The casual visitor to the Emirates could be forgiven for believing that there is not an awful lot to see in the countryside outside the main cities that dominate the country. But as I’ve been discovering, the UAE manages to underplay its treasures both to residents and overseas travellers alike.I never fail to be surprised by expatriates living in the UAE who continually rush off to the pools of Hatta or the red sands at Al Madam, seriously believing that they have experienced off-road conditions; yet so few appear to go out of their way to explore some of the forts that can be found situated not very far off the main highways.Take Fujairah, for instance.An excellent day out can be taken driving up old wadis — dried up river beds — and exploring some of the out-of-the-way villages in the eastern sectors that still exude an old world charm — and you don’t even need a four-wheel drive to reach many of them. In fact it is all too easy to forget that until about 25 years ago, these wadis were often the only routes available for travel.
Starting off from Dubai or Sharjah, you need to get on to the Al Dhaid road — route E88 signposted for Musafi and Fujairah. Don’t forget to look to your right 7kms after Interchange 8 to see the Sharjah Monument — that strange arrow pointing into the sky, stuck in the middle of nowhere, to celebrate Sharjah being chosen as the Arab cultural capital for 1998. Some 28 metres high, on a granite base of 500 sq metres, it was built here so that it could be seen from miles around. Nowadays the base is sadly covered in graffiti, but lighting has been installed to illuminate the monument at night.Let’s head on, though, and make our first stop at a tiny village called Maidaq. Some 4kms before you get to the town of Masafi, look out for a left turn signposted to Marbad. Here you cross a bridge over Wadi Siji, which used to be the principle track for getting from Dubai to Fujairah before the arrival of the tarmac road drastically cut the journey time. Drive 3kms and turn left at the roundabout before driving a further 3kms to the very end of the road. You will be passing beautiful wadis and panoramic views of plantations around you; but persevere up a track (even two-wheel drive cars can manage this) for a further 200 metres and ahead of you is an old watchtower to which you can easily climb and which offers fabulous views over Wadi Maidaq.
Back to the main road and on to Masafi where we make a right turn at the roundabout. (If, instead, you were to turn left here up the Dibba road, you would come to the famous Masafi Water bottling plant 2kms on your right which offers tours to visitors, just so long as you book in advance.) Masafi is where the scenery picks up, for from here on you are right in the mountains with wadis running everywhere and fertile mixtures of scrub and bushes breaking up the raw beauty of the rock face.About 7kms on you pass through the so-called Friday Market — which is actually open throughout the week — a motley collection of carpet and earthenware stalls, plant nurseries, fruit and vegetable stalls and (some would say) hideous plastic giraffes, tigers and beach-balls for those planning a day by the sea. A further 8kms on, look out for a turnoff to the village of Bithnah (also signposted Bathnah) where you can find a 300-year-old fort towering above Wadi Ham, which is currently being restored by the municipality. It was built from stone, straw and mud by the Ash Shargiyan tribe and although standing empty, apart from the accoutrements of modern day construction, it is nevertheless worth a visit.
Of course, we shouldn’t miss out on Fujairah Fort itself, located near the centre of Fujairah town. Follow signs for Fujairah Museum and you will see the fort standing grandly to one side in the middle of a village where a heritage centre is being put together from the ruins of old mud houses. It’s the kind of fort that, had it been located in Switzerland, the Swiss would surely have used to adorn the lids of chocolate boxes! Unfortunately, though, it never appears to be open but it is still worth walking — or driving — around it.Keeping the best till last… As you leave Fujairah, turn left 1.5kms after the last roundabout and head towards the Hayl industrial area (hayl, by the way, is Arabic for cardamom) and stone quarries. Keep in a straight direction, over the roundabouts and over a small dam and keep driving for nearly 30kms from the main road turnoff. Right at the very end of the track you come across Hayl Fort — otherwise known as the Palace of Wadi Hayl.
This was once the ancestral home of Fujairah’s ruling family and it must have been a formidable fortress with its two towers and numerous rooms facing into a central courtyard. The Fujairah Heritage Department has already carried out a fair bit of reconstruction work here, but when I spoke to the Indian watchman — Monu — he told me that in the past 12 months there can’t have been more than 25 visitors to have made their way out here at all. Unsurprisingly, given that he also lives here (in a hut powered by a diesel generator) he is only too happy to show visitors around and will go to great lengths to show you the rooms where dates are left to ferment for three weeks so their juices leach out along channels cut into the floor to run into a vat below; the vertical ladders that you use to gain access to the upper rooms and roofs; the carved doors; the mud walls; the staircases; the filled in wellhead. Allow an hour to look around if Monu runs true to form when you visit!So next time someone suggests making an escape from town on a trip out to the Hatta pools, why not suggest something a little different? It might just change your views on what the Emirates have to offer and what so few, still, have actually come to discover. – Khaleejnews