Sunrise Drive to Khor Al Adaid: Pre-dawn Dune Bashing Near Southern Qatar’s Inland Sea

Desert sunrise over the Persian Gulf near Khor Al-Adaid in southern Qatar

Doha has a surprising but welcome chill in the air at 4:30 in the morning, invigorating as well after just three hours of sleep. It’s confusing, too: I’m heading to Qatar’s Khor Al Adaid, the country’s most unique natural setting, and the only thing my mind is spitting out is images of pirates. Except for the thinning slivers of moonlight trying to beam around the 55 stories of the Intercontinental The City hotel in the heart of the Qatari capital’s West Bay district, the sky is black as a pirate’s eye patch.

Sunrise Drive to Khor Al Adaid in the Arabian Desert in Southern Qatar
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Not so the massive Toyota Landcruiser that’s waiting for me. That’s white as polished pirated ivory, albeit with a red and brown battle stripe down its side. It won’t stay white for long but for now the bright contrast against the dark sky conspired with the early morning chill to rouse me just enough to recall the name of Jasim bin Jabir, a pirate who worked these Persian Gulf coasts in the first half of the 19th century.

When we reach Qatar’s top natural attraction, the Khor Al Adaid, or Inland Sea, I decide, I want to see modern-day pirates. And to see them, I further convince myself, half past four in the morning seems like a good time to go.

Those are the kinds of games I play to get myself moving after a few hours sleep – moving in a direction opposite of my bed. This time the notion was entertaining enough to succeed.

As the crow flies, our destination wasn’t very far, just 70 kilometers to the south.

“About 45 minutes,” Shah, my driver and guide, says. “Inshallah.”

~~

The Khor al Adaid, or Khawr al Udayd, isn’t a true sea. It’s a large bay-like body of salt water in Qatar’s southeastern corner connected to the Persian Gulf –here referred to as the Arabian Gulf– by a deep, narrow channel about 10 kilometers long.

Its size varies with the tides, but in general terms stretches about 12 kilometers east to west and 15 north to south, where it acts as a border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. According to UNESCO, which recognizes it as a natural reserve, “there is no comparable lagoonal system of this type known elsewhere in the world.”

It has its own ecosystem and is one the few places on the planet where the sea reaches into the heart of the desert. That, coupled with its isolation and close proximity to the Gulf made it an ideal setting for pirates in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jasim bin Jabir, or Raqraqi, among the most notorious, the perfect lead character for an Arabian nights film.

With a knack for making loot disappear into the dark distant reaches of the desert, Jasim made a habit of attacking British ships in the 1830s from this base in Khor Al Adaid. A decade later, the British had had enough of him and his disappearing booty-carrying caravans.

In 1836 he fled one attack and took refuge in Doha; after he seized another ship in February 1841, British forces mounted an attack on the provincial town as punishment for providing him cover. By one account his ship was destroyed but Jasim evaded capture; by another he was arrested but left a local sheikh, Al Salemin bin Nasir Al‐Suwaidi, to pay the 300 dollar fine levied by the British for his piracy. His financing was creative. From the Origins of Doha Project:

After the British took a few shots at his fort, Al‐Suwaidi came forward with the fine. He could not pay entirely in cash so offered, amongst other items, 42 silver bracelets, one sword, one silver hair ornament, four pairs of (gold) earrings, two daggers, nine bead necklaces and two silver earrings to supplement the money available. Thus the sheikh’s family and the women of the Sudan tribe paid for the misdeeds of Raqraqi.

But Khor al Adaid is more than just an advantageous position for pirates. Surrounded by high rolling sand dunes to the west, it’s also one of the finest spots from which to experience a sunrise over the Persian Gulf.

~~

The trip was a late hour off the cuff decision. This was my eighth visit to Qatar since spring 2010 and with one brief exception –this trip to a beach near the northeastern coastal village of Fuwayrit— my stays were limited entirely to the city limits of Doha and a few neighboring cities-to-be.

