x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Frugal exploring brings rich rewards

On the road I don't need gold flecks floating in my minestrone but I do crave, even in these lean economic times, travel that I'll remember till I die.

A traditional Khaleeji-style bullfight was one of the unexpected and free experiences on a trip to northern Emirates.
A traditional Khaleeji-style bullfight was one of the unexpected and free experiences on a trip to northern Emirates.

Forgive me for my parsimony, but this column eschews the super-luxe, the five-star bathroom butlers and the glitzy like. I don't need gold flecks floating in my minestrone but I do crave, even in these lean economic times, travel that I'll remember till I die. This weekly column is about taking advantage of the tempting travel opportunities in this region without spending a lot, whether that means scouring well-trodden landing spots for the best deals or reaching into the unknown where the frugal traveller's treasure lies.

To begin, on the eve of Ramadan a couple friends and I sought an overnight adventure in the UAE that would cost less than US$100 (Dh367) per person. The task seemed reasonable as long as we bypassed big hotels and western menus. That morning we loaded a $4 (Dh10) bag of charcoal into my car's boot and set out on Sheikh Zayed Road to the bargain country that is the northern Emirates. Around noon we stopped in Fujairah's Masafi for $3 (Dh10) plates of mutton biriyani at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Soon, sand dunes gave way to rocky terrain that looked like it was from an entirely different country, if not Mars.

When we reached the Gulf of Oman we cut south, climbing a hill before driving along a dusty trail leading to Sandy Beach Resort. For $294 (Dh1,080), including taxes, the three of us booked into what the hotel called a chalet but more closely resembled a beach cabana. With two bedrooms and an ample couch it was roomy enough. More importantly, outside was a grill, a stretch of sand with clear water and a mound of rock about 50m from shore called Snoopy Island. Scrunch up your eyes and it looks like the cartoon beagle lazing atop his tiny doghouse, muzzle and belly pointing skywards.

As my friends settled in I looked to liven the trip up - for only the price of petrol - by driving another 45 minutes south to Fujairah City, where around 4pm on Friday a dirt lot is transformed into the site of traditional Khaleeji-style bullfights. As the sun wound down, we swerved around the town's roundabouts before crossing a flyover, beyond which stood a hundred parked cars and a crowd of people. I pulled my Mazda off into the sand and soon we were greeted by a group of Omanis showing off their prize bull. Its black-pelted muscles bulged and its eyes looked blankly on as one of the men wearing a kuma hat stroked its shoulder. He explained he had come from Sohar for the day's event. The bull had cost him almost $10,000 (Dh37,000), though someone recently offered him nearly $15,000 (Dh55,000).

We joined some boys who were clawing at a chain-link fence, waiting for the action to begin, eating peanuts from newspaper cones. Inside the enclosure a row of men in kandooras were perched on folding chairs on either side of a tripod-mounted bullhorn. A frail-looking old man laid out a blanket nearby and eased into a crouch. Finally, the master of ceremonies broadcast the names of the owners of two fearsome bulls that they led through the gates. The rowdy ruminants met in the square's centre and needed little prodding before ploughing into the dirt with their hooves and locking horns. Over and over, each set of beasts grappled, bashing heads and kicking up dust. When they seemed like they might actually kill each other, the owners would race over, rope them up and yank them apart.

This, however, did not always go as planned. While one of the bulls was being led away it broke loose and charged towards the line of spectators, scattering them like a cluster of flies. Even the old man on the blanket gingered up when faced with a ton of beef heaving in his direction. As the sun set, and thus Ramadan began, we headed in our car to Khor Fakkan, a nearby enclave of Sharjah. With a little bargaining at the fish souk we procured a meaty stingray wing for a mere $3 (Dh10) and three lobsters as big as bunnies for $19 (Dh70). In no time, the charring seafood was dripping butter onto orange coals.

After dinner, we strolled along the beach until we came to a pile of boulders beyond which was a concrete barrier crowned with shards of glass. More sensible people might have respected this obstacle. Instead, we swam out into the black sea beyond the outreaching arm of rocks. As we moved through the currents we saw that against the darkness the water swishing around our hands glowed bright white as if we were surrounded by a ghostly aura. I recalled a bay I once visited in Puerto Rico that was supposed to be populated by bioluminescent dinoflagellates, microorganisms that emit light when disturbed. My girlfriend had taken me there for the very purpose of observing this phenomenon but a full moon when we went swimming meant the effect was barely noticeable.

Here in Fujairah, however, on the new moon night that began this holy month, my friends and I stumbled on the wonder I had missed years ago. And, like the bullfight, it was neither advertised nor cost a single dirham to see. All in all, I'd say we didn't do too badly for $107 (Dh394) each, not counting fuel, which didn't cost much. While hotels in the UAE might be more expensive than I'd like, road trippers here can't beat the price of petrol.