From Borneo and Around

This blog is all about Borneo (and sometimes elswere) as I experience it. It's about places, people, fauna, food ... and anything I find pleasantly worth sharing in words and pictures.

Monday, October 25, 2010


My First Steps in the Desert

23rd April


My first step on desert sand, ever; I can’t help it, I snap a photo of my feet in my gladiator styled sandals; I should have had my toenails varnished in preparation of the photo-shoot. What color? Never mind.                                                                                                                  Although I make a big thing out of it (I have never been here and most probably I will never come back), where I’m standing right now is merely sandy road side. We have stopped here to deflate the Toyota Land Cruiser’s tires before we can start the real safari which happens to be the true reason why I have come all the way to Qatar, after I let a few pictures (they were amazing) posted on a travel agent’s website awaken in me the Lawrence of Arabia syndrome.  Right now and beyond knowing that there are going to be the obvious dunes and an inner sea, I am still not quite sure what to expect and what I have let myself into; the thrill of anticipation is overwhelming.


Our driver’s name is Jassim, a young and tall Qatari man, a bit on the dark side. In contrast to the color of his skin, he wears the traditional full length white athobe and the Ghatta over what I guess to be a very short hair cut. His feet are comfortable in leather sandals. Oddly enough, looking at him brings me back to the days when I was in Scotland, attending the Highlands Games in Braemar where most Scotsmen still wear the kilt. The question on every non Scottish woman’s lips then was: “So, what’s under the kilt?” and I briefly wonder if female visitors to the Gulf country show such cheeky curiosity. What do these men wear under their immaculate white robe?                                                                                                                                  Although he seems friendly, Jassim lacks confidence to speak to us in English and Saeeda, our guide, is acting as our interpreter.                                                                                                                                                I can’t help feeling surprise at seeing a twenty five years old woman working with an otherwise all men crew. Although she is wearing a full length black dress (LBD?) with a black veil to hide her hair, Saeeda is not one bit shy; in fact she is a real clown whose ebony colored face keeps on breaking into a sparkling white smile. When I take her picture, she forgets to smile and her face simply blacks out, making her appears as a full height black statue.                                                                                                                           
With T.P and Saeeda

Saeeda explains that she guides during weekends and that she is still a trainee. She tells us that while all her friends are already married with children, she’d rather take her time, not like her mum who is only forty two years old. She takes out her mobile phone to show us a portrait of herself with her mum; she won’t allow Jassim to look. Striking! Both look like sexy performers with extreme make up on and eyes as outstanding as on ancient Egyptian paintings! I’m having a hard time re-conciliating this picture with plain dark Jane on the front seat; I mean Saeeda. For a second I realize that with my more liberal upbringing, I have never had a chance to share that kind of silly fun with my own mother as these two women seem to be enjoying on the photograph.

4X4 Convoy
Our car has now become part of a convoy of all white Land Cruisers, except for ours; we’re the black sheep. Mustapha is the leader who communicates with all the other drivers through a radio. Lots of jokes are coming through the loud speakers, a lot of helpful comments too. Mustapha may not be sitting in our vehicle, but he is very alert to all our questions. Jassim, and we’ll understand later, all the other drivers are absolutely in awe with his capabilities. Mustapha is actually Lebanese and the desert is the love of his life.  After having worked in Saudi Arabia, he’s only been in Qatar for less than three weeks during which he has learned everything there is to know about the history, the economy and of course the geography of the small kingdom. Jassim and Saeeda are obviously impressed that their new and foreign colleague knows more about their country than they do themselves and in such a short time too! I, on the other hand, can’t quite understand what the fuss is all about; I have been here less than a week and I have been googling big time to find out as much as I could on this, after all tiny country. What I do find amazing though is that Mustapha already seems to know every dune there is  in the desert and every inch of sand, so much so that he is now our  leader!                                                Where we see one dune after the other and honestly could be conned into climbing up and down the same two or three over and over again, our companions have a name for every one of them!                                                                                                                                               Up we go, speeding up a wall of sand to reach the top of a dune and speed along the edge, lifting a cloud of golden dust in the process. Everyone is screaming. Saeeda’s veil has dropped from her head onto her shoulders; right now she only cares for her dear life. Somehow, I dare look out of my window to find the two wheels on my side of the vehicle reeling up in thin air just above an absolutely vertical drop to the bottom of the dune. Jassim, however, is a picture of calm.                                                                                   


Ahead of us we watch the other vehicles perform what looks like some extreme ballet dance; it gives us a preview of what we are going to go through ourselves in a few seconds. Adrenaline is pumping like never before; voices and laughter are filling up the car and through all this and above it all, I can hear Shakirah singing through the blaring stereo.

