Bulletin 10 - March 1980: An Expedtion to the Liwa

An Expedition to the Liwa

By Marianne Prytz

We left Abu Dhabi on a Thursday morning in late November 1979 planning to meet half a dozen other vehicles at Tarif filling station. From there we would continue to Liwa and camp for the night.

Our spirits were high as the cars rolled through the miles and miles of monotonous desert landscape. This had once been an ancient seabed, before the sea retreated, leaving the surface harsh, white with salt and without vegetation. The morning was clear and windy with a winter-pale sun, making the salt-mound shadows appear crooked and mysterious.

After Tarif, the enlarged procession of cars turned left, heading for Bid Zayed. On the way, we stopped at a plantation called Al Babha to leave a two-wheel vehicle behind. Here the landscape was completely different. The desert landscape was now white sand dunes, not high or hilly, but scattered like waves after a storm at sea. Al Babha, a well-established plantation of palms with a carpet of smaller shrubs, is beautifully located on fairly level ground.

Bida Zayed, a new permanent settlement for the Bedouin, has the last filling station before the Liwa and the endless desert. During the past four years many families from the Liwa and areas north have moved into low-cost housing in Bida Zayed. Obvious attractions are running water, electricity, a clinic, and a social center for women. Yesterday's hard work and fight for survival are a sharp contrast to today's free and easy standards. The Liwa gardens left behind are taken care of by a hired Asian labor force.

As we traveled on south, the only sound to be heard was the constant roar of the seven vehicles on the black asphalt road, leading nowhere it seemed. Yet we knew that somewhere behind the hills was the legendary Liwa. The road, not yet completed and without marker lines, pointed straight ahead through the otherwise undisturbed landscape. At the crest of each rise, the same scene was repeated, again and again.

When the road finally stopped, so did we. We were only a few kilometers from the first oasis and this was still our first day. The old camel route from Abu Dhabi used to take 12 days, but now cars are imported that are capable of negotiating the desert. This has ended the Liwa's long history of isolation and it is possible for a two-wheeled drive vehicle to get there if its tires are deflated.

At dusk we finally made our camp in the Liwa. The peach-colored sun was reflected in sand and sky, like a sunset in an impressionistic painting. We ate seated almost at the bottom of a valley on rapidly-cooling sand. Surrounding us on all sides, as far as we could see, lay endless powdery-fine, red-shaded dunes looking more like mountains in the gathering darkness. We were off the main track that runs right through the Liwa, to its inhabitants the Garden of Eden.

Waking up at sunrise, it was chilly and all about the camp were tracks of large beetles, one of which had been collected the previous evening for study. These beetles had been investigating us closely during the dark hours. As the day passed, more insects were observed, as well as camels and more than one falcon.

The inhabited oases number over two dozen. Each consists of a mixture of cultivated and wild plants, including date palms and salt bush, located where water exists near the foot of big dunes. Inhabited oases have traditionally-made palm branch huts called barastis, small gardens, and wells. The Bedouin keep camels and goats so it is mostly animal fodder that is grown.

Oil wealth has also reached the Liwa. New stone houses are going up, the search for water has been intensified, and more well dug. Some settlements have electricity generators, making air conditioning possible. The car is an ever-present factor in this picture of awakened beauty.

Obviously not all introductions and changes are for the best. One car we followed was extremely careless in throwing its rubbish out of the windows.

En route to one end of the Liwa, we photographed several oases. We were informed that the dunes moved, though quite slowly, and the wind rapidly covered tracks. A few days after our departure, all traces of our visit would have disappeared, provided we brought back our litter. We did manage to get in a little sand driving, exciting but exhausting.

At one location, an elderly man showed us around his idyllic little garden, complete with well and affectionate camel. "Gahwa" was served followed by tea before he tried to persuade us to stay for lunch. A goat would be killed and offered for the occasion. We politely explained in Arabic that we were short of time but would be back another time.

The point in the Liwa from where we had started in the morning returned all too soon. Other inhabitants who had visited us by our campfire the previous evening met us again and insisted that we eat with them and meet their families. Their hospitality was overwhelming. They eagerly explained to us their camel equipment when we showed interest. The saddlebag was known as 'addel' while supplementary items included 'saha' and 'battan'.

We eventually left with a whole lot of experiences and impressions to work upon.


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