A Few Days in the Oasis City

A Few Days in the Oasis City

Al Ain was an important oasis and place of refuge on the early trading routes. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Accordingly, it has many ancient sites worth visiting and the city itself offers visitors an insight into the rich, vibrant culture and traditions of local Emiratis.  Al Ain, however, doesn’t draw the same volume of tourists as the more popular cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Most visitors to the Emirates never make the 1 ½ hour drive to Al Ain and the few that do, rarely spend more than a day here.  Most come in on a one day tour organised out of Dubai or Abu Dhabi and find themselves on a whirlwind visit to a handful of the more prominent tourist attractions only. There is so much more to Al Ain, however. Definitely more than what you can see in a day. Living here, I often wondered why Al Ain has so few visitors as it has so much to offer.

So, when is a good time to visit? Without doubt, the best time to visit is from late September until mid-April. During this time, the temperatures are, by far, more bearable. You can expect average daytime temperatures to be in the high 30s Celsius in autumn and around the low 20s Celsius in winter. And, during this period, the days are mostly sunny with crisp-blue skies, thereby making it perfect for taking a few days to explore what I believe is one of the more beautiful cities in the Emirates.

Over the 3 ½ years in which I lived in Al Ain, I had the chance to really explore and appreciate this city. So, if you are coming to Al Ain and you are looking for something interesting to see and do, I can definitely recommend, in no particular order, the following:

Jebel Hafeet

Jebel Hafeet is the tallest mountain in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the 2nd tallest in the UAE. You can drive to the top, either in your rental car or in a taxi, stopping along the way at the numerous view points and picnic areas. Alternatively, if you’re feeling energetic there is a hike to the top, though I’m told parts of it are a bit of a rock scramble. You do also need to check a reputable hiking guide in order to locate the starting point of the climb, as it is not particularly obvious. al ain jabal hafeet cafe Once at the top, you can park in the carpark situated at the highest point to take in the magnificent views over the city of Al Ain and Oman. If you have time, visit the Al Khaima café, situated behind the Mercure Hotel, and indulge in some of the best Moroccan tea and shisha around, while you watch the sunset over Al Ain and enjoy the city lights as they begin to twinkle.  You might need to take a jacket though, as it gets pretty chilly on top of the mountain, particularly in winter!

Jebel Hafeet Tombs

These ancient burial tombs can be found here at the base of Jebel Hafeet. There are quite a number of tombs all in various stages of restoration – some are fully restored, others partly restored, while others still are in quite a state of disrepair. There are many more tombs in the surrounding foothills, than you first think! So keep a close eye out for them. al ain - jabal hafeet tombs This trip is best done in a 4×4 vehicle. The track out to the tombs crosses a wadi and whilst the track is not long, it is fairly rocky and bumpy. Also, don’t attempt this trip if it has been raining and the track is muddy, even if you are in a 4×4. Nic and I once saw an abandoned 4×4 which had become stranded in the mud and was unable to be recovered until the whole area dried out. Also, it is important to remember this is a historical site and should be respected as such. As the saying goes “Leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photos.”

The Desert

Whether it’s a half day trip, full day trip or camping overnight, a desert trip is definitely a must. I’m not talking your typical Desert Safari tourist attraction here. I’m talking about a real UAE desert experience, see here. desert trip There are very few tour companies that I know of that offer such an authentic experience, aside from Marina Bruce A.K.A The Desert Diva. Marina is able to organise an experience of a life time, one that I am sure you will most definitely enjoy!

 

Al Jahli Park

Al Ain is sometimes affectionately referred to as the Garden City. It really is a beautiful, green city surrounded by desert. There are many parks within the city that you can enjoy, but I would have to say that Al Jahli Park is by far my favourite. It’s located close to the heart of the city, next to Al Jahli Fort and opposite the Al Ain Rotana hotel.  The best times for visiting the park are of a late afternoon during the week, or, during the dayal ain jahli park on a weekend (Fri-Sat) when it is alive with activity. Local Emirati families and UAE residents alike can be found picnicking and enjoying the sunshine. Take some time out from sight-seeing, grab yourself some takeaway lunch or an early dinner and enjoy the beautiful surrounds, or at the very least, take a short stroll through the manicured gardens.

