Saturday, 17 September 2016

Qatar Cycling Adventures - A night under the stars pt 2

Having found a nice little spot to spend the night, on a sandy spit, east of Al Khor, stretching out into the Arabian Gulf, I parked Grey Legs and spread out my towel.  I changed out of my cycling clothes and hung them out to dry on the handle bars.

The spit was raised out of the sea with large rocks and as I relaxed after my day in the saddle, I listened to the water lapping gently and shoals of fish jumping and darting about around the surface of the ocean.

The sun had now gone down and the sky was a dusky pink to violet, turning to dark blue, and looking up I saw the moon, just over half full and bright.  There was a light breeze and the humidity began to pick up a little as darkness fell.

I had noticed a group of Philippino guys parked up and a few of them wandered past me towards the end of the spit, carrying what looked like camping equipment.  I was a little disappointed that Id be sharing the space but they weren't too close and seemed quiet enough.

I then noticed some lights in the water, some out quite far and some close to the rocks - maybe kayakers?  Some of the guys were looking over the side of the spit close to me and seemed to be surveying for something, shining their torches into the water.

More and more lights were appearing in the water and what started as one or two voices in the darkness grew into a gentle background chatter.  Although sad that I hadn't found my place of isolation for the night, I found the combination of lapping waves and chattering fisherman rather reassuring.

I wasn't quite so chuffed with my other camp buddies...... ants!  Of course when you decide to camp wild, its good to remember it means you'll potentially be sharing your camp with all manner of guests and there is not much you can do to stop them from creeping in.  Scorpions are common in the desert so I got off quite lightly with ants.   Despite moving my camp 3 times, they tracked me down.... so eventually, I gave in and decided to relax and share with them.

As the bright moon travelled across the sky, turning from silver to gold and then in the early hours dipping below the horizon, out came billions of stars and I finally got what I came for.  I never see the stars in Doha due to the light pollution so it was really special to be lying there looking up at a sky full of stars, spotting constellations and feeling insignificant in the world.  While I took it all in, an occasional shooting star appeared then faded, its trail following like a tiny silver thread - I saw around half a dozen or so as I drifted in and out of a light doze.

The Philippino fishermen were busy all night - I was dying to know what they were catching but was too tired to investigate until the morning.  When dawn broke, and they appeared to be packing up, I asked them - "whats the catch?"..... and they showed me their haul of crabs.  Hundreds of small blue crabs - sadly far too small for my liking.  But Ive seen them for sale in supermarkets here so I guess its not illegal.

The sun started to rise quickly and spectacularly at around 5am.  A few guys had arrived just to swim and dived straight into the water - it was too hot for swimming they claimed - more like a bath!   I swiftly and delicately changed into my lycra and headed off with Grey Legs back towards the road and home.

I urgently needed to find 1. a discrete place to pee! and 2. somewhere to buy water - I'd been rationing my supply through the night - but I wasn't sure where would be open at 6am on the day of Eid Al Adha, a public holiday.

For no.1 (excuse the pun) - I found a small dune to protect my modesty - or so I thought!  A passing motorist was only too pleased to acknowledge my over exposure by tooting his horn - not sure whether in appreciation, disgust or simply surprise at seeing this strange apparition akin to a scene from Carry on Follow that Camel!!

When I arrived back at the main road, I realised I would have to turn right and away from the direction i needed to go until the dual carriageway hit a roundabout.  But at the roundabout, I decided to continue on to the little seaside town of Al Thakhira.  And boy I was glad that I did.  I headed towards the corniche and right there was a parade of small shops and a grocery store that was open, which satisfied urgent need no.2

I loaded up with water, guzzled down a fruit juice and bought an ice lolly and headed to the waterside. It was beautiful.... an inlet with mudflats and sand banks dotted with different kinds of sea birds and waders.  Grey Legs and I took a short breather before the epic now 80km journey home.  I wanted so much to stay longer in this pretty little place but we had to hit the road before temperatures started to soar into the 40s.  As it was they were well into the mid 30s already at 6am!

Everywhere were 4 x 4s crammed with young men and boys dressed exquisitely in pristine white thobes.  It was the early morning of Eid Al Adha so I guess maybe they were all returning from the mosque?  Or maybe going out for a morning cruise before family duties?  Not a woman in sight.  Maybe it was like Christmas morning when mums stay in cooking Christmas dinner while the guys go out walking the dog or down to the pub!.... clearly not either of those activities in this case!!

Anyway, water bottles full and sufficiently cooled by my ice lolly, we headed off back towards Al Khor and then onto the coastal road and home to Doha, singing "On the road again" out loud.  A ghastly headwind and rising temperatures started to take their toll after about and hour or so and I knew I needed to get out of the sun quickly for a break.  But there are no trees, no buildings, no shade along this road so when I spotted a mobile advertising hoarding, I stopped and hid in its tiny sliver of shade for 10 minutes, lowering my head to stop myself passing out.

I couldn't stop for long and as soon as I recovered enough, I was back on the road, pressing for home as the heat continued to climb into the 40s.  I felt relief as the Doha city scape came into view but I knew I had about another hour of cycling to go and my water supply was severely depleted already.

