Desert Adventure, Day One

Sunday, December 13, 2015

As I start to write this post I'm sitting in the Abu Dhabi Airport on a warm and sunny day, waiting for a flight to take me back to rainy London.  The gig is done and suddenly it’s Christmas, which is exceedingly strange.  It’s been summer since about May for me, so the idea that it’s Christmas in two weeks is simply bizarre.  Though I’m sure I’ll feel differently when I get back to the Western World and get a few mince pies under my belt.  In the mean time, there's a lot to tell about my last two days in the UAE, which was spent on an amazing adventure in the desert, courtesy of a perfectly lovely local colleague and friend, Abdulla.

Here’s Abdulla, sporting his “winter kandora” in beige.  (Note: most of the really nice pictures in this post are by other people who have those kind of cameras that involve knowing about things like ISO settings and hence spent a lot of time worrying about sand getting into their lenses and such but still manage to get some really lovely photos. Thanks for sharing, gang!)

I’m not really sure how we came to be offered the opportunity, I only know that an email went around promising a trip out to the Al Dhafra Festival, popularly known as the Camel Beauty Pageant.  There would be camels (of course) and sand dunes, and camping in the desert… how could I resist?  So it was that 13 of us gathered at the hotel on Monday morning and tried to shoehorn ourselves and our luggage into two big SUVs.  Abdulla was at the wheel of one car, and it soon became apparent that the amount of luggage and people somewhat exceeded the amount of space available. That was when those of us in the second car sacked our local driver and elected one of our own as leader and driver (“Lost Boys Style!”, as Fritha commented.) With the car key recovered from the out-of-work driver who left with it in his pocket, and with our new leader, Nick, suitably schooled in the intricacies of the Sand Button, we set off.

Of course the car came with a Sand Button!  It would become important later on, as you will hear in our next installment.

The Camel Beauty Pageant is actually a really big deal, and a huge event.  It started only nine years ago with a mere 1,500 camels, and now involves about 25,000 beasts, and a whole lot of infrastructure to go with it, all out in the middle of the dessert at Madinat Zayed.  It’s hard not to find the whole thing sort of comic, since to our (or at least MY) Western eyes a camel is a sort of odd, exotic and ungainly creature generally only encountered in Tales of the Arabian Nights and on cigarette packs.  In desert culture though, camels are prized possessions, and breeding, raising and showing camels is a respected (and expensive) tradition.  I saw a lot of camels in my time in Abu Dhabi, and by the end I really warmed to them.  Watching them move, it’s like they’re in slow motion.  And seeing camel after camel you start to recognise the traits that make up a prized specimen: "the length and height of the neck, the size of the head, the shape of the nose, the straightness of the legs, the shape and the location of the hump, the width of the upper part of the chest, and other qualities that define the beauty of the camel." (from the Al Dhafra website of course!)

Also, a camel able to exhibit a wide range of goofy expressions is particularly prized. (Ok, not really.  But they do all seem to be naturally skilled in that department.)

And when I say expensive, I am really not kidding.  Prize money at the Al Dhafra Festival totals about 55 millions dirhams (about ten million pounds!) and a single specimen can easily be worth 200-300,000 AED (£36,000 - £54,000).  Some breeders have a hundred or more beasts, and with each one worth more than a car, you can see how serious the business is.

Driving towards Liwa, it was a bit odd how much it reminded me of home.  The terrain is flat flat flat, and the sand drifting across the road looks remarkably like blowing snow.  After a couple hours of driving and a few pitstops we made it to our desert camp at the Festival site. Our stay was from Dec. 7-9, but the festival didn’t start until the 10th, so the whole site was still very much under construction.  Participants were still assembling their camps, each complete with camel pens and an uncountable number of UAE flags, and vendors were setting up stalls selling food and camping supplies.  There was even a place where you could get your kandora cleaned (of course).  Truly, it is the Glastonbury of Camels.  Our site was inside a fenced compound that included a fire pit surrounded by wooden decking, a large traditional “majlis” tent, a dining tent, a couple of trailers with bathrooms, and a dozen smaller tents for sleeping in.

The camp compound on the left, and on the right… desert.  We were apparently about 30km from the border with Saudi Arabia, at the edge of what they call The Empty Quarter - the largest sand desert in the world.

After we arrived we spent a bit of time just relaxing in the big tent, not really sure what was expected, or what would happen next.  This became the theme of the trip - not being sure what would happen next.  It required a sort of zen acceptance of whatever came, which generally turned out to be totally awesome.

This is the part where we lay about on carpets in the big tent and drink sweet milky tea and tablespoon sized cups of Arabic coffee.

