An unexpected day in Al Ain. 25 years ago, Anne and I packed our bags, and our children, and headed for an adventure in the tropics. Perhaps this was the start for a couple on the run? I’d taken a job in Papua New Guinea, and it was there, in Lae, where we met Geraldine. She was lecturing at UniTech, the same university where Anne had secured a job, and we became friends.
Much has changed in the 25 years since we last saw Geraldine. We are all older, greyer, and hopefully wiser. Geraldine is living and teaching at the University in Al Ain, 120km south east into the desert from Dubai, and on the border with Oman. In the tourist literature, Al Ain is called the Garden City, because of its greenery, but to the locals, its referred to as Sand Pit City. A stopover in Dubai was not in our original plans, but the devastating earthquakes in Nepal caused us to amend our itinerary, and as a consequence, we spent 4 extremely hot days exploring some of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Anne had reconnected with Geraldine through Facebook a few years ago, and on realising our trip would now take us through Dubai, we made contact. Geraldine was thrilled, and invited us to spend a day with her in the desert around Al Ain. How could we refuse?
We travelled the 120km to Al Ain by taxi. Geraldine had suggested a number of sites to visit, and on our arrival we all agreed that Sheikh Zayed’s Palace museum, the Camel Souk, lunch at the Al Qattara Oasis, and a trip up Jabal Hafeet mountain would be the ideal activities for the day.
The late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan is known as the father of the United Arab Emirates, and Al Ain was where he called home. His palace, which felt and looked more like a fortress, is now a museum. The many simple rooms that were open to the public each gave a sense of practicality without the opulence or excesses generally associated with the Emirates and a Royal family. It was very evident that the ritual of conversation and coffee was an integral part of planning and decision making in the development of the UAE.
Next on our itinerary was the local camel souk, or livestock market. I had expected to see a few camels up for sale, but I was very mistaken. Camel trading, and racing is a high stakes game in these parts, and the variety and number of camels we saw on offer at the souk was surprising. I’d heard stories of camels hissing and spitting and smelling, but today, they all seemed very well behaved. One in particular took a real liking to me getting right into my face. The feeling was not mutual.
After the heat of wandering the souk, it was time for some respite at the Al Qattara Oasis (heritage restaurant) for lunch. We enjoyed an Arab style meal of fattoush, mixed grill, baba ganoush and a yoghurt and cucumber dip. I couldn’t get enough of the fresh lime and mint drink, but passed on the shisha. The shisha is a water pipe used in Arab countries for smoking flavoured tobacco, heated by red hot coals, and is a popular pastime with many Emiratis, male and female alike.
My vision of an oasis was green grass and palm trees surrounding a cool water hole, which in reality, is not the case. An oasis is the place of fertile soil and agriculture in a desert, not one distinguished solely by a picturesque water hole. Dates are the main crop grown in Al Ain’s oasis and throughout the UAE.
Our Al Ain experience finished with a drive to the top of Jabal Hafeet mountain. This mountain monolith, bordering Oman, peaking at 1,250m, rises eerily from the desert, reminding me of a cross between the Grand Canyon and Australia’s Ayers Rock. On a clear day the view would be magnificent, but the heat haze from our 40+ degree day, combined with desert dust meant our vista was limited. The drive up the four lane mountain motorway was still worth the trip. Someone had spent a huge amount of time and money building this roadway to the top, where sits one hotel, one palace and one café.
We had a fabulous day with Geraldine, and an experience that we would not have shared had it not been for old friends and the magic of connections through social media.