Friday, April 11, 2014

New Year in Dubai

For the first time, I was actually not prepared to leave one country for another. I had had such a great time in Iran that I somewhat dreaded the thought of boarding the ferry to Dubai. The only thing I was looking forward to when arriving on the other side of the Persian Gulf, was that I would have an opportunity to downscale my touring gear. That way I could tour lighter than ever before, and live with only the essentials.

Skyscrapers in Sharja, UAE.

The ferry crossed the gulf overnight, and we arrived in Sharjar after sunrise. Since Ivo and Brigitte were also heading to the centre of Dubai, we cycled the odd 30 kilometers together. With few hotels rooms available and end-of-the-year prices being somewhat above our budgets, it took some searching before we finally settled for a room to share for the first night. The next day we parted ways, but with the idea of meeting up again at some point in the days to follow. I was off to get my visa for India, my next destination, as soon as possible. The plan was to spend a few days in the city before heading to the most northerly Emirate, Ras al-Khaimah, to meet up with Ryan, old friend from student days. On New Year ’s Eve I met up with Ivo and Brigitte at the Burj Khalifa Tower, where we ended up having dinner on the floor of the over-crowded Dubai Mall, before the fireworks kicked off at midnight. I decided to film the Burj Khalifa going up in sparks and smoke, so did not get a photo. Perhaps the most spectacular display was the fireworks along 94 km of the Dubai coast, though we could only see a fraction of it from where we were.

The Burj Khalifa moments before the fireworks.

The Dubai Creek.

Before leaving Dubai for Ras al-Khaimah, I met up with Tinus and Corna, South African’s living and working in Dubai. They kindly hosted me for the night and accommodated my 15 kg of excess luggage that I was planning on leaving behind for good. My first day on the bike, now without front panniers, and with a somewhat reduced load on the rear, felt amazing. I was instantly hooked on this new travelling setup. I had also switched my tent for a hammock, figuring that I would never be too far from at least two trees during the rest of my travels. Admittedly, my first night in the hammock was not as cosy I had had hoped, and it took some time getting used to the new sleeping arrangement.

I switched my tent for a hammock.

I took the highway skirting the eastern edge of Dubai towards Ras al-Khaimah. I had planned to do some birding while in the Emirates, so used the extensive database of birding sites available at UAE Birding ( Common birds along the way included Grey Francolin, Southern Grey Shrike, Crested Lark, Green Bee-eater, Purple Sunbird, White-eared Bulbul and Brown-necked Raven. Once I reached the coast at Al Rafaah I saw my first Socotra Cormorants, followed by a mixed flock of half a dozen wader species, including Terek Sandpiper, Greater Sand Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, and Ruddy Turnstone. A Gull-billed Tern also made a fleeting appearance.    

A pair of Brown-necked Ravens on a dune.

Ryan and his family kindly hosted me for a couple nights; it was great catching up on the last 12 years. Red wine for the first time in more than five years also never tasted so good! The copious amounts of good coffee that Ryan served also went down well; even the simple things in life become a luxury if you abstain from them for long enough while on the road. Ryan also arranged that I could camp a couple nights on the reserve that he manages on the side, which, with its dunes and Ghaf trees, looks as close as anything to the Kalahari. It felt like I was home. A morning birding around the reserve with Ryan and a colleague delivered the usual species such as Indian Roller, Green Bee-eater, Arabian Babbler and Hume’s Wheatear, but also a couple surprises and firsts for me, such as Plain Leaf Warbler, Eastern Orphean Warbler and Asian Desert Warbler. 

An Arabian Babbler performing on a branch.

Ghaf trees and dunes in the UAE

Arabian Oryx on a red dune.

The striking Indian Roller.

An Eastern Orphean Warbler, surprise bird of the day.

Red-wattled Lapwing, a common lapwing in the Middle East.

Ryan (right) and a work colleague.

The next day I cycled further north to visit a number of birding localities, amongst others the Al Hamrania nursery fields and the Saqr Park. At the nursery fields I found the Caspian Plover and a couple of Buff-bellied Pipits in winter plumage, as reported by other birders. Numerous Common Snipes were among other wader species present, all foraging across the soaked grass fields. A break in the clouds allowed me to enjoy the Red-necked Phalarope wading in the water puddles in the parking area of the Saqr Park. I also searched for Pallid Scops Owls in the trees with no luck, but then I have never been good at spotting owls! 

The fields at the Hamrania nursery.

A Buff-bellied Pipit in winter plumage, at the nursery fields.

Traveling the back roads in the UAE.

I retreated to a restaurant for lunch, where Abdul, the owner, not only insisted I didn’t pay for lunch, but that I be his guest for the night. So I was not surprised to hear that he was Iranian! After breakfast he made sure I had a lunch pack before I left for the mountains and wadis near the Oman border. Though I did not find anything unusual here, the ruggedness of the mountains was breath-taking. Striolated Bunting, Desert Lark, Plain Leaf Warbler, Pale Crag Martin and White-spectacled Bulbul were good to see though.  

The UAE flag near the Oman border.

A male Striolated Bunting.

A lone tree near the Oman border.

A Pale Crag Martin collecting mud at a pool of water.

A goat with an attractive facial pattern.

News that my Indian visa was ready made me head back south to Dubai, where I had the fortune of staying with Tinus and family again while making final preparations for my departure to India. Fate would have it that my travel plans for India would not go as planned, but I ended up having a rather interesting stay in Mumbai.

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