Exploring Fort Hayl
Aaron Noah M.
Location: Wadi Hayl, UAE
Two days after deadly floods ravaged the emirate of Fujairah (12 October 2011), three of us from Gulf Vantage drove through the area to explore Wadi Hayl, which runs from the Hajar Mountains down to the edge of the city of Fujairah on the east coast of the UAE.
Water comes and goes quickly in this region. There’s not much rain to speak of, but when it does arrive, all hell comes with it, in the form of blitzkrieg-style thunderstorms that roll in on high speed winds that drown the landscape. The stony mountains have little vegetation to buffer the torrents of water, so the flooding is promptly funneled down narrow wadis which then exits out into the desert. The parched sands drink up the water at once and within days any evidence of moisture is only noticeable from the tell-tale signs of flood destruction and the fresh sprouting of flora.
The Fujairah situation was no different. There were a few puddles of stagnant water here and there, but much of the evidence of any flooding was the leftover damage. Throughout the area, cleaning crews worked steadily to get rocks, soil, and tree branches off the roads and properties. At the western end of the city we veered off E89 and unto the small road that leads up to Wadi Hayl.
The first stretch isn’t very scenic, as the floodplain is home to various industrial endeavors and a military base, but we pressed on past these and continued to follow the signs for Wadi Hayl (and sometimes “Fort Hayl” or “Castle Hail”). Once the road began an upward climb, the splendor of the surrounding mountains started to reveal itself, with barren peaks of maroon rock looking over patches of green palm trees. We crossed through several sections of the wadi where water still trickled along, a mere stream of what must have been a raging flood a couple of days back.
The village of Al Hayl is a humble collection of single-story buildings that takes no more than a minute to drive through, unless you get goats blocking your path, as sometimes happens. Coming from the glitz of Dubai, the contrast was striking, although we still spotted a few extravagant cars parked around—a very familiar sight across the UAE.
After the village the rocky road crossed through palm trees and farmland. It’s remarkable to think that anyone can live and prosper within a flood zone, but it seems the locals have long ago figured out how to avoid the hazardous deluge and even divert portions of the water to support agriculture. There are both old and new falaj systems running throughout Wadi Hayl as well as a modern catchment dam that, on the day we visited, actually had a small lake shored up behind it. Normally this area is all dried up so the local Emirate families, with their picnic blankets out and kids playing by the shore, looked like they were truly enjoying the sudden influx of water.
A couple of kilometers past the dam and the temporary lake we finally came to the treasure of the wadi: Fort Hayl. This was once the home of the Al Sharqi ruling family of Fujairah. The exact history of the fort is still elusive, although it is commonly believed to be about 200-300 years old. The landscape of Oman has many old forts but the UAE has relatively few, and Fort Hayl remains one of the best preserved historical buildings in the country. The date palms that fed the rulers also remain, providing a pleasant green contrast to the reddish mud brick and stone of the fort.
Pulling up we spotted three men sitting outside smoking cigarettes, obviously on the lookout for our type–the curious tourists. One the men greeted us and started right away on a tour of the fort, which included a hectic little climb into the Sheik’s tower. The rooms are now empty, but the nooks, holes, and pegs on the walls give many indications on what is was like to live in the fort. Air circulation was definitely a consideration, as we could feel the inside chambers of the tower were much cooler than just outside in the blazing sun.
In broken English the man described the various spaces, which included sleeping quarters, an outside kitchen area, bathroom facilities, servant’s area, and a room for processing date juice. Most of his descriptions ended with, “300 hundred years old, 300 hundred years old.” Difficult to say if his aging of the fort was correct, but it didn’t seem to matter; just wandering the grounds provided a fantastic glimpse into the past.
The turnoff for Wadi Hayl is at the western entrance/exit to the city of Fujairah, UAE. For those with GPS, turn from E89 at approximately N25 07.417 E56 18.133. The road usually does not require a 4×4, although conditions can change considerably due to rock slides and flooding. Wadi Hayl is a quick jaunt out of Fujairah that can be easily combined with any other East Coast activities.
Click on the images below to see images of the trip.