x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The road trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, as it looked in 1972

It is 40 years since Peter Jackson set out on an epic trip across the desert from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. These never-before-published images record a journey that would soon be changed forever.

At the Dubai border with Abu Dhabi. Drivers were required to stop for customs and passport control even after the UAE was founded in December 1971. Photos courtesy Peter Jackson
At the Dubai border with Abu Dhabi. Drivers were required to stop for customs and passport control even after the UAE was founded in December 1971. Photos courtesy Peter Jackson

Almost exactly 40 years ago, over the Eid weekend in January 1972, I was driven from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, and back.

I was with two engineers from JD & DM Watson - Peter Lochery and Peter Griffiths - and we took sufficient provisions and sleeping bags for two nights in the desert. I was a year-out architecture student from London, without a local driving licence - so I made the journey in the back of a canvas-covered Series II Land Rover pickup, kindly loaned to us by Otac, the contractor for Phase 2 of the Dubai Sewerage Infrastructure contract.

This was during my first visit to the newly formed United Arab Emirates, then just a few weeks old. Until this weekend I had never driven further south of Dubai than the zoo, which was at the end of the new villa developments along Jumeirah Beach Road.

The tar continued alongside the beautiful white sands of the Gulf beach, broken by groups of palms and occasional areesh houses with traditional timber fishing boats drawn up on the sand.

The tar road stretched as far as Chicago Beach, the construction site for Dubai's massive steel khazzans, two of which were under construction, before being towed out to sea and sunk. Each when complete could safely store half a million barrels of oil under water at the Fatah oilfield.

The enormous onion-shaped structures stood out as dramatic landmarks in the flat desert landscape, today Umm Suqeim and the site of Burj Al Arab.

The tar stopped abruptly and we drove along a roughly graded sabqa track. As it became ever more corrugated, more tracks diverged seeking a more comfortable route, until the road was many hundreds of metres wide.

The back of the short-wheelbase Land Rover was extremely uncomfortable, not long enough to fully stretch out in, so every corrugation, every jolt, was felt. The tracks finally converged towards a boom in a wire fence - the border post with Abu Dhabi at Seih Ash Sheib, where all vehicles were stopped and we had to show our passports.

As soon as we were through the border, the road again split into a multitude of tracks across the desert, which being mainly sabqa was largely featureless, with the dunes occasionally close, or a dramatic uneroded sandstone cliff, a geological fossil of an ancient land surface.

The tracks again converged before joining the tar to cross the Maqtah Bridge. Having left Dubai early in the morning we only reached the massive construction site that was Abu Dhabi in the early afternoon.

We paused briefly for a little refreshment, before commencing the second stage of our journey to reach Al Ain and Buraimi before nightfall. So it must have taken us at least a good six hours to cover what takes just over an hour today. I don't think my back was ever the same again.

I recall that we broke the return journey to Dubai, turning off the road into low dunes to find a camping spot for the night.

It was very cold, but the desert was very beautiful, with a memorable sunrise the following morning.

Peter Jackson is an architect who now lives in Sharjah working on a number of conservation projects with the Government. He visited the UAE for the first time in 1972, later studying the wind tower houses of the Bastakiya with Dr Anne Coles. He is the author of Windtower with Dr Coles.