I have known my brother-in-law and his wife longer than I have known my husband. We get on very well, and have had lots of fun together over many years, in some really interesting places. My main regret with their expatriate lifestyle is that we only see them (and therefore our niece and nephew) rarely. So I think we have a good relationship. Then something gives me cause to wonder. Like Friday.
“Let’s go sand-duning,” brother-in-law (BIL) suggests. Sounded like a good idea to us, as it is one of the things that you have to do in Qatar. There was much discussion between sister-in-law (SIL) and BIL, and with us, about when to go. Saturday morning would be a good time, but there was a major family event that afternoon, so it was always going to make the morning a bit pressured. So it was decided we would go on Friday. Afternoon. My husband and I were like lambs to the slaughter. Meekly, innocently, trustingly, we went.
We drove through the Qatari countryside. So barren and bleak, that barren and bleak are words that can only begin to describe it. The flat featureless land looks as if it has been scraped clean, preparing it as a building site. The sand is just that – sandy, pale and colourless. The land is broken only by power pylons, and pipes full of crude oil (liquid gold as Jed Clampett would say). And of course the pristine highway cutting its way through the desert.
We followed the GPS. Qatar is not tourist friendly, and so our destination was not signposted. We turned off the main highway, and drove to the end of the road, the GPS advising us to now “drive off road.” And so for a very short distance we did, coming to rest under large sand dunes that seemed to appear out of nowhere. We clambered out of the car, clutching camera, hat and suntan lotion. The heat, at 2.30 pm, was at its peak, around 42 degs C. There was no breeze, and no shade. We suddenly realised why SIL had suggested going out early in the morning.
But we were there, and the point of being there was to hear the sand dunes sing. Apparently there are only a few spots in the world where the combination of heat, humidity, and sand composition (silica) produce musically gifted sand dunes. But first, we had to climb. My BIL went first, up the steep slope of the dune on all fours. Seems that at 42 degs, the sand gets quite hot! Nephew and my husband followed. They all successfully reached the top, albeit only a few seconds away from a heart attack (Nephew excepted). I was the official photographer, but realised I had no choice but to follow. I was already feeling the heat. Here we were, in a furnace, and I was supposed to climb these sand dunes. Half-way up, wrist and ankle-deep in sand, I decided that a) my BIL hated me, b) the ice-cream at lunch had not been such a good idea, c) I desperately needed water, and d) this was far enough.
Besides, the point of the visit was not so much the climb up, but the slide down. So we all turned and started sliding down the slope, causing mini sand avalanches. And the sand sang to us. A deep, sonorous note, much like monks chanting in a medieval cathedral, emerges from the vibrating dune, honouring our visit and our efforts. Alone in the desert with the singing sand dunes was awe-inspiring, but soon the heat drove us back to the car, to water, and best of all to air-conditioning, fast becoming my best friend here in Qatar.
We headed down the coast, to a beach “resort” where we found the other major sand dunes of Qatar. Huge sand dunes stretch for miles along the coast and further inland, providing a graceful and dramatic contrast to the harsh flat landscape around it. Here, a popular pastime is “dune bashing” – driving up the dunes in large four wheel drives, and sliding down steep slopes on the other side. BIL’s CRV was not up to the task, so we hiked up the dunes. Here at the coast it was cooler, by a degree or so, than at the much smaller singing dunes, and the hike wasn’t as steep, but it was still arduous. By now I was glaring at my BIL, convinced he was torturing us on purpose. We were rewarded with the view though, the dunes stretching off in the distance, the play of shadows and light and curves as the sun began to lower.
We descended quickly and easily towards the sea of the Arabian Gulf. It was not a peaceful beach experience. The noise of the four wheel drives on the sand dunes was replaced by the noise of jet skis and generators providing air-conditioning to trailers. All in close proximity to a major oil refinery. But the harsh surroundings and lack of beauty didn’t seem to bother the migrant workers from South Asia, most of them men, all clearly enjoying their day off, refreshed and cooled (just a little) by the sea.