Thursday, January 21, 2016

Another new year solo off road drive and hike: The Village of Sal

It has been a complete orbital ride around the sun since I first climbed the highest mountain of UAE. Okay, I drove to the top. That makes it more accurate. This time, I decided to make that destination a back up. I got the latest UAE off road book and Al Qudra lakes looked like a promising place to pitch a tent and welcome the year.
 4:30 pm. The final shift for the year was done. I hurriedly bought my camping food and the promised chocolate cinnabon roll for my best friend who was still at work. Time seemed to be going faster and a granted wish to be in two places in one time would have made everything perfect.

Al Qudra lakes, Dubai

I delivered the sinfully tasty pastry to the hungry friend, we exchanged new year wishes, I left my trip details, explaining where I was supposed to be and what time I have to check in over facebook, and finally, the time I would be back in the city. That is a must for every solo camping trip. They must understand that if they do not hear anything from me, they gotta alert the world that someone stupid is lost.
Abu Dhabi- Dubai traffic was a mess. The road was full of red tail lights from in front of me to infinity. Although the night was clear, cars were only going 120. For this road, that was a drag. I needed to get off the next exit and find an alternative route. The road I found was cutting across some forestation area and finally leading to al Qudra lakes. It was 10 pm when I finally got to the lakes. I was not expecting the camp site to be overcrowded. Cars were lining the lakeside and tents were everywhere. Although the whole camping site was in a party mode, it was not what I came for. I found a place to park and took some photos. 
These lakes were developed as a haven for migratory birds and yes, there were big birds by the vegetation along the lake. Although unseen to me, one could tell they were big ones by the baritone, hoarse quacking the make every time someone lights firecrackers.
After taking a few shots, I decided it would suit my intentions best if drove 140+ kilometers to Ras Al Khaima and revisit Jabel Jais. Well, not the exact area I camped to welcome 2015. A small ancient village at the lower part of the mountain seemed roused my curiosity. Grabbing the off road book, I flipped to the route I saved as my plan B, the village of Sal.
Ras al Khaima is significantly cooler than the other emirates especially when you are in the mountain ranges at night. I pitched my tent and made my meal. It was now 2 am and a foggy 6 degrees  so the camera had to be in its bag. I cant risk moisture from the fog and condensation inside the tent so I regretfully failed to take pictures of my camp.
The first light of 2016 was obscured by fog and I had no chance of seeing it as I was camped between high peaks to avoid strong winds. Still, the day was awesome! I was on the road to the village of Sal and it was my objective to be there before noon. Making a fresh cup of cappuccino and eating corn I roasted over my fire was enough for breakfast. Power bars were in my bag but I deemed it overkill since i was driving most of the time eating them would add up to adipose in my belly. Although there seemed to be no sweating in this cold weather, water was always in demand. 

The steep road up the mountain was tricky. Crushed rocks were used on the dirt road and often times, I had to make the car crawl since spinning the tires would be a big no-no. There were ascending parts where all I could see was the sky and I was sure that I'd be dangling on the seatbelt on my way down. I felt so alien in land cruiser/patrol country. Still, the 175 horses under the hood managed to pull this 5-year old all stock saloon up the ancient, weather-beaten road to the archeological mountainous village. One final turn and i discovered that I not only reached my goal. I was literally looking down at Sal. The mystical village of Sal that was 1350 meters above sea level was a hundred feet lower from where I was. 
Leaving the car in a rather safe spot where it would not be an roadblock, I took by back pack and explored the area on foot. Trekking was tricky. It became apparent that choosing my steps took more time than I thought. There were times when  rocks that look heavy actually move when stepped on as they are the type of light rocks that make a metallic ting when hit. Big boulders demand caution when you approach them, They tend to be likely places where snakes make their home. Luckily, the only wildlife I noticed we mountain goats, bees and doves and falcons.
As the sun reached its zenith, I had consumed half the trail water I brought. That was my cue to head back. Retracing my steps down the moon-like terrain was no easy task. I almost lost balance a few times. okay, a lot of times! (no witnesses were there to keep count)

There is always a jubilant sense of completion when you reach the goals you set to your challenging self in hikes like this. Friends often ask me why I do these solo camping or hiking trips. The best response I always give is "why not?" Starting a brand new year with a sense of achievement and completion in day one was not so bad. 

