Saturday, 14 May 2016

Qatar Cycling Adventures Pt 2.. The Singing Sand Dune

This is the story of my epic ride to Qatar's Singing Sand Dune......

After completing the Qatar Century Ride last December, cycling a gruelling 100km in one stretch,  I felt I had proved my stripes in the saddle and decided to plan my own solo two wheeled micro adventure.

Colleagues at work had mentioned the Singing Sand Dune before and shown me photos of this desert wonder which has become somewhat of a tourist attraction just outside Doha.  When I say just outside, I'd looked at the map and saw a distance of 35 - which would be 70km in total.  No problem, I thought, but in order to be able to spend time there, I would endeavour to leave very early on Friday morning, as it would take me approximately 1.5 - 2 hours there and the same back and I wanted to ensure I made it back before the traffic got busy in Doha at around 1200.

So I got up at 4.30am, woke Grey Legs from his slumber and set off in the dark.  Id pondered for a while what to wear.  I knew it would get hot later and I didn't want to weigh myself down with over garments which I'd find useful only at the start.  So I ventured out in a short sleeved cycling jersey into a cold, dark misty morning, praying for the sun to soon rise to warm me up.  Yes, believe or not it does get cold here during the winter.

The first part of the trip was a breeze, cycling along the new cycle track which was built alongside the new airport road.  Unfortunately though, it ran out very suddenly with no warning and I then had to pick my way across a dusty construction zone to the highway, to continue my journey. The route I'd chosen didn't appear to exist any more, lost in the myriad of infrastructure projects popping up all over Doha at the moment, the biggest of which is the Qatar Rail Project, providing a metro rail system across Qatar to be completed before everyone arrives for the World Cup in 2022.

So instead, I ended up following the main highway until I could find a way across in the direction I needed to head.  Unfortunately, right at that very moment, an enormous bank of fog descended and visibility reduced to barely a few feet ahead.   The fact that I couldn't see wasn't really the problem, I was more worried about not being seen.

I had lights on my bike, of course, but the fact that I couldn't see the big rear lights of vehicles right in front of me made me realise that I was totally invisible to the large trucks looming up behind me.   So here I was, on a major highway, with no run-off, concrete construction barriers on either side and everyone driving blind.  This wasn't good.  Time to pray.

I considered finding a place to stop but I really didn't know how long this could last, and when I stopped I got very very cold.  I decided to press on, holding my breath and talking nervously to myself about what an idiot I was.  After a few miles but what felt like hours, I was able to take a turning off the road and stopped to take a breather and check my whereabouts on my iPhone.

As i did so, a Police car and ambulance rushed past me at high speed.... As I had lost some time, and still had a considerable distance to go, I continued on, following towards the emergency.   The fog still refused to lift but at least I was on a quieter road.

Up ahead I could see the lights of the emergency vehicles and then I saw the accident.  With the metro construction, the road layout had been changed.... rather drastically to a 90 degree turn and a concrete barrier 'dead ahead' had proved less than unforgiving to one poor driver in the dense misty gloom.  I cycled past this sobering sight, feeling rather thankful that Grey Legs and I were still in one piece, but more determined than ever to reach our destination.

After another few miles, I could feel the unmistakable warmth of the sun breaking through the fog and lifting us up and carrying us faster along the road.  Gradually the mist cleared completely and the road ahead stretched out into a long grey ribbon through the dust on either side.

No majestic dunes or palm trees here, just flat plains of dust with a few houses sprinkled about.  I kept checking my spot on google maps and the sand dune didn't seem to be getting much closer.  I.d been riding for a good two and a half hours and by now should be almost there!  My pace hadn't been that bad, despite the fog and I was confused.  I only seemed to be just over half way there!!

I was now on a busy single lane truck road, with a sharp drop off the side of the road to the gravel.  Despite their huge size, they were travelling at crazy speeds and way too close for comfort.

This was not altogether that much fun, I decided, and the scenery left much to be desired too.... unless you like commercial vehicle graveyards, which is what I spent a good hour cycling past for mile after mile.

