Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Towns and Dunes

It's not that Doha is all solid residential buildup, with the occasional green park, such as we are used to seeing in temperate-zone cities. The desert is part of this town. Even a middle class neighbourhood like this one (typical of Madinat Khalifa North, just across the highway from our apartments, and of most of the city) has open spaces like this, just dust between the perimeter roads.

There is plenty of evidence of a greening program of sorts, with many public areas and roadsides in the process of being landscaped. You see them at various stages, from the lush lawns and flower beds of the Corniche (now the hot weather is here I wouldn't dismiss the idea of taking the job of watering them all day long with handheld hose - even for Indian labourer's wages - better than digging up the roads for sure), to half planted, to laid out but bare except for the irrigation tubing (they have that too, in for-Africa quantities - there is half an acre of black spaghetti lying in the otherwise empty V-shaped beds of the intersection borders opposite our front door, with nothing to do but soak up the UV rays).

And a lot of Doha looks like this: acres of idle land, awaiting maybe the greening, but more likely the construction of more same-same apartment complexes like the ones in the background.

Or like this: there are similar mini-deserts by the dozen quite close in to the city centre, sometimes with tent encampments. They may be earmarked for new commercial or public infrastructure projects, or another road interchange, having been cleared of old unwanted buildings; or equally likely, are just part of the piecemeal development pattern, just not built on yet. Travel another two or three kms outwards and more open space is visible, to the point where you think you have left town; then two roundabouts later, you are back in the thick of urban landscape which doesn't let up all the way back to the city centre. It's Tardis plus Looking-Glass - start off in the opposite direction and you just may find yourself where you were looking to end up; but turn off the main road and there are far too many streets to fit (like the souqs).

Sooner or later you need to really get out into the desert proper for a look. On this initial shortish stay, we may not get time to do the standard experiences, e.g. dune bashing in a 4wd (for hardy thrillseekers only, we are told) or a guided overnight camp (more suitable for gentle aesthetes like us maybe, but with scorpions if you're lucky). But with a car on tap, a tiki-tour of the hinterland demands to be undertaken before it gets way too hot. As already noted, there isn't a huge amount of Qatar to be explored - horizontally it's about 160km by 70km, vertically a dizzy 100metres at most. But the guidebooks recommend some interesting historical sites for a visit, and the roads are there to be driven on, eh.

So one Friday morning, Angela and Nancy and I set off northwards to look for various forts and check out the fishing port of Al Khor, one of Doha's larger satellite towns, a mere 40km away. We took the alternative seaward main road rather than Highway 1 which starts at Al Gharrafa overpass; the latter is full of trucks (although fewer on a Friday) and treacherously potholed. Highway 1A is in fact a superb and empty four-lane motorway, with copious signage which can still leave the novice left-hand-drive traveller confused as to which slip road to take (in the hope of finding one of those forts - must be around here somewhere, is that it over there? - no, that's a power substation...), and consequently heading back to town on occasions.

However, we did manage to stumble upon the sleepy coastal town of Simaisma, half way to Al Khor. It hasn't got much of a beach,

but people can be seen wading the shallows (possibly harvesting kaimoana?)

and there is a fishing pier

with associated friendly fishermen

though local youth were also on hand to break the monotony if required, with Friday-afternoon recreational activities

and associated soundtrack (silencers optional).

Onward to Al Khor, which turns out to be pretty much a mini-Doha (just no skyscrapers). We found roundabouts and dual carriageways galore, the usual jumble of shops in the main street, a posh resort compound, a mini-corniche, and a road leading to a massive residential project. There is also a businesslike fishing port with rows of pretty dhows

and stacks of lobster traps.

It was only right to check out the local produce; the Pearl of Beirut is recommended in Lonely Planet, and there were actually some diners there already. It advertises itself as providing many different national cuisines (if you like a curry you'll have plenty of choice) but the grilled hamour (popular local fish) with salad was a tasty bargain.

Then a brief circuit of the town revealed some unusual architectural detail, such as we haven't seen in Doha.
This guy has brought the Villagio mall ambience outdoors and out of town, a welcome relief from the universal muted-sand-dune tones nearly all houses are painted;

and this one has managed to greatly extend the possibilities of decorative masonry

with tasteful water feature

and a built-in majlis too.

Remember, it's Friday afternoon: back in downtown Al Khor, the subcontinental bachelors are starting to gather in the streets

so we hightailed outta there and headed west, hoping to find the popular Town Gardens, which people said were worth a visit. Ten km out of town, we had sort of given up - then there was the turnoff.

Al Khor Public Gardens are indeed worth the trip. It's a park, folks; several hectares of neatly landscaped and moderately-well-cared-for greenery out in the middle of the desert, and for once Indians are allowed in at the same time as families. These guys were celebrating something, with a ghetto blaster playing their sort of music, and the man in white leading the dancing. We wanted to join in, but the disapproving gaze of an elderly Arab gentleman chaperoning three respectably abaya-clad teenage girls (who for their part thought it was gigglingly funny) reminded us that ladies don't dance in public here. Probably. Sometimes it's hard to gauge the appropriate degree of respect for tradition, or whether in fact the more liberal side of Qatar's multicultural experiment is applicable. Here, probably not.

The Gardens are very popular; people come from all over for a picnic in the shady surroundings (it's well for the blase kiwi expat to remember that though it may be a bit dry and tatty by home standards, this really is a green oasis amid the endless sandy rubble, and for a local, something really special). These friendly Jordanians turned out to be neighbours of ours from Madinat Khalifa South; we had a good chinwag about life in Qatar

and admired their babies, while another group of Indians played cricket in the background.