View from above the Village of Sal.
The Archeological Village of Sal is currently being renovated as of time of writing this blog.

Friday, January 2, 2015

New year camp at Jebel Jais

The road to Jabel Jais
As the final hours of  the last shift for 2014 was dwindling down, I knew I just had to make a getaway. The options I had for meeting the year were either to watch fireworks at Abu Dhabi Corniche or just lay back and watch the stars. Being me, I had to pick the latter.

Getting a good spot for star gazing in this country is quite a challenge. Even the deserts in the middle of nowhere are cursed by light pollution. My last attempt to find such a spot in the desert along the Sharjah-Kalba road was futile. With this in mind, I knew finding altitude would increase my chances.

When accessible mountain heights is brought up, the known Jabel Hafeet in Al Ain is usually one's first pick. The name itself makes me feel jaded so I referred to my UAE off road book. Jabel Jais, the highest peak in the UAE became my first pick. With an altitude of 1,925 metres (6,315 feet) I knew I'd be sleeping with shivers. This peak has a history of having heavy snow fall in January 2009. That fact gave me even more gusto in making it there for the new year.

night sights from my camp
Like my other camping trips, this one was no different- it is unplanned. I passed by a shop to get  some food supply. Of course, my camping gear was already in the car. (When was the last time I took them out of the car?) I took 2 coats and 2 sleeping bags. I've had experiences of sudden temperature drops in the desert before, forcing me to sleep inside the car with heater on and that is not happening tonight. After exchanging wishes with the person that matters, I left Abu Dhabi at 10 pm. GPS said the trip would last 3 hours an 37 minutes. I was on my way. Stopping to make sure I had enough petrol before making the ascent, I noticed the boys attending the pump started dancing and making high fives. It was 12 o'clock. We chatted for a while, asking them for directions. I gave them 2 sachets each of UNO 8 in 1 coffee, got into the car and headed for the mountain.

I woke up to this view from my tent. Simply awesome.
I knew I had to eat before I sleep so just before the climb, I pulled over and wrapped 1 can of potato soup with a rag, taped it to the strut brace and was on my way, knowing the engine heat would give me a warm meal later. (now you know!) The drive was challenging. Unlike the "driveway" in Jabel Hafeet, this road was totally dark and had far more horse-shoe curves. I felt an increase in ear pressure so I rolled down a window. The road was not as steep as I expected and driving on ascending curves flexed the muscles of the 175 horses under the hood. After 45 minutes, the navigator declared that I have reached my destination. It was a point in the road where cars were parked in both sides. Tents were pitched and the paved road ended. Some 4x4s took up the challenge of negotiating the steep dirt road that continues to the military base at the top of the mountain. I didn't drive 3 hours just to camp roadside. The only direction I would go is up.

view from camp as seen by the naked eye
With only headlights to illuminate the road and a cliff on one side, I knew it would be fun!
In some ascents, you only see the hood of your car and considering that most of the mountains in the area are shaped like "Pride Rock" from the "the Lion King" I cant help but entertain the feeling that I might be driving to a cliff. It was the type of driving where torque in low revs was needed and I wanted no interference of electronics in my driving so I turned of the Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC). That gave me the ability to spin my front tires when needed- sometimes an essential in getting grip in loose gravel. Luckily, I did not have to trade gasoline for horse power as the road was well kept.

