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Out of the shade
RAK (as Ras-Al-Khaimah is popularly called in these parts), however, has much to recommend itself. Those who know it well frequently have the image of people from Dubai driving in fancy cars to RAK for the weekend, to stay at opulent resorts - with their private beaches and list of restaurants. While this is not entirely untrue, and the resorts are cordoned-off-kingdoms-waiting-to-satisfy-every-whim, the landscape in which they’re set is both varied and rewarding.
Engulfed by the Al Hajar mountain range, RAK is a study in contrasts. Sandy beaches are just a short drive away from golden desert dunes. The 6,266-feet-high Jebel Jais Mountain, in the parent range of Al Hajar, is a not-so-distant rendezvous from a patchwork of green oases and hot springs. To explore this diversity of landscape, all permutations and combinations of forays into the landscape thrive - from trekking to mountain biking, quad biking to camel-riding. Active adventure has begun to develop with all the zeal that only those who love the wild outdoors can generate.
A 470-metre-long, three-course Via Ferrata is being built to span the rocky facades of Jebel Jais, the country’s highest peak. For those who came in late, the purpose of a Via Ferrata is to enable even the faint of heart to explore the mountain, with the help of steel cables, carved steps, bridges and ladders, (this one will also have three zip lines, and be arranged in levels, to allow possibilities for varying ages and fitness levels.)
My adventure begins on a 4WD vehicle in the limitless desert at a camp. Tires released of some air, the wheels offer less resistance, which means, a lower possibility of getting stuck. We emerge from the vehicle exhilarated. But more than the adrenaline generated by plummeting down the side of a dune is the extraordinary feeling of standing on one, watching the sunset. I wish that I could linger, gazing at the patterns carved by the wind on the ocean of sand for a long time, but the driver urges us on, lest the sun sets on the rest of our desert experiences.
At the camp, created specifically for the traveller who wants more time in this beguiling setting, is the possibility to sandboard, taking a quad bike, clambering on one of the camels out-walking their owners, and getting a henna-tattoo. As darkness descends, tanoura and belly-dancing are served up, along with a barbeque dinner. Bellies adequately satiated, we sit around the campsite, dragging demurely on the sheesha, occasionally breaking off from the puffing to exchange a fleeting philosophical thought, or to gaze with rapt attention at the desert sky studded with stars.
Day at the museum
To contextualise the desert, and the people who live by and around it, we visit the National Museum the next day. Everything in the museum - from the fishing nets to the soapstone dishes - has a story to tell. This includes the building itself, which until the 1960s served as the residence of the Qawasim rulers.
For more history, the fishing village just outside RAK that was abandoned in the 1960s is a reminder of the simplicity of life before the oil boom. The residents who earned their living from pearl diving and fishing have at first glance left behind an ordinary village. But look carefully and you’ll see that the dry desert climate has helped preserve not just the structures, but the remarkable coral embedded in the house walls.
For a grand perspective on RAK, climb the 16th-century Dhayah Fort - initially built to defend against invaders. Date plantations meet sunset. But for experiences wholly entwined with the local, you have to head to the Old City, with its coffee shops, the souk with its wares - ranging from attar to dates to exotic herbs - or the harbour and fish market, which remarkably come to life at dawn.
It’s the end of our five days here, and it’s clear that the wealth of RAK lies beyond the quality ceramics it manufactures, the fancy resorts it’s home to, and the bevy of Ferraris it attracts. The real riches lie in its living heritage. In the find of a traditional brass coffee-pot, I’m reminded of the hospitality entwined with what it means to hail from these parts.
In the souks, which brim with life and energy, is the spirit of enterprise. In the treasures of the museum are bits and pieces of a history and culture waiting to be explored with more depth. And in the desert, punctuated with gazelle and camels, is the discovery of one more Eden in the world.
There are direct flights to Dubai. From there,
Ras-Al-Khaimah is an hour’s drive away.
Best time to visit
October to March are the cooler months.