A trip to Qatar’s ‘inland sea’ is definitely a rewarding experience, as long as you don’t expect to be alone, in the desert.
The Khor Al Adaid is Qatar’s prime natural beauty spot, located to the south of Doha, on the border with Saudi Arabia. Popularly known as the Inland Sea, it is in fact not an inland sea (like the Caspian, for instance), but a lagoon with a connection to the Arabian Gulf. Surrounded by extensive dune fields and salt flats, only accessible by 4WD, this sounds like the ideal retreat for those seeking the virgin desert environment, peaceful, idyllic and romantic. Indeed, it has been on a list of tentative Unesco World Heritage Sites since 2008, on account of its “diverse scenery of exceptional, undeveloped natural beauty, in what remains predominantly a ‘wilderness area”
Perhaps the reason it is still on the tentative list, is that both the concept of ‘undeveloped’ and that of ‘wilderness area’ need to be revisited. The idea that an area is remote because it is only accessible by 4WD doesn’t work in Qatar, where everybody owns a 4WD. And less than two hours drive from Doha, this is too good a spot not to attract lots of visitors.
The first of those two hours is on a good tarmac road, now intersected by major works on round-abouts and fly-overs because of the development of the new port, Hamad Port – the amount of infrastructure investment in this tiny country remains impressive. Part of this may be aimed at becoming the preeminent transit port for Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Gulf, whilst a lot of Qatar’s own industry – a petrochemical plant, a fertiliser plant, an oil refinery and an LNG plant; an area marked by storage tanks and permanent flares – are visible from the road, too, already somewhat compromising the idea of approaching a wilderness area.
Long before the tarmac runs out, the first tented camps appear, opposite the refinery. Some of those are commercially run, but most are kind of weekend accommodations for Qataris, who have set up their own tents, complete with generators, satellite dishes, water tanks and other comfort-providing facilities. This is also where the first rows of quads start appearing, the toys to do dune bashing: speeding past, but preferably up and down the dunes that start appearing off the road. You can rent these, for an hour or two, say, or for a weekend. Don’t get me wrong: the scale of this, both the number of tents and the rows of hundreds, no, thousands of quads, is impressive. All at the edge of the wilderness area.
The real adventurer, of course, doesn’t stop here, but takes his 4WD off the road. It is advisable to lower the tyre pressure, to improve the traction on the soft sand; in Qatar, there are people to do this for you, for a small fee, at the end of the tarmac. Ready to hit the sand, the first part of the desert in fact can be best described as a 200 meter wide (!!) runway for wide-bodied aircraft, on pretty solid ground of bedrock with only a thin, pressed sand cover; the only feature being the hundreds of car tracks all leading in the same direction: the inland sea. To be fair, further along the tracks split in various directions, and I am sure if you go far enough, you can probably find some virgin territory, but we only have the day, and we want to get to the water edge. With a variety of apps – 4G coverage everywhere, in the desert – we find our way, navigating between impressive dunes. Until we see the water in the distance, indeed a beautiful sight, great place to picnic or camp. Which, judging from the amount of rubbish along the coast line, has been done by others before. But the lagoon itself is fabulous, many different colours of blue, a few rocky islands in the middle, and surrounded by dunes. Climbing onto the highest, the views all around are spectacular. Perhaps not the undeveloped wilderness we had anticipated, but definitely the thing to do in Qatar.