A night under the stars
With Eid AlAdha approaching and the weather cooling to a mere 40 degrees, what better time to plan another micro-adventure and this time to do something I’ve been dying to do for a long time – sleep in the desert under the stars.
After little sleep and an aching back, I hauled myself out of bed and set off at 6.30 am on the day of Arafat, a fasting day for Muslims, before the celebrations of Eid Al Adha – the Festival of the Sacrifice – begin. Roads were quiet, temperatures around 35C and no wind.
I planned to cycle up the coastal road running along the east coast of Qatar, to Al Khor, a small town in the North East, located on a creek – Al Khor is Arabic for ‘the creek’. The ride would be approximately 50km which I estimated would take me 2.5 hours, give or take a stop when necessary.
Id heard of a small island among the mangroves – for which Al Khor is famous – which looked like it might be a good place to camp and star gaze, away from bright lights and civilisation. I was excited but nervous – the heat being such as it is.
Ive not ridden for more than 45 minutes in over 40 degree heat and (except for my trusty Grey Legs), I would be alone in my endeavour. Dogged determination and an inexplicable inclination towards discomfort would keep me going – after all, what pleasure is there in riding a smooth road?
Staying hydrated was my biggest concern so I stopped at the first truck stop at the start of the coastal road to refuel my water bottles and take a breather before the remaining 35km. These truck stops in Qatar are not for the faint hearted. They’re always a little dodgy due to the large number of huge trucks and commercial vehicles that pass through them from all directions.
I had to be careful, being a tiny person on a tiny bike!! But I found the convenience store in the corner…. aptly entitled “Consumer Goods” and gulped down a strawberry milkshake and as much water as I could manage.
I turned to look for the way out and was somewhat daunted by the sight of enormous tipper and concrete mixer trucks trundling along kicking up thick clouds of dust, jostling with worker buses chucking out dense black fumes, weaving their way through the myriad of parked up traffic, out through the gas station and back onto the main road. I felt very small very suddenly.
With my helmet and glasses back on and my scarf pulled up over my nose and mouth, we plunged into the melee and back out onto the main road, past Lusail – a massive construction site which will eventually be a brand new city for World Cup 2022.
Once past this, the only highlight on the long straight quiet Highway 1A, was the Lusail International Racing circuit and sports complex – quiet now for the summer, but a hive of activity during cooler nights when the circuit hosts motor racing, cycling, running and karting events.
After a relatively uneventful 2 hr 45 min and 58km ride, I finally entered the gates of Al Khor and headed directly to the air conditioning of AlKhor Mall, where I proceeded directly to the bathroom and changed into slightly more appropriate attire for Arafat Day (remember fasting relates to all things, not just food and drink).
I would spend the next few hours inside the mall, my only refuge from the heat of the day, before heading back out to find my little patch of desert beneath the stars for the night.
I set off again around 4pm towards Purple Island – another 10km or so out of Al Khor. The traffic was building, something akin to Christmas Eve in the UK, where people rush out for last minute goodies for tomorrow’s Eid feast with family and friends. So when I finally got off main roads and onto the very quiet desert track leading towards the coast, it was a mighty relief, particularly as the sun was rapidly descending and light would soon be gone.
Passing a half sunken Nissan Patrol, which had bogged itself into the soft wet sand just off the side of the road, I was reminded to take care not to deviate too far off the beaten track. The area is covered in salt flats which when wet can turn into quick sand – quite treacherous to the unwary. With the sun setting, I found the turning to Purple Island – a firm sand track leading to a parking area just off the island, more conducive to mountain biking than Grey Legs’ skinny tyres! But he managed admirably and we arrived to find severals cars parked up and families stretching their legs.
However, where we expected to see a track leading onto the island, we found a deep swampy canal and no way in. The whole island appeared to be cut off with mosquito infested mangroves. With insects buzzing around my head, no tent and no insect repellent, I made the quick decision to abandon the plan and find somewhere else. And with light disappearing fast, I needed a rapid pan B.
Back to the road and cycling as fast as I could muster, the wind having picked up, I headed down another desert track which I gambled would take me to the sea and hopefully a stretch of beach that wasn’t fenced in as private land or owned by a gas company – as much of Qatar is. At the end I found another few cars parked up with a group of Philippino guys gathering – maybe for a BBQ?? I wasn’t sure. The parking area was cut off from the sea by more mangrove swamps and a high sand bank on the left hand side. Undeterred, I hauled Grey Legs up the steep sand bank and to my total relief, saw a sandy spit stretching out into the sea.
We cycled as far as possible along the spit and found the perfect spot for the night, just as the sun disappeared below the horizon. I was exhausted and so happy to have found somewhere close to the water, isolated and peaceful.
I settled down for some silent star-gazing……well….. so I thought. (to be cont!)