The Emirates in 1976 – Sheik Khalifa Rest House and Al Ain
This article follows on from the previous article: The Emirates in 1976 – Dining out
On the road to Al Ain, about eighty miles from Abu Dhabi, was situated the Sheik Khalifa Rest House where we checked in. Mike Matthews, our camera assistant, and Sid Squires, our sound recordist, were allocated rooms on the first floor, the top floor. Tony and I were given rooms outside the hotel. In the grounds outside, there was a raised and covered swimming pool. Beneath the pool, placed all around, were rooms with accompanying toilets.
On close examination, they were not exactly welcoming. Cameraman Tony Mander and I were put into the two rooms at one end of the pool. The rooms were about ten feet square and, off the entry way, there was a toilet, washroom for each room.
To get to the pool from the main hotel, we had to walk across about fifty yards of sand. The sand seemed to be alive with insects of every sort. Ants, beetles and even dung beetles crossed our path..
Once inside, I made an inspection of the room to see if I had any company. I pulled out the wardrobe and lifted the mattress and I examined the curtains. When I was satisfied, I got ready for bed. I then noticed that there was a gap at the bottom of the door which I filled up with a folded cigarette packet.
I went to sleep but did not sleep well. When I got up, I opened the door to see a huge beetle with his head embedded in my cigarette packet as if he was trying to bulldoze his way in.
Tony told me that he had to use my toilet during the night because his had no light.
When we met up with the other two, Mike said that he had no light in his room and Sid said that he had no water. Unfortunately the Sheik Khalifa Rest House had no neon sign to warn us.
We were obliged to stay at the hotel for several days until we had finished our work in the area.
From virgin desert, a large area of deciduous trees had been planted. Gardens had been created in the complex and all this was watered by an underground supply. It had been in position for about seven years and was well established. The result of this was that a micro-climate had been introduced.
Birds arrived and nested in the trees or in the sand. Insects, mainly ants had found the site and were burrowing into the sand. The trees would drop their leaves which covered the sand, this would rot and for part of the ground surrounding the tree. The ants would chew the leaves and take the pieces of leaf into their tunnels. All this changed the texture and content of the sand over a wide area within the complex. Eventually, the ground would be a mixture of sand and compost where grasses would grow without help.
While here, we met an Indian gardener who was working on a project. From the hotel, we could look out over the dunes. On the horizon, I spotted a tree, all by itself, and I said to him, “How does that tree survive ?”. He gave me the name of it, which I have forgotten, and he said that they grow all over Arabia and India.
He told us that in India, scientists had conducted some research in which they attempted to dig to the bottom of the root to see how far down the tree was drawing moisture from the below the surface. He said that they had stopped digging at 170 feet. The mystery to me was “How did the tree survive while the root was growing down to the source of the water ?”.
We visited a date palm orchard. The gardener was Lebanese. There were row upon row of date palms growing straight out of the sand. Between the rows there was a series of pipes. These pipes were about the same gauge as a garden hose, except that they were flattened. They were also perforated. It was an irrigation system that gave the palms the water they needed without wasting water. The system was controlled by a Key-o-meter which measured the flow of water and also the period of watering. It was an Australian product and was to be seen all over the Emirates.
Along the roads, every ten yards in some places, there were small trees planted on the verges. These trees would be surrounded by raised earth which acted as a dam to contain the water which would be poured into them by a tanker. From the tanker, the water was relayed to the tree by a four-inch pipe. The operator would fill the dam with water, so that as much as thirty gallons could be poured in to the ‘hole” when the tree only needed a couple of gallons at the most.
Having previously done research into irrigation over a wide area, I knew that this was a big mistake. In the South-west of Pakistan there is a whole area that is now salt flat. It was fine arable land, but the local farmers had poured fresh water onto the land in vast quantities for many years. The result was that water, that was not taken by the plants or crops, would sink down again to the water table. In this process, the water gathered salts from the earth and rocks and deposited them into the underground reservoir. After many years of this stupidity, the water pumped up from the underground water table was salt water, which killed all the crops and then rendered the land useless for farming.
There was no one for me to tell the story to, this work was carried out by the department for roads.
Norman from the tree nursery had told us that Abu Dhabi was fed by underground water from the mountains near Al Ain and this could be tapped all along the route into the city.
He then said that the desert, all deserts, had underground rivers passing through them.
The problem is, of course, that water alone will not convert the desert to arable land, that requires other intervention. Here in Abu Dhabi, that consisted of first, planting trees to form a windbreak, then to plant wheat in the sand and then wait for the soil to developed, rather like that of the Sheik Khalifa Rest House. The wheat planted was a strain that had been developed in Iraq for use in arid conditions.
In the outback of Australia, they had used super-phosphates on the ground and then planted clover to change the nature of the soil.
Although it was laudable that the rulers of The Emirates wanted to change the harsh desert into forests and farms , it was only when we were airborne over the desert to see the futility of spending fortunes to produce what amounted to a thin strip in an ocean of sand.
However, there is a wonderful central park in Abu Dhabi which one can wander through and it is quite easy to believe that this park could be anywhere in Europe. In Al Ain, there are gardens everywhere as well as floral central reservations.
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