The Empty Quarter

Abu Dhabi Travel Blog

 › entry 9 of 17 › view all entries
Trying to share the majesty of red sand....

Woke up around 8AM and showered…Mark was off to meet w/the Chancellor over the faculty housing crisis.  Went downstairs and read the paper until he returned.  Read an interesting editorial berating Bush & Kerry because of an opinion that both were born with a silver spoon in their mouth and couldn’t relate to the ‘common man’.  I found this interesting, not because I disagreed, but because sheikhs rule these people, an effective monarchy!

We hit the road about 11AM and struck out for Abu Dhabi.  Got a little lost, but eventually arrived around 1:30PM and had lunch at a fantastically traditional Moroccan restaurant.  I had kebab kosh, lamb in a spicy tomato sauce (yummy!) --- Mark & Samia each ordered a local fish they enjoy, Sultan Ibraham.

Trekking the Empty Quarter at sunset....
  Best part was that they brought out copious amounts of gratuitous veggies, etc.  --- hummus, pitas, olives (green & black, both delicious!), pickled radishes, mint and various lettuce.  I’m growing very fond of mint leaves smeared with hummus as an appetizer!

The restaurant was supposed to sit right on the corniche, but the latter is undergoing some massive reconstruction & they have reclaimed about 250 feet of additional land from the Gulf…so the eatery no longer sits on the water!

Abu Dhabi is a true city…much bigger than I anticipated.  I’m guessing population is at least 500-600,000, but obviously we only drove through a portion and I could be way off.

Obligatory camel shot......
  Wealth seems to be the natural state here too, but it is very different from Dubai…. no outlandish “more money than brains” tourist attractions.  I was struck by the numerous, majestic mosques --- Dubai had the same frequency (Mark informs me you score serious afterlife points for building a mosque), but Dubai’s were much smaller and nowhere near as ornate.  We passed one mosque that was still under construction, but absolutely gargantuan in proportion.  Mark’s funny story here was that completion was held up because they were down sizing the project --- apparently it would have bigger than the one in Mecca!  (can you say haram???...the Arabic word for 'taboo')

With the corniche under construction, there really wasn’t much to see, so we left.

Belated addition of the monster mosque in Abu Dhabi...recently saw another trav buddy's blog with a picture of this nearly completed and labelled as the world's 3rd largest mosque!
  Except we didn’t have a map and got lost.  Yeah, its an island….but a really BIG island.  Samia rolled her window down once and hurled some Urdu at a taxi cab driver, but his Arabic suggestion did little to aid our cause.  We eventually muddled out and were on our way.

We made some dramatic u-turns during this escapade and this is a good spot to comment upon driving in UAE.  I’ve already offered some insight into how crazy it is (Mark claims its worse than Rome), but its rather intriguing and I’ll elaborate a bit.  The main point to realize is that the police don’t pull anyone over.  As Mark expresses, “either you’re driving okay or you have an accident…in which case you are a reckless driver”.

Beware the men's room!!!
  Samia believes that the police (most are ex-pats, though it seems they are encouraging nationals to sign up now) feel that pulling someone over is beneath them, because “that’s what the speed monitors are for”.

I will say that they don’t simply ignore moving violations.  On the highways you see these rather distinctive metal boxes (somewhat like a silver mailbox), which photograph your car if you are exceeding the 120 kmh limit.  You are clueless that you’ve been nabbed until its time to register your vehicle again.  At this time you are presented with all the fines you incurred since last time (seems like this is every two years or so)…and no registration until you settle up!

In addition, every car is equipped with this sound system that blares whenever you are traveling faster than 120 kmh (I classify it as “slightly more annoying than the seat belt buzzers” here in the States).

Perched atop one of the massive dunes --- can you guess which direction the wind is blowing???
  Per Mark, a lot of folks get them disconnected (an expensive operation), but most endure.  It was funny how we would be cruising the desert highway and would trip the buzzer…and just ignore it.  After awhile you do relegate it to background noise!

Anyway, our road continued along the coast, but it had changed to serious desert now, although there is green road frontage the entire way (all irrigated, about one hundred miles!).  We stopped for gas outside of Abu Dhabi and I decided to hit the lavatory and leave my lunch behind. I was greatly humbled when I entered one of the turrets (the gas station had four turrets to lend a knightly air to its design???) labeled as the men’s room.  The single room inside the turret only had a hole in the middle of the floor!  I thought ‘no problem’ --- I’ve crouched in the woods on many a camping trip --- and searched for toilet paper.

Dance Band - catch them nightly at Al Misyal!
  There wasn’t any, just a hose and then I noticed how wet the floor was.  Slowly I backed out….

Fortunately we hit another gas station 50 km later to ask directions, and this one was equipped with the western variety of toilet devices (phew!).  This one also had a mini-variety store like here in the States (though curiously, no postcards but many children’s toys like dolls, etc.).  I asked the guy behind the counter if they sold combs and he replied “you look good…you don’t need a comb.  Everyone knows how windy it is in the desert.”

I was touched by this open, humorous remark, as I was readily identifiable as a ‘westerner’ and believed I would encounter some degree of a cold reception outside of Dubai (this in spite of my friendly experiences in Oman, another very traditional Muslim culture).  I should also comment that I saw several unaccompanied females in downtown Abu Dhabi today (two were Arabic in western dress)…where the stereotypes would dictate this was taboo or a recipe for disaster.

