Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Stairway to Heaven

We've just been for a lightning 4-day raid on the UK, taking advantage of the post-Ramadan long weekend Eid holiday. What with the planned trip back to NZ in January for Catrin and Nathan's wedding, we really wanted to squeeze in a visit to Swansea (Neath to be precise, or Castell-Nedd as the bilingual signs say) to catch up with Angela's family, particularly her dad Bob who we hadn't seen for three years since he made the move from NZ back to Wales. He's looking good.

More about the trip later, but we can report the weather was hot, the setting idyllic (here's the view from our hotel room)

and we seemed to spend more time eating than sleeping - I passed the faggots-and-peas Stage One Honorary Welshman test, I think; I may even have just scraped through Stage Two by going to two rugby matches - even got caught on TV with Ange's brother Marc, shaking our heads at the dismal fortunes of the Ospreys (they can only improve, boyo).

The lack of sleep got off to a splendid start for me on Wednesday night with a last-minute dash to the uncharted wilderness of Dubai to rescue Ange's passport (and our neighbour Alison's), which had to have their newly-gained work permits processed into them before we could fly, and which process had of course taken longer than expected. As our ETD was 3pm Thursday, and the passports were at the Cognition office in Abu Dhabi, we couldn't risk any delay in getting Ange's delivered to Al Ain on Thurs morning, so off I rushed at 7.30pm, mapless but armed with directions, to a rendezvous with Sheryl the office manager who had kindly arranged to take them home to Dubai.

You may have gathered from past posts that Doha is a crazy place, and even Al Ain is quite good for getting lost in. Be assured, they are both hick towns. Dubai is, well, cosmic. They say don't bother with your GPS there because the roads keep changing. The new Metro may help a bit. It's debatable whether a map would have been much help to this stray waif in the dark, but whatever, after a five-hour saga of missed turnings, scores of extra kilometres and blind faith in my direction-finding duck (see Michael Leunig's The Adventures of Vasco Pyjama), i.e keeping the Burj al Arab in view at all possible times, not to mention a slowly dying cellphone, I did make it to the Starbucks at Jumeira Beach Residence (which is not a compound with villas as I imagined, but a whole suburb of closely-packed 50-storey apartment towers), met up with the ever-patient Sheryl and retrieved the passports.

Then after a further hour or more of aimless nose-following (despite Sheryl's best map-drawing-on-envelope efforts), I serendipitously got lost in the opposite direction onto the same bypass that I had got lost onto on the way in, so I finally knew vaguely where I was and could retrace my circuitous route to the Al Ain road
(the actual trip from Al Ain to the outskirts of Dubai is a bit over an hour). So you may have the merest inkling of my joy at 2am, on coming over the last row of dunes, to see in the distance (must have been an unusually un-hazy night) the sparkling and unmistakable Lights Of Home, i.e the Jebel Hafeet road.

The days are indeed getting less hazy now, and yet another pilgrimage up the 15km 3-lane summit road is likely to be rewarded with clearer views, maybe even as far as the further reaches of Al Ain. Likewise, it should be worth going up on our roof at different times of day to capture the various moods of the mountain. We will get to that sooner or later, but meanwhile here is a bunch of pictures taken on our several trips up there in earlier weeks (I wondered whether it would spoil the experience for you when you get around to visiting us, but nothing can really capture that mountain air, so here goes), but starting with one from the roof at noon today, quite the clearest I have seen it.

You are looking at the second highest mountain in the UAE (approx 4000ft), and the most visible of Al Ain's many tourist attractions.

Here it is from the other side, taken from the Truck Road that comes out of Oman and cuts through the north of the mountain as it skirts the town heading for Abu Dhabi. The massif is elongated approx north-south, so we are looking at the east side, alongside which we drove on our way to the Omani border for the recently-reported border run.

(Don't forget: you can click for bigger on any of these pictures. NB: DoubleTake is a nifty panorama-stitching program which I can only afford as shareware until our finances recover from the Wales trip, so meanwhile you get their logo on the stitched pix, but no worries, it's well worth the plug.)