 

Al Jahli Fort

Adjacent to Al Jahli Park is the beautifully restored, Al Jahli Fort. This fort commands attention and is great not only for those who want al ain jahli fortto learn about these historic buildings but also those who are interested in culture. It hosts a permanent exhibition on Sir Wilfred Thesiger and his inspirational journeys in the 1940s throughout the area. Definitely worth seeing. On occasion, the fort also hosts performances by various visiting symphony orchestras.

 

The Green Mubazzarah & Hot Springs

Located at the base of Jebel Hafeet is a park known as The Green Mubazzarah. This park was built by Sheik Zayed around an al ain - green mubazzarahunderground hot spring and is a great place for a picnic, a BBQ or to simply relax. Visitors can even dip their toes into any one of a number of flowing hot spring water canals and enjoy its warmth. Alternatively, for a small fee, you can visit the actual hot spring itself and bathe in the 40-45 Celsius water. Although, I must say that the modern design of the bathing area lacks some of the aesthetic charm that I first envisaged when I read about the hot springs. The Green Mubazzarah also features a man-made lake, a number of fast food outlets, and walking tracks. Chalet accommodation is also available for rent at the far end of the park for those who would like to stay a little longer.

The Oases

Many people aren’t aware that the city of Al Ain is built around seven oases. While each oasis is a working date farm, I still highly recommend taking a walk or cycling through at least one of them. Depending on the season, you may get the chance to watch the workers climbing and tending to the date palms or even see the dates being harvested. Most of the time, however, the oases provide a chance to escape the busyness of the city streets and enjoy some quiet time and respite from the hot sun. There are also forts and other historic buildings dotted throughout which are in various stages of restoration, all of which are quite interesting. You can also see falajs still in use, a traditional irrigation system used throughout this area for over 3000 years.

The most visited of the seven oases is definitely Al Ain Oasis, largely due to its accessibility and central location. However, personally I think that Al Hili, Al Jimi and Al Qattara are equally as attractive and well worth a visit. You can find them as follows:

Al Qattara Traditional Souq

Situated next door to the Al Qattara Arts Centre is the Al Qattara souq. Its history dates back to the mid-20th Century. Renovated in 2014/15, the souq is now open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening, from October until May. Here you will find Emirati women selling traditional handicrafts, oud, frankincense and other wares out of their palm-leaf thatched stalls. You can also take some time to enjoy the local Karak tea, or Arabic coffee and dates, while you sit and watch traditional dance performances by the local men. There is even freshly cooked traditional Emirati food for sale, if you’d like to stay awhile, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy a meal. This souq offers a great insight into Emirati culture and traditions, and is definitely well worth a visit.

The Camel Souq al ain camel souk

The Al Ain Camel Souq is situated behind Al Bawadi Shopping Mall. It is, apparently, the last remaining camel souq in the UAE. Here you can wander around by yourself and see the camels up close in their pens, take some photos, and you may even be invited to pat one. There is no entry free and it is open every day from early until nightfall. Be aware, though, you might be offered a tour of the camel market and then be asked to pay. Feel free to say no if you are not interested as many of the stall holders will offer you information about the camels free of charge.

Heritage Village Restaurant and Coffee Shop

Heritage Village is open 24/7 and is a great place to relax and have a meal, indulge in some shisha, or enjoy some Moroccan tea. al ain - heritage village For me, Heritage Village has a great atmosphere which you can just sit back and soak up and I also like that is frequented largely by local Emiratis and very few, if any, tourists. Afterwards, as it is right next to the Al Qattara oasis, you can enjoy a walk under the date palms.

 

 

Al Ain National Museum

The National Museum has a substantial collection of ancient relics and artefacts as well as housing a display on Emirati culture and tradition. For the small entrance fee, it is definitely worth a visit to learn more about the history of the area and its people.

The Palace Museum

The Palace Museum was the former home of Sheik Zayed, the UAE’s founding father before becoming a museum in 2001. al ain jahli fort 4 The palace contains information about the ruling family and offers a glimpse into their early life. The grounds are beautifully kept and make for an enjoyable afternoon wandering around the gardens, the various buildings and the restored fort.

