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David Whitley finds himself in a hazily-bordered part of Arabia, throwing stones into a mirage
Masood eyes up the ground carefully. He’s looking for one that’s just the right size.
He spots the perfect stone and stoops to pick it up. Carefully slotting it into the curve of one finger, he takes a short run and hurls the stone as high and as far as he can.
The technique is all there – he’d be your first choice as a boundary fielder if you were putting together a cricket team. The stone flies fast, high and with the optimum curve. But it falls short, hitting the wall of the canyon and bouncing down towards the glassy-watered pools and palm trees. Wadi Shuwayhah is an exceptional sight, largely because you just don’t expect it to appear. We’d left the desert dunes and had been bouncing along the dirt tracks through the Hajar Mountains. The scenery as you head south-east from Dubai switches between two types of spectacularly barren. As the sandhills start to flatten, proper rocky, volcanic hills appear in the distance. The two blend until you’re suddenly driving across a rubbly moonscape.
And then, just as grey-black stones become a new normality, the earth falls away. Pulling up at the side of the wadi, the opposing canyon wall stares back, every bit as majestic (albeit smaller) than those of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
The jolt comes in looking down below; it looks completely different. The date palm groves and neatly cut stream beds make it an overly optimistic painter’s mirage. It’s somewhere to take in, jaw slackened.
The route to Hatta is not simple. Hatta is part of Dubai, but you have to leave Dubai to get there, heading through the Emirate of Sharjah, where the dunes are sadly strewn with litter and remnant panels from battered buggies. You also cross over into Oman – the border checks are very half-arsed and passports aren’t stamped. And it’s in this oddly uncared about stretch of hazily-bordered neverland that Wadi Shuwayhah lies.
Masood’s failure is an instant, unspoken macho challenge. Suddenly the boys in the group feel compelled to take off their jackets, put whatever they’re holding down and start scrabbling around for stones.
Internal debate over the ideal smoothness and size – enough weight to carry it, not too much to make it drop too early – is written over their faces. But projectiles are picked, run-ups are made and stones are watched as they fall agonisingly short.
And so it continues, with second and third attempts merging into twentieth and thirtieth attempts. The only thing stopping every rock on one side being hurled at the other is that there are only four of us. Masood is the first to crack the jackpot, his stone kicking up a miniature cloud of dust on the other side.
The joy is in the simplicity though. This is the exact opposite of Dubai’s ski slopes in shopping malls, butler service resorts and ever-increasing glass towers. It’s a game that local men have probably played for centuries. And it’s so blissfully, peacefully absorbing that we’re reluctant to leave.