x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Singing in the desert rain, camera and binoculars in tow

For those who come from countries where rain is common, soggy weather is little more than a nuisance. For those of us who have spent our lives in the Emirates, rain is something to be welcomed.

Last Friday, I had to make one of my now-regular trips to the island of Sir Bani Yas, in western Abu Dhabi. When making such a long journey back and forth in a single day, I always try to find a few hours to do a bit of birdwatching. Nearly 200 species have been recorded on the island, and there's always the chance of seeing a rarity. Indeed one such, a pied kingfisher, has just been spotted.

Sadly, I couldn't locate it, but perhaps that wasn't altogether surprising since for much of the time it was pouring with rain. Most of the birds were obviously sheltering somewhere under cover - as was I in my car during the downpour.

I was reminded of the soggy journey yesterday when I received from a contact in Al Ain a gallery of photographs taken by a small group, evidently mainly Emiratis, who grab their cameras and rush outdoors whenever there is a storm. They call themselves the "Storm Chasers", and they delight in getting out to record the cars splashing along the roads, the clouds, the rain, the puddles and pools, and the streams rushing down the hillsides. Quite a nice collection of pictures they had amassed as well, with the most impressive being of rain-laden low clouds on the slopes of Jebel Hafeet.

For those who come from countries where rain is common, it is, for most of the time just a nuisance. For those of us who have spent all or most of our lives in the Emirates, though, it's something to be welcomed.

I remember a couple of summers ago I was travelling to Jersey on holiday. As our plane landed, it began to rain. It continued throughout the night and the next morning I put on a waterproof jacket, my oldest pair of trousers, a pair of gumboots and a hat and went out just to walk in the rain. Singing in the rain, even. It was the heaviest rainfall on record for the island and was certainly a pleasure to walk through. I would, no doubt, have been a little less happy if I lived somewhere where rain can be expected almost any time of the year. But that's not a problem we face here in the UAE.

I do feel a little bit sorry, I must confess, for any foreign visitor who swayed by the promise of winter sunshine has opted for a holiday here over the past few days. They must have been rather surprised and disappointed, although had they checked when rain is most likely to fall in the Emirates, they would probably have found January at the top of the list.

But for the "Storm Chasers", myself and many others, winter rains are something we look forward to. When they're late in coming, or don't come at all, they're missed, and not just by farmers.

Over the next few weeks, new plants will be sprouting in the mountains and deserts, and the sand dunes, firm from the rain, will be at their easiest for driving, providing that care is taken to avoid the salt flats that often lie beneath them. It's one of the best times of the year to get out and explore the country and the remarkable diversity of its plant life.

Despite the leaking roofs, car-parks that look like lakes and other inconveniences, the rains are welcomed by many in the cities too. A colleague of mine was bubbling over with pleasure on Sunday morning, talking about how fresh and clean everything looked, while the office windows were opened to let in the breeze.

There's no doubt that heavy rainfall can have an economic cost. It causes damage to buildings, washes away roads and tracks and leads to flooding that can wreak havoc. Delays in getting to and from work cost money as well. There are still too many designers and engineers, I suspect, who plan buildings and other structures without taking into account the fact that there can be heavy rains here.

There can be a social cost, as well. On the way to and from Sir Bani Yas at the weekend, I saw half a dozen accidents caused by water on the roads west of Abu Dhabi, although fortunately, no serious injuries appeared to have been caused.

Despite all of that, I never regret when the rains come. The long, hot and humid summers are something to be tolerated. A light shower or a heavy downpour during the winter, though, that's a different matter entirely. Rains raise the spirits rather than dampening them, generate cheer rather than gloom. The birds at Sir Bani Yas may go into hiding, but the "Storm Chasers" and I, we'll take the soggy skies any day.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and heritage