Finding a place to park near a good vantage point was easy as there was barely no one else on top. Taking some pictures, I noticed a silhouette of a stone table near the ledge of one peak. That was the place to make camp.
home for the night

Yes, there were stars and yes, they were affected by the ever-present light pollution. At first, I just enjoyed watching the lights of cars negotiating the road below and I started taking pictures. I knew my camera battery would not last long in this cold, which I could feel through my leather gloves. (the car thermometer registered 8 degrees) Settled in the comforts offered by my tent, I made myself a cup of coffee and opened the warm can of soup. I tried to brave the cold and take pictures but managed to only get a few before the camera battery decided it needed sleep. A tent, one yoga mat and two mummy sleeping bags- one as extra mattress and the other to crawl into. That would to it. Yes, I had a sweatshirt and a coat on. I felt so snug and comfy just like I was in a cocoon. 3 am. Goodnight, world!

6:30 am. the fone alarm woke me up. It was too cold to take my gloves off so I used the tip off my nose to slide it off. I wear an N95 mask when I sleep t keep my face warm and prevent frostbite in my lips. Feeling the cold LCD in my nose woke me up! I started chuckling at myself. It was comfortable but getting out of my cocoon of comfort was such a task. I feel you, butterfly! I was now awake. First light was breaking and I had to warm my camera battery for this.

I had a hearty breakfast, invited the first guy I saw but he shyly declined. He was bringing four asses (not the ones you stare at... the ones you ride on- donkeys!) to get hay supply for the stable below the cliff. I got him a paper cup of nice hot coffee. He was all smiles and said something before he left. I guess it was happy new year, he said. He didn't speak English.

I spent the day exploring the peak. I spent hours waking around, climbing rocks and meeting occasional hikers and giving them water and prime juice to prevent cramps and boost their energy. I drove further up to where the road ends. Apparently, it does not end. there is just a check point near the military base. One hiker said a passport is needed to get thru as that was Oman across the gate. I was too tired to get my passport in the car so maybe some other time.

Overall, it was a much needed getaway where there was nothing in my head except for the "here and now" situation. 2015, I'm ready!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dhaya Fort, Ras al Khaimah

It was in one of my solo trips to this emirate where I first reached Dhaya fort. I was looking for a cool rest house when my GPS brought me to this area. Built on top of a hill, this fort was in a position ideal for defense. It had a commanding vantage point that gave it an advantage in sighting approaching enemies.

This was the last fort to surrender to the British in 1819. Since fort was out of range for the invaders' canons, the British had to take their canon from the ship, drag if a few kilometers over the sand under the unforgiving heat. The fort was not built for long sieges. The inhabitant's surrendered after a few shots were fired. 

At present, this is one of my favorite places in Ras al Khaimah. It currently overlooks dates plantations and rocky mountains in the east. The road leading to the fort is a dead end terminating at the parking lot of the rest house at the foot of the hill with an inviting swimming pool that really offers a relief from the heat.

The climb to the top of the hill may be grueling but the reward of a magnificent view is worth it. remember to bring your water!

Al JAzirat Al Hamra: Ras al Khaima's Ghost town.

Spooky. That's what came to my mind when I first laid eyes on the dilapidated houses and sheds that were reduced to rubbles. It was a glaring, hot noon when we got to the town. Not a soul in sight. rubbish lined on side of what used to be a wall. Yes, this must be the town that stands as a shadow of the former booming village that served as home to the Za'ab tribe or Ras al Khaima.
An hour away from Dubai metropolis, this rubble of artifacts brings one to another dimension of time. A quick hike around the area shows visitors hinds of how life must have been.

Occupied since the 14th century, Jazirat al Hamra, which translates as "The Red Island", served as a major trading post located in the south of Ras al Khaima. The Za'ab tribes were also called Hadhr, which is the local name for coastal Bedouins, whose livelihood depended mainly on fishing and pearling.

Houses in this village were constructed using grounded corals and mud. This stands unique and the area has recently been fenced for renovation.

