Our ancestors had camels; we have the Landcruiser,” said Rami, smiling. About an hour south of Doha, Qatar’s capital, the tarmac runs out. From here to the Saudi Arabian border there’s nothing but vast dunes. In the days of those camel-riding forefathers, the fierce heat and shifting sands of the desert offered a precarious existence; today, they’re a playground.
It was mid-afternoon and the sun was casting an ochre glow across the huge humps of sand. As soon as we’d reduced the tyre pressure to the levels necessary for desert driving, Rami gunned the engine and headed straight for the nearest dune – it was about two storeys high. I checked my seat belt just as we hit the base of the slope and ploughed up, stopping bang on top. From this vantage point I could see the immensity of the space before us: a long, wide, flat valley and then more dunes, disappearing into the sun. Several more dips and swoops later and I’d lost all sense of direction.
Dune bashing is definitely the most fun you can have in Qatar. It’s a difficult place to fathom. As I’d stepped off the plane several days previously, I’d felt the muffling wetness of high humidity, but little else. There was no bedlam at passport control, no one trying to run off with my luggage, no invasion of the senses; just a chauffeur-driven BMW easing me to the air-conditioned cocoon of my hotel.
My driver was from Pakistan, the girl at the check-in desk Filipino, the bell boy Sri Lankan – I could have been anywhere. Officially the world’s richest country on a per capita basis (thanks to vast supplies of natural gas and oil) life in this tiny emirate is very different from the West. Much remains hidden here – the Qataris are strict Muslims and for the most part they stay behind the walls of their vast houses, the tinted windows of their huge cars or the head-to-toe veils that conceal the women.
I asked Rami (originally from Palestine) where all the Qataris were, as we paused for breath on top of a dune. He told me that of Qatar’s 800,000 inhabitants, just 25% are Qatari; the rest are guest workers from overseas that live here and send money home. By extension, Qatar’s oil wealth supports families in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and countless other places.
There wasn’t time to further contemplate this, however – we were careering down another dune into one of the flat valleys. Here the sand was more compact, so Rami floored the accelerator. We were soon hurtling along at nearly 100km/h before hitting a series of dunes, the engine roaring at high revs. Taken at speed these sandy mountains were the ultimate big dipper – my stomach was left somewhere in the troughs each time we swooped up the other side. Perhaps the best manoeuvre was driving round the inside of a barchan – a long, steep, curved dune. Or maybe it was stopping the 4WD dead at the top of a large, uncompacted dune and just letting the vehicle slide back down again.
It seemed easy, but Rami assured me it isn’t and that when he was learning he frequently got stuck. As if to illustrate this, when I stepped out into the engulfing heat to take pictures and asked him to drive up one of the dunes for me, he refused. It looked like just another heap of sand to me, but I was told this particular one was too soft and could easily have given way under the car, turning it over in the process.
Back in the car, we crested another swooping Rami-approved rise and stopped to look out across a long wide valley to the Saudi Arabian border. I hadn’t expected to see water in the desert, but this valley was full of it. There was no riot of greenery, though – this was sea water. Small piles of white salty crystals glistened on the shore under the unrelenting sun. This inland sea, named Khor al-Adaid, is remarkable. Fed by the Arabian Sea, the waters flow underground through the porous earth, rising up above the sand to create lakes in the middle of nowhere before disappearing again to leave just a patch of slightly darker, damp sand.
We remained sat on our dune to watch the sunset. Finally, as the heat was beginning to die away, I got out of the car to watch the hazy red orb dip below the horizon. The sand here was strangely corrugated and its tiny crystals sparkled in the sun’s last rays. The sense of space and silence was all-encompassing. On the way back, Rami wanted to prove he knew the desert blindfold, so he turned off the headlights and kept on driving. It scared the life out of me.
Next day we drove northwards from Doha on a pristine new highway. I was on a hunt for history – for something to connect me to Qatar. Either side there was nothing but crunchy desert, sullen in the immense heat, punctuated by the odd petrol station or row of electricity pylons. We stopped at the old town of Al-Khor, where it took just the ten steps up to the small museum to make me break a sweat. No light sheen of perspiration either, these were fat droplets trickling down my sides and forehead, and gushing into my eyes. Inside the museum, a series of exhibits traced the history of Qatar’s second city – in particular its pearl-diving heritage.
These days the dhows that bump against the harbour walls are only used for fishing. The time when men dived to depths of 20m to prise the oysters from their beds with no more than a turtle-shell nose peg and beeswax earplugs to aid them are gone, but the shiny white pearl remains an important cultural symbol – statues of large oysters adorn many of the round-abouts in Doha. Just across the road I found an old mosque and retreated from the sun into its cool courtyard. With so much oil money around, renovation is happening constantly in Qatar, so it was refreshing to find not only shade inside this building’s ageing walls but also a murmur of bygone days.
We pressed on further into the desert. The old fort at Al-Zubara is the best of several dotted around the north of the country. It dates back to 1938, which is pretty old for Qatar. I climbed up one of the square, mud-brick watchtowers and looked out across the shimmering sand, towards a blue smudge of hazy sea. It was the perfect vantage point for repelling raiders. The most interesting feature was its wind-holes – an early type of air conditioning. A large number of circular holes, about the size of my fist, traverse the fort’s thick walls at head height. They suck air into the rooms, creating a cooling breeze – effective even in the heat of summer.
Several of the rooms served as a museum, with displays from local excavations. Five minutes into the desert and we reached the excavations themselves – an 18th-century city wall and a series of foundations. This memory of an older civilisation looked precarious, ready to disappear once more under the roaming sands.
Back at the fort, Khayal – the old man who worked there as curator, guide and night watchman – beckoned us over to the shade of his carpeted canopy for a cup of sweet, milky tea. He’d been keeping watch for 25 years – maybe here I’d found someone who could provide a link between Qatar’s Bedouin past and its oil-rich present? Unfortunately not – he was from Pakistan. He’d arrived in Qatar aged 15 and still sent money home to a family he saw once a year. I wondered if it was a solitary existence out in the desert, but he told me that local Qataris liked to come and sit with him in the evenings and talk. Sometimes he’d set up his battered TV outside and they’d sit and watch together.
“What are they like, the Qataris?” I asked.
“Very friendly, good company and generous,” he assured me, but there was little more he could offer.
I’d had a taste of Arabia in Qatar, all sand and blinding sunlight, but its people remained a mystery.
When to go: Winter is the best time to visit. Temperatures are in the high 20s/low 30s from October to March, day-long sunshine is virtually guaranteed and it’s pleasantly breezy. Summer temperatures can be ferocious – 50°C isn’t unusual – and humidity levels high. It’s probably best to avoid the holy month of Ramadan too (starts 4 October 2005) – while there are no restrictions on travellers, it’s likely to be harder to fix tours and organise activities.
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