Saturday, January 17, 2015

Qasr Al Sarab

We or rather Viv had planned a desert adventure for us at a resort called Qasr Al Sarab bang in the middle of the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world.  Of ocurse we wouldn't be doing the full Lawrence of Arabia crossing the desert thing but we'd be playing at it.  And in the modern world purview the UAE was the playground where all such dreams are not only possible but actually come true.

The resort is 2 hours from Abu Dhabi on mainly multi-lane highway shrinking down to a 2-lane new road that spilled onto the resort.

Modern day oasis looking very much like a gas station

I tried to do some mental arithmetic on how long it would have taken had we been on camels which travel 2-3 mph and which can walk for 8-10 hours per day and came up with 10-12 days walking time in the pre-oil boom and infrastructure days.  The comfortable SUV with A/C, cold drinking water and a selection of Arabian sweetmeats to snack on was a much nicer alternative to the old days.  Progress is actually pretty good!

Dunes, dunes and more dunes

The resort is sited in Liwa Oasis, the province of the ruling tribe and was built there as a reminder of times past and a nice place to be (with all modern amenities of course) if you wanted to go back to your roots.

Qasr Al Sarab

Our room had a lovely terrace view out over the dunes and we could see people tramping out all the time to climb the very big dune just outside the immediate grounds, which was a vantage point for the setting sun.  Our room faced west so we'd have a great view of the sunset.

The Empty Quarter

We'd planned a bunch of excursions, the first being a night hike amongst the dunes.

First observation is that the desert can be really cold.

And windy.

And quiet.

And dark.

Except for the oil rigs burning off gas every 5-10 miles and for the telephone towers placed everywhere...  We could complain about the no escape from civilisation but the internet connections were lightning fast!

First stop was at a salt lake in the middle of nowhere.  Water in many places is less than 5 metres below the surface (that is in the valleys between the sometimes massive dunes) but with rain coming maybe twice a year and in fairly small drizzly doses apparently, it is pretty dry.  Certainly the sand was very fine and very, very dry.  So the old lakes that lay below the surface and which used to make up this part of the world millenia ago don't have much to work with.  However at various places (we visited half a dozen in the time we were there) the water is closer than usual to the surface and shows itself in salt flats with the very occasional and very small ponds which are insanely salty.  The guide the first night said the water was good for the skin but when I sloshed a bit on my face, all I could feel was grit, grit and more grit.

The salt pond

We also got to practice our walking up hill on sand dunes walk.

Viv said it was like a stairmaster machine whereby you tramped uphill on that ridiculous machine and got nowhere.  Climbing in some sandy parts was like that too.  You got precisely nowhere.  However when we saw our guide calmly strolling uphill like it was nothing we figured there was a right and wrong way of doing it and we were likely on the wrong side.  It helped that he was 50 kgs soaking wet of course but when you sort of imagine your foot as a big flat tray and think snow shoeing, it does get better.  A bit anyway.

I'm sure the views were great from the top of the dunes but as it was night we couldn't see.  And sadly with the wind whipping up the sand, other than for directly above we couldn't see too many stars either.  Had we been out and lost in the desert that night, we couldn't have navigated by the stars at all!  However we could have navigated by the dunes.

According to our guide the wind comes 80% of the time from north to south so the north side of any dune is quite sheer and difficult to climb but the south side has sand that sort of wobbles off into the distance on a gradual basis.  That side is much easier to walk on and climb so that is how the desert tribes would navigate when the star method failed.

Fun introduction made better by meeting our co-adventurers who were Germans from Berlin with whom we drank wine and told silly stories until the wee hours when we returned.

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