And then the camels arrived!  There were four at the camp, so we trooped off to just outside the fence where we all had a chance to ride the camels and get up close and personal.  The trickiest bit of camel riding is getting on and off.  The camel has to be sitting on the ground for you to get on and they have a quite lurchy method of getting to their feet that obviously works great if you’re a camel but can be quite disconcerting if you’re a person on top of a camel.  The trick is to lean waaaay back before the camel starts to get up because the back end goes up first, thus potentially pitching you very far forward and making it harder for the camel to get its front half up because all your extra weight is leaning onto its front legs.  I did not perfect this pose in time, making for an uncomfortably long pause when I was engaging every poorly toned core muscle I have while my camel was deciding whether it was actually inclined to go to the effort of hefting me and it into a standing position.

It did work out in the end, and we had a few short circuits ‘round and ample opportunity for selfies with the camels.

After camel riding and a very generous lunch, we further embraced the “just see what happens next” plan and piled back into the cars for what we thought was a trip out to the sand dunes. We did eventually make it out to the dunes, but not before we visited a few other highlights. Since Abdulla was in the other car, we in the Lost Boys vehicle didn’t get his running commentary on the local landmarks.  So when we pulled up at Liwa Castle we didn’t really know what it was or why we were there.  We only knew it was very cool, completely deserted, and open all the way to the very tops of its towers.

Here's the castle

And here's Sara, Nick, me and Tom in our new album cover photo.

After that pitstop, we took a few more turns and eventually got some text message commentary from the lead car, which gradually evolved into me putting them on speakerphone in our car so we could hear commentary on the Green Dune and the famous local roundabout (which tradition dictates we go around twice before proceeding).  It was all a bit confusing, especially the part where we turned off towards a farm.

SARA (in Abdulla’s car): “Ok, this is some kind of farm.  We think it’s a farm.  Is this a farm?  Yes, yes it’s a farm.  Wait, is this Abdulla’s farm?!  Oh my god, this is ABDULLA’S FARM!!”

And so we came to Abdulla’s family farm, which I guess is just another of Abdulla’s many interests.  And what grows on Abdulla’s farm?  Dates, of course!

Interestingly, when asked how big the farm is Abdulla said “450".  “450 acres?”  No, not acres, or square feet or kilometres or anything like that.  Of course he meant 450 Palm Trees.  Which makes perfect sense.

And what else is on Abdulla’s Farm?

Goats!  Raised for milk, meat, and baby goats which provide photo ops for visiting tourists.

And still the day was not over!  Smelling of camel, and goat, and not really sure of what to expect next, we finally made it to the chosen spot for a scamper through the sand dunes, just before sunset.  This was really the desert - sand dunes as far as you could see.  We all took off our shoes and ran through the sand and waited for sunset.

It sounds funny, but it’s really remarkable how much sand there is.

And then it was back to camp for dinner, which was undeniably impressive.

It made me feel a little like the Whos down in Whoville and their roast beast

In fact, it was a sheep, complete with skull and baked brains.  Did I try the roast sheep brains? Of course I did!  How could you doubt it?  They were mostly inoffensive and tasted like not chicken.  I also ate the entire meal using only my right hand, and with no utensils, Bedouin style!  Of course Abdulla was particularly skilled in the one-handed eating, which seems to involve scooping up a handful of whatever you want and squeezing it into a sort of sausage in your hand which you then shove in your mouth.  Not to be culturally insensitive or anything, but this seems like a kind of tricky system, especially when you eat a lot of long grain rice that doesn’t stick together.

After dinner, we all sat around the fire in the dark and talked and stared into the flames and enjoyed each other’s company, as you do anywhere there’s a campfire.  In another camp a little ways off we could hear music from a celebration of some kind.  And one of the younger members of Abdulla’s gang made us sweet milky tea on the fire.

Yes, he’s sitting in the fire pit.  And yes, he’s making tea in the desert over an open fire by the light from his smartphone.

Gradually, people drifted off to their tents for some rest.  It had been a long day, and we were all at the end of a long and tiring job, and we had no idea what the next day would bring. However we only had to wait a few hours to find out.  You, on the other hand, will have to wait until I find the energy to blog again and tell you about Day Two which was even more random and interesting than Day One.  And while I may have started the post at the airport in Abu Dhabi, I'm finishing it on my little boat on the Grand Union Canal (Paddington Arm) on a grey and rainy Sunday morning.  Because that's just how I roll.

1 Comment:

Colleen said...

Your life is amazing, Pam! Camels and dates and, ten days later, snow, amazing hoarfrost and Christmas cookies! Enjoy your holiday time with the family and all the best in 2016!

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