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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Neighbourhood Watch: Wadi Al Helo, the 'sweet valley' of the UAE

A UAE heritage spot is managing to look to the future while preserving a rich history

For UAE city dwellers, this is the golden age of modernity.

Although still a nation less than 50 years old, the forward-thinking UAE has plenty of rich history to draw upon - and you can even relive the Bronze Age. You just have to go a little off the beaten track to find it.

Plot a course for Wadi Al Helo, nestled 28 kilometres south-west of Kalba in Sharjah, a village where Emirati tradition is not just alive and well, it is thriving.

Wadi Al Helo - meaning sweet valley in English - plays host to an array of diverse wildlife, has Bronze Age ruins to explore and a restored Islamic watchtower above a rocky hill, standing witness to the story of the village.

It has also been the proud home of the Al Mazroui tribe for more than 80 years.

Living in the village was once difficult due to its rugged roads, lack of electricity and remote location, but free-flowing underground water lured many.

Wadi Al Helo - meaning sweet valley in English - plays host to an array of diverse wildlife. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Wadi Al Helo - meaning sweet valley in English - plays host to an array of diverse wildlife. Chris Whiteoak / The National

In the past 20 years the area has undergone a transformation, becoming a place where the past meets the present, thanks in part to the construction of the Sharjah-Kalba Road, which passes through the village and the Kalba-Wadi Al Helo tunnel, the longest mountain pass in the Middle East when it was inaugurated.

Opening up access to the area has led to an increase in modern amenities.

“It used to take us three hours to reach Sharjah and we had only a small clinic and one supermarket in the area,” said Ali Al Mazroui, a 39-year-old Emirati.

Ali Al Mazroui's family settled in Wadi Al Helo 80 years ago. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ali Al Mazroui's family settled in Wadi Al Helo 80 years ago. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“A 100 years ago people moved here for the fresh underground water and stayed, they worked as farmers and livestock breeders. We say where there is water there is life.

“Freshwater used to run in the valley many years ago but now it becomes dry during the summer. But underground water still pours in many locations within the village.”

Mr Al Mazroui's family owns a huge farm near the archaeological site, where they grow palm trees, olive trees, citrus trees, pomegranate and other fruits and vegetables, while also raising horses and ostriches.

“The soil in the area is very fertile and you can grow many fruits and vegetables. The water is sweet and not salty so it helps to produce sweet fruits and the area is well-known for that,” he said.

Between 30 to 40 families lived in the old town 35 years ago.

This number has surged to around 170 families, all belonging to the Al Mazroui tribe and live in five community blocks.

The village is home to archaeological ruins dating back between 8,000 BC and the Islamic era. According to residents, some ruins were still occupied as recently as about 80 years ago by few families before they moved to the old town.

Mr Al Mazroui said his father used to spend three days on the road to reach Kalba to pick up supplies.

“He is almost 85 now and he told us how difficult the old days used to be and how they travelled on camels and donkeys to Kalba to get supplies and sell their goods.”

“We also used to walk for more than an hour to reach the nearest mosque which was located in the Al Munay area 7km away from the village.

“Our school was also there and one of our neighbours used to drive us there with his old pickup truck,” he said.

The area is not only rich with natural resources but remains home for gazelles, that used to visit the village in the past.

“We still see their traces in the mountains but not any more around the village.

“The area has kept its natural beauty despite the ongoing developments of the village,” Mr Al Mazroui said.

The village now has a police and civil defence station, a health centre, two schools, a public library, a mosque and other governmental institutions.

“Not only we got a big supermarket but also a cafeteria, a barber shop and a dry-cleaning facility,” he said.

“We love it like this; it’s the home of our ancestors and our future generations.”

Ramdular Prasad says business is booming at the dry cleaning shop he works at in the village. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ramdular Prasad says business is booming at the dry cleaning shop he works at in the village. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Ramadular Prasad, a 52-year-old Indian who works at the dry-cleaning shop, said the area is developing while still preserving its natural beauty.

“People here used to drive to Kalba to get their clothes dry cleaned, we opened the shop three years ago and everyone is happy about it, it’s a quite, very beautiful place that makes you feel in peace with the world and with yourself,” said Mr Prasad.

'water is life' say residents of the sweet valley village of Wadi Al Helo. Chris Whiteoak / The National
'water is life' say residents of the sweet valley village of Wadi Al Helo. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Khaled Al Mazroui, 19, said that he enjoys exploring the archaeological ruins and learning more about the country’s history.

“The village is so unique and peaceful, with lots of undiscovered trails and history surrounded by pure nature,” he said.

“I enjoy taking visitors to the archaeological site and that makes me very proud of my history and the place that I grew up in.”

A new era is dawning in Wadi Al Helo village, Sharjah. Chris Whiteoak / The National
A new era is dawning in Wadi Al Helo village, Sharjah. Chris Whiteoak / The National