From Mountains to Pearl Beds!

Today was probably the best day of the holiday so far! We set off at around 10am, heading north to the emirate of Ras al Khaimah. The journey took about 90 minutes and once clear of Dubai, we were swiftly in the desert. Yellow sand interspersed with lonely green bushes stretched in both directions. Every so often we’d come across small herds of camels and also goats.

As we entered RAK we could see the mountains approaching that would be our first stop. Jebel Jais at 1934m is the highest mountain in the UAE, approached via a winding switchback road through high rock canyons, with great rocky cliffs and boulder covered plateaus. It is part of the Hajar range of mountains that run along the north of the Emirate peninsula. The drive up the mountainside was abolutely spectacular with amazing views all the way. There were quite a few viewpoints and we pulled over several times. We saw people camping along the way and lucy says that many more camp up there during the winter months, it’s very popular with the Asian workforce especially.

The mountain is also home to the world’s longest zipline which travels a terrifying route from the mountain top, across the vallue to a neighbouring peak. Thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies travel at speeds of up to 120kph to 150kph at a height of 1,680 metres above sea level on top of Jebel Jais mountain. Lucy and her friends actually did this earlier this year. Riders wear a special harness for the adventure, which resembles a bat costume, with the longest flight itself taking approximately two to three minutes. Truly the heights involved look terrifying. But if you like that sort of thing it must be amazing.

We drove as high as we could but the very top which is where the zipline begins is subject to very heavy security and you can’t get in without a booking. There are a coupl of food areas at this level and we went into one and had a light lunch and enjoyed the amazing views. There was a special viewpoint hiking area there and we walked to two of the points before turning back. I am so glad I saw this area of the UAE, so very different from the flat desert lands.

After lunch we set off for Al Rams, a smallish traditional fishing port in RAK. Scruffy in the manner of such places worldwide but thronged with boats and a beautiful sight with the Hajar Mountains coming right down to the blue sea of the Strait of Hormuz. A totally authentic place, so nice to see – RAK is like this in general. There is an area of 5 and 6 star hotels in one small area but generally it’s still a much more traditional spot than many.

We had a tour around town and looked down on the massive unspoilt beach. Lucy made a note to come back here for camping. It would be brilliant.

We had booked a 330 trip with Suwaidi Pearls the only pearl farm left in the Gulf. We were taken out in a lovely wooden dhow with red carpeted cushioned seats and a bamboo roof. There were more people than I expected – perhaps 20. The boat trip took about 35 minutes out through the channel and past mangroves that were home to very many large white storks. The water was very clear and there were large schools of small fish visible and at one point, a turtle.

The oyster farm is on a large floating wooden platform, two storey, with another traditional dhow attached. The pillars of oyster cages are just off the farm. The Emirati tour guide gave us a very informative talk about the history of pearl farming in the Gulf that goes back 8000 years. Pearls that old have been found in graves. He also explained the different colours and categories of natural pearls and how they were traditionally harvested by divers. And he went into details about the diving process, which was totally breath holding and facilitated by tying a large rock to the diver’s foot!!!!!!! A hard life which largely died out after oil was discovered post WW2. Now, their farm is the last in existence founded by the grandson of the last traditional diver. They produce mainly cultured pearls but also natural ones. He hauled up one of the oyster cages and showed us the maturing oysters nestling amongst growing coral and sponges and he explained the culturing process which was fascinating..

They had a number of mature oysters in a tank and he got one of the chidren to pick one which he opened to see if there was a pearl inside, which there was!!!! A lovely one. You can only tell if its cultured or natural by xray. He opened bags of pearls to show the different grades, sizes, natural, cultured all produced on the farm. So beautiful. It was such a learning experience – very informative.

There was then the opportunity to revisit the exhibits and to buy some pearls and some small pieces of pearl jewellery.

The best part of the trip came next. We had ordered a late lunch/early dinner from them and we were quietly taken to the upper level of the platform – a large carpeted area under a canopy – where we were served our food and drink. Everyone else left in the boat and it was just us three, with the cook and the Emirati guide. We had salad, a mixed seafood grill in a spicy slightly curried sauce on a massive bed of spice rice, and then a dessert of a warm cardamon pudding. The calamari and shimp in the main meal were particularly delicious. At the end the cook came up with a pot of karak tea for us. I’d never had this before and was a bit dubious. But it was delicious. The sun began to set and the water of the lagoon area was so still and glassy, disturbed only by the schools of fish swirling around. It was so peaceful and lovely to be….. alone….. I could have spent the night there easily and we were all sorry to leave. The guide gave us all a little souvenir , we were sworn to secrecy not to tell the others (not that we were likely to see any of them again) – a mother of pearl oyster shell with a little pearl in it . What a nice gesture!

The return journey in the dhow was magical. Just us and the two white robed Emiratis, drifting through the waters towards the sunset. The call to prayer rang out as we approached Al Rams and that just added to the romance. The storks were flying past off to their evening roosts. Lots of water birds.

I can highly recommend this tour as something really different to do on a visit to the UAE, a little taste of traditional life as it has been for 1000s of years and it pairs well with a visit to the splendour of the mountains. The pearl tour is about £60 but discounts are available and worth asking for. Our tour with meal cost under £50 each. It was honestly well worth it. We were spoiled every step of the way.