Wandering the Uncharted Road
Aaron Noah M.
Location: ???, UAE
It can’t be found on a map. Nor in a guidebook. My GPS software is continuously updated, and yet it doesn’t register there either. Only with Google Earth can you hope to trace it, a barely discernible path meandering through the dunes. I once caught a glimpse of it as I was driving back home from Masafi on highway 88 near Al Dhaid , this faint line curving through ochre crests of sand and clumps of scraggly trees. Intrigued by the sight, I veered off the tarmac and rolled through a small village until the pavement finally gave way to sand.
There was a magnificent little dirt road out there, plunging straight into a panorama of dunes; but unfortunately my timing was off, the sun was dropping below the horizon and it was getting too dark to explore. I knew one day I’d have to come back and see what this little road had to offer.
That was six months ago. Last weekend I dug out my GPS and my Nikon camera and finally returned. Trekking along was my Canon-toting friend, Amr, and together we found the way back to the spot in order to chart the uncharted. Maybe I shouldn’t use the word “uncharted” because a road, by its very nature, means someone has obviously passed through, and I’m quite sure the local Emirates are familiar with the area. However, for most expats, tourists, map makers, and the folks at Garmin GPS services, this road is virgin territory.
There are many such hidden backroads in the UAE and Oman, and every chance I get to “discover” one, I pounce on the opportunity for a new adventure. The wadis in the mountains are full of veiled gaps that hide trails, oases, and waterfalls. Mysteries also abound in the vast desert sands, as long as you are geared up properly and are well prepared. Safe dune exploration requires effort, skill, and several vehicles, so I prefer to stick to the security of dirt roads when traveling with just one 4×4.
It was this type of casual exploration we were looking for when Amr and I pulled up to the lead of the track. It looked exactly the same as my last visit. Good. Several of my favorite desert spots have already been destroyed by construction or quad bike enthusiasts. I turned on my GPS unit and programmed it to leave an electronic “trail of breadcrumbs” so that I could map out the area for future trips. Then all we had to do was to decide left or right at each fork in the road.
We quickly learned that this was camel territory; the shaggy “ships of the desert” were everywhere, casually nibbling at shrubs or stretching their long necks to get at the best leaves in the trees. Camels that weren’t eating were lumbering slowly along the road to the next feeding spot. Whenever we stopped for photos, the animals made a slow retreat.
At several locations we got out and hiked around. The high noon sun made the dunes look more tan than orange, but as the evening approached the sands began to display deeper reds, befitting these silica grains that are iron rich. It was great to stretch the legs and savor some fresh air. November is the time to enjoy pleasant weather in the Gulf, akin to summer climates in Europe or North America.
Besides the camels, the only other critter we spotted was a speedy skink (aka Sandfish) that splashed into a dune as we approached. There must be goats in the area as well, although they don’t seem to fare as well as the camels; all we found were goat bones scattered over the ground.
Sometimes a path we chose came to an end. In a few places the road simply vanished into the dunes and I had to negotiate a turnaround without getting the truck stuck in the sand. Other forks of the road took us to small oasis farms that were lush with greenery. Standing on a high dune and looking out over the cultivated terraces and palm trees, I was carried away into another time, an old era without skyscrapers, highways, or shopping malls; it was so peaceful.
Except for the camels. They make a helluva racket when they’re angry and we could hear several of the animals fighting off in the distance. Also, one of them followed us up into the dunes as we were snapping off photos. Maybe it was hoping for snacks or maybe it was just curious, but Amr and I both steered well clear of the giant herbivore. Camels look cuddly enough to pet, but they also have a reputation for spitting and biting when they’re upset, and we weren’t ready to test if the rumors were true.
As the sun set and we plotted our way back out, the landscape surprised us with a burst of colors. There were violets and radiant blues painted in the sky, while the sands below were flush with deep oranges and reds. The saturation of light made the entire scene look like an illustration, and with those scattered trees and their tufts of foliage, I couldn’t help but think that we had somehow stumbled into a page out of a Dr Seuss book. I kept looking for the Lorax (remember the tale of the Truffula Trees?).
We departed the little road with a few of its branches still left uncharted…a good excuse to come back! Click on the thumbnails below to catch a glimpse of this charming environment.