Monday, 18 June 2012

Bait Al-Qefel

Were these walls in Wadi Saham once a lock house?
In our travels through Musandam and the mountains of the northern UAE we have often come across low stone structures with very thick walls. The picture to the right was one of several such ruins we came across in Wadi Sahm & Wadi Helo this weekend. They are usually abandoned and roofless today but were once strong rooms know as Bait Al Qefel literally "House of the Lock".  NB: the Arabic word  for "lock" is a great illustration of the problems of transcribing a spoken language I've seen it spelt "qefel", "qafl" and "qufl"!

These modest stone structures reveal a little of the pre-oil nomadic lifestyle of the Omani and Emirati people. In the northern tip of the Arabian peninsula it is hard for a visitor to differentiate between the people of the two countries. Indeed Oman has enclaves within the Emirate of Fujairah and the citizens of the GCC pass freely between Musandam and the UAE whilst tourists and residents will find no border controls when entering the enclaves. There are slight differences in national dress but that is a topic for another day.

Kevin demonstrating the door height
The residents of this part of the world migrated seasonally (and to a lesser extent still do) from the mountains to the cooler coast in summer. Whilst they were away at their other home there was a need to safeguard vital supplies of oil and grain as well as household goods from marauders. The Lock House evolved into the ideal architecture for this purpose. First a floor was dug out at least a metre in depth, usually more, no mean challenge in the rocky terrain. Low walls maybe a metre thick are then built around with only one aperture, a low doorway less than a man's height. It has a stout wooden door with two locks to prevent entry.

Storage jars wider than the doorway were put in place before the roof was added so could not easily be removed. They would contain items like water, dates, date honey, grain, palm oil and other provisions to ensure the returning members of the family had food to sustain them when they returned to their mountain farms in the cooler, wetter winter months. Some Lock Houses, over 200 years old are apparently still in use today. There is a superb reconstruction of a Lock House in the museum in Khasab which is well worth a visit.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Migration Season

Above the clouds in Wadi Bih
In the UAE there are only two seasons Winter and Summer. The former is when temperatures are mostly like a hot Summer's day in Northern Europe at around 25 C (77 F). The latter is when it is so hot and humid you'll drive the car to the supermarket, a few minutes walk away, and kill for a parking spot right by the entrance. Summer temperatures in the shade are frequently in the high forties with humidity soaring to well over 80%.

In the winter flowers and trees thrive bloom whilst through the summer months from July to September only the succulents and some grasses survive absorbing water from the atmosphere. My geranium leaves are already bleached almost white despite regular watering. The petunias in the flower beds at the roundabouts have been replaced by more heat hardy vincas. And it's odd to see the trees precipitated into an early "autumn", dates are already beginning to ripen on the palms ready to drop their sticky mess on every pavement.

Vinca Rosea (aka Madacascar or Cape Periwinkle) thrive here
In between the seasons is what meteorologists call the Transition Period. A time of frequent sand storms and occasional, very localised rain caused by unstable pressure systems over Saudi and Iran squeezing air down from Iraq and Kuwait. The UAE sits at the south eastern end of the Gulf so bears the brunt, air thick with fine dust appears foggy as strong winds spring up almost without warning. The colder air blasts the coast whipping up the usually flat sea and as it meets the warm humid air over the land causes real fog especially in Abu Dhabi. When the onslaught clears sometimes several days later, everywhere - balconies, cars, plants, windows, even drying laundry if you fail to recover it in time - is covered in sand.

Trees & Shrubs are Autumnal
However all is not so bad during the Winter-Summer Transition - the breezes also mean cooler temperatures and lower humidity making outside more bearable form time to time. This year we may have become more acclimatised to the humidity and heat but also the transition has lasted well into June so that on Tuesday night we were able to gather on the terrace outside the bar at DOSC after racing for our ritual post race analysis and banter. It was noticeable though, as we re-entered the marina shortly after 19:30, that the cabin top & sails were damp. The humidity is increasing and our Tuesday evenings outside are numbered.

Dawn on the mountains above Wadi Bih
The end of the transition period also brings migration. With schools in the throes of exams and contracts coming to an end many expats in Dubai are already planning their exits either permanently or simply for their family summer holiday back home in more accommodating climes. Every day it seems we are saying farewell to friends heading home to Australia, New Zealand or London for the last time. Its sad to see them go, remembering the good times we have had together but at the same time Kevin and I are excited as we too look forward to a summer sailing in Europe. By the time we return to Dubai in late August Ramadan will be over and there will only be a few short weeks until the Summer-Winter transition when outdoor life can begin again. A small price to pay for the amazing privilege of being here.