Al Ain Zoo

Definitely allow yourself at least half a day to a full day to enjoy what the Al Ain Zoo has to offer. The zoo is quite large and houses a wide range of interesting desert flora and fauna, including the magnificent Arabian Oryx and the elusive desert fox, and has a large conservation program in place. It also recently opened a new safari park. Opening times vary based on the season, so it is best to check timings and prices on the zoo’s website before your visit. The zoo also has a number of picnic areas as well as food and drink outlets.

Al Bawadi Souq

Near the camel market and next to Bawadi Shopping Mall is the Al Bawadi Souq. This is worth visiting, particularly if you are interested in buying a majilis or fabrics, though you will have to bargain hard to get a deal. Stall holders also sell a number of other goods and wares for you to browse through if you have time and are interested.

A Hot Air Balloon Ride in the Desert

While a number of ballooning companies operate their business out of Dubai, when the winds are right, many launch from around the Al Ain area. IMG_2889 Nic and I took a sunrise hot air balloon ride with Amigos Balloons which launched approximately 20 minutes out of Al Ain. It was certainly a breathtaking and unforgettable experience, watching the sun rise slowly on the horizon while we drifted silently over the sand dunes, taking in some pretty spectacular desert landscape.

 

So whether you have a spare day or a spare week there is lots to do and I have no doubt you will enjoy Al Ain!

Explore Oman by 4×4

Explore Oman by 4×4

Oman provides some of the most rugged and stark scenery I can recall on any of my travels. And, with a 4wd and a sense of adventure this stunning landscape becomes yours to explore. Living in Al Ain, and one block from the Oman border post, meant that Nic and I were lucky enough to have the opportunity to see a lot of this incredible country. Oman certainly has it all for the avid off-roader – rocks, mountains, sand and even salt plains.

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As with all off-roading, it is recommended, however, that you have at least one other vehicle for support should you get into a tricky situation. Many parts of Oman are quite remote with very little traffic. The mountainous terrain can inhibit mobile phone communication so it is important that you have either a UHF/VHF long range communication system or a satellite phone in case of emergencies. You also need to be self-sufficient, ensuring you have adequate supplies of food and fuel as towns are few and far between in many parts. However, very small remote villages dot the landscape and in our experience these locals, while they may not speak much English, are often willing to help if you can find a way to communicate your needs.

IMG_3399Two books that Nic and I found excellent for exploring some of the best that Oman has to offer are Mike Knott’s book Advanced Off-Road Adventure Routes UAE and Oman and Explorer’s Oman Off-road. We found both of these books to be really useful with easy to follow routes already mapped out and nearby points of interest highlighted. Some of the highlights include abandoned villages, hieroglyphs, burial tombs, spectacular vistas, gorges, isolated villages full of character, beautiful mosques, ancient forts, oases and falaj sytems, some of which Nic and I woman offroad 8ould probably not have stumbled across on our own. While these books have some great routes with plenty of things to see and do, there are also lots of other tracks and areas worth exploring.

If rocks are your thing, then the wadis are where you will spend most of your time. Depending on the wadi, the driving can range from easy to challenging, so choose your path carefullyoman offroad to suit your skill and interest level. Some wadi tracks are well worn and are primarily used by locals to access the village/s deep within the wadi, while others lead to beautiful swimming holes, picnic sites and stunning canyons, and others still are wilder and far less traversed. Some wadis are easy to navigate while others are narrow, slow going and involve negotiating obstacles such as rocks and/or water. Some wadis even link together enabling you to snake your way between the mountains and experience a number of different canyons, providing hours of off-road fun. Planning your route is key to an enjoyable experience.

When planning your wadi trip, it is also important to look for campsites that are elevated and preferably outside of the wadi. img_2382There are a few reasons for this. One is that if it has been raining, wadis are not the place to be. They are prone to flash flooding and can be extremely dangerous if there has been rain either in the catchment area above the wadi or in the wadi itself. See here for more information on the dangers of flashing flooding in Oman’s wadis and here to monitor rainfall. Another good reason for camping higher is that outside of the winter months (December through to February) the temperature in the wadis can be quite high making it extremely uncomfortable for sleeping and mosquitos love to hang out in the wadis from dusk to dawn making it very unpleasant.

