my head out of my arse and recall that no little part of the trade was based on slaves which compares unfavourably even with the modern indendured servitude of the workers in the UAE such impressions are revealed for the superficial foolishness that they are. But just because they are parochial, myopic and down right wrong doesn’t make them any less real. So it was with these romantic fallacies colouring my mood that I hoovered up the kilometers towards Ibri. Overtaken in turn by flashy American built SUV's carrying Emirati, clunking old trucks carrying camels and, more slowly, the creeping realisation that my expectations were little more than fantasy clouds waiting for the hot desert wind of reality to blow them away.
It was an epic day in which the flat monotony of landscape and paucity of stopping points combined with a growing need to get off this damn motorway saw me cover over 100 miles.
The other reason for my haste was that there had been no money changing services at the border crossing. So until I hit Ibri I was without rials. Not a big deal really given my needs are minimal and emergency yanky dollars would get me out of any jams but there's no denying that I feel more relaxed with a bit of local lucre on board.
Ibri reached and money changed I swung east towards Ad Dariz. From here I had strung together a hypothetical route which would finally allow me to keep as far from busy roads as possible, and would string together the regions Unesco sites.
Things begin promisingly when this young lad showed me a Bradnt's Hedgehog!
Day's end approaching I rolled along my chosen back road where the Omani's motorists made up for their lack of numbers by droving very quickly. Making hay while the sun shone it turned out as just a few short kilometres along the tarmac terminated abruptly. So too did my day as I closed in on the remains of a 5000 year old necropolis known as the Bat Tombs. Locating it more exactly was proving a little tricky when I lucked into a couple of American archeologists who kindly pointed me in the right direction. I was initially stymied by a fence which had been erected around the site but naughtily refused this rebuff by taking myself and bike inside via an unfenced wadi. Keeping myself to obviously well walked tracks I picked my way to the highest tomb.
I couldn't really make sense of the archeology. Were these structures recreations or cleaned up? They certainly didnt look to have the advertised antiquity.
Still, it made for a very pleasing spot from which to watch the sunset.
The geology was amazing though. This rocky mountain area is incredibly diverse evidencing a rock record which spans about 825 million years during which time it has experienced two periods of glaciation and has been submerged beneath oceans. The result is a rocky environment full of subtle and varied colours.
I decided to make camp for the night on the small plain beneath the outcrop albeit still within the archeology sites fence. Keen not to advertise my presence I kept the torch off and instead sat quietly in a natural nook listening to the music of the wind in the dark and eating flat bread and goats cheese. As I sat half the local village seemed to cut across the site on their evenings errands making me feel less guilty about my own trespass. Sitting in the dark with people walking by within metres but unaware of my presence was an oddly thrilling experience. Suddenly, safely shrouded in darkness, literary cliches suddenly made sense. Not vulnerable; but safe in the dark.
A windy, dusty, morning cup of tea before putting down the tent.
Yesterdays end to the tarmac ensured a tough but ultimately rewarding days riding.
Though as the gravel deepened I did have a brief concern that I wouldn’t make it out.
But it didn't last and after an hour or so of mainly pushing the surface began to improve while the mountains proper approached.
The decreasingly distant peaks were the appropriately named Al Hajar(stone) mountain range.
Company was to be had from wandering camels.
The road was otherwise deserted. The surroundings, while barren, were pleasing. Sparse but green vegetation and the occasionally very welcome stand of trees under which to take a break.
In the shade of just such an acacia I met a young camel herder who it turned out was keen to borrow some water. Well stocked, nearing a settlement and delighted to have a chance to, in some small way, return the numerous favours I have benefited from on my trip; I sent him on his way with a couple of litres.
I found the landscape increasingly beautiful as the imposing Jebel Misht began to dominate. It's jutting profile my constant companion that day.
I pulled into a small village that I believe to have been Al Ayn. Even here in this relative isolation I found the Omani architectural preference for palatial style compounds behind shinning gates in evidence.
The two other touchstones I was coming to expect of Omansi villages were goats and football.
Surprises abounded as I continued along my way and found myself fording an overflowing river who had broken her dusty banks. Frogs hopping, tiny fish nibbling, dragonflies swooping; life.
