Off the beaten track

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Last Saturday with Shelley and Rob away in Dubai watching cricket (Australia vs Pakistan, 1st Test), I decided to explore some of the historic sites of Qatar. I had found on a ‘what to do in Qatar’ website a group of historic forts and ruins of fishing villages on the remote north-west coast of the country. It seemed like a good way to spend a day, get out of the city for a while and test out our new car on the open road. In a previous blog post Shelley had mentioned that we had bought a car. While that is true, we didn’t exactly find it suitable to driving in Doha, so we now have another car, a Nissan XTrail 4WD, which we are leasing, and loving! – but that may be the topic of another post.

The day started well. I was armed with my camera, all my lenses, lots of memory cards. I packed a lunch along with lots of water to keep me going throughout the day. I’d printed a map of all the sites I was going to visit, so I felt fully prepared.

Once out of the city the speed limit on the main highways is 120 km per hour. I was happy motoring along at about 110, but occasionally I would drift up to 120 and whenever I did an orange warning light would flash on the dashboard, which was a bit of a concern in a fairly new car. I thought I’d better check it out next time I stopped in case it was something serious. Meanwhile I eased back just to make sure. When I checked out the manual later I discovered that the reason the light was coming on whenever I got over 120 was that the light is there to tell you when you’re going over 120! Who knew?

The first point of interest I visited on the way to the north-west coast was some pre-historic rock carvings at Al-Jassasiya, a little village on the north-east coast. A Qatar Tourist Attractions web page described it as follows: “Often dating back to the pre-historic times, classic rock engravings and stone carvings in Al Jassasiya occur in abundance. This art of carving signs on stones is known as petroglyphs. Al Jassasiya is famous for its content of stone engravings and rock carvings both due to their quality as well as their excellent nature of preservation. Visitors flock into this region to get glimpses of the ancient art form which serve as a wonderful experience for them.” What it failed to mention is that the entire site is fenced off and is under the protection of the Qatar Museums Society and no access or exploration is allowed without formal approval. Oh, well, on to the next site.

My aim was to visit 3 historic fishing villages: Al-Jemail, Al-Khuwair and Al-Areesh; and 3 historic forts: Al-Rekayat, Al-Thagab and the main, more well known one at Al-Zubarah. I got to the quite sizeable coastal town of Madinat ash Shamal and turned left. The 6-lane divided highway now became a narrow two-lane country road. And my map that I had printed out turned out to be slightly lacking in detail, such as showing any roads leading to my destinations. I soon had to resort to pulling over (letting the big trucks zoom past) while I consulted Google Maps on my phone, zooming in trying to work out which grey line on the phone might be a road that vaguely seemed to take me where I wanted to go and trying to relate that to the various dirt tracks I could see that led off in various directions. I eventually reached the first fishermen’s village – Al-Jemail. What do you know? Another fence, and another big sign from the Qatar Museums Society and – you guessed it – no access or exploration is allowed without formal approval. Luckily I had packed my big telephoto lens and could snap a few photos through the fence. I drove down to the shoreline and saw that there were quiet a lot of mangroves along the coast here – quite picturesque. I had been to a talk recently hosted by the Qatar Natural History Group about the various mangrove areas in Qatar. There is one at Al Khor, just north of Doha where you can go kayaking in amongst the mangroves, which may be another activity on our list for the future.

I then saw another four wheel drive (SUV) driving along the beach right across in front of the fishing village! The fence stops short of the beach, so it is fully accessible from the beach. I had already taken enough photos so decided to move on.

The next site on the list was on the other side of the road away from the coast and even with Google Maps and judging by the bends in the road I could not see any roads or even tracks leading off towards the first fort. I had driven past where I knew the fort should be until I came to a well-made gravel road which led to a rock quarry I saw on the map, which lay between the first two forts, so I went down there, along with a few large trucks. Half-way along this road I turned off and drove cross-country till I picked up what seemed to be a track and eventually spotted the fort. I was very thankful that the car had 4-wheel drive, which I engaged to negotiate the rough terrain. Referring back to my ‘tourist attractions’ web site: “Al Rakiyat Fort is one of the main attractions of historical architectures in Qatar … The Al Rakiyat Fort was built in time of the 17th and 19th Centuries. Al Rakiyat Fort is rectangular in shape with four towers in the corners. This historical fort is located at 110km from Doha. It is constructed with mud and stone. The restoration process started in 1988 and now it is open for public.” – Hah! Another sign, another fence! I did get a few nice photos of the fort, including some details of the mud and stone construction. I also snapped a couple of photos of the adjoining camel farm.