This village was abandoned around 40 years ago. Reasons for leaving the village vary, depending on who you ask. Some say people were forced out be the ruler while others say residents just left the place for a more comfortable homes. A more trivial reason is that that place was haunted. This gave me the reason to consider this as a place to visit.
Friends who went for a night photo shoot have their own hair-rising stories to tell. Among the unexplained stories is the case of the flash batteries. This group of avid photographers came with fully charged batteries for their flash guns. on the area, none of their flash guns worked, They had to improvise with their camera's pop-up flashes. When they got back to Dubai that same night, all their flash units worked well. 

My last visit to the place showed a lot of changes. The area has been cleaned and major structures such as the bastakiya and mosques have been fenced. This shows that construction will commence in time and if one wishes to see the town known to have jinn and other mysterious goats, the best time to visit would be now,


Thursday, July 4, 2013

The unplanned shoot.

Friday afternoon. Almost late for work but not worried. A compulsory overtime set by management due to the increasing number of medical requests was not at the top of my to-do list for the weekend. I routinely punched in. 16:02.. no pressure. When I got inside the office, almost everyone was on their feet. The work queue had been reduced to a figure manageable to those who were on regular duty! "This sucks," I told myself under a heavy sigh. All my camping plans down the drain for nothing. I hurriedly asked the shift supervisor if I can cancel my overtime. The affirmative reply gave me a big smile..

Waiting for safety briefing.
Now, what to do, where to go? Reynar suggested a photo shoot at Shk Zayed grand mosque (which we already did in the past- and why haven't I blogged about it yet?) I was up for it just to work out my shutter finger. Then he blurted out: "why not try a different shoot in Al Ain- one with real guns?" That did it. I was all into the plan. we started asking around the office who wanted to come along. Luckily, a gang was formed and off we went to our destination 120 kilometers away.

Lyn firing with the .22
An hour later, we were at Al Ain equestrian, shooting and golf club paying our fees and getting hype for the unplanned firing. First stop: 9mm pistol firing! It was June the club had a summer offer of 90AED for 50 rounds. That deal was the bang for the buck. A short safety emphasis from the range officer (which was not really enough for most first timers in the group) all about loading the clips, pointing the gun, squeezing the trigger and oh, putting on ear protection. In no time, we were firing away at targets set at around 50 feet as per NRA indoor shooting standards. The ladies had to use the .22 pistol, which was appropriate for greenhorns but deadly if mishandled.

 My first impression of the compact Caracal nine was that it was overused, the slider was rattling and other signs of wearing were evident. The piece I used needed cleaning and oiling. Giving a little consideration that it was late in the afternoon and thousands of shells in the floor, the guns must have seen a lot of action for the day. I noticed that no matter how dead-on the target was in my sights, the cross hair arget always seemed to be bullet proof. If only I had a scope to check how I was shooting, I could have adjusted my sights. At the end of the 50
rounds, I got a fair result- it was alright- literally! As in all the bullet punches were to the right of the bull's eye! This is humiliating.

With the urge to redeem ourselves from the rather uncomplimentary results that were forever immortalized in our target papers, we opted to try out the .22 rifles that were considerably cheaper at 70 AED for 50 rounds.

Counting bull's eyes.
Since it was possible to shooters to split the 50 rounds, our pockets demanded that we do so. So there I was prone on the mattress with a .22 caliber KK300 Walther rifle dry firing to feel the trigger. It was feather-like. Peeking into the dot sight, my astigmatic eyes threatened to fool me. Not taking the risk of failing to redeem my poor handgun performance, I decided to shoot like I do with Nikons- both eyes open. The routine of

loading a bullet for every shot and pulling the bolt after every shot, ejecting the empty shell was almost ritualistic. I was getting comfortable firing a bull's eye after another. Then it hit me: the all to familiar back pain triggered by prolonged hyperextension of my lumbar spine has gave me the cue to finish my rounds and get upright for the much-needed back relief. I took my time, holding my breath each time I fired to the target 150 yards away.  Needless to say, I was vindicated of the impression I made earlier of being a poor shot.

