Not all those who wander are lost
The anticipation of desert landscapes, shopping in local Souks and perhaps even seeing some camels is what has teased us away from the cosmopolitan city and sparkling water ways of Abu Dhabi (as luck has it a massive sandstorm as well) to discover and experience the next level of authentic Middle Eastern life. It is with an exciting amount of adrenalin, naturally associated with a road trip such as this, that we jump into the car and venture deeper into ‘the sandpit’ for our first United Arab Emirates (UAE) family adventure.
Time to visit Al Ain, the fourth largest city in the UAE and one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements.
It was approximately half way along on our road trip, when all of a sudden we were treated to our first dramatic change of landscape. Right there, beside the highway and stretching as far as we could see, was our first glimpses of desert sand dunes – we could hardly believe it! These ones, although not as spectacular as the ones seen in glossy brochures, were higher than the tallest palm trees which line the side of the road slightly blocking the view. No sea, yet plenty of sand, a sight which, no matter how many times I persisted, was impossible to properly capture by hanging out of the moving car window with my trusty camera.
After the novelty of seeing our first sand dunes slightly lessened, the next excitement on our approach to Al Ain was; the temperature gauge dropping, seeing the palm trees lining the roads heavily laden with dates and noticing the flat countryside was void of tall skyscrapers. Flat that is, until we got closer to the mountain range known as Jebel Hafeet, our end destination and location of the hotel we booked for our weekend stay. So, as the sun began to set, we began the 12 kilometre ascent up the windy, yet spectacular, rocky mountain range.
The Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet Hotel is nestled proudly amongst the rugged stone. The gardens are lush, the water features bring a sense of coolness and, once inside, you are greeted with an almost floor to ceiling living, green, vertical wall in the reception area. This, as well as a family friendly pool complete with water slides, are a refreshing contrast to the dry desert and sandy colours of the surrounding rocky landscape.
We were drawn to stay on Jebel Hafeet, which stands at 1,240 metres and is occupied by only a Palace, the Hotel and a Cafe, strictly out of curiosity and we weren’t disappointed. In fact, we were in for a real treat as, when the sun rose the following morning, we could clearly see the rock formations and the extent of our view over the city and surrounding desert landscape. We also learnt that this mountain, which millions of years ago was the ocean floor, is now filled with natural cave systems housing birds, bats, foxes and snakes – we were keen to explore.
We had seen our first sand dunes, now for the camels.
Stopping and giving way to camels crossing the road, camels exercising with their colourful rugs on, around what appeared to be a race track alongside the road and camels of all shapes and sizes up close at the local Camel Souk (souk meaning market).
The city of Al Ain is reported to have the highest population of Emirati locals in the country and this was certainly evident at the camel souk as it was completely dominated by locals, exactly the authentic experience we were hoping for. We appreciate traditional market places such as this are rare in the UAE and seeing all the animals up so close and witnessing local interactions and culture proved a real highlight of the weekend. We were conscious of being ‘tourists’ and so chose to drive around watching as the camels (yes so many camels), sheep and goats arrive in the back of ‘utes’ and trucks ready for the days trading.
Note: Although we didn’t hop out of our car there are many publications which clarify walking amongst the market and taking photographs is completely acceptable. Just be prepared to make a donation for the privilege of capturing these activities on camera.
The area extended to a series of shops selling items such as farming essentials and animal feed, homewares, plant pots and garden nurseries. At this point we decided to jump out of the car and wander around amongst the greenery and consequently, are now the proud owners of ‘Cacky’ the cactus – the children have begun nesting. It was while we were walking around the nurseries that we became distracted by rhythmic and distinct hammering and soon became mesmerised watching the activities at more than one blacksmith’s station.
Incredible respect goes out to the blacksmiths, who, in over 40 degree heat, were hand making tools. First the steel was heated in a charcoal ‘forge’ and, while the metal was red hot, a simple combination of single and double striker action was used to forge their piece. We watched the process in complete awe as these men used shear strength and stamina, rather than programming machinery to specifications, to complete these tools. Temperatures were beginning to reach the highest levels of the day and while we turned and headed for the air conditioned car I was once again humbled and experienced a new level of gratefulness for the everyday comforts we completely take for granted.
Now was the perfect opportunity to explore an area guaranteed to offer some reprieve from the heat. What better place to find some shade but in an oasis.
The Al Ain Oasis is located in the Central District and is a 3000 acre working plantation filled with 147 000 palm trees, watered by a 3000 year old irrigation system and is a cool (literally), peaceful and free sanctuary to visit. In years gone by, this particular oasis was a vital stop over on route from the UAE to Oman and for curious travellers all these years later, this is perhaps still the case.
Today, as luck had it, we arrived on a quiet day and, due to the fact we had young children and temperatures were reaching their peak, the security guard offered to give us a guided tour from the comfort of our air conditioned car. There were plenty of stops along the way and opportunities to taste the fresh, hand picked dates which were warm from the sun and soft and moist inside. With around 100 varieties on offer at this plantation our Baby Girl was in heaven. As well as being the first one to step up to the tastings, she also excitedly took procession of the small bag of extra’s which were a gift for our car trip home.
Both the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum and the Al Ain National Museum are on the outskirts of the Oasis so, at the request of our Little Man, we finished our weekend with a visit to the National Museum. 7500 years of recorded history from past generations local to the area including war relics, items discovered in archeology digs, preserved homewares and even personal items such as jewellery which provided a greater understanding of the traditions and culture associated with Middle Eastern living. A perfect activity to end this family adventure.
Considering we jumped in the car and headed off on this road trip with minimal planning we certainly had our authentic Middle Eastern experience. We departed Al Ain excited about the possibility of another visit allowing more time to see places such as the Al Jahili Fort, Al Ain Souk, Wadi Adventure and the Wildlife Park and Resort which we have heard so much about. But for now we are contented to head home…
Our trip to Al Ain was all thanks to a great conversation with another traveller – don’t you just love those! Who else is exploring the UAE at the moment and has some great travel suggestions or places we need to add to our ‘TO SEE’ list – feel free to join the conversation in the comments below or we can be found hanging out at the conversations with my sister Instagram page as well as on Facebook.
I hope this information entertains you all as well as offers practical advice for those preparing to embark on a journey to the area. Further information on Al Ain can be found at the Visit Abu Dhabi website here.
For an abundance of ideas of Family Friendly places to visit in the UAE visit:
Monsoon Breeze: A Complete Guide to Things to Do in UAE on a Budget or for FREE
Baby Globetrotters: 100+ family things to do in the United Arab Emirates
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Always fancied setting out on a great Aussie Road Trip? May I suggest – Family Road Trip to the Margaret River Region of Western Australia !
Safe travels everyone,