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In addition to wadis, Oman has many mountainous areas that you can explore. There are numerous steep, winding and rugged tracks heading up into the mountains, providing stunning views. Many tracks lead to small, remote mountain villages which offer a real insight into and appreciation for the simple life of many Omanis. Here, it is common to find goat herders tending to their herds and villagers working amongst their terraced fields. It’s always a good idea to carry spare bottles of water and food as Nic and I have often been asked by the locals for these things. Other 4×4 tracks climb steeply up to plateaus where you can see locals farming the land, or explore nearby caves or ruins. On one plateau, Nic and I spotted a remote group of houses in the distance perched on the cliff edge with no visible access to it other than by foot, which left us wondering what it must be like to live in such a place.

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Two of Oman’s highest and most visited mountains are Jabal Shams and Jabal Akhdar. While a 4×4 is a requirement in order to ascend Jabal Akhdar, I would strongly recommend one for a trip to Jabal Shams as well, as the road becomes rough in parts and a 4×4 means you are not limited and can explore the interesting sites nearby including Wadi Ghul and Wadi Nakhr. Both mountains offer spectacular views and there is plenty to see and do on each. Two things I would highly recommend is the hike to the abandoned village of As Sab on Jabal Shams for breathtaking views

IMG_1579all around and a visit to the village of Ar Ras, the end of the road, on Jabal Akhder. Not only does this village offer fantastic views over the countryside, you are likely to be greeted by the locals who will invite you to sit and enjoy dates and coffee in their outdoor majilis! Both Jabal Akhder and Jabal Shams also provide a welcome relief in summer with temperatures on top of the mountain being in the mid 20s celsius, approximately 20+ celsius cooler than in the wadis below, making it a great option for escaping the summer heat.

While most of Oman is extremely rugged and mountainous, it does have two beautiful expanses of sand dunes. The more well-known is likely to be Wahiba Sands due to the Wahiba Challenge, Oman’s annual off-road event. This dune range offers some challenging dunes if you are heading east to west or vice versa and is really for those experienced in dune driving. img_2533A more scenic route is north to south with some opportunities along the way to climb up the dune range for some stunning views back down the valley. A lesser known, but I would say more beautiful range of dunes, are those directly behind Jabal Hafeet on the Oman side. These dunes are affectionately known by some as the Starfish Dunes as many of the bigger dunes resemble the shape of a starfish. These shapes can be viewed easily in Google Earth and are quite incredible. These starfish shape is created by the swirling winds that frequent this area. This line of dunes follows the UAE – Oman border all the way to the confluence point with Saudi Arabia before slowly petering out. If you continue on from this point you will eventually reach Umm As Sameem, translated to mean mother of all poisons, a natural salt sabkha famous for its alleged quicksand. Oman really is an off-roaders delight with something for everyone.

oman offroad 6

If you plan to rent a car to do a self-drive holiday (which I highly recommend), choose your car carefully. There are rentals available that may not be suitable for your purposes, despite what you might be told by the rental company. An AWD, such as a Kia Sportage, Honda CRV or Nissan x-trail, will take you anywhere in the mountains without any trouble. However, if you want to also drive in the sand dunes, make sure you get a car with both high and low range 4WD, such as a Toyota Land Cruiser or Prado, a Nissan Patrol or Mitsubishi Pajero. Fuel  is extremely cheap, so don’t make the size of the engine or car be your decision maker. If you don’t have camping equipment, there are glamping options at Jabal Shams, Jabal Akhdar and Wahiba. The only place you would need your own camping equipment is to explore the Starfish dunes, but that’s the best way to see them. Always get comprehensive insurance, and always get a GPS if available. Oman is easy to navigate, but can also be easy to get lost. Now, get out there and explore!