Here's a detail shot showing the spectacular bare strata that characterise the landforms (note also bucolic camels and Toyota); building the summit road wouldn't have given rise to much soul-searching about destroying any vegetation.

The Truck road is quite a convenient traffic-avoiding long-cut from our place to Bawadi Mall, which itself is several km out of town on the way to the Mezyad border post. Behind the mall are the extensive new souqs and livestock markets I may previously have mentioned. A week or two ago we headed out to the mall with a newly-arrived friend, and were checking out the camels; they were friendly and curious as ever, but you could see they knew something was up.

Minutes later the dusk seemed to have come early, and next thing, this is all the view we had of the mountain.

Dust squalls whipped through the markets and lightning flashed every few seconds (sorry, no pix of that, it''s not that easy to catch)

but we made it out of there and into the mall with just a bit of sand in our teeth.

It was in fact a real proper thunderstorm by the time it got to central Al Ain, as we discovered when we drove back there later: fences, tree branches and billboards blown down, and big puddles on the roundabouts (they don't bother with stormwater drains here as it all evaporates within hours) - it even made the papers. But trust us eh: it rained here, and we got stuck in a shopping mall and missed it.

Enough about the weather, back to the mountain. Here's a glimpse or two of the celebrated road. This marvel of engineering (climbs approx 4000ft in about 10km, you work out the gradient for me; and something like 70 corners) holds no fears for the trusty Tiida, which even fully loaded happily hums its way up with overdrive cancelled, secure in the knowledge that a Nissan (latest GT-R of course) holds the hillclimb record at around 3 minutes and a bit for 9km. Not to mention Top Gear doing a magazine feature on it with 3 (three) Bugatti Veyrons (never by halves in the Gulf eh). But you don't really want to rush it with a car full of passengers, and in fact with a constant grade, 3 lanes all the way and hardly any really tight hairpins, it's not really the ultimate driver's treat you might dream of (could be well worth the climb to bike down again though, for those so motivated).

Better focus on the scenery then: when you get to the top, the view is breathtaking. Yes, its a never-by-halves-in-the-Gulf car park, 400m by 150m (a maths teacher and I worked out there must be about a million pavers).

You can see they bulldozed quite a lot of the summit to make it.

You also get a good view of the Sheikh's summer palace

from which he in turn can survey his demesne.

You can share the lordly vista by visiting the nearby Hotel Grand Mercure

though to be honest, in summer the air isn't all that much cooler than down below, and the prospect is mainly heat haze. This is the Truck Road again, looking down towards where the foto of the mountain was taken from.

Straight down, you can see evidence of water under the desert (the dots are trees).

There's plenty of water at Green Mubazzarah, a hot (!) springs resort nestling at the foot of the mountain. Grassy slopes are irrigated to an almost fluorescent intensity of, indeed, green (shown here only at a distance to protect your eyes); you can hire a chalet and take the waters, or a mini-train ride.

The best views are from the numerous handy car parks dotted all the way up and down the road.

In summer, Al Ain is at best only a smudge on the horizon, although it's only about 5km away as the crow flies. Note how rocky ridges (also jebel) extend right into the outskirts (will get some fotos soon). This is looking pretty much at the centre of town, but it's not that obvious, is it.

This panorama covers most of the city (really, it's there on the horizon), looking north.

I even managed to enhance this one enough to point out our place. That's Twam St curving away, so we're on the right of it, beyond the line of red dunes. OK?

Of course the spectacularity is doubled at night - Green Mubazzarah again, centre of pic.

See: there is a town out there.

Back up at the summit cafeteria (ice creams, coffees, burgers and heaps of fun kiddie rides), a resident cat takes time out from rubbish bin duty to hunt a lizard. Not bad camouflage, actually.

But day or night, he's not going to cause much worry to the crows that cruise the thermals over Jebel Hafeet.

Who needs the World's Tallest Building when we have this on our doorstep, and not a chance of getting lost finding it?

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