Then, "Please excuse, it is time to pray", and out came their mats and one of them led the chanting; and it was time for our tea, so we said ma'a al salaama and made our way back to the car, past this family making full use of the trampoline

while their menfolk gathered elsewhere for men's business.

We hit the road home via Highway 1 this time, where giant potholes threatened to destroy the front suspension as we wove our way through deviations past half-built flyovers, and the usual speedsters came flashing and beeping through. We never found any forts - we should have been looking off highway 1, not 1A, but it was too late in the day by then.

Later in the week I set off alone (with water bottle) on my planned expedition to find the Roof of Qatar - possibly called Al Jaouw al Ramli at 103metres altitude, somewhere towards the Saudi border (according to the few spot heights on my unreliable 2002 map). First stop Al Wakra, where Angela teaches, a semi-industrial town only 20km south of Doha, somewhat bigger than Al Khor, and also featuring a fishing port as well as a desalination plant, a half-finished Heritage Village, and its best-kept secret, a pleasantly swimmable beach.

These attractions could wait for another day when we could explore the town together, and I pressed on to Messaieed, another 20km south and a major centre of heavy industry. Finding only security gates and trucking depots in two circuits of the place (there is a town centre hidden somewhere, but the omens are not good that it would be in any way interesting), I continued southwards, following signs to "Beach" (which eventually turned out to be the exclusive Sealine Resort at the end of the road - also to be saved up for another day when we can treat ourselves to the facilities).

A further 10km of trucks and roadworks out of Messaieed towards the resort, this is the stirring sight that heaves into view round the shoulder of a sand dune. This is the heart of the petroleum processing industry, with intallations and complexes all the way to the horizon on one side of the road, and more of those monster flame-off towers presiding like Sauron over the no-nonsense scene.

On the other side it's wall-to-wall desert. The Qatari desert is mainly not your classic Lawrence-of-Arabia dune panorama, just flat and rubbly, but in this corner of the country there is a good crop of sandy rollers. Trudging up this 50metre high one near the resort was quite enough in my semi-unfit state (i.e. somewhat less fit than un-), but worth it for the view to the coast. In the foreground, as you can see, is a typical venue for 4wd mayhem - the dune cuts away at 45 degrees or steeper to the hard flat below, handy for tumbling vehicles to come to rest after overcooking a slalom, or simply having a head-on smash, as can be seen on YouTube.

Looking landwards, the other half of the dune-bashing industry is visible: echelons of tent-based quad bike hire operators (I counted 17 side by side along about 2km of the road), each with 20 or more rides neatly lined up awaiting the weekend or a tour operator.

You can see some of them in this video, which also gives some idea of the diversity of the landscape.

Onward ever higher! - this entailed striking out westward along the truck route connecting Mesaieed to the main road between Doha and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And I mean trucks: a solid queue of the buggers at 50kph in both directions for 30km of mainly single carriageway (you soon learn to take your chances and make the most of any gap in the no-overtaking lines).

At last the main highway - all eight lanes of it, all the way to the border, and of course hardly a truck in sight. I got quite excited when I saw this, an actual hill (sorry, outcrop then, all right?). But hardly qualifying as the sort of Height I was looking for.

With all the time spent following dunes and ascending queues of trucks, there wasn't time to get close to Al Jaow Al Ramli or whatever it's called, but I suspect we can just see it 20km away, between the power lines in this suitably enhanced photo. Good enough for me anyway.

The road skirts the coast as you near the border, but you can't get to the beach. Reading the signs on the way back, I realised that there is a whole new road, to Dukhan on the west coast, that doesn't feature at all on my map, so I checked it out. Sorry, no photos, chaps: it's a pristine and completely empty 50km of four-laner through 100% Qatar Petroleum territory, with drilling rigs, pipelines, more flame towers and other installations every few km, and frequent monster hoardings reminding the traveller to obey detailed regulations including in big letters, Photography and Videography Prohibited. OK then, not worth the risk.

The QP monopoly extends even to Dukhan township - you can't get in without permission from a resident. They say it has a nice beach and a peculiar golf course (20 holes, sand-and-0il surface - bring your own tee-off mat) but they will have to wait until we know somebody. The final leg back to Doha is on a newly-upgraded four-lane road that takes us past the camel racing track and the Sheikh's museum, and suddenly we are back in civilisation.

The top end of the country still awaits exploration - can it be any different? There are apparently some good accessible beaches north of Dukhan - maybe we will make it, but probably not now it's really hot. We did make it back to Al Wakra a week or two later for an afternoon in the sun and sea breeze. The dhow wharf is more picturesque than Al Khor.

There are some rather pretty ones set up for cruising rather than fishing;

All of them feature a reminder of why it's called the poop deck (is that true?).

Then we headed for the almost deserted beach - just a few local families, wives braving the water in full abaya and hijab while the men just wore shorts.

It's knee deep, clean, pleasantly warm, and with the desalination plant just round the corner, really buoyant - just don't get any up your nose. Come on in everyone!


  1. Hi Tony and Angela

    What a great blog - another world indeed. The photos and your descriptions are incredible!

    ;-) Gerri and Gary

  2. Wow Tony - great blog. Gary and I devoured every word and picture - it sure is another world! We've been in Auckland for the long weekend - Gary playing chess. Hi to Angela
    :-) from us both Gerri and Gary