For nearly one hundred and fifty miles, with another hundred ahead of me, I've had endless miles of wind-sculpted sand to gaze upon. This is the Arabia of Thesiger and one's imagining. There may be a four-laned band of asphalt penetrating it, but it is an inconsequential trickle amongst the ocean of sand that goes to the horizon, to eternity and beyond. One's thought is drawn to the imponderables--time, space, why, what for. But I know better than to dwell upon the unaswerables. Instead I let the wonder of it simply fill me with joy at my good fortune to be able to intimately experience this world.
I've had incomparable campsites among the dunes, down in gullies just off the road. The soft sand and vast expanses has provided the best sleeping of the trip.
A fence runs along both sides of the road to keep the camels from becoming a road hazard. Many come to the fence lusting after vegetation that has been planted along the road, beginning a slow reclamation of the desert and also as a barrier against the blowing sand. Rubber piping runs through the bushes bringing water all the way from the desalinization plants along the sea. The wealth of the nation isn't being entirely spent on roads and skyscrapers.
In time this stretch may become as lush as the one hundred mile corridor from Abu Dhabi on the coast to Al Ain in the interior--a somewhat incongruous deluxe six-lane highway with greenery sparing motorists from the barren countryside about them.
Motorists now stop and tell me they saw me the day or days before and wonder who I am and where I am from and what I'm doing. An hour before sunset a couple nights ago a motorist who'd seen me in Al Ain earlier in the day stopped along the road to invite me to his home for the night twenty kilometers up the road. "We'll have potatoes for dinner and you can have a shower and we'll wash your clothes," he said. He drew me a map. Unfortunately, it wasn't as precise as it could have been and his estimate of twenty kilometers was much less than the actual distance. It became too dark to continue and I missed out on his exuberant hospitality. I wondered if his wife would dine with us. She was with him and was fully veiled even in the safety of the car. He was the first person to stop me holding up a couple of bottles of water. When he handed them to me I dropped a candy bar I didn't realize he'd included.
Lately among the ex-pat workers, I've met a series from Bangladesh, including one who asked someone to take a photo of the two of us that he said he'd post on Facebook. With half the population in the Emirates out of country workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, it is safe to speak English with anyone. They may not speak much, but they will speak some. The vast majority of cafe and shop workers are of these nationalities. A few miles off the main coastal highway when I began this loop out into the desert I passed a huge complex that housed "Guest workers." It was a long distance from anywhere. For several miles as I closed in on this walled-in development a steady stream of the white buses that transport these workers to their work sites had been flying past me. If it hadn't been so far off the road, I would have ridden in to see if it was as much of a prison as it looked from the distance, if they'd allow me in. There was an advertisement along the road for a hypermarket, so most likely they would have.
The winds have been kindly these miles through the desert. If they turned adversarial, I could be thrust into a survival situation. The whipping sand can be perilous, limiting visibility and possibly leaving me all alone on the road and in the desert. A sand storm and extreme heat caused the cancellation of the fifth stage of the Tour of Oman a few days ago, making me feel glad I didn't make the effort to return to Muscat after the Green Mountain stage for it. The riders attempted an abbreviated version of the stage despite the blowing sand, but the better than one hundred degree temperatures was causing the glue that held their tires to the rims to melt and was making their brakes ineffectual as well. Usually early season races are altered due to snow and cold. The fifth stage had a bit of climbing to it that could have helped Van Garderen overcome his nine second deficit and take the race lead. The final sixth stage was too flat to effect the standings so he had to settle for second overall just as he did last year. Still a good indication that he is on form and could improve on his fifth place finish in the Big Race in July. Its four months away, but I'm already looking forward to being back in France for it. I know I will have this marvelous desert still somewhere on my mind.