For more than an hour now, we’ve been going like a bunch of mad people thrown together inside a shaker bottle, yelling at the top of our voices; yet and through it all I am still trying to take pictures of this “once in a life time” experience while my camera stubbornly refuses to take most shots: we are in the desert and there is nothing to focus on!
Next to me Doctor Saad is making serious comments on the safety equipment or, should I say, the lack of it. Sure we have fastened our safety belts; with no helmets to wear, aside from prayer, that’s all we can rely upon.  The good doctor has to stop worrying out loud though as Saeeda reminds him that here in the desert, it is very bad luck to talk about accidents. She reassures us that Jassim has been an apprentice dune safari driver for six years now; this should imply that he is not a professional yet, but I don’t let it worry me; this is not a time for worrying; I came to be thrilled and I am getting every bit what I wished for. Soon however, all cars have to stop at the foot of a very high and long dune to fix a punctured tire.  Passengers, including my friend TP and me, seize the opportunity to take their distances from the vehicles and attempt a climb. So far the sky has been overcast with drizzling intervals (a rare thing!) so the sand is just pleasantly warm and oh so fine! Dragging our feet up and forward though is tough sport with sand running from underneath our soles. While our feet we keep sinking, we move forward one step and slide two or even three backwards. This is so much fun! And to think that this sea of sand used to be under water!

T.P Desert-Crossing? No Way!

We Found Sea-shells in the Desert!
During our stop we found a few sea-shells that left us dreaming of what it would have been like tens of thousands of years ago; soon we realize that the sea actually still nearby, now an inland sea that separates Qatar from Saudi Arabia. As we jest about taking a swim across, Jassim points out that the waters are very deep (some 200 meters) and that the Saudi side is guarded with armed posts. 

The Inland Sea

Jassim having fun
As we are making our way towards a resort-camp, night is about to reach the Qatari desert. In the car, our level of enthusiasm is still high; Jassim and Saeeda tell us how they could drive like this every day and the whole day, up and down the dunes, straight down and really fast like we are going right now, until we finally reach all the flat zone where evidently Jassim has lost control of his vehicle which is swirling right and left, this once in total silence, until the car finally stops moving and we all start breathing again.                                              From there, going to the camp feels like a Sunday drive with hundreds of four wheelers and buggies traveling like meteorites do in the sky, with no apparent order yet never colliding (at least not while we were there).
The camp is made up of a few large Bedouin tents, one of them fitted and decorated like a traditional living quarter, complete with carved wooden coffee (or tea?) tables, tea pots and musical instruments and really comfortable “sofas” to sit or sleep on, entirely covered with bright red ethnic woven covers.

Saeeda calls us inside, she wants us to wear the traditional long black dress and cover our heads so that we can have our photo taken together as three friends. We happily oblige although when I see myself on the photo, I know that this style simply does not suit me. I look dreadful! TP looks quite elegant though.                    As TP and I remove our Qatari dresses, so does Saeeda in front of one of the men, incidentally the one who’s just taken the few photo shots, who is still standing there watching us and laughing, obviously enjoying the rare intimacy. We think Saeeda has forgotten his presence, but as we gently bring this to her attention, she laughs with her contagious laughter: “It’s ok, he’s my boy friend!”  And of course it’s o.k with us if Mohammad stands there with loving eyes, discovering Saeeda’s jeans and tunic.                                                                  

T.P, Elegant, as always.

Outside the tent, aromas of kofta and curries attract everyone to the buffet table. It doesn’t take long till French, Canadian and Japanese tourists, some with young children, all agree that tonight’s dinner is out of this world under the perfectly clear sky that offers us a glimpse into infinity.

Dr.Saad and T.P Footloose in the Desert

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