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Home of the nomads


... let's look for the Bedou way of life at Hatta.

A replicated desert fortress in Hatta.

THE simoon came last night. We didn't feel it, at first, cosseted in the tall cocoon of our hotel but when we woke this morning and drew back the curtains in our 22nd floor room, the simoon swirled like a brown-cloaked dervish outside. It buried the crystal towers of Dubai like illusions trembling on a hot road. "How long will it last?" we asked our waiter at breakfast. "Who can say? Sometimes one week, sometimes an hour. Are you driving out today?" We said we were, "To Hatta. We want to see how the nomadic Bedou live." He poured aromatic black coffee in our cups silently, then said "It is 115 km away, across the desert and in the Hajar mountains. Have a few dates and camel's milk: It is Bedou food." The dates were sweet and substantial; the camel's milk was light with a slightly saline aftertaste. We had been told that the Bedou could live on this diet for many days as they plodded across the desert with their caravans of laden dromedaries. And when the simoon got too vicious, they sat it out between their animals while their camels battened down their nasal flaps and protected their eyes with their second lids.

We didn't need any of these bio-defences because the whimsical simoon had gathered its dusty skirts and swept away when we got into our Toyota Landmaster and set out on the journey to Hatta. The four-lane highway arrowed die-straight out of the high-rises of Dubai, past its brilliant carpets of drip-irrigated petunias, into the desert, receding into time. The nurtured blossoms gave way to the electrified fence of the camel-racing track in the arid wilderness and then to seemingly trackless dunes like vast featureless waves frozen in motion. We passed a dune-buggy station: coffee, snacks and quad-bikes with fat tyres for riders seeking the adrenalin-jolts of roaring up and down the rose-coloured hillocks of sand. And then even these outposts of humanity fell away. Now bare hills rose: scarred and pitted and pocked with ravines and fissures and caves. Once this had been a forested and watered land with cool, blue, springs glistering in the caves, trickling out of the fissures, cutting ravines with their silver, gushing, flow. And then slowly, implacably, the weather changed, the desert began its insidious creep, the simoon started to scour the land and the hills with its harsh dragon's breath.

Heavy lidded by the glare-filled monochromatic monotony of the landscape, soothed by the cool breath of the air-conditioner, we fell asleep. And we were jolted awake: our Toyota had hit a pothole! "Sorry!" said our driver. Our tyres crunched gravel on an off-road track and our driver stopped. "Please tighten your safety-belts. It will be very rough from now on. We are in the Hajjar Mountains." We looked around. We could have been in the mountains of the moon. Rocky slopes rose to jagged peaks: harsh, high, and desolate. There wasn't a trace of life here: not a high-flying eagle, not a withered blade of grass. It was a stark and alien land as if it had never seen a living creature and resented the very thought of such weak, squishy, things. If a fire-djinn had materialised in a shimmering heat-haze, out of the scorching rocks, we would not have been surprised. This was a distressingly resentful nether-world.


Restful... the Hatta resort in the Hajjar mountains.

Our driver warned us, "I have to hit 80 to 100 kmph on this mountain path or else the vehicle will sway and our tyres could be ripped by sharp stones. At high speed the stones are thrown off." We have done dune-bashing: "Not recommended for children under seven, adults over 60 and pregnant ladies" the brochure had cautioned. We had tensed, delightedly, all through those knife-edge thrills. But that was a picnic compared with this devil-ride! We hared down precipitous slopes, leapt across stony ravines ("This is a wadi. If there was water in it, we would have rushed through in wadi bashing. But it hasn't rained for three years. No water. Everything's dry".) We raced up gravel hillsides with stomach-churning vertiginous views all around. If we had skidded here we'd have had a long fall before crashing into the sharp boulders below.

Eventually, after about a lifetime or so, we stopped; reassembled our misaligned organs, and stepped out, very, very, gingerly. We were atop a barren, stony, ridge filled with water-rounded pebbles. Before us a scree cliff fell away, steeply, to a broad, dry, wadi. Stunted shrubs and tussocks of tough, khaki-coloured, grass dotted its bed sucking the last traces of sub-soil water. Beyond the wadi, the land sloped up with an ochre ribbon of a road snaking to a distant straggle of trees, a few flat-roofed houses, and into bare mauve mountains holding up a sky still hazed with dust. "Some years ago that were patches of green and pools in which people could bathe," our driver said, "but now all that has gone. Only the Bedou from the mountains come here to water their camels." He scrambled down the slope behind us, unleashing small avalanches of stones, and stood at the edge of a narrow ravine sliced into the mountains. We followed him and peered down. There, in the shadowed bottom of the gully, water flowed, cool and clear.

"But where are the nomadic Bedou?" we asked

"Perhaps they don't like being tourist attractions," he replied. "We make Bedou camps for tourists, but I have never seen a real one, out in the desert." The sun threw small puddles of shadows around our feet, hammered the rocks, which reflected furnace-heat back onto us. "Maybe some settled Bedou live in that small patch of green beyond. Most, however, live in the valley of Hatta and they've been there for 2,000 years. We passed it on the way up, but you were asleep," he explained. "We'll drive back there."

The journey back wasn't half as bad as the one up and soon the harshness of the landscape was gentled with green: tentative at first, and then more assertive with date-palms, fields, even mangoes. Circular towers rose on rocky outcrops, an ancient stone village had been restored as it had once stood guarding the caravan cross-roads to Oman and its sea, 100 km to the west. We passed a replicated fort, like something out of those old films of the French Foreign Legion. Then we were in the cool, green ambience of the Hatta Fort Resort: a swimming pool, a peacock on the lawns, partridges calling in the hedges, and a pair of sunbirds like living jewels in the jasmine which dripped flowers and fragrance off the titled roof of our cottage-room.

That evening we got talking to our neighbours, U.S. expats Virg and Mo. "We come here most weekends. It's an escape from the razzmatazz of Dubai. What brought you here?" they asked. "We came looking for the nomadic Bedou way of life." They laughed. "The Bedou have moved into the high-rises. You and we are the new nomads, now. We're the new Bedou!" Two partridges fluted cheerily: "It's true! It's true! It's too true... !"

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