The call of the desert dunes

Heavy metal: A vintage Land Rover

I am outside surrounded by rolling dunes of sand somewhere in Qatar. It is just before midday and it is 41 degrees, a heat fuelled by a powerful sun unencumbered by even a hint of cloud. The only tracks I can see are those of a desert fox, some unidentified birds and the distinctive treads of around half a dozen Land Cruisers — all long gone now.

This is Khor Al-Adaid, about 70km South of Doha and just 10km from the southern border of Saudi Arabia. There are no people, no buildings, no shelter — just mile after mile of superfine caramel-coloured sand punctuated by the occasional devil-may-care bush.

The silence is powerful — as if it had been additionally wrapped in cotton wool just to make sure not a single sound exists, save, perhaps, the hiss of the heat. There is no breeze and I suspect that the perspiration forming rapidly on every single part of my body will soon create more liquid than there is left in the single water bottle in my hand.

Fortunately, there is another ice-cold bottle in the mini-fridge inside the air-conditioned Land Cruiser idling gently next to me. Because, far from being marooned in this unrelenting wilderness, I am on an Arabian Adventure of my own making.

I am in Qatar on business but have arrived a day early to try to see the country in greater context… and to experience some dune bashing first hand. I have booked a day trip with Arabian Adventures Qatar — the oldest (and best) of the five such companies offering dune driving in the country.

A part of me had considered renting my own 4x4 and heading off to find the Inland Sea myself. But now, my scuffed blue Vans submerged in sizzling sand and not a clue quite where we are, I’m glad I didn’t.

Behind the wheel instead is Mahdi, who knows exactly where we are. A veteran dune basher who has worked for Arabian Adventures for 22 years, he has driven locals and tourists into the desert on a virtually daily basis.

He even knows the names of the ever-shifting dunes.

Normally there are two, three or four to a group but today it is just me and he is being a touch more adventurous.

About an hour ago we left paved roads and even the hint of another human being after Mahdi, stopped to deflate the tyres — a dune-driving essential. Next to us were a herd of well-dressed camels, hoping to be photographed.

“Does anyone actually use camels anymore?” I ask Mahdi.

“No. Just for pictures,” says Mahdi. “Although if you want you can ride one — 300 Riyals for an hour.”

I pass.

Two Japanese tourists step from a hire car. The herdsmen, three African men in spotless white Thobes (or maybe Kanzus?), urge the camels towards the couple but shrug when the two seem more interested in photographing the tents nearby, then each other with thumbs up.

Now, as I step back into the cool envelope of the Toyota, Mahdi roars off again. We quickly reach the pinnacle of a 60-foot high dune, the unblemished sand falling away below the bonnet at an unseemly angle.

“Ready?” Mahdi asks.

Before I can say no, we are gliding down as if on an oversized sledge, the sand cascading behind us.

“The first time I drove here I was with my brothers,” he says. “I was 16 and they used to go fishing in the sea a few miles from here. They let me drive and I loved it!

“Really, I started when I was 10 or 11. They would go out fishing and leave me with the car. At first, I’d just start it and rev the engine. Then I’d maybe put it in gear and inch it forward and then back again.”

Perhaps as a result, Mahdi manoeuvers the car with a polished skill and delicate ease. We plough through the terrain; It’s thrilling but not sickening.

“How do you know where you are going and if there isn’t a huge cliff ahead?” I ask.

“Experience,” he says.

As we speed up and over the dunes, past the occasional shredded tyre or dislocated bumper, he tells me some of the recent history of the country, points out objects of interest, such as the decaying wreck of a once mighty red Land Rover pick up, and then brings us to the slim channel of water the divides Qatar from Saudi Arabia.

In fact, there is more than just water that divides Qatar from Saudi and several other GCC states. In June last year, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Qatar, withdrawing ambassadors, and imposing trade and travel bans.

The move was, they said, a result of Qatar’s allegedly tacit support for terrorism, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, and its close ties to Iran. In a list of 13 demands issued a month or so later, Qatar was instructed to close Al Jazeera and withdraw from relations with Iran.

So far, the demands have not been heeded and the result is an escalating rift that, after a year shows no sign of easing.

Mahdi, a Qatari, is stoic. “It will pass,” he says.

In the meantime, the spat has encouraged the state to innovate when it comes to providing food and materials from abroad and, in many ways, has made the nation stronger and more sustainable.

Perhaps one of the more interesting food security projects has been the cows.

Before the blockade, around 80 percent of the food in Qatar was imported from neighbouring countries such as Saudi and the UAE. But when it came to milk, Saudi was responsible for providing 90 percent of the supply.

With that supply severed, Irish dairy farmer John Dore swept in to help save the day. Thousands of dairy cows were flown into the country in the first months of the boycott in an attempt to provide a steady supply of milk for the 2.7 million people who live in Qatar.

The Holstein herd settled at Baladna Farms, about 30 miles north of the capital Doha, in giant air-conditioned warehouses where automated scrapers remove their manure.

This month another three thousand cattle bred in California, Arizona and Wisconsin arrived — this time by ship — to join them.

Back on the dunes, after another 20-minute drive at speed over some salt flats, we curve around and pull into the Arabian Adventures camp. This is a collection of permanent tents, each air-conditioned, and a large covered area for easting. A wealth of freshly cooked food and cold drinks are available from another large tend nearby.

Given the heat, I opt for a swim before lunch. The water is beautifully clear but warmer than a bath by the shore. To find cooler water, I must swim further out and even there it’s only a slightly cooler bath.

Half an hour later, the cook summons me in to eat. Barefoot, I attempt to follow him to a table a few metres away in the delicious shade of an umbrella. I make it three steps before I having to run back for my shoes. The sand burns my skin instantly.

I am the only person eating — in fact, staff aside, the only person in the desert — and nobody is worried about a timetable. Mahdi relaxes in the shade, talking to another driver.

After lunch, I return to the sea, opting to sit by the shore in the surf contemplating everything and nothing.

Later, we drive back along the shoreline. It’s faster because it’s flat but just as beautiful. We pass a tortoise shell about the size of a carry-on suitcase baking in the sun, then another 4x4 attempting to pull another out of the depths of some soft sand. Mahdi nods knowingly.

Then we are back where we started. Mahdi inflates the tyres and within minutes we are back on a newly built, five-lane highway heading back to Doha. Along almost every kilometre there are signs of building. A new 40,000-seat stadium for the 2022 World Cup, a $500m economic zone (the first of two) to attract international corporations and investment, a revamped port authority, a new logistics and warehousing zone, more highways, more hotels, more houses.

The investment is staggering and as remarkable as the hundreds of workers in hi-vis jackets that line the road, the fleets of trucks, diggers, impact drivers and a thousand other pieces of construction hardware. If they build it, will they come?

Mahdi believes they will. We say goodbye as he drops me back at my hotel and I head for the bar for a kick-ass cold Gin and Tonic.

“Sorry, sir,” the barman says. “No tonic…it’s the blockade.”

Maybe I should just go for a glass of fresh milk…

Creative copywriter

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