Reynar showing his assassin skills by hitting perfect 10s
We all had a great time firing. It was half past nine in and as the explosions from firearms slowly gave way to the sound of sweeping empty shells, the sound of grumbling in our stomachs grew to decibels that were unmistakable for tinnitus. It was time to go for grub!

A few minutes away was the golf club which was home to the finest stone grilled stake in the emirate (don't take a vegetarian's word for it, go try it yourself!) For those wondering what the vegetarian ate in a place known for it's steak, the glutton in me decided to have one whole vegetarian pizza all to myself.  That is were we spent the rest of the night. Or so we thought.

As we walked out with full stomachs the distant lights dotting the winding road up to Jabel Hafeet caught our attention. We had our next destination! Our three-car convoy slightly stretched the city speed limits as we found our way to the mountain top. With temperatures at 35 degrees, and slight gush of desert night winds, it was still picture-perfect, despite the slight hint of dust in the air that would have been a little too obvious if the sun was up.

Our watches were about to change the dates when we decided to go home. Raynar had to report to his other half who still had work the next morning. The rest of the gang road with Mark, who decided to go for coffee! We followed him to a Starbucks branch that would possible be open at such ungodly hours. We got there and proved ourselves wrong. The doors were locked for the night so we decided to go to another place a few hundred meters down the road.

photo credit: Boss Vic
Luckily, the guys decided to accommodate us and keep the shop open as long as we wanted. A few chats, The guys settled for raspberry-flavored shisha and I enjoyed nuts and an avocado shake. Time has passed fast and we had to decide where to spend the night since I was the only one hell-bent on going home to Adu Dhabi while the two other cars was to stay in Al Ain for the night.They decided to crash in Angel's (Mark's sister) flat. We got there and my, what a neat place she has. The lady knows her taste! French fries were made, ships were opened, bottles of San Mig Light were brought out. (of course, I get to have grape juice- just like communion.)

It was time to go home (read: 3:00 am) We said out goodbyes and along with Geri, Daryll and April, we drove safely back home to Abu Dhabi. Ok, "safely" was an understatement since I got a picture- the one taken by speed cameras by the road? yeah, I got one on the way home. It was a little past five when we reached home. The sun was warming up, half of the city was still enjoying the pleasure of extra sleep on a weekend.

Trip expenses: gas: 50 AED. 50 rounds 9mm firing: 90 AED. 25 rounds .22 rifle: 35 AED food- pizza and iced tea: 48 AED. Speeding ticket: 300. Quality time with friends: priceless.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Bare Essentials: Footwear

I have decided to take time to tip my hat to something we mostly take for granted: Footwear. We use them to keep our feet comfortable and protected from the elements out there. We wear them every day, going over our daily activities, trusting them to get us thru the day.

This idea came as I was taking shots of my shoes just to comply with a certain theme in one of the photography forums I have joined. While preparing my "subjects" for the shoot, I realized 3 things: First, all of my footwear are over 2 years old. Second, I remember when and where I bought them, even the price and means of payment. Lastly, I have, in different circumstances, tried sleeping with each of the shoes on. (read: "we've been through thick and thin")  I love the idea of getting a new pair of kicks every now and then but my pocket consistently denies me that pleasure. As tribute to the stuff I step on every day, I'm featuring them here.

First up, the casual brown leather shoes I got from the Timberland shop in CentralPlaza Pinklao, Bangkok back in April, '07 (as I said, the nerd in me still knows every purchase detail)  I swiped off 3,400 THB for this pair, estimating a three-year service. Guess what, it has been 6 years and still nothing wrong with it! I must admit, this is the only pair I have (or will ever have) that was made in Vietnam. On the shop, I had some prejudice on the quality since it was made in a country known for knock off products (back then). It did not feel comfortable at first but as weeks went by, the soles slowly adjusted to the contour of my feet and it felt good! It looks good when paired with casual khakis. I love how the insoles keep my feet cool and it still is waterproof up to now.