Eventually though, after three and a half hours of gruelling and, at times, terrifying pedalling, I was approaching what seemed to be some dunes.  It was 9am before I finally reached the famous Singing Sand Dune itself.  A huge crescent shaped (as most of them are), golden mountain which apparently hums if the conditions are right.  Physically I was totally shattered, and it turns out, it had been 35 miles, not km... (approx 55km).... , which explained a thing or two!!...but here was my reward.

Total peace, quiet and solitude.  Alone in the desert, just me and Grey Legs and a gentle breeze across the sand.  It was truly magical and I knew we wouldn't be joined by anyone at that time on a Friday morning.  Since leaving the highway, we'd seen only one man, practicing falconry and occasionally I could hear him whistling for his bird.

Despite my fatigue, now I was here, I had to climb the dune.  I dragged Grey Legs up the first smaller dune and then left him at the bottom of the large one while I scrambled up to the top.  If you've never climbed up a sand dune before, I can only describe it as trying to climb up a downward escalator in custard filled wellington boots, soled with lead.  For every five steps up, you slide back down three. Its utterly exhausting.

When I eventually made it to the top, my exuberance was short lived..... the entire top surface of the dune was littered with..... well.... litter!  Evidence of picnics, barbecues and parties all left behind - wrappers, plastic bags, even fast food containers, as well as a carpet of charcoal.  It made me sick.  Here this natural wonder violated by the laziness and disrespect of visitors and locals alike.  A microcosm of the ignorance of the human condition.

So I turned away from it and sat on the edge looking out across the desert plains in the direction of Saudi Arabia.  As I sat, my footprints bringing me up had all but disappeared already.
It was a terrific spot for contemplation but sadly I didn't have long enough to enjoy it, contemplating only the long journey back which I wasn't quite sure how I would manage, feeling exhausted, quite frightened and in pain.  I refuelled my body with a banana and some yoghurt drink and plenty of water, took a few photos and decided I would cycle back via a faster route.

I realised there were no safe routes home - a fast 3 lane highway which may at least have a hard shoulder to cycle on, or the single lane truck road that had brought me here but almost killed me.  By now, the roads were getting busier so I didn't fancy going back the same way, so I chose the highway. After climbing down from the dune and getting on our way again, the wind was now against me and had picked up.  My two herniated discs in my spine were giving me trouble and I knew the return journey would be at least as gruelling as my earlier experience.

Finally getting onto the highway, I had to cycle 5km in the wrong direction even before I started because there was no way to cross the central reservation.  In some places there was a hard shoulder which gave me some crumb of comfort, but for the most part there wasn't.  Again, I was faced with commercial traffic rushing past me at extremely high speed and so close, I could polish their wheels with my lycra!  By now, I was so petrified and convinced I was going to die, that I prayed out loud continuously, saying the Shahada in Arabic over and over......
"Ash-Hadu an laa ilaaha illallah.  Wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasulullah"
"I bear witness that there is no god except Allah.  And I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."

My back went into spasm - as much from the tension as the exertion.  But I had no choice but to continue.  Eventually I reached the Salwa Road, the main road all the way back into Doha City.  I stuck myself on the hard shoulder and pedalled with everything I could muster all the way back and arrived at Souq Waif just after 12.30.  Id never been so relieved and spent some time just sitting with the horses and camels, trying to take in what I'd been through over the last 8 hours!

One major lesson - check whether the distance is in miles or kilometres !!!  It makes a big difference! I ended up cycling 115km, not the 70 that I'd expected.  And one might be tempted to say... plan better and know what to expect.  But if I had known all about it in advance, maybe I wouldn't have done it and where would be the challenge and adventure in that?  These days we plan the heck out of everything and with it, remove all surprises..... good and bad.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Going to Camel heaven

Ive made no secret of the fact that I adore camels.  They're full of character, have the cutest faces with big eyes, long eye lashes and full lips which curl and flap into the funniest shapes or simply hang in gormless contemplation.  Buts its not this that really attracts me - its their nature -wrongly characterised as grumpy.  They can be the most affectionate of beasts and develop relationships with their handlers as strong as that between humans..... when you're kind, they respond with gentleness, when you're rough with them, they fight back.  And they bicker and squabble with each other like all animals.