Off-roading in the UAE

Off-roading in the UAE

When we moved to the United Arab Emirates one of the things Nic and I were clear about wanting to try, was off-roading. So shortly after arriving in Al Ain we began looking for a 4×4 vehicle to buy. We also began looking for a suitable off-road club to join as we knew that the desert surrounding Al Ain was definitely not something we wanted to tackle on our own. While we were in awe of the amazing dunes that surrounded Al Ain, both large and small, we marvelled at how anyone could navigate their way through them. Like any desert, we were conscious that our environment, for all its beauty, could be harsh and unforgiving.

Wreck

While the desert around Al Ain is not as remote as other parts of the UAE, it is still not an environment to venture into alone. Temperatures can reach well above 50 Celsius in the summer months, there are limited water sources, and the sand can at times be as soft as talcum powder, making it very easy to get stuck.

Our search for an off-road club led us to Oasis Offroad. While there were many clubs to choose from we soon settled on this one. Oasis Offroad was a newly formed club, based in Al Ain. They had a safety-first policy which we liked and they insisted on a compulsory introductory training session for new members, called Easy Introduction to Offroading (EIO). We also liked their emphasis on coaching and skill development. So once we had purchased our 4×4 we signed up on their forum and registered for our EIO. Nic was new to off-roading, while I had some previous experience with beach-driving and forestry tracks in Australia, but we both felt it was important to learn everything we could about driving in this kind of desert terrain, starting with the basics. The EIO covered such things as sand-driving techniques, sand recoveries, convoy etiquette and rules, as well as essential recovery equipment, care and use.

We were hooked instantly. There was nothing we enjoyed more than driving in the dunes and camping in the desert under the stars. And, there was no stopping us. We went out regularly on Oasis Offroad trips as well as on private drives with friends. And, once we bought the Jeep Wrangler as a second vehicle, Nic and I would often go out together in just the two vehicles – sometimes up to 5 times a week! Our love of dune driving meant that we quickly developed some advanced off-road driving skills. We also participated in as many Oasis Offroad training days as we could to continually build our skills and knowledge.

We loved spending time in the desert, so much so that we began to look for opportunities to share our passion with others. We began taking some of our friends and Couchsurfers out on drives with us as passengers. We also became heavily involved in Oasis Offroad, with Nic eventually becoming a Club Marshal while I took on the role of EIO Co-ordinator and some other administrative duties. On club drives we worked well together with Nic leading the trip and I would be assigned to the position of 2nd Lead or Sweep. I loved these positions as it meant I had an active role in the coaching and mentoring of the new club members and in vehicle recoveries.

Whilst we loved the shorter fast-paced advanced level drives with lots of cross-cresting and side-sloping, it was here in the UAE that we also developed a passion for overlanding, or multi-day trips. Our first experience was with Marina Bruce, A.K.A The Desert Diva, on her Dark Skies Challenge recce trip. On this trip we headed off into some of the remotest parts of the UAE, crossing over 100kms of dunes in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi Emirate, and camping for two nights under a crisp, clear, dark night sky abundant with stars.

Dark Skies

We were fortunate to then participate in the next 3 Dark Skies Challenges all held in the Al Gharbia Region  – the first with Nic leading a team of 4 cars and me taking on the role of co-navigator; the second with Nic leading a team and me participating as a driver; and the third as part of the Rear Sweep Team which involved assisting with any complex recoveries and ensuring all teams had safely cleared all sectors on each day of the challenge.

 

In addition to developing our off-road driving skills we learned some other pretty useful skills during our time with Oasis Offroad including:

  • planning a trip using google earth to plot a track/route and transferring it to a navigation system, such as Garmin
  • using a GPS
  • programming and using a UHF/VHF 2way radio
  • performing a number of first aid techniques and how to respond in an emergency situation
  • running a voluntary club

 

To see what off-road driving in the UAE is all about, click here, here  and here. These YouTube videos are provided courtesy of Vince Ford, a former Oasis Offroad Marshal and the man who taught us much of what we know.

 

 

 

Beyond the Black-top

Beyond the Black-top

The desert is something that tourists rarely get to experience when they visit the United Arab Emirates. In fact, few expats ever venture down this “road”. The heavily promoted Desert Safari, rated as a “must do” for all visitors to the Emirates, is as close as most people get to any kind of desert experience. Admittedly, it offers you a little taste of dune driving and a brief display of Emirati culture but let me just say, there is so much more to experience if one has an adventurous spirit and gets the opportunity to head off-road, leaving the black top behind for the vast expanse of incredible UAE desert.

