x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Khor al Udaid: where the sea is surrounded by the desert

Qatar’s serene escape is the only place in the world where the sea is surrounded by the desert.

Dune-bashing on the way to the inland sea. Randi Sokoloff / The National
Dune-bashing on the way to the inland sea. Randi Sokoloff / The National

"Za faster you go, ze safer eet eez!" Tina, our 50-year-old German companion, cackled with delight as my friend, Isabelle, whimpered in fear. Our driver, Abdul, handled his Toyota Landcruiser with an agility usually reserved for riders on horseback. We were on our way to the Khor al Udaid, or inland sea, a large expanse of salt water on the border with Saudi Arabia, 60km and 90 minutes' drive south of Doha. The only place in the world where the sea is surrounded by desert, the Khor al Udaid can only be reached by four-wheel drive.

After passing a heavy industrial area on the coast south of Doha, we reached Umm Said, a crossroads which marks the end of the road and the start of the desert. After Abdul had let some air out of the tyres, we were on our way.

Strapped in and holding on for dear life, we scaled a series of giant sand dunes. They were up to 60 metres in height. Rather than take us gently along the top of the dunes, Abdul, a half-Palestinian, half-Philipino tour guide with a glint in his eye, decided a bit of dune-bashing was in order. Slowly he crept up the back of the largest sand mountain before accelerating down the slip face. Sometimes he would stop the vehicle at the summit, hovering over the edge before letting it fall like a roller-coaster. At other times he would drive at full throttle along the ridge before suddenly dropping sideways over the edge, guiding the car at a 45-degree angle over the shifting sands all the way to the bottom. At this point even I screamed, fearing the vehicle would tip over. But that was half the fun. Normally on this type of trip, drivers are habitually safe. Isabelle gripped my arm. "Please, go easy!" she shouted to Abdul. "I am going easy!", he replied. "No, go faster!" demanded Tina, who was in the passenger seat.

From high up on the dune field, to our left we could see long, wide stretches of deserted sandy beach below, and, beyond that, the open sea. To our right was a pristine-looking wilderness of dunes. We got out of our vehicle and surveyed the view as we waited for the second vehicle in our party. This contained the Paine family from York, England - Mike and Wendy with their daughters Natasha, 5, and Gemma, 11, and their grandmother, Dorrie. Of all the family, Dorrie's grin was the widest. "This is so exciting!" she said. "Best thing I've ever done!"

From our vantage point we could see a series of shallow wadis, dry valleys that only carry water after rain. We also saw large areas of salt flats, known as sabhka, which lie below sea level. It is in these areas that the intricate gypsum formations known as desert roses can be found buried in the sand. Down on the flat valley floor, we paused again for breath before the next phase of the journey, a delightfully stomach-churning series of undulating mounds and troughs which brought us to the northern shore of the Khor al Udaid.

The inland sea, a vast tidal inlet from the Persian Gulf, is visually stunning, appearing like a clear, sparkling lake surrounded by mountains of sand on all sides. It is also gorgeously serene. There are no roads or hotels here, only the tracks from vehicles and a ramshackle tent used for overnight safaris. The area is some 15km from north to south and 12km wide. The main part of the bay is connected to the open sea by a narrow channel which passes between high sand dunes and layered rock formations. A conservation area and important breeding area for sea turtles, marine mammals and birds including, osprey, terns, cormorants and flamingos, the sea contains several sandy and rocky islands and mud flats, and there are patches of coral reef and adjoining salt flats. Whales and dolphins have also been spotted.

We gathered at a small beach and I jumped in for a swim, wading past dozens of small crabs and patches of mud. Shallow and highly saline, it reminded me of the Dead Sea in Jordan, though it was more refreshing. I was surrounded on all sides by steep banks of sand, giving the place a secluded feel. I made my way out to the middle of the lake and looked down. The water was calm and crystal clear, with a bed of seaweed covering the bottom. Shoals of fish jumped when I moved, and in the distance I could see Saudi border guards patrolling in vehicles near the southern shoreline. The place was gloriously remote and we felt we had it to ourselves. As Abdul turned his vehicle round and took a short cut home across a flat, sandy plain, I wished we could have stayed until sunset.

Gulf Adventures (00974 422 1881, www.gulf-adventures.com) offers three tours to Khor al Udaid: a four-hour Dunes Discovery Tour, costing Dh240 per person, an Inland Sea Safari, which includes a barbeque dinner or lunch, for Dh400 per person, or an overnight Arabian Nights trip, which costs Dh550 per person, including food and tented accommodation.