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Golders Green

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The Desert [May. 24th, 2006|03:46 pm]
Golders Green
We joined the Creek then strolled along the bank on the Bur Dubai side, part of which is a sort of promenade that leads to a more congested, busier section of town where the street markets are, and where people catch the abras (water taxis) travelling to and fro across the water. We were headed in the direction of the Gulf and the Al Shindagha tunnel, but of course we were drawn into the bustling "old souk" area with its busy streets and labyrinthine markets, some of which are covered over and resemble tunnels.

At one shop I bought a shirt for 55 United Arab Emirates Dirhams, and I think at that time V. figured a Dirham to be worth about 40 New Zealand cents. In the streets and amongst the markets, though, we mainly just explored and looked and listened. Beginning at around midday, praying was broadcast across the city through powerful loudspeakers and every shop and stall closed up, reopening at 4:00pm.

Arriving at the tunnel we figured it was time to start heading back, and we also decided that the following day we would walk across the Al Maktoum bridge to see the city from the other side of the Creek and to explore Deira.

On the way back along the Creek, not far out from the street markets, I could see a middle-aged couple approaching who were obviously tourists as we were, and the lady came straight up to me and asked if I spoke English. This was the first of many times on our travels I was asked for directions by strangers; I suppose it became something of a running joke between me and V. It's a small world after all, as they say, because the lady and her partner were from Christchurch like us, and she owned a business in New Regent Street just around the corner from my old work. She was very nice and wanted to know the way to a money exchange.

By late afternoon we were in a Toyota 4WD headed out of the city, driven by Jamahl and shared with four other passengers: an Aussie girl in the front passenger seat; an unattractive couple in the middle seat, he from Singapore, she from Taiwan; and alongside them an attractive, petite woman. V. and I were in the small seat at the back.

We drove for a while along desert highway where the speed limit is 120km per hour. The highway was lined with pale green vegetation that certainly wouldn't flourish there naturally; irrigation piping is laid all the way along it, watering the plants regularly. Our destination was the desert, or, more specifically, the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the outer edge of which lies 45km from the city. The reserve is essentially a 225 square kilometre national park with strict rules in place for its protection.

At a point along the highway, and well out into the desert by this stage, we stopped at a small gas station so everybody could make sure their bladders were empty. The attractive woman who had been in the middle seat alongside the couple offered to swap places with me as I was a bit cramped-up in the small rear seat, so when we drove on again she was beside V. in the back, and I had more leg room.

Eventually leaving the road behind, and after passing through a perimeter gate manned by a uniformed guard, our vehicle joined up with some other 4WDs at a place where we stopped to stretch our legs and have a look around. The late afternoon sun was shining and it was very warm. The Arabian climate really agreed with me; it was hot and dry and very pleasant. Looking around I saw beautiful golden sand for as far as the eye could see, dotted with scrub and the odd tall tree, but this was only the beginning.

As part of a convoy of similar vehicles we went on an extended 4WD journey deep into the desert, driving up and down and across the dunes. Jamahl was a good driver and took things to the limit, leaving our stomachs behind many times. Despite the crazy driving, the Taiwanese woman took several mobile phone calls and was blabbering away much of the time. We came over the top of one of the dunes and saw that another driver in the convoy had taken a spill. The vehicle was on its side, crunched up with the windscreen shattered into a spiderweb pattern. They had been a bit ahead of us, and another couple of 4WDs had already stopped to assist, helping the passengers out through the doors which were now facing directly skyward.

It might seem a destructive pastime, four-wheel-driving in a conservation reserve, but things are strictly controlled. The reserve is broken up into four conservation zones, number one being an exclusion zone, no people allowed, and number four being for limited tourist safaris like ours run by registered operators along certain routes. The fees charged for entering the zone are put into conservation.

One of our stops out in the desert was at a working camel farm which was comprised of very old corrals, some Arab farmers, and the camels themselves. The men were catching ahold of each camel in turn so an old man could rub them down with some unidentified substance.

We had several stops way out in the desert so we could walk through the sand and over the dunes, and watch the sun go down. In every direction there appeared to be sand and nothing but -- just rolling dunes, and occasionally a bit of sparse scrub. It looked simply endless and quite beautiful.

The desert seems barren, but in fact it's inhabited by many species of animals. In one of the museums I was amazed to discover that hedgehogs (not unlike our own) live in the desert. There is a large variety of lizards, different species of wild cat, Arabian red foxes, the Arabian hare, and gazelles. There are also more than half-a-dozen different types of birds of prey, including kestrels, falcons, and eagles.

All this, and a belly dancer too.

(More later...)
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