Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Passing Of The Tracks, The Pressing Of The Mountains

I wrote in the summer about the 'passing' of the Hatta/Al Ain track. It's inevitable, both the passing of the wadi tracks that have enlivened so many of our weekends and my old gittiness resulting in much 'I remember when that was all sand' whinery.

And yet, painfully aware that progress doesn't need the railing of old sticks in the mud to mark its march, there's a certain poignancy to it all. The landscape of the mountains is not only being altered, it's being literally smashed apart.

Time was when there was only one road through to the East coast of the UAE from the west: the Sharjah/Dhaid/Masafi road. It, too, started life as a track - the old route up from Fujeirah, past Bithnah and into the Wadi Ham before coming down from Masafi to the plains and through the desert to Dhaid. Running alongside it were aflaj (the plural of 'falaj'), underground aquifers dug out by ancient hands to create long waterways dotted with wells that snaked down from the mountains to desert oasis towns.

You could go north from Masafi to Dibba by following the deep bed of the wadi, but a road was blasted through the rock so that Masafi became the knot at the head of a lasso that stretched out from the giant hand of Sharjah to loop through Dibba, down the East coast along past Bidaya (the oldest mosque in the UAE sits here like a little meringue) and Khor Fakkan to Fujeirah before looping back to Masafi.

The road to Hatta was first constructed by Sheikh Rashid in a search for cheap concrete and stone to fuel the breakneck development of Port Rashid. As in so many other things he did, he was to set a precedent of tremendous proportions. Ever since, the Hajar mountains have been providing the concrete, gravel, stone, aggregate, hardcore and rock for the coastal towns' expansion.

After the Hatta road was extended down to the Omani coast, the epic journey through the precipitous passes into Wadi Bih was the Third Way. It never became blacktop - has, in fact, been closed by the sealing of the inland borders with Oman and, in any case, superceded by the Truck Road from Dibba down to join the Mohammed bin Zayed Road (the E311) as it touches Ras Al Khaimah's southern border.

The Mileiha Road was the first of the new road networks to smash their way though the mountains, at first blasting its way through the rocky promontory that gives us Fossil Rock south of Dhaid, then darting through the plain to the mountains where it drills through to twin exits in the mountainside above Kalba like a vampire's bite.

The Munay/Huwaylat track used to wind its way North of Hatta, taking you eventually to Fossil Rock (passing through the lovely wadi/oasis of 'The Sultan's Gardens'). We were wadi bashing one day when we suddenly found ourselves in a building site and then snooping our way up a smooth tarmac surface that halted in the middle of a mountainside, blasting underway ahead of us. Today that road is dwarfed by the new road from Hatta to the Sharjah/Mileiha/Kalba road - a route so new that it was still un-numbered when we drove it at the weekend. The mountains around it are gashed with tumbles of freshly hewn grey rock contrasted against the sunburnt browns and purples of the undisturbed peaks. Mountains have been flattened, hacked into by slab-sided quarries. Lorries rumble out of the crushers to weighbridges down the road towards the plains.

There's a new road being built from Daftah (a couple of kilometres East of Masafi down the Wadi Ham) to Khor Fakkan, as well. It's going to take five tunnels to make the final crossing, the longest of which will be 2.6km (it will be the longest tunnel, when it's finished, in the UAE). Only the first is complete, the road punches its way through the mountain and then peters out, joining a recently built track tumbling down into the East Coast mountain village of Shis. Where before you had to climb up the wadi to reach the legendary pools of Shis (the village is lit by lamp posts in the wadi, each of which has a switch on it), now you can drive down alongside them. Shis is partly Omani - straddling a strange doughnut-shaped enclave of Oman called Madha, nestled in the UAE and itself containing a little bit of Sharjah, the village of Nahwa. It's a rare example of an enclave and counter-enclave.

As the roads open up new fissures through the ranges, so the crushers are grinding them down, one peak at a time to feed coastal construction. It's a strange movement of matter: as the mountains are diminished, so the cities of the Gulf rise.

And as the roads open access to mountain communities, they are drained of their young people moving to the towns down those new roads that let them back at the weekends to visit their ageing relatives...

1 comment:

nzm said...

There's a new road to nowhere (as of now) being built out the back of RAK too.

When you head to the old Wadi Bih border post on the RAK side, you turn left at the roundabout that's just before the military post at the old border.

This puts you on to a road which snakes up the mountains, but it's unfinished. Spectacular.

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