This is the story of my epic ride to Qatar’s Singing Sand Dune……
After completing the Qatar Century Ride last December, cycling a gruelling 100km in one stretch, I felt I had proved my stripes in the saddle and decided to plan my own solo two wheeled micro adventure.
Colleagues at work had mentioned the Singing Sand Dune before and shown me photos of this desert wonder which has become somewhat of a tourist attraction just outside Doha. When I say just outside, I’d looked at the map and saw a distance of 35 – which would be 70km in total. No problem, I thought, but in order to be able to spend time there, I would endeavour to leave very early on Friday morning, as it would take me approximately 1.5 – 2 hours there and the same back and I wanted to ensure I made it back before the traffic got busy in Doha at around midday.
So I got up at 4.30am, woke Grey Legs from his slumber and set off in the dark. I’d pondered for a while what to wear. I knew it would get hot later and I didn’t want to weigh myself down with over garments which I’d find useful only at the start. So I ventured out in a short sleeved cycling jersey into a cold, dark misty morning, praying for the sun to soon rise to warm me up. Yes, believe or not it does get cold here during the winter.
The first part of the trip was a breeze, cycling along the new cycle track which was built alongside the new airport road. Unfortunately though, it ran out very suddenly with no warning and I then had to pick my way across a dusty construction zone to the highway, to continue my journey. The route I’d chosen didn’t appear to exist any more, lost in the myriad of infrastructure projects popping up all over Doha at the moment, the biggest of which is the Qatar Rail Project, providing a metro rail system across Qatar to be completed before everyone arrives for the World Cup in 2022.
So instead, I ended up following the main highway until I could find a way across in the direction I needed to head. Unfortunately, right at that very moment, an enormous bank of fog descended and visibility reduced to barely a few feet ahead. The fact that I couldn’t see wasn’t really the problem, I was more worried about not being seen.
I had lights on my bike, of course, but the fact that I couldn’t see the big rear lights of vehicles right in front of me made me realise that I was totally invisible to the large trucks looming up behind me. So here I was, on a major highway, with no run-off, concrete construction barriers on either side and everyone driving blind. This wasn’t good. Time to pray.
I considered finding a place to stop but I really didn’t know how long this could last, and when I stopped I got very very cold. I decided to press on, holding my breath and talking nervously to myself about what an idiot I was. After a few miles but what felt like hours, I was able to take a turning off the road and stopped to take a breather and check my whereabouts on my iPhone.
As i did so, a Police car and ambulance rushed past me at high speed…. As I had lost some time, and still had a considerable distance to go, I continued on, following towards the emergency. The fog still refused to lift but at least I was on a quieter road.
Up ahead I could see the lights of the emergency vehicles and then I saw the accident. With the metro construction, the road layout had been changed…. rather drastically to a 90 degree turn and a concrete barrier ‘dead ahead’ had proved less than unforgiving to one poor driver in the dense misty gloom. I cycled past this sobering sight, feeling rather thankful that Grey Legs and I were still in one piece, but more determined than ever to reach our destination.
After another few miles, I could feel the unmistakable warmth of the sun breaking through the fog and lifting us up and carrying us faster along the road. Gradually the mist cleared completely and the road ahead stretched out into a long grey ribbon through the dust on either side.
No majestic dunes or palm trees here, just flat plains of dust with a few houses sprinkled about. I kept checking my spot on google maps and the sand dune didn’t seem to be getting much closer. I.d been riding for a good two and a half hours and by now should be almost there! My pace hadn’t been that bad, despite the fog and I was confused. I only seemed to be just over half way there!!
I was now on a busy single lane truck road, with a sharp drop off the side of the road to the gravel. Despite their huge size, they were travelling at crazy speeds and way too close for comfort. This was not altogether that much fun, I decided, and the scenery left much to be desired too…. unless you like commercial vehicle graveyards, which is what I spent a good hour cycling past for mile after mile.
Eventually though, after three and a half hours of gruelling and, at times, terrifying pedalling, I was approaching what seemed to be some dunes. It was 9am before I finally reached the famous Singing Sand Dune itself. A huge crescent shaped (as most of them are), golden mountain which apparently hums if the conditions are right. Physically I was totally shattered, and it turns out, it had been 35 miles, not km… (approx 55km)…. , which explained a thing or two!!…but here was my reward.
Total peace, quiet and solitude. Alone in the desert, just me and Grey Legs and a gentle breeze across the sand. It was truly magical and I knew we wouldn’t be joined by anyone at that time on a Friday morning. Since leaving the highway, we’d seen only one man, practicing falconry and occasionally I could hear him whistling for his bird.
Despite my fatigue, now I was here, I had to climb the dune. I dragged Grey Legs up the first smaller dune and then left him at the bottom of the large one while I scrambled up to the top. If you’ve never climbed up a sand dune before, I can only describe it as trying to climb up a downward escalator in custard filled wellington boots, soled with lead. For every five steps up, you slide back down three. Its utterly exhausting.
When I eventually made it to the top, my exuberance was short lived….. the entire top surface of the dune was littered with….. well…. litter! Evidence of picnics, barbecues and parties all left behind – wrappers, plastic bags, even fast food containers, as well as a carpet of charcoal. It made me sick. Here this natural wonder violated by the laziness and disrespect of visitors and locals alike. A microcosm of the ignorance of the human condition.
So I turned away from it and sat on the edge looking out across the desert plains in the direction of Saudi Arabia. As I sat, my footprints bringing me up had all but disappeared already. It was a terrific spot for contemplation but sadly I didn’t have long enough to enjoy it, contemplating only the long journey back which I wasn’t quite sure how I would manage, feeling exhausted, quite frightened and in pain.
I refuelled my body with a banana and some yoghurt drink and plenty of water, took a few photos and decided I would cycle back via a faster route. I realised there were no safe routes home – a fast 3 lane highway which may at least have a hard shoulder to cycle on, or the single lane truck road that had brought me here but almost killed me.
By now, the roads were getting busier so I didn’t fancy going back the same way, so I chose the highway. After climbing down from the dune and getting on our way again, the wind was now against me and had picked up. My two herniated discs in my spine were giving me trouble and I knew the return journey would be at least as gruelling as my earlier experience.
Finally getting onto the highway, I had to cycle 5km in the wrong direction even before I started because there was no way to cross the central reservation. In some places there was a hard shoulder which gave me some crumb of comfort, but for the most part there wasn’t. Again, I was faced with commercial traffic rushing past me at extremely high speed and so close, I could polish their wheels with my lycra! By now, I was so petrified and convinced I was going to die, that I prayed out loud continuously, saying the Shahada in Arabic over and over……
“Ash-Hadu an laa ilaaha illallah. Wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasulullah”
“I bear witness that there is no God except Allah. And I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
My back went into spasm – as much from the tension as the exertion. But I had no choice but to continue. Eventually I reached the Salwa Road, the main road all the way back into Doha City. I stuck myself on the hard shoulder and pedalled with everything I could muster all the way back and arrived at Souq Waif just after 12.30, passing the throngs attending Friday Prayers. I’d never been so relieved and spent some time just sitting with the horses and camels, trying to take in what I’d been through over the last 8 hours!
One major lesson – check whether the distance is in miles or kilometres !!! It makes a big difference! I ended up cycling 115km, not the 70 that I’d expected. And one might be tempted to say… plan better and know what to expect. But if I had known all about it in advance, maybe I wouldn’t have done it and where would be the challenge and adventure in that? These days we plan the heck out of everything and with it, remove all surprises….. good and bad. As a former boss and mentor once told me….. “Plan…. but never too much!”