This exuberant result of the recent rains got me to thinking about what on earth these fish and frogs are doing while the Wadis lie parched and desiccated. A clever lifecycle no doubt but talking with locals it appears these rains make an appearance as much as five times a winter. Meaning that although the region remains desert it has a high average rainfall of 12mm per year allowing the green tinge noted in the name Jabal Akdar - or green mountains which lie a little way south.
These periodic downpours do also pose a danger. Wadi bashing, driving 4x4's up dry river beds, is a popular form of recreation across the region. When unexpected rains come it can quickly turn into something more dangerous. It also means campers like myself have to be cautious about sleeping in Wadi's lest we wake to find a torrent running through our beds. I experienced something similar at an early 2000's Glastonbury and with no desire to repeat it I gave the Wadi's a wide berth when choosing places to pitch.
Midday arrived and so did the main event.
The beehive tombs near Al Hamra speckling the ridge line.
The purpose of the structures is presumed to be for burial but the truth is no remains have ever been found. While similar younger structures have been found across the near east and the mediteranean Oman's are the oldest. These are remanants of a flourishing iron age civilisation known as Magan which benefited from much higher levels of precipitation, productive copper mines and the trade in Frankinsense.
The rocks themselves used in the construction vied for my attention with the structures and stunning views. Smooth and cracked they form delightful natural mosaics.
Having lingered longer than I should on the jagged rock imposing massif.
Looking back. Goats foreground. Mountain background. classic.
From here I began to climb in earnest along well tarmacked roads under the hot desert sun as the breeze deserted me.
This paragraph stands as a memorial to a lost picture of the view from the approach to the high plateau. I accidentally deleted it while writing this throwing me into paroxysms of despair.
Having acquired the heights I stopped at an oddly situated metal working shop where they allowed me to charge my phone while Egyptian Vultures circled above.
I briefly considered begging a spot to sleep from the workers but eventually pushed on my following a tough gravel track which took me broadly south east and up towards a further ridge-line. It required much pushing.
Entering a steeply sided valley I continued on until dusk before simply rolling the bike behind a roadside boulder, laying down my tarp and sleeping mat, and falling asleep under a date tree just metres from the quiet road.
The next morning the tough gravel road continued with many steep ups and downs which were tough on my poor bike.
Soon however I reconnected with tarmac. As I did so I happened upon three young lads poking at an old bmx. Stopping I helped them refit the chain which had jumped loose and was rewarded with big smiles, surprisingly good English and an invitation for tea at their house.
I happily agreed and was only a little perturbed on discovering that their parents were out and so my host, the eldest, was to be the 11 year old before me. While they laid out dates and chi we discussed how they would use their bikes to ride into the hills to check on the goats their families kept and I showed them my route so far.
I could have happily lounged on the carpets all day as the boys were great fun, talking over each other in their eagerness to explain their opinions on school, Oman and Apple products.
But eventually I had to move on as otherwise it looked dangerously like I would be invited to stay for lunch and dinner and beyond.
Despite my best laid plans I missed Wadi Ghul, Oman's equivalent of the Grand Canyon, by taking a wrong turning. When I realised I was disappointed but the region is so full of beautiful scenery and interesting history that I didn’t truly feel the loss.
Football pitches continued to dot the hillsides as did beautiful stone villages adjoining lush oasis.
As I flowed out of the mountains I found myself on what looked suspiciously like an Omani bicycle path - though my lack of arabic prevented confirmation. The generously provided bench was enough to have me jumping for joy. As I have said before there are few more civilised practices than providing outdoor seating for those that might desire it. [Drinking fountains, rights to free camp and open wifi complete my list.]
At the next village I stopped for a cup of tea and the friendly proprietor recommended I visit Misfat; a nearby village famous for its irrigation system.
It was a long hard climb up the valley side but what else does a feckless cyclist have to do with his days?
The reward was well worth it. Straddling a palm laden gorge hidden from the adjacent valley Misfat claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited place in Oman.
Her history stretches back some 4000 years. Through-out that period the life blood of the village has been its walled irrigation system. The brick channels carry the cool clear water down the mountainside along a dizzying profusion of possible routes. Bunched fabrics are used as temporary dams to change the course. The importance the water flow has on the prosperity of the farmers means that the person who directs the flow has huge influence and must weigh and manage the competing claims to the water.