On to the next fort. I was starting to enjoy this cross-country 4-wheel driving. Al-Thagab was better preserved – or restored. “Al Thagab is a traditional rectangular fort. Similar to Al Zubarah, Al Thagab has three round corner defensive towers and one rectangular one. Its central courtyard is a wide-open space, and all of the interior rooms are on the west side. Local authorities restored Al Thagab in 2003, staying faithful to traditional building technique of using coral rock and limestone, joined by a mud mortar and covered with gypsum-based plaster.”

It was now time to head back to the coast to the last 2 fishing villages. Back across the main road the terrain was now much smoother and flatter and I could go a bit faster. I came up to the fence around Al-Khuwair village  – that’s right … another fence, another sign – and took some more photos of the ruins, including the old mosque. I then turned around to drive around the other side of the village and down to the beach for some more shots from a different angle .. at least that’s what I planned to do. Next thing my wheels were slipping and I found myself very rapidly bogged in deep soft mud! What looked like solid ground was actually a thin layer of dust on top of an equally thin crust of salt on a deep layer of thick sticky mud! I had discovered one of the features of coastal Qatar – the hard way – called sabkha. Another web post I read later in the week about driving in Qatar had this to say: “Qatar is mostly stony desert, with some sand dunes in the south east, and sabkha (a salty crust over a muddy subsurface) around much of the coast.” If only I had read that a week earlier!

I scouted around for rocks and wood to stick under the tyres to try and get myself out of this mess (literally – the car was getting rapidly spattered with mud), but gave up and tried to get some help. I was quite close to a large compound surrounded by a big stone wall, with radio masts in the centre, the whole thing about 600m square. I couldn’t see a gate so I started walking to the far corner. By this time it was getting quite hot, the salty, muddy terrain hard going, and I was in the middle of nowhere. Next thing a car drives past, so I flagged it down. The occupants were a couple of Qatari women in the back seat and a young  driver, none of whom spoke English. Pointing to my car in the distance in the mud I managed to convey my plight. One of the women kindly handed me  a bottle of water and urged me to jump in as I was letting flies in. They drove me round to the guardhouse of the compound – about 1.5 km if I had walked! and then drove off. Well the guards couldn’t speak English either so I could not explain what the problem was. They eventually called someone else who could understand me, and who also had a car. He and one of the guards drove me back to my car, and after a while, lots of pushing and grunting and mud-spattering agreed I was stuck. I thanked them for their efforts, and they drove away. I did pick up one bit of useful information – the big complex was Qatar Media radio broadcast tower. I now had a landmark. I then had the bright idea of ringing the rental company. They offer a breakdown service! Why didn’t I think of that earlier? Well it turns out they do have a breakdown service, but not up in that part of Qatar. I was advised to call the police! For a tow! Who’d have thought? Well it turns out that the police on 911 phone duty don’t seem to speak a lot of English either. I was eventually put through to a local policeman who knew exactly where I was, asked if my family was with me, whether I had food and water (I had my packed lunch remember?), and told me to stay put and he’d be there in 5 minutes. Stay put? Where was I going to go? He soon arrived, and after a lot of head-scratching, testing of the road surface in both directions he eventually tied a bit of rope to the front of the car, hooked that up to his towing strap and next thing the car was free! He escorted me around the fishing village, onto the beach and around the radio compound back to the main road. I spotted some potentially great shots of the village ruins as I drove past but there was no way I was going to stop to take pictures. The friendly policeman told me to stop in at the supermarket in Shamal and buy a sharp knife – to cut the rope of the front of the car. The knot was now too tight to undo.

I had missed out on probably the best of the 3 forts – Al-Zubarah – which is right next to the main road and also has an exhibition centre next to it, and is possibly open to the public, but I decided to cut my losses. That may be the subject of another expedition.

I then made the long drive home (about an hour and a half) in my mud-spattered car back to the rental place to get it checked out, and on to a much-needed car wash! It was well after dark by then. A long day and a bit more of an adventure than I had planned. Lessons learned? Do more research and take good maps … and stay on the road!

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