Once into the city, and another 20 minutes of familiar roads left, I really wanted to get home but a nagging voice was telling me to stop for water - so as I made it to the Corniche, I stopped at the Costa Coffee and stumbled inside, to the shock of staff and customers.   I ran straight to the cooler and drank a pineapple juice and a bottle of water before paying for anything!  I was physically shaking due to the combination of depleted sugar levels and heat exhaustion.   But it didn't take long to rehydrate and cool down and after a 15 minutes, I was feeling great again and ready to face the final stretch along the Corniche, waving at my lovely camels in Souq Waqif as I went by!

The beauty of the trip was not only in the reward of the night spent in the desert under the stars, but was also in the physical challenge of cycling in such conditions and the mental challenge of doing so alone.  As the quote goes... "Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort"..... and I now feel ready for a longer adventure - from micro to mini!

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Qatar Cycling Adventures - A night under the stars Pt 1

With Eid AlAdha approaching and the weather cooling to a mere 40 degrees, what better time to plan another micro-adventure and this time to do something I've been dying to do for a long time - sleep in the desert under the stars.

After little sleep and an aching back, I hauled myself out of bed and set off at 6.30 am on the day of Arafat, a fasting day for Muslims, before the celebrations of Eid Al Adha - the Festival of the Sacrifice - begin.   Roads were quiet, temperatures around 35C and no wind.  I planned to cycle up the coastal road running along the east coast of Qatar, to Al Khor, a small town in the North East, located on a creek - Al Khor is Arabic for 'the creek'.   The ride would be approximately 50km which I estimated would take me 2.5 hours, give or take a stop when necessary.

Id heard of a small island among the mangroves - for which Al Khor is famous - which looked like it might be a good place to camp and star gaze, away from bright lights and civilisation. I was excited but nervous - the heat being such as it is.  Ive not ridden for more than 45 minutes in over 40 degree heat and (except for my trusty Grey Legs), I would be alone in my endeavour.  Dogged determination and an inexplicable inclination towards discomfort would keep me going - after all, what pleasure is there in riding a smooth road?

Staying hydrated was my biggest concern so I stopped at the first truck stop at the start of the coastal road to refuel my water bottles and take a breather before the remaining 35km.  These truck stops in Qatar are not for the faint hearted.  They're always a little dodgy due to the large number of huge trucks and commercial vehicles that pass through them from all directions.

I had to be careful, being a tiny person on a tiny bike!!  But I found the convenience store in the corner.... aptly entitled "consumer goods" and gulped down a strawberry milkshake and as much water as I could manage.

I turned to look for the way out and was somewhat daunted by the sight of enormous tipper and concrete mixer trucks trundling along kicking up thick clouds of dust jostling with worker buses chucking out dense black fumes, weaving their way through the myriad of parked up traffic, out through the gas station and back onto the main road.  I felt very small very suddenly.

With my helmet and glasses back on and my scarf pulled up over my nose and mouth, we plunged into the melee and back out onto the main road, past Lusail - a massive construction site which will eventually be a brand new city for World Cup 2022.

Once past this, the only highlight on the long straight quiet road was the Lusail International Racing circuit and sports complex - quiet now for the summer, but a hive of activity during cooler nights when the circuit hosts motor racing, cycling, running and karting events.

After a relatively uneventful 2 hr 45 min and 58km ride, I finally entered the gates of Al Khor and headed directly to the air conditioning of AlKhor Mall, where I proceeded directly to the bathroom and changed into slightly more appropriate attire for Arafat Day (remember fasting relates to all things, not just food and drink).

I would spend the next few hours inside the mall, my only refuge from the heat of the day, before heading back out to find my little patch of desert beneath the stars for the night.

I set off again around 4pm towards Purple Island - another 10km or so out of Al Khor.  The traffic was building, something akin to Christmas Eve in the UK, where people rush out for last minute goodies for tomorrow's Eid feast with family and friends.  So when I finally got off main roads and onto the very quiet desert track leading towards the coast, it was a mighty relief, particularly as the sun was rapidly descending and light would soon be gone.

Passing a half sunken Nissan Patrol, which had bogged itself into the soft wet sand just off the side of the road, I was reminded to take care not to deviate too far off the beaten track.  The area is covered in salt flats which when wet can turn into quick sand - quite treacherous to the unwary.  With the sun setting, I found the turning to Purple Island - a firm sand track leading to a parking area just off the island, more conducive to mountain biking than Grey Legs' skinny tyres!  But he managed admirably and we arrived to find severals cars parked up and families stretching their legs.

However, where we expected to see a track leading onto the island, we found a deep swampy canal and no way in.  The whole island appeared to be cut off with mosquito infested mangroves.  With insects buzzing around my head, no tent and no insect repellent, I made the quick decision to abandon the plan and find somewhere else.  And with light disappearing fast, I needed a rapid pan B.

Back to the road and cycling as fast as I could muster, the wind having picked up, I headed down another desert track which I gambled would take me to the sea and hopefully a stretch of beach that wasn't fenced in as private land or owned by a gas company - as much of Qatar is.   At the end I found another few cars parked up with a group of Philippino guys gathering - maybe for a BBQ?? I wasn't sure.  The parking area was cut off from the sea by more mangrove swamps and a high sand bank on the left hand side.  Undeterred, I hauled Grey Legs up the steep sand bank and to my total relief, saw a sandy spit stretching out into the sea.

We cycled as far as possible along the spit and found the perfect spot for the night, just as the sun disappeared below the horizon.  I was exhausted and so happy to have found somewhere close to the water, isolated and peaceful.   Well..... so I thought.