The outdoor boots. Got this pair of Merrels from the Mall of Asia in Manila for PHP 5,675.00 back in December 2008. My love for tough boots started since childhood. Ever since I had my first Coleman boots,  I have made it a point that all the camping boots I would have must be waterproof.  I was always engaged in outdoor activities. Growing up in Mountain View College, a 1024-hectare school campus located in the heart of Mindanao, Philippines surely has contributed to this. I remember as a child, we were constantly warned not to wear flip-flops while walking in the pathways at night to avoid being stung by scorpions. Snakes were easy to find- even under our house.   I love trekking, camping and spelunking ("caving" to those who prefer simple words) and this is a must-have for such activities. These boots have been thru mud in the mountains of Tambulig Zamboanga del Sur, trekking in Manupali river and Malingon creek in Bukidnon to the rocks of Jabel Hafeet and sands of the UAE. I have even used this in most of my mountain biking adventures from '08-'09. I consider this the type of shoes I should wear when the world becomes a wasteland, or when the ozone layer finally gives up, or when the world ends or the zombies attack... You get the picture. It does not only manage to look attractive, it even attracts gravity to a certain degree. Still it has the puncture-proof technology offered by the outsoles of Vibram and of course, it is waterproof.

This hiking shoes still from Merrel A much tamed down version of my boots. Purchased in Safeer Mall, Sharjah in July 2010 for a sale price of AED 395, this light-weight, comfortable shoes shares the same puncture-proof soles offered by Vibram. The simple no-nonsense design, tested toughness of Merrel and the simple fact that is was on Ramadan sale persuaded me to get this pair. Albeit offering meager protection from sand and water, this quick-dry shoes offers comfort and ease from the desert heat. Having used this in all seven emirates, wading in waters of the Indian Ocean along the shores of Fujairah, dipping my hot feet in  Wadi Wurrayah while on solo camping/trekking, I still have to find a flaw on this pair.

It was in August 2011, my back injury that I got as a souvenir from working as an ER nurse in Yanhee Hospital in Bangkok was getting the best of be. I knew I had to get a pair of "comfy shoes" that offered natural posture for my feet. I was on the verge of placing an online order for this since it has been more than a year of searching for VFFs (Vibram Five Fingers) in the UAE. I was walking with my sister and her hubby in Festival City when sister dear spotted what I have been looking for. The Society shop  was then the only distributor of this weird footwear in the UAE. The catch: this one costs AED 1150. Almost 8 times the price in the US! Shelling out that amount for a pair of footwear that made one look kinda funny was a painful thing to do. Yet, there was nothing funny when all you can think of is your back pain. It was an investment. Fast forward three weeks, back pain was gone! I have never had a more comfortable footwear. It feels like donning a pair of extra thick soles and still managing to stride with ease. It does take time to get used to since this footwear will make adjustments in the way you walk. Body weight is properly distributed on your feet and even to the toes when moving about. This model is a Bikilla KSO (means "keep stuff out") and it does the job. Simple care instructions come with it: you can put it in the washing machine along with your clothes. Since then, another shoe chain has started selling VFFs in reasonable prices (still cheaper in the US) and I have gotten a second pair of VFFs. This footwear worth every hard-earned dirham..

 Some people make it a hobby to collect footwear. Others consider them a fashion statement or simply pick the ones that are considered "in". A old friend of mine who always complained of having to deal with uncomfortable footwear and who was often seen walking barefoot with her shoes that were designed to make her reach greater heights told me when confronted about her shoe choice: "The harder it is to walk, the sexier it looks."
Well, to each his (or her) own. But for me, I keep it simple. I don't own a pair of basketball shoes- I don't play ball. I only have one pair of slippers- I never go out wearing flip-flops. I only get what I need to keep my feet comfortable in any activity. I only own what I need: my bare essentials.