AT first sight, Ras al Khaimah in the UAE, is a rocky, earthy moonscape, parched and unforgiving.
Scrape the surface and you’ll find fertile plains, natural springs and white beaches. You’ll find mangroves and rolling deserts. You’ll find one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on the planet.
The name Ras al Khaimah means ‘top of the tent’ possibly referring to the shape of the emirate, the rocky mountains or the outline of the peninsula.
The remains of 18 fortresses, castles and towers are scattered around the emirate, giving a historic nod to its turbulent history, a land that has held a strategic geographic position.
The western boundary of the emirate reaches the Persian Gulf, and the eastern edge follows Fujairah’s border and a rocky spine – the Al Hajjar mountains. This impressive range runs for more than 500 kilometres from the Omani tip of Musandam, through the UAE to the most easterly point of Oman near the fishing village of Sur. This is an ancient land, and wandering through the wadis (Arabic for valleys) you almost feel as if every stone you turn could reveal more secrets of the past.
With a sports utility vehicle, it is possible to explore the wadis and tracks, passing small villages and hamlets that cling to the valley sides, preserving a traditional ways of life. However, even in the most remote areas there are telegraph poles and electricity wires.
The area is popular with walkers, mountain bikers and families looking for a night camping under the stars. The calm weather in the low-lying lands is not indicative of the changing weather on top of the mountains though. Flash floods are not unknown and weather reports and warnings need to be adhered to.
Finding a guide if you want to do any serious walking. The Stairway to Heaven is a great climb, but not for the faint hearted, with rickety steps and rocky shelves that wind up the mountain’s face. The views are wonderful, but some of the drops are more than 300 metres. The route was created by Bedouins to give access from Wadi Galilah, in Ras al Khaimah, to the mountain-top villages in Oman.
If you’re not an adrenalin junky, the natural thermal waters at Khatt Springs, on the mountain edge of the Ras al Khaimah/Fujaiah border, might be more in order. The mineral water, rumoured to have therapeutic properties, can reach temperatures of about 40°C.
There is a road, known as the Wadi Bih road that passes over the top of the mountains into Oman, but there is only a security post without border facilities. The road is shut to foreigners and tourists.
The emirate is also blessed with beautiful beaches, and luxury hotel chains are starting to anchor themselves on the coastline. As well as having the modern facilities to attract tourists with deeper pockets, the location of Ras al Khaimah offers great day trips for people looking to explore the top edges of the Arabian Peninsula. The road follows the coast all the way to Khasab, a small town in the Musandam Omani enclave.
If you look at a map, the fingers of land seem to reach out into the sea forming fjords, and it’s this geographical development that helped the region to harness its reputation as the ‘Norway of Arabia’.
Tiny islands and rocky outcrops are home to an array of sea birds, while the warm blue waters attract colourful fish and dolphins. At Khasab you can hire a dhow to take you out for the day, stopping to watching the dolphins or take a swim. One pit stop is Telegraph Island. Just a mile off the mainland, this tiny rock in the Elphinstone Inlet, in the Straits of Hormuz, was home to a British telephonic repeater station in the nineteenth century, to relay messages along the submarine cable in the Persian Gulf. It formed part of the London to Karachi cable. This was a lonely posting for the British officer unlucky enough to be stationed here. Some think that the expression “going round the bend” refers to being posted here; a reference to the loneliness and heat that had to be endured on an isolated rock just around the bend in the coastline.
There couldn’t be a greater contrast when the rural secrets of Ras al Khaimah are juxtaposed with the shiny skyscrapers and glass obelisks of Dubai. Ras al Khaimah is not without its luxury resorts, malls and water parks, but without the high-rise intensity of its neighbour, it is an antidote to hectic modern life.
By Helen McClure
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