x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Reader challenge: We've hidden a geocache in the desert for you

Wikipedia informs us that geocaches "are currently placed in more than 100 countries around the world and on all seven continents. After 10 years of activity there are over 1,532,000 active geocaches" - and now we have one more, right here. And you have to find it.

The high, orange sand dunes south of Al Ain contrast sharply with the restored Segia Fort just outside the city.
The high, orange sand dunes south of Al Ain contrast sharply with the restored Segia Fort just outside the city.

"But what do you do in the desert?" lamented a friend not too long ago. "It's just sand and more sand."

I suppose that's true, but I couldn't help thinking that, from such a perspective, forests are nothing but a collection of trees, and mountains just big rocks and lakes simply large bodies of water. But his point was one of a lack of activities, other than driving.

So I hooked up with my old friends, Hakan and Ann Akin, who are eager geocachers, and in this edition ofOff The Beaten Path we have set a challenge for you, the reader.

But first of all, what is geocaching?

Some would say it is a GPS-based outdoor sporting activity, others describe it as a treasure hunt for adventurers and others simply say it's plain madness - but with more than five million geocachers the world over, that's a lot of crazy people.

In any case, in a nutshell, there is now a hidden capsule in one of the most remote points of the UAE, close to where the borders of the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia meet. And it's your job to try to find it.

The capsule contains a number of gift and souvenir items which, in the spirit of geocaching, the finder may take and replace with his or her own, for the next geocachers to find.

Wikipedia informs us that geocaches "are currently placed in more than 100 countries around the world and on all seven continents. After 10 years of activity there are over 1,532,000 active geocaches" - and now we have one more, right here. And you have to find it.


View Geocaching in a larger map

We start from Al Ain and head south, towards Al Wagan and alongside Jebel Hafeet (waypoint 1: N24.13048 E55.71369) on a smooth, divided motorway that soon crosses waves of large dunes. In between these dune ranges are strips of flat sebkha - gravel plains - under which water percolates.

In these valleys you will see large-scale cultivations (waypoint 2: N23.84075 E55.52997) that rely on this underground water supply. The farms provide such a stark contrast to the arid land around them that we always stop and visit, offering a few assalamu alaykums to the farmers who are, without exception, welcoming and pleased to receive visitors.

We always marvel at the flowers, fruits and vegetables these resourceful farms grow, and these stops break up the monotony of the drive.

On this long motorway drive I am in a Lexus LX350 - the luxury marque's crossover SUV. I wonder if it will hold up in the desert because it seems all too comfortable on the road, gliding along with minimal in-cabin disturbance.

The road snakes down the eastern border of the country, and you'll catch glimpses to your left of the green border fence. The first major town you'll pass is Al Wagan, with its small restaurants, Adnoc petrol station and excellent medical facilities (waypoint 3: N23.62570 E55.56501).

And the second and last town with amenities will be Al Qua'a (pronounced "al-ko", waypoint 4: N23.40090 E55.42558) after which the road narrows to a shared strip of tarmac with a lane going each way. Please slow down and take due care when passing slow lorries and farm vehicles, especially on the blind tops of the dune ranges.

You will notice that now the desert access to your right is closed off by red-and-white barriers and guarded by security forces in little derelict huts. It's unclear what lies beyond the gates, other than very high dunes.

As you continue southward, you will eventually reach the Umm Al Zamool border post, with its speed bumps and guards - we were not stopped, but we had our passports and car registration ready just in case. Now that the entire border perimeter is fenced, there is no chance one might stray into Oman or Saudi Arabia, whether accidentally or intentionally, so the UAE border patrols are not as edgy as they used to be.

Just south of the border post, you will come over a dune range and spot a wide sebkha to your left, with a semi-abandoned farm offering some shade to a few camels, and 8.1km beyond it will be the tri-border area. The geocache is hidden quite a distance from waypoint 6 (N22.69022 E55.12791), which is the point we turned off the tarmac - for directions to find it, you'll have to do this properly in line with the protocols of the geocaching community, which requires you to record your visit on the website.

You will need to familiarise yourself with how geocaching works at www.geocaching.com in order to lay claim to it - I won't cut into Hakan and Ann's game more than this, other than quoting their directions to the "End of Civilisation" cache at N22.69072 E55.13273: "Cache is not far from the main road. It is an easy drive from Al Ain. 4x4 should be able to get right to the cache. Saloon car owners can park on the main road and walk for about 500m. Placed by Desert King." If you do find it, please drop me a comment on The National's website as I'm curious just as much as you are if it will be found or remain a desert mystery forever.

Happily, the Lexus LX350 has enough ground clearance to avoid any contact with the hard surface of the sebkha, even at regular speeds, and I was even able to spin a little sand on the edges of the dunes at the very southern end of the UAE.

In fact, it was the bold adventurer Hakan who managed to get the vehicle stuck in the sand, although he did eventually redeem himself slightly with a recovery that involved a gigantic shovel and a lot of effort.

We took a moment to soak up the stunning openness of the remote desert; the expanse of sand dunes and 360 degrees of emptiness is something to behold.

The lonely strip of tarmac continues south for a few kilometres before turning due west, following the border fence all the way to Hameem, which is at the very tip of the Liwa crescent. The tarmac abruptly ends, though, so we did not continue to loop all the way back around through Abu Dhabi.

Aside from seeing an impassable wall of sand dunes rising several hundred feet out of the flat sebkha, which you will spot on the northern side of the road, we marvelled at a spot where a bulldozer broke through the top crust of the sebkha to release a little lake of groundwater.

We had not expected the water to be so close to the surface, as wells used to be dug deeper than 10ft to reach the water table, and so we wondered if this is a common occurrence or a freak result of recent rains.

On the way back we stopped at a relatively unknown fort, which has been completely restored: the Segia Fort (at waypoint 7: N24.02087 E55.63257). It guards the southern access to Jebel Hafeet and, from the construction, seems to have been an important outpost.

All in all, this is a trip out into the middle of nowhere - to an area of the UAE few visitors venture into. Its remoteness is its beauty, and setting foot on sand at the location where three neighbouring countries meet is worth the bragging rights; but only if you are also able to find the geocache hidden so carefully off the beaten path.

Click here to download Paolo's kml file