Best of all though is their patience, toughness and hardiness to cope with the unbelievably harsh conditions that they can endure as nomadic transportation.  Heaving loads across hundreds of miles of desert in extreme temperatures, sometimes going weeks without food or water, relying on their fat reserves, for survival.

Their milk is the most nutritious of all and the staple diet of the bedouin who can survive only on camels milk for a month if necessary.  Contrary to popular belief, it is actually lower in fat than cows milk but higher in vitamins and minerals such as potassium and vitamin C.  For this and many other reasons, the bedu refer to the camel as 'Ata Allah' or 'God's Gift'.
I had the fortune to meet a fellow Al Jazeera colleague with a similar passion for this 'ship of the desert' and she had already been out to the camel race track to write a piece about them.  So we agreed we would go out together one early morning and try to witness the camels being washed!!  now this may seem like a bit of a niche activity - up there with excessive dog grooming, cats in wigs or child beauty pageants - but to me it seemed like a thoroughly exciting prospect.

So at dawn we headed to Camel City - an area west of Doha - where the business of camel racing takes place.  First stop was the Camel supermarket to buy some water - it was only 6am and already it was in the 30s and the sun was rising fast.  In this little parade of shops beside the supermarket were all sorts of shops for camel food and accessories from crops and bridals to the delightful muzzles in a variety of colours.

As we headed to the track, we could see groups of camels everywhere being led out for warm up, training and racing, many still wearing their coats and young ones being lead by adults.  We found ourselves at the finishing line first where we suddenly realised our car was facing in the wrong direction so we hurriedly moved out of the way of the oncoming charge of land cruisers, all operating their little robotic jockeys which sit atop the camels.

These little robots have replaced little humans which used to ride the camels, until 2003 when using children - mainly from South Asian countries of India and Bangladesh -was banned by the Emirate emir.  The owners drive in landrcuisers on a road that runs beside the track.  They have 2 walkie talkies with the counterparts strapped into the robot - one which they can use to shout at the camel, the other into which they blow which then activates a robotic whip.

Once this race had finished, we headed to the start line, behind which as far as the eye could see, disappearing into the hazy dawn, were young camels lining up to race.  Today was focused on the juniors - starting at around 1 year old.

A variety of colours - from pale cream and light brown to red and dark brown, some quite mottled and some had been groomed to a smooth silky aerodynamic finish while others were almost as woolly as sheep!

Rather like horse racing, they are held behind the starting gate in a holding area and once the previous race is underway, they are brought around to line up.  Their handlers run through the side gate with them at high speed, the young camel's legs flying about uncontrollably - it seems incredibly dangerous to the uninitiated!!  One kick even from a young one would do serious damage!!

Once into the starting area, they are tied to an overhead pole which stretches across the start line with a canvass sheet hanging from it in front of the camel's faces to keep them calm.  

All you can see are legs jostling and fighting for position, occasionally getting a sharp tap from the handlers to keep them in line.  Sometimes they were held there for quite a few minutes as the handlers squabbled almost as much as the camels over where or how they should be secured to the pole.

Once everyone is happy that they're set.... the handlers quickly clear the area and the pole turns over, the ties drop down, the canvass is raised and off they go! Of course this all happens in a split second and the shouting,  energy and excitement as they set off is something to behold up close, standing as we were right beside the start, getting a face full of sand on a couple of occasions as I tried to get a good shot of racing legs!!

We then witness one or two races of the newbies - these are 1 year olds experiencing their first ever race.  Two of them fell quite early on, I think tripped by others or perhaps taken by surprise and not quite into their racing stride just yet!!

And after all the young ones in each race have taken off, they are followed very shortly behind by a few adults which - when they get to the finish, will guide the young ones home.  Young camels are more willing to walk behind older camels than be led by humans.  Young camels have two trainers - one human, one camel.  Now how sweet is that!

At the finish line - 1500metres later, we notice one or two camels with what seems to be orange paint on their faces.  This was saffron which is traditionally rubbed onto the camel's face and neck as a sign of honour.  There we met Mohammed Islam - a Bangladeshi camel trainer.  He was very sociable, friendly and knowledgeable and keen to share more with us.  He invited us to join him after the race at his farm to see some behind the scenes action!!..... including, we hoped ..... camel washing!!!......

...... to be continued!