Sitting with my feet cooling in the clear water with various dune inspired musing running through my head I was joined by a tour group led by this friendly chap.
Leaving Misfat - About to enjoy my downhill reward for my earlier tough climb.
Having floated around Misfat's heavenly heights I now aimed to plum the regions subterranean depths.
A first glimpse of the Al Hoota Cave mouth
My map showed and intriguing cave complex at the foot of Jebal Shams. My offline wikipedia confirmed that a large initial cave some half a kilometre in length was easily accessible without expert equipment.
Alas since mid 2000 it turns out that the cave has been turned into a tourist attraction complete with electric train, hotel, fences and security guards. Even more galling it was closed and had been for about a year. Arriving at the gates to find this I attempted to negotiate with the guards by explaining that I wasn't looking for a guided tour but just wanted to see inside the cave mouth. Nothing doing. I was joined in this conversation by a film crew from the UAE keen to get some footage of the caves. Nothing doing.
The film crew made the best of a bad situation by interviewing me about my trip before driving off into the sunset.
I can only imagine their disappointment at the trade down.
I was less easily deterred and worked my way along the boundary fence towards the mountain and as expected it did not completely ring the site. Having gained access I scrambled up and down scree before emerging onto the raised track where the electric train presumably used to run visitors to the cave mouth.
Feeling ever so pleased with myself I continued along only to find my way barred.
barred but not bested I climbed up and over the doorway hoping to edge my way around to the opening I had seen from a distance.
Looking back down at the train track
I made it a good long way up and managed to find some small holes to peer through with the aid of my torch but couldn’t reach a man sized entrance.
Feeling like I had at least given it a good go I retraced my steps past impressive quartz blocks and emerged into the main compound much to the surprise of the security guards. I asked if they might be a dear and open the gate so I wouldn’t have to walk around and, showing creditable good humour, they did so with a smile.
All this messing about had seen the day get away from me and so I rode only a 10k or so further up the road before spying a side track. where I began looking for a place to camp. Instead stumbled upon two Omani blokes who had just driven up and stopped to drink there way through a case of Carling. Alcohol being frowned upon their discretion was understandable and they were feindly enough fellows - inviting me to sit with them and share a bevvy or two. In return I offered around a bag of chips and we passed the early evening pleasantly enough. However I didn’t enjoy their littering and while I understand that for Omani men in the countryside walking a few metres then hoiking up their dishdasha to take a crap is par for the course. This habit didn't make me particularly inclined to stick around when they suggested we have a bbq.
Rather than a picture of that heres a picture of some tree climbing goats
As I did so I met a a cheery goat herd of perhaps twenty five who spoke impeccable English. After shooting the breeze for a while he invited me for coffee, orange juice and dates and offered to show me a good place nearby to camp.
Sitting peacefully in the cleared circle chatting and eating as curious goats
circled for a closer look I was very content with my choice to eschew the earlier invitation from the gruff, diaretic, beer swilling, possibly homosexual, barbequers.
The next day I woke early and after a quick farewell to my goat herd neighbour I was underway. Before too long I reached Tanuf.
The town was a ruin having being utterly destroyed by the British bombers at the request of the Muscat based Sultan during the 1950's uprising.
I pottered around the ruins trying to work out what each building might have been without much success before walking up the mountainside behind it to bathe in the water pools near the source of the Wadi.
Well refreshed it was time to push on to Nizwa.
Dominated by its central fort Nizwa is a green city full of palms and dates and is the ancient capital of 'Oman proper' or inland Oman.
A few hours were happily wiled away looking at cannon and murder holes
before I was distracted by my favourite new pass time - looking at interesting doors.
Hurrah! I'm not the only one as this information board shows.
I said farewell to Nizwa sooner than I would like and rejoined the main road for the cycle to Muscat.
These friendly traditional dancers gave me a grand farewell but my thoughts were elsewhere. Muscat and the sea beckoned. And so as it turned out did the future direction of my tour which was soon to be decided. I was about to come face-to-face with the Indian ocean and the failure of my southern gambit.