Liwa

Going off-road truly reveals a whole new side to the Emirates. In the desert, one can find camel farms, solar-powered oases and desert lakes teeming with birdlife. Gazelles can be seen skipping lightly over the dunes and if you know where to look you can even find sanctuaries for the endangered Arabian Oryx. While fenced off to the public, they still offer a view of these magnificent creatures up close. And on top of all that, you may even spot a scurrying desert jerboa, a skulking desert fox, or even stumble across local Emiratis training their falcons. Click here to learn more about the history of falconry in the UAE.

The beauty of the desert is unsurpassed. The sandscape is forever changing, with an array of whites, creams, yellows and rich, rusty reds. Dunes of all sizes can be found, ranging from a couple of metres in height up to a mind-blowing 300 metres. Rolling desert plains and sabkhas dot the landscape in between.

Qasr Al Sarab

While some desert areas are completely barren, others are populated with a variety of grasses, shrubs, trees and beautiful desert flowers. Inarguably, some of the most spectacular scenery can be found in the Liwa Crescent,  around Madinat Zayed and in the Western Region of the Abu Dhabi Emirate.

There is an abundance of route options when it comes to driving off-road and exploring the desert. The UAE is largely comprised of dunes which means drives can range from a couple of hours in length to a few days. The increasing number of off-road clubs in the UAE is testimony alone to the fun to be had outdoors in this terrain. Between them, these clubs have plotted an extensive list of drives graded for all different skill levels. Mike Knott’s book Advanced Off-Road Adventure Routes UAE and Oman also lists several interesting routes that can be tackled. However, it must be stressed that if you are visiting the UAE you should never attempt to go off-road on your own no matter how capable you consider your rented 4×4 vehicle to be. The desert is a harsh and unforgiving environment with temperatures at times soaring well above 50 celsius. Dune-driving also takes a great deal of skill. Without the appropriate training and experience it can be dangerous. Getting stuck or having an accident in a remote area could very easily lead to a fatality. To read about our off-roading experiences in the UAE, click here.

Duning is also a popular past-time and sport for many young, male Emiratis, or shabab. These young men can be found frequenting their favourite spots on the weekend and “playing” in their off-road vehicles. Here they showcase their fearlessness and incredible driving skills as they tackle the steep slopes of large dunes in an endeavour to reach the top. Two of the more popular sites near Al Ain are affectionately known as Naqrah  and Old Lady , while Fossil Rock  and Big Red can be found just outside of Dubai. As these young men “play”, many more gather on picnic blankets nearby, watching the action enthusiastically while they enjoy cups of tea. You can expect to be invited to join them in tea. Don’t be afraid to ask for seconds!

Given the popularity of this sport, it is not surprising that once a year, the UAE hosts the Moreeb International Festival with its Moreeb Dune Challenge. This event is held on the outskirts of Liwa on one of the tallest dunes in the Emirates, Moreeb Dune, and draws competitors from far and wide. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced competitor. This event is pure adrenalin even for onlookers, so if you happen to be visiting the Emirates at the time of the event then definitely include this in your itinerary as it is guaranteed to provide you with some heart-stopping entertainment. The event can be easily accessed by sealed road.

So how do you, as a visitor to the UAE, get the opportunity to have the desert experience of a lifetime? Well there are a couple of ways. Firstly, you could make contact with one of the many off-road clubs in the UAE through their website page and enquire as to whether they would be willing to take you as a passenger on any of their upcoming trips. If there is a spare seat available most drivers are happy to share their love of the desert with others. This option is entirely at your own risk, however, and may not be covered under your travel insurance. Alternatively, Marina Bruce A.K.A The Desert Diva runs tailored desert tours to suit your needs. For bookings and information, you can contact her through her webpage  or find her on Facebook

Driving in the desert came to be our favourite activity when we lived in the UAE. Many come to Dubai expecting a 7 star experience, however, nothing compares to the 7 billion star experience you’ll get camping out under the dark skies of the remote UAE desert.