The past two weeks have seen the launch of our 24-hour service, meaning that the clinic is now open round the clock, with a vet available any time of the day or night, much as we are used to having in the UK.

With two new vets enlisted to take it in turns being on overnight on alternate weeks, backed up by a night nurse and our existing night animal care staff, the service officially kicked off at the start of the month and has so far proven to be popular. There have, inevitably, been some adjustments to the way the rest of us regular day staff operate, such as some new shifts and a few later than expected or usual finishes, but we’re all optimistic that once the initial adjustment period is complete it will actually make our lives less hectic and stressful.

One of the changes has been that naturally we need to do a handover with the night vet going into the day shift, and so one of the vets is assigned to the hospital for the week. This basically means that they come in for an earlier start at 7am, which gives them an hour to effect a detailed handover with the night team, before being in charge of checking, planning, updating and generally doing what is required by the various in-patients. Given that our wards are usually pretty well populated, this can result in quite an intense shift, with the hospital vet then consulting from about half ten until their finish time at 4pm. The early finish clearly makes for a nice end to the day, although that does assume that they get to actually walk out at four, which so far I don’t think has really happened.

The other vets come in as usual for an 8am start and crack on as before with admitting surgeries and seeing consults, or getting on with the various procedures booked in for the day. Trying to get our full compliment of two hours of lunch (sounds like a lot but bear in mind we are in from 8am to 7pm) is still a challenge, although when it happens it really does help to set us up for the afternoon/ evening consulting period, which is usually pretty busy. One change that certainly seems to have occurred is that the couple of hours leading up to 7pm have become a lot busier, with more of what we can refer to as the genuinely ‘sick’ animals booking in. As such the final couple of hours have been, on the whole, very busy. With the consults being booked up to, and even beyond 8pm, it does mean that when 7pm, and hence our scheduled home time, comes round it is usually the case that we either have results pending for a case we have seen in the afternoon, or there are simply more clients waiting to be seen than would be fair to leave the late vet to deal with solo – after all, we’re all nice people and we’re not the kind of individuals who can knowingly walk out leaving both clients and our colleagues delayed and inconvenienced. That has meant several late finishes which, again, I am sure will even out as the new system becomes established and when we get some new vets on the team.

Last night was a particularly intense affair, with both an in-patient requiring a blood transfusion at the end of the day – never a quick process – and a ‘sick, off-colour’ dog coming in which turned out to have some seriously nasty business going on internally and so required surgery that evening, including, again, a blood transfusion. As such we all stayed on until gone 10pm, well into the night shift, although sustenance was provided by a much welcomed, and oh so chocolatey cake, that one of my colleague’s clients had dropped off earlier.

The cases in question, for those of you with an interest in such gory details, were a cat with a severe immune mediated haemolytic anaemia, most likely secondary to tick-borne disease and not helped at all by being FeLV positive. A lovely little young cat, she was presented the evening before with, again, a history of just not being herself and was found to be very pale. Her bloods revealed the true extent of her predicament, as she was sadly diagnosed with FeLV (Feline Leukaemia Virus) and had both a severe anaemia, with a red blood cell percentage very much on the borderline of needing an immediate transfusion, and a raging high white cell count. Aggressive treatment was started but the response was not enough to prevent needing a blood transfusion last night.

The second case was that of a geriatric dog who, as with the cat, was presented with a history of just being quieter than normal. Again, pale and lethargic, bloods revealed a low red cell count and concerns about possible internal bleeding were confirmed by ultrasound, as we found her abdomen to be full of blood due to a ruptured splenic mass. As such, the options were starkly binary: euthanase or operate to try and save her. Her owners opted to try and save her so after bringing in a blood donor we took her to surgery and removed her spleen, complete with nasty, ruptured splenic mass which was the cause of her abdomen being full of blood. The surgery went well and at the time of writing the patient was recovering well, although is certainly not yet out of danger.

So there we have it…. the next chapter in the vetty adventures here in Dubai, complete with a new 24-7 element. Things should continue to be very interesting and, I daresay, remain intense.

If your pet does need to be seen overnight, then Al Safa Veterinary Clinic, on Al Wasl Road, Dubai, is now open 24 hours, 7 days a week, and can be contacted on +971 (0) 4 348 3799.

A Recipe for Nice

Living in Dubai for the past 9 months has highlighted to me something that I have been aware of ever since I was very little, thanks to my parents’ excellent example, and which does often appear to be overlooked by many here. That simply being the value of good manners and being, well, nice.

So far I have seen examples of the very best in people and, unfortunately, the very worst, from atrocious examples of selfish and utterly reckless driving to the kind of verbal abuse leveled at service and wait staff that really rather makes you feel ashamed to be a fellow human-being. One example I recall, whilst waiting for a food order at one of those shopping mall eateries, was seeing a group of guys approach and for the lead member to just start rudely barking his demands at the service attendant without even a hint of a please or thank you. He was even obnoxious enough to chastise her for not hearing his order correctly when she relayed it back to him, something I was amazed that she’d even managed to do given the rapid-fire rate at which he’d baseball pitched his poorly worded demands at her. It does seem that for some here either the inflated earning power they have, or maybe the UV from the sun, seems to have the effect of short-circuiting the nice centres in their brains. Either that or they were simply born that way, in which case maybe one has to forgive them to a degree for being so unsavoury.

I was always taught that good manners cost nothing yet to those who are on the receiving end, the value is infinite. I fail to see how being rude to others, especially those in positions of less power or influence than you, can make anyone, including yourself, anything but miserable. The guys manning the entrance to the development where I live almost look shell-shocked, but pleasantly so, each time I take the split second it takes to offer a quick wave, nod of recognition and smile. Are most people that po faced and rude that it comes as a genuine surprise when someone is even vaguely nice? Apparently so, which is just sad.

A smile, some patience, a couple of pleases and the odd thank you is an amazing recipe for creating a much nicer, friendlier and altogether more pleasant world.

Wise Words from a Funny Man

Tim MinchinThe internet serves up a veritable daily junk food diet of funnies, thought provokers and, most of the time, total procrastination promoters, most of which get quickly forgotten once the initial entertainment hit has been enjoyed. Occasionally, however, something gets posted