I am a fairly well-travelled person. I have visited six of the earth seven continents.
I have not set foot upon Antarctica. But, I believe, I still have time and health enough to do so.
The wild geese found me as a small boy, the young and tender age of fifteen; my first trip away from home soil was the short trip from England to Portugal, the city of Lisbon.
My enduring memories of that place are, in no particular order; Swordfish, White Peacocks, Cold Rice and the Horseshoe. I shall say no more about any of those just now, because that is not what this post is about.
This post is about the little things, the small incidents and strange things which happen when you travel.
To me, these tiny, sometimes inconsequential moments, are the things which make travelling the wonderful experience it is.
It is from these experiences we find laughter. It is where our store of tales to regale over countless forthcoming dinners. It is the unplanned, unexpected instances which become our lasting memories, the ‘do you remember-s’ and the ‘I have just recalled-s’ of our futures.
These small, often fleeting happenings are the ones we carry into old age. They are the times we reflect on with our partners and share with our children, even our grandchildren, as we stumble towards our last days.
This story is from about four or five years back.
We, that is my wife and I, along with a friend, were visiting the UAE. On this occasion, part of our plan was to drive from the Dubai City to a place called Hatta.
The purpose of our drive was to spend a week or so relaxing at the Hatta Fort hotel, which is used as a retreat by many for a change from city life, be it Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I am a seasoned traveller. I travel independently, not in association with a travel company or agency. It is over the years of travelling this way I have learned to rarely adhere, or take too much stock of ‘travel tips’ posted by any corporate body. They generally have some ulterior motive woven within their suggestions, even those presented as ‘advice’.
I am sure, if you search for directions, say with Google or TripAdvisor or such, the directions from Dubai City to Hatta will direct you along the E611, a journey which will take around 2 ½ hrs. A little longer allowing for rest brakes, lunch, stopping to admire the vista, take photographs, or a combination of all of the above.
However, following the E44 (D71) and a few other roads to the S116. This will take you on a rather circuitous route. (The same will happen if you take the E44 to S102 Sharjah road to the S116, or the Jebel Ali E77 Lehbab road, E44 to S102, S116). You will drive much further North than necessary, before driving southwards once more to arrive in Hatta.
These routes are about 154km/96miles.
Luckily, I am far more familiar with the Emirates, so the route I chose is far more direct, it is the E311 to E66 and the E44. The E44 runs straight (almost) from the outskirts of Dubai City to Hatta.
The trip (without stops) will take around 1 ¼ hours, about half the time of the longer route. The distance is reduced to 109km/82 miles.
Why I hear you asking, is this not the ‘recommended’ route holiday companies advise? The answer is simple, but one must be familiar with the lay of the land in this area.
ALLOW ME TO EXPLAIN….
The Arab Emirates, known as the Trucial States was a set of seven Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula in the southeast of the Persian Gulf.
In 1971 six Emirates, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah joined together to form a federation, the seventh Emirate, Ras Al Khaimah joined the federation a year later.
Consider the borders of the emirates of the UAE. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the federation, is a gigantic block from the south stretching up towards the north. It holds more than 85% of the total land of the country. Dubai, the next Emirate to the north of Abu Dhabi, is the second largest and occupies 5% of the land of the UAE. Dubai’s territory is basically unified in a neat block, with the only exception being the Oman border town of Hatta.
The remaining five emirates occupy less than 10% of the land, their borders are a colossal mess, containing enclaves, narrow bands of territory, and disputed tracts of wasteland that look chaotic.
Not surprisingly, the blame/reason lies with the British. While the Sheikhdoms were protectorates, the British only visited the ports and had little interest in the desolate interior of the Arabian Peninsula.
But as the protectorate relationship was scheduled to end, Britain knew the risk of the Emirs fighting over land if the borders were left undefined — Abu Dhabi and Dubai fought a border war in the interior in the 1940s, which the British arbitrated and established a neutral zone, and Sharjah’s hegemony over the north had broken down as new emirates within Sharjah’s original territory rose and fell.
To avoid these types of problems, the British sent the Trucial Oman Scouts out in Land Rovers and on camels to conduct a detailed map survey and tribal census, during which time they mapped the interior and asked the rulers of each settlement village to which Emir (or Sultan, in the case of Oman) they owed their allegiance.
Okay…enough of the history lesson!