Car tracks in the Arabian desert at sunrise near the Khor Al-Adaid in southern Qatar

After that many times in this desert country, I saw very little of the desert. From a few tour brochures, Khor Al Adaid looked promising. With a busy work schedule, Saturday morning would be my only opportunity, and with no time to research my options, I left it up to the hotel concierge to arrange it with the company they’re connected with.

“It sounds like you want the ‘Desert Sunrise’ tour,” he said. “We have one.”

Of course they did. And with it a tour of at least a portion of the country’s southern Gulf coast.

~~

There’s very little to Qatar, per capita the world’s richest country, besides Doha, which continues to grow in all directions. Even the cities we pass through southbound are essentially extensions, or very close suburbs.

It’s still dark when we pass the airport highway intersection that leads to Doha’s Hammad International Airport, the US$16 billion dollar facility that opened in 2014. A few minutes later the collection of massive towers of the country’s largest desalination plant come into view, a key piece in the puzzle to help quench the country’s staggering thirst. In 2012, per capita water consumption in Qatar reached 460 liters per day, one of the highest rates in the world; at the moment, the plants collectively churn out about 265 million gallons daily.

The first city we reach is Al Wakrah; via a mostly empty early weekend highway, it’s less than 20 minutes from Doha’s exclusive West Bay.

Originally a settlement for fishermen and pearl divers, plans are now underway to transform it into a city that will eventually accommodate 600,000. To give tourism a boost, my driver/guide Shajahan (“everyone calls me Shah”) tells me, the fisherman’s port was recently moved to make way for a large replica of a traditional souq. The only sign of life at 4:45 are the work crews gathering at the metro station construction site, one of at least 85 planned stops for Doha’s four-line urban rail system scheduled to open in 2019.

Shah tells me that a massive new port is under construction just up the coast. You can’t look anywhere in Qatar without seeing signs of construction. Even under cover of the night.

It’s still quite dark when we pull into a gas station complex that has two smallish supermarkets. On one a sign reads “Arabic/Indian/Chinese food”. Two large Indian-made vans pull up and park in front of it, unloading about two dozen men from each –mostly Bangladeshi, Nepalese and Indian is my guess—who are dressed in construction garb. I wonder which work site they’re off to or returning from.

Shah brings me a cup of tea. It’s a caramel-like white and very sweet. “I guessed that you wanted it with milk,” he says. In this case, he was right. I sip it as I try to count the lights visible in the distance in all directions.

“Camping,” Shah says. “There are lots of camps on weekends in the cooler season. It’s very popular.”

Those lights soon give way to the street lights that illuminate Mesaieed, a sprawling industrial city that’s home to a port, steelworks, and other manufacturing facilities. The massive industrial portion is a secure zone behind a high fence that runs parallel to the highway. In town the only major landmark is the headquarters of Qatar Petroleum.

South of town is a repeat of the north, with tents and camps lining each side, but this time situated closer to the road. A few minutes later the road narrows for the remaining five or so miles to the entrance of the Sealine Beach Resort where the highway ends. It takes just under one hour to reach the end of the proverbial road. Ahead was just sand and dunes.

Deflating tires en route to Khor Al Adaid in southern Qatar
Deflating tires en route to Khor Al Adaid

We stop at a strip of shops – the most important is the tire center– where Shah deflate the tires, the only way for a vehicle to manage the dunes. I watch a shopkeeper sweep up the litter left by overnight visitors while Shah goes to the adjoining mosque for morning prayers. The black sky is lighter by a couple shades of dark gray when he returns. A sudden wind blows apart one of the shopkeeper’s piles of trash. As we pull out we head straight towards a thick dark brown haze.

“It’s not looking too promising for the sunrise, is it,” I say.

Shah laughs. “Sometimes it gets so windy and foggy that you can’t see your hand in front of you. Today won’t be that bad, Inshallah.”

