Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Ultimate Sandcastle

The Sand Warlock, as he patriarch of all things sandy, got dead competitive when we are at the beach recently.  Here he is surveying his handy work. 

There were a family of Dutch children near by who started him off by giving out to him about his feeble efforts so he got all Dubai on their ass and had to build the biggest one on the beach. I sighed and settled down with the latest Sarah Waters until he had finished.  OK, it's all a lie.  This is in fact Jahili Fort in the oasis town of Al Ain, a couple of hours' drive from Dubai. 

Al Ain was recently suggested as the possible new exile home of Hosni Mubarak.  My feature idea of going there to do a story about what there is on offer for the modern exiled ruler was shot down in flames here, but we decided to go anyway.  I think he's settled on Sharm-el-Sheikh so I missed the boat.

The fort has been restored to its original state. It's built of mud bricks (no sniggering at the back) rather than sand and apparently until 2007 it was in a tragically crumbly state. We were the only people there and I can't help but think if it got a few more visitors, it would return once more to a crumbly state as it feels like it's made of sand mixed with mud and grass.

Admittedly, rain isn't exactly a problem here so it's not going to be washed away but if it had anything like the foot fall of somewhere like Warwick Castle it seems likely it would be powder on the wind within days.

The fort was built by Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, or Zayed I, in the late 19th century. He was grandfather of the Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's beloved but now departed first ruler who gives his name to Dubai's monstrous 12-lane main road.  The fort has water pipes sunk into the walls for cooling and was used as a Royal summer residence.  It's had various uses over the years including a base for British forces in the 1950s.  There's a suggestion that it was one of many forts designed to protect Al Ain which was highly regarded as an oasis with fresh water supplies.  Today there is still a relatively green spot full of palm trees.

It's a peaceful and cool place.  Apparently the town is home to one of the UAE's few remaining camel markets so obviously I will be returning there soon to see what that's all about and buy myself a few beasts.

While there we drove up Jebel Hafeet, UAE's second highest peak, a towering 1,240ft.  And discovered at the top what I thought might be Mubarak's hideaway.  What does one do in Dubai and the surrounds when there's an empty spot? One builds a hotel on it. So here is the Hotel Mercure: 

My picture doesn't really do it justice but I think you get the idea.  We thought about staying for dinner to admire the view from the peak but the combination of the failing light, the dust from the nearby cement factory and general desert detritus made it less than worthwhile.  Plus, the promise of live music which appeared to be Red Coat-style entertainment, had us hightailing it for the door faster than you can say audience participation.

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