You may have picked up the mention of Oman, the neighbouring Arabic country.
The first map shows the direct route I take, even though the travel companies may tell travellers to take an alternative route and ‘do not use the road going through Oman’.
This is precisely the road I use.
If the political status between the Emirates and Oman is good, which it has been for several years, there is no problem in crossing this short distance across Oman. There are border control points at each end, both West and East. The guards there take a perfunctory look at your passports and other documentation before waving you on.
On every trip I have made over these checkpoints, sometime two or three times a day, I have found the guard’s courteous and friendly. I have, on occasion shared a joke or two with genuine ’out loud’ laughter.
Do not, however, film at the border crossings…that is a big no, no. Put your camera’s/phones out of sight. It is little different to any other military/Government establishment anywhere in the world. Just be sensible.
So, where was I…oh yes. On my way to Hatta and approaching the western checkpoint.
Located a short distance from the border crossing is a neat little village called Al Madame. I needed a ‘natural’ break and a coffee. I agree water is the best for quenching the thirst and I always travel with a plentiful supply, but it tends to be a little low in its caffeine content.
Madame has a row of small shops, nestled among them is a fried chicken eatery. It is not quite a Chicken George, a KFC or Popeye’s, but it is clean, friendly and just a little over half-way to my destination. The perfect stopping place.
It was a hot day, the temperature hovering around 32c. So, as you have to do in hotter climates when the car has been parked in direct sunlight for any length of time, I started the car and ran the air-con on full to cool the interior, the girls taking the opportunity to browse the local store windows.
As soon as the inside of the car was cool enough to support human life, we set off again. Camera and phones put away in bags or the glove compartment as we would soon be at ‘Checkpoint Charlie’. Looking ahead at the large sand dunes I could not help but notice how the wind was whipping the sand from the tops, the sky becoming full of flying grit.
“Take a look at that” I pointed, excited I was to witness my first sandstorm.
The next instant, droplets of water began to hit the windshield. The temperature plummeted as a torrential downpour began.
As disappointed as I was, not to have been engulfed in a raging sandstorm, I was witnessing an event which was an even greater rarity.
Intense rain at that.
When the downpour began, many of the shopkeepers grabbed a rag or some cloth and used the opportunity to wash the windows and exterior of their premises. One or two set to washing their cars, I kid you not.
It was extraordinary to see people welcoming rain in such a way, yet their actions were more than understandable.
However, the rain did not stop. It intensified. Huge raindrops pummelling the car’s bodywork and windows. The cacophony made by the drumming water making it difficult to hear anyone speak. In fact, we all ducked our heads as the first of the larger raindrops pummeled the car’s roof.
I pulled the car to a halt at the side of the road, Headlights on, hazard warning lights flashing.
Soon, the lower areas off to each side of the road were awash with rainwater. There was no drainage, something which was usually unnecessary.
Within a few moments, these areas at the side of the road were a river, two or three cars sailed by, carried by a now flowing river of water, as were shopkeeper’s stocks of tin baths, buckets, pots, pans toys and whatnots. Basically, all the goods that were displayed outside the stores in Al Madame now formed a flotilla of bric-a-brac, sailing down a newly formed river.
It truly was a strange sight indeed.
As quickly as the wind and rain had come, it was over.
The sun reappeared. The temperature shot back to its previous heights.
This amazing episode lasted for all of ten or twelve minutes.
I started driving again, heading for the checkpoint. The road ahead now a shimmering ribbon of steaming tarmac.
Almost unbelievably, by the time we reached the checkpoint, the roads were bone dry. There was no sign any rain had fallen.
On our arrival at Hatta Fort Hotel, we told the staff of our experience, asking if the rains reached this far. They had not.
The staff question us again and again, excited to hear of the rain. It seems they had good reason, it was thirty years since any rain fell here, we were told.
I count myself lucky, not only being caught in those rains, but witnessing a once in thirty-year phenomena.
I now hold that experience within me, it is one of those enduring moments I spoke of at the beginning of this article. It is one, just one, of all the wonderful instances I have had the good fortune of experiencing.
It is also one single reason of many, I shall keep travelling for as long as I am able.
You see, those Wild Geese keep pulling at me and, inside, I am still that young boy, full of wonderment and awe at all this world has to offer, especially those strangest of things.
Thank you for reading.