Jul/Aug 2004 Travel

A Day at the Beach with the Beast

by Michael Spice

Let me tell you a little story about our car, the Beast (a 1998 Land Rover Discovery). We took it for a bit of a hike a few weeks ago, going up this really big canyon (Wadi Khab al Shamis) in the Musandam Peninsula, about an hour north of where we live here in Fujairah, UAE. We were just inside Oman, and there was one last little side trip to a secluded beach in a fishing village called Zighi that I wanted to make, a mere five kilometers off the main track. The only problem was that the route went basically straight up over a wall of rocky terrain. And the Beast proved that it's not so beastly, and, like its owner, a little on the heavy side.

On the way up it wasn't too bad, except we thought we were going to die when we saw a car coming down the road at us. I tried to back up, ended up in neutral, and had to hit the brakes and slide to a stop right at the corner of the switchback. The Beast, by the way, could use a brake job. The other car pulled over, though, and allowed us to go up to the pass, which we were very happy to have reached when we got there. We even had a notion that we should just be happy with that and go back. The view from the pass was amazing: a bay nestled between a fjord and a rock wall, a pristinely beautiful, sandy beach with a little fishing village overrun with goats. We had to go down.

While we were admiring the view, two Lexus SUVs went by, so we decided to follow them down. The Lexuses went faster than we did on the descent. Looking down to the switchback below me, I could see they were going down a 45 degree grade, and it made my stomach kind of flip. We were getting more and more afraid of rolling down the mountain by means other than our wheels. The track was deeply rutted and very soft, with lots of loose rocks from all the braking, and at one point I barely got the Beast to make the turn at a switchback. Then the car started to slide, and I thought, here we go. But we came to a stop a few feet later, so I put it in park, content to be totally motionless. Joanna was about to cry, certain we were going to tumble down to a fiery death. I was having trouble breathing, and my right leg was shaking uncontrollably. It was a sickening moment. But there was nothing to do but press on, so we somehow slowly crawled and skidded our way to the bottom. When we got out at the beach, Joanna was still shaking, but it did feel great both to be alive and to be in such a beautiful place. We spent an hour or two calming down and enjoying the sand and water. Then we decided to try our luck at getting back up to the pass.

This was much easier said than done. I gave it a couple of tries, but I was getting stuck each time in this big hole in the road about halfway up to the first switchback. Two young Omani men came out with their SUV and watched, then offered to give it a try. They got it stuck in the same place three more times. They said my tires were under-inflated. They spoke little English, and we knew very little Arabic, so our attempts to communicate were comedic at best. So we went back to the beach to look for an air compressor.

There were about ten SUVs on the beach by now, all belonging to ex-pats camping there for the weekend. I finally found an Australian guy with a portable air compressor and took about an hour inflating the tires to 4/5ths their capacity. They had been just under 1/2 full. While this was going on, we spoke to some Dutch ex-pats parked nearby. They offered to feed us and let us stay with them for the night if we couldn't get out. And more Omani guys started showing up in dishdashas (the white robes they wear), asking us if we had any beer. For once we didn't, having only brought water and Coca-Cola. The Dutch folks offered them beer, but they refused it and drank the water we gave them instead. Just as one shouldn't feed the bears in Yellowstone, giving alcohol to a Muslim in the Middle East probably isn't such a bright idea, anyway. The Omanis were saying if we couldn't get the car up over the pass, they would arrange for a boat to take it out to Dibba in about four days, which naturally didn't sound like a good idea to us.

With tires sort of full, we tried the road again. I gave it a couple of runs and got stuck in the same places. I turned it over to the Omanis. The young ones who had been with us from the start also gave it a few tries, to no avail, although on their last attempt they did make it a bit further than anyone had previously. We decided we had no choice but to leave the Beast behind and catch a ride out in one of their SUVs, so we started to unload our stuff. But then the village hardass (madman/shaman?) showed up and jumped into the Beast. He seemed like he was in a hurry, because we barely had time to get our cooler and backpack out and he was gone up the mountain track, barely getting past the spot where everyone else had gotten stuck but slowly working it up to the first switchback, at one point coming to a full stop, but by some force of will and yanking on levers and slamming on pedals, he managed to free himself and get it up to the next switchback and beyond. We met him at the top of the pass, where we discovered he had damaged our transmission.

Were we angry about the damage? Not in the least. In fact, we paid the Omanis around $70, which was everything we had. It was worth it. We were happy to be alive and heading home. It turns out the transmission wouldn't go into Drive from a stop. We had to start in first gear (like a manual), then shift to second, then third, then Drive. Once in Drive, if we maintained momentum, it seemed to downshift and shift up automatically. But if we came to a complete stop or close to it (like at a speed bump), we had to start all over in first. Our tires were all chewed up too, so we'll need to get those replaced as well.

Oh yeah, the Omani guys kindly followed us all the way back to Dibba to make sure we got back to civilization without further car trouble. When we got there, they even offered to give us some of our money back if we needed to get gas. We didn't take any. They also gave us their phone number in case we wanted to go to Zighi again. They said they would arrange for a boat to pick us up in Dibba, so we wouldn't have to bring our car!

As for next weekend, we are definitely taking it easy—no wadi or sand dune bashing, thank you!

You can take a look at our pictorial proof of our adventures on our Webshots page.

Michael Spice
Fujairah, UAE
22 April 2004


Previous Piece Next Piece