~~

But it wasn’t all that good, either.

As we move from the flat tracks to the top of narrow dune ridges I’m more concerned about the five-meter visibility than I am about seeing the rising sun.

First it was the wind swirling the sands with such fury that our windshield wipers barely keep up. A minute or two later the winds subside only to give way to a heavy fog whose moisture helps the sand linger in the air. Between wiper swatches it looks as though we’re driving through a car wash.

Then just as suddenly the storm-like conditions nearly come to a complete halt. To the left, the Persian Gulf is in full view.

Pre-sunrise over the Gulf of Arabia near Khor Al Adaid in southern Qatar
Pre-sunrise over the Persian Gulf near Khor Al Adaid in southern Qatar

Just before sunrise at Khor Al Adaid in southern Qatar

Sunrise over the Gulf of Arabia in southern Qatar
Sunrise over the Gulf of Arabia in southern Qatar

We stop high atop a sand ridge just before daybreak, some 15 minutes before sunrise. The vista towards the Gulf is still hazy so I turn inland instead where much of the fog has yet to lift, leaving an ethereal, almost surreal veil over the landscape. These minimal abstract landscapes ware my favorite shots from the morning.

Sand dunes at sunrise, near Khor Al Adaid

The reds and oranges quickly fading, we drive on to the Khor Al Adaid itself, which first requires some of dune-bashing, a sort of 4WD roller coastering on sand. The first long steep slide is a thrill, the second nearly a spill. Shah laughs when he senses my unease.

“That’s just normal here,” he says, laughing again.

I never was a fan of normal and am glad when we stop on another ridge, this time overlooking the Khor Al Adaid from the west. To the distance the golden yellow hues are sublime. Just below, the trash strewn along its coast makes me wonder why I continue to renew my faith in humanity. I try to turn my focus towards the birds swimming on or soaring just above the orange carpet of water.

A local man enjoying the sunrise at Khor Al Adaid in southern Qatar
Overlooking the Khor Al Adaid in southern Qatar at sunrise

A man contemplating the sunrise at the Khor Al Adaid in southern Qatar Arabian desert at sunrise near the Khor Al Adaid in southern Qatar

But I keep turning my attention back to the trash, which was as in other parts of the world, mostly piles of plastic – bags, soft drink bottles, candy wrappers. I hope for a fog to emerge that would conveniently veil it while I’m there.

“It is terrible,” Shah says, adding that it’s gotten worse in recent years as more visitors overrun the area. “Sometimes we organize clean up groups, from work or schools, but it’s never enough.”

It was all enough to turn me off to the idea of ever going for a swim. Not so for the cormorants, gulls and terns that are taking turns skimming the surface hunting for breakfast. Shah is getting hungry too, and motions that it’s time to head back. So am I. Breakfast sushi at the Intercontinental was waiting. I hope that the fish aren’t from this part of the Khor.

~~

Khor Al Adaid Notebook

Just a few minutes into the drive inland we again hit a thick fog. Sandstorms in the area are fairly common –as were areas of quick sand, Shah confirmed– underscoring that making the trip on your own isn’t the best idea. Using experienced guides and tour companies is a much better one.

If you do insist on going solo, you’ll need a 4WD. As intuitive as that may seem, people who convince themselves otherwise do get stuck regularly. Don’t be one of those. There can’t be anything pleasant about being stuck in the middle of a desert.

Swimming: The Khor Al Adaid is a popular swimming spot among those who can deal with the trash. Currents can be strong so it’s not advisable to go too far. Nor is trying to and succeeding to swim across to the Saudi Arabian side.

When is best: sunrise, or sunset? I can only speak for the former.

