Desert Adventure, Day Two

Thursday, December 31, 2015

I’m back in Canada where it is appropriately cold and windy and snowy and where I’ve been doing an excellent job of doing nothing.  Well not actually nothing.  I’ve reached Olympic-level eating and sleeping and up until now have also been managing some fairly high-level blog-ignoring.  But cognisant of the fact that there's still a whole day of desert adventuring to tell you about, I’ve finally roused myself and ventured out into my natural habitat (a café with free wifi) to dust off the blog.

When last we left our intrepid desert adventurers the sun had set on Day One and we were full of sweet tea and sheep brains and liberally coated in sand.  Having already ridden camels, visited a random castle, seen Abdulla’s farm, hugged baby goats and cavorted in the dunes, we were at a bit of a loss as to what there was left to do.  How wrong we were.

In the morning there was a generous spread of breakfast(ish) food and more arabic coffee and milky tea.  When we convened with Abdulla to find out what was ahead for the day, it seemed he was also at a bit of a loss, until he said “Do you want to meet the Camel Lady?  She is the only woman in the UAE who keeps camels.  They made a film about her.”

Naturally, we needed no encouragement whatsoever.  So Abdulla made a phone call (he is the kind of guy who, I strongly suspect, either knows everyone interesting in the country, or at least knows someone who knows everyone) so we soon piled back into our cars to find the Camel Lady.  Her camp was set up not far off and even though there were 13 of us, she welcomed us into her tent and made us sit down and served us coffee and dates and other delicacies.

Here she is pouring us tiny cups of arabic coffee.

And here’s the warm camel milk I tried, which was not bad.

Fatima Al Hameli is one-of-a-kind, literally.  She is the only woman ever to participate in the Al Dhafra Festival with her own camels under her own name.  Apparently the first year she went to the festival the organisers told her that women were not allowed to participate.  Undaunted, Fatima held her ground and pointed out that there is, in fact, no rule preventing women from taking part.  Eventually, the organisers relented when the Sheikh agreed to let her in, and she has been a fixture every year since then.  (Note: even my above average Googling skills did not reveal what year that was.)

It was awesome and also kind of surreal.  How do you even process something like that? Hanging out in a tent in the desert in the company of the country’s only female camel baron(ess) drinking camel milk, with her dividing her time between taking calls on her gold iPhone, snapping photos of us and posting them to her Instagram account, proposing to kill a sheep to cook for our lunch, and dosing us with the scent of burning oud wood.

I think this picture was on Instagram before we'd even sat down again...

In this form oud is the burning charcoal of the agarwood, which is a dark, resinous heartwood from a tree that has been infected with a particular type of mould.  The resin the tree produces in response to the infection makes the wood rare and very valuable and the oil from it is processed into perfume.  And apparently it’s also burned as a sort of desert incense kind of thing.  We were encouraged to allow the smoke to bath our faces.  It was not exactly refreshing, but I suppose when you’re stuck in the desert it’s better than spending your whole life smelling like a camel.

And of course she showed us some of her camels, including a baby with its mom (Possibly the source of the camel milk?  I didn’t ask, though it seems likely.  Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever met the beast that produced the milk I’ve drunk before.)

She really loves those camels.  She kept feeding them big balls of mashed dates.  Of course.

We begged off lunch (thus hopefully sparing another poor sheep) and headed back to camp where Abdulla had already arranged a feast for us, including a local fish called hamour.  It was served, like the sheep, on a huge bed of rice, and we ate with out hands again (at least those of us who weren’t pansy cowards).  The hamour was delicious - a meaty white fish that must have been very large in life, considering the size of the bones.  After lunch I think I managed to beg a half hour nap before we were off on another random adventure, courtesy of Abdulla.

We decided we’d like another visit to some nice sand dunes, so we hit the road again and Abdulla led us to the top of a high ridge of sand where local crazy people drive UP in their fancy four wheel drive vehicles with their sand buttons on.  Instead of doing that clearly insane thing, we instead decided to run down the dune.  Of course.

It was big.  And surprisingly tiring to get to the bottom of.

Luckily, Abdulla and Nick drove the long way ‘round to the bottom of the hill to pick us up. Because if you think running down a big sand dune is tiring, try crawling back UP.

And then possibly the coolest random thing of the whole trip happened.  We sat for a while at the top of the dune waiting for Nick and Abdulla to find their way to the bottom. (We are smart, and decided not to run to the bottom until our ride back also appeared at the bottom.  See aforementioned difficulty of climbing sand dunes.)  And as we were sitting, we saw a group of men at the bottom of the valley training falcons!  Falconry is a huge deal in the Emirates. Huge.  Owning, training and racing falcons is a very popular and traditional activity in the region, and we’d stumbled on a couple of regular guys, our with their birds.  Once we were all down from the top of the dune (and because he’s awesome) Abdulla hopped out of the car and talked to the guys and soon we were all out looking at the birds and watching the guys and birds do their thing.