Our desert ramble continued, and heading inland now the dunes began to grow bigger.  After perhaps a hundred miles the roadside plantings disappeared…though its mind-blowing to consider the irrigation system ran that far!  While we only passed through two towns, they were fare sized (i.e., between 10-50,000).  Not a lot of signs along the road (still in English way out here though!), and suddenly we were at Liwa Oasis, our destination.  Mark & Samia have never been here…the trip was inspired by the expression of my desire to see the area due to Wilfred Thesiger having chronicled his stop here in “Arabian Sands”. 

It was about 6PM, and much like the Golden Tulip, I was impressed by the modern facilities.  We had a very humorous incident at check-in.  A porter loaded our bags from Mark’s 4WD, but the elevator was so tiny that he couldn’t squeeze his cart on and stated he’d meet us at our room.  When the elevator door closed Samia burst into hysterics --- apparently she teases Mark about how they never off-load the garbage in their vehicle, and among the bags the porter had plucked (and neatly hung with a hangar) was a bag of trash!  What I really adored was when she exclaimed “Oh Marco” --- it is so sweet when she calls him this!

After we gained our rooms (and threw away the trash!), Samia wanted to rest while Mark & I ventured out in hopes of scoring sunset over the sand.  Mark was anxious to head for one of the many utility roads we had espied from our hotel, perched atop an enormous dune --- both of our rooms had expansive porches with majestic views of the endless succession of dunes that is the Empty Quarter.  I was skeptical, but we exited the main road in Dhafeer and within five minutes were on one of those very same pathways.  We followed a truck that stopped and dropped off two men, who began walking.  It was incredible to realize that there were homes built back here, albeit it was an oasis and the cinderblock structures only existed where there was some plant life.

The road ended abruptly and we scrambled up the dunes to try and reclaim the sun…..already beneath the huge pile of sand immediately in front of us.  The sand is beautiful.  It has a vibrant reddish hue with tiger stripes of a deeper red tint atop the multitude of mini-crests that are everywhere.  The topography is incredible --- every time you scramble up over a dune, a bizarre new tableau of wind swept peaks and valleys is presented.  I scrambled up one dune and got quite a shock, because just past the crest was a dizzying descent.  And even got a further scare as I gingerly placed one foot over the top & sank it into the leeward side.  The sand melted away under my foot, completely loose and quite unlike the hard pack on the windward side.  This action created a delightful mini-avalanche that lasted perhaps twenty seconds, sand cascading down with newly created ridges quickly disintegrating before my eyes.

We took some pictures of the forsaken landscape and backtracked to the hotel.

Returned to the Liwa Hotel and after a brief respite headed for dinner.  It was a buffet, which Samia is entirely fed up with (no pun intended).  She successfully swayed the maitre de to bring out a simple bowl of lentil soup and a cheese sandwich.  The bummer is that she requested a grilled cheese, but no comprehension was evident.  We racked our brains trying to derive an appropriate instruction…and Mark substituted “toasted” --- which brought recognition and a smile.  Of course when delivered, it was a cheese sandwich neither grilled nor toasted!

The buffet was quite good.  Growing accustomed to the veggie + hummus appetizers (can’t wait to turn Kim on to munching on mint), and it was backed by some great main course choices.  Squid (not calamari!) in garlic sauce, mussels (enormous and a bit tough, but an excellent flavor) and I even sampled the dish labeled as ‘cauliflower & macaroni’…Mark confessed to nibbling at it as well and we both thought it was a winner!

After dinner we pinned down the location of Al Misyal bar, where “Dance Band” performed live five nights a week.  The band consisted of a dark-complexioned man, very sinister looking, on synthesizer, accompanied by two women who sang/dance.   The dude occasionally sang too, and I will not soon forget his rendition of “Oh Pretty Woman”!   It was funny & sad at the same time.  There was an Arab and an Anglo couple in attendance besides our trio…but the couple soon left, as did Samia.

Mark thought that everyone in the group was Russian and we noticed how the accents were terribly misplaced…appearing as if they had only memorized the lyrics and didn’t understand English.  How this trio wound up in the middle of nowhere performing this gig must be a fascinating story!

We left the bar about 11PM & retreated to my room for the “Empty Quarter Spite & Malice Desert Classic”, which Mark won two games to one.  A fantastic evening.  In spite of all the amazing things I’m witnessing, the meat of this trip is the time Mark & I play cards, simply talk and catch up on life.

mountaingirl says:
I can imagine the massive dunes in the Empty Quarters. Have always wanted to go but have never made it there yet!
Posted on: May 02, 2008
Adrian_Liston says:
I like the comb story :) I've never been to Oman, but when I was in Syria I was touched by how genuinely nice the people were to me. They haven't yet learned to try to suck every tourist dollar out, and instead just treat you as a person ;)
Posted on: Jan 22, 2008
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Trying to share the majesty of red…
Trying to share the majesty of re…
Trekking the Empty Quarter at suns…
Trekking the Empty Quarter at sun…
Obligatory camel shot......
Obligatory camel shot......
Belated addition of the monster mo…
Belated addition of the monster m…
Beware the mens room!!!
Beware the men's room!!!
Perched atop one of the massive du…
Perched atop one of the massive d…
Dance Band - catch them nightly at…
Dance Band - catch them nightly a…
Abu Dhabi
photo by: JP-NED