Pros:

  • Arriving at the desert’s edge at 5:30 in the morning, even on weekends, will almost certainly guarantee that you’ll be more or less alone. The people leaving their trash behind generally don’t show up until 10 or 11. Or they’re still asleep in one of the camps.
  • Ongoing road construction coupled with too many cars means that traffic is major a problem. At peak periods, you will be stuck. An early morning departure will help you avoid that traffic as well as the crowds.
  • It’ll be cool, even chilly. At 7am the temperature was still just 10 C (50 F).
  • You’ll be more likely to spot wildlife along the Khor Al Adaid, particularly its rich bird life.
  • Although I didn’t experience it, conditions are generally less hazy in the mornings.

Cons:

  • The first half of your trip will be in complete darkness. If you want to see the urban and rural areas outside of Doha, go during the day.
  • Getting up at 4am.
Tire station in the Arabian desert in southern Qatar
Tire station in the Arabian desert in southern Qatar

There are countless booking options in Doha, or, if you drive as far as Sealine, from the immediate area as well, ranging from 3-4 hour trips like mine, to whole day excursions and overnight luxury glamping trips.

Prices and service do vary, so ask around. Shah has worked with Regency Holidays for 16 years; my experience was certainly good enough to confidently recommend him and them, although some others are probably cheaper than the 720 QAR (USD 198/EUR 180) I paid through my hotel booking. That price was for the excursion, not per person. Unfortunately I couldn’t convince any colleagues to join me at 4am.

Camel riding?

Yes, it’s always an option.

Camel for rent near Khor Al Adaid in southern Qatar

But I just stuck to the tea served in a pleasant Bedouin camp setting operated by the Sudanese migrants who ran the camel operation. I hope they’re all doing well.

Man at a Bedouin style camp in the Arabian desert in Souther Qatar Early morning portrait at a Bedouin-style camp in southern Qatar Host of an early morning tea stop in the Arabian desert in southern Qatar

I visited the Khor Al Adaid on 20 February 2016.
All images © 2016 Bob Ramsak. All rights reserved. High resolution images available.
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  1. Diane Duke says

    What a fascinating story and beautiful photos!

    1. Bob R says

      It’s a fascinating and rapidly changing corner of the planet.

  2. Anonymous says

    Fantastic shots, Bob, and it sounds a great trip.

  3. Linda Grashoff says

    Masterful, story and photographs.

  4. paula graham says

    Wonderful…wonderful.!

  5. Paula says

    Thank you for this glimpse of the sunrise and the desert. Beautiful.

  6. lorigreer says

    Beautiful photos and a fascinating story. Thank you!

    1. Bob R says

      My pleasure, thank you.

  7. Keri from Baby Globetrotters says

    What a fascinating place to visit, and simply magical at that time of day (ignoring the 4am start…) we have lived in the Middle East for several years and it still remains on our to do list, great insight into what to expect.

    1. Bob R says

      Hi Keri — Have you visited other deserts in the region? I’m guessing that the landscapes are probably similar in UAE and Saudi Arabia.

      1. Keri from Baby Globetrotters says

        Yes we’ve spent a bit of time in The Liwa desert and Hatta Mountains, similar landscapes probably to Saudi etc but amazing how the desert does start to look different!! The deeper you go the more red and dramatic the sand. I’d love to spend some time alone with my camera of an evening (I just can’t do early starts!) to capture more of the beauty.

  8. […] Friday, February 26 – Sunrise Drive to Khor Al Adaid: Pre-dawn Dune Bashing Near Southern Qatar’s Inland Sea […]

    1. Khanh Nguyen says

      Can I have a quick questions? The location pin of Inland Sea that you drop in google map is only 20 km from Soug Waqif area (approximately around 20-30 minutes drive). Is that the correct location or we will have to go to the Inland Sea that almost 87 km await from Soug Waqif Area. Thank

      1. Bob R says

        That pin isn’t correctly placed; thanks for bringing that to my attention. I’ll change it now. The Inland Sea is about 80km from the center of Doha.

  9. Debbie says

    Incredible pictures, especially the ‘minimalist’ dune pictures – very eerie. Must have been quite the trip.

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