I found this weird, but apparently they just transport the birds in the back of the car.  I suppose it's like throwing your Irish Setter in the back of the station wagon to take him out for a run at the dog park.

Traditionally, falcons are trained with a feathered lure on a long string.  The trainer will swing the lure around and the bird’s job is to catch it in its claws while in flight.  Our guys were doing that, but they were also employing a much more modern and cool method for higher altitude training… drones!

They had two different drones, each equipped with a lure on a long string.  The lure was hung from a clip that would pull away from the drone when the bird struck.

Of course the falconers were keen to show off their birds and their technology, so we got to see them both in action, thus satisfying both our traditional touristy inclinations and also the more techie among us.  One guy would release the drone and pilot it way way way up until it was hard to see at all, and the other would take the hood off a bird and launch it from their arm up at the target.  The bird then made a long, spiralling ascent towards the lure before finally grabbing it and returning to the ground.  The first time the string on the lure got caught in a power line and the falconer had to go fetch the bird, who was NOT interested in giving up that lure.  The second time both bird and lure made it back fine and as a reward the bird was allowed to pluck and devour the formerly living small bird that had been the lure (I’m pretty sure it was dead when it went up…)

There were, quite literally, feathers flying.

And to top it all off, a few of us actually got to hold the falcons.

At this point, we figured Abdulla was slightly magical, and would have followed him anywhere. In this case it meant that we followed him (in our Lost Boys car, piloted by the eminently trustworthy Nick) on a quick dune-bashing jaunt through the desert.  Sources in Abdulla’s car report that most of his comments were along the lines of “There used to be a road here” and “I hope Nick is doing ok”.  Most of the comments in our car were along the lines of “Oh my God!” and “Nick, no please don’t”.  Happily, Nick has some experience in dune driving and was just fearless enough to make thing interesting but just sensible enough that we didn’t go nearly as high up the 45 degree slope as Abdulla did.  And we all survived unscathed.  And Nick got to have a bit of fun.  And the sand button was well and truly used to full advantage.

And yet the day was still not over!  Off we went to find another picturesque set of dunes where we could watch the sunset and have one last romp in the sand.

Me and Abdulla, racing along the inside slope of a dune.  He outpaced me by a long way, even in his kandora, but I bet I could beat him on skates any way, any day.

And, of course, the sunset

This was followed by a pitstop at the fancy hotel located near the camp.  The hotel exists basically to serve people visiting the Al Dhafra Festival, though they’re trying to build a clientele outside the festival, though I suspect it’s a hard sell.  It suited us fine though, and let us have a bit of a breather, and even a glass of wine, before heading  back to camp for one last enormous supper.  By this time, the construction of the camp was advanced enough to include a whole kitchen enclosure, so we had grilled meat and fresh flat bread cooked on site. Of course.

We even got to go back to the kitchen and take the bread right off the grill, and have the grilled meat sliced onto the steaming bread in our hands.

And of course then they made fried dough balls dipped in honey and sesame seeds.
Arabic Timbits!

I stumbled off to bed some time later after another evening of sitting by the fire, chatting, drinking tea, and force-feeding myself fried dough.  I think we talked about what an amazing experience the past two days had been, and how we needed share our photos, and how stupid everyone who HADN’T come on the trip was going to feel, and, of course how totally awesome Abdulla was.

The next day we packed up relatively early and Nick got to give the sand button another workout on the way back to the highway, and we had a last few hours of each other’s company on the way back to the hotel where were arrived utterly exhausted, and smelling of campfires and camels.  We then did that thing you do when you’ve had an amazing, intense experience with a group of people but no one can quite accept that it’s really over so you kind of hang around on the sidewalk for a bit before everyone finally drifts away with promises of drinks later.

And then you shower eleven times in a row and have a very very very long nap and dream of camels.

Best road sign. Ever.


daphne said...

We lived in Saudi Arabia in the early '80's, and one very fond memory, is running along the top of a sand dune, then launching off the top, and landing WWWWAAAAAYYYYY down the steep face in the soft sand. I remember thinking that I was never going to touch, and that I had gone way to far, and it was going to hurt, and WOW it was a soft landing. Great fun.

What a fabulous experience, Abdulla obviously has a magical touch when it comes to giving desert tours.

Jill said...

that was very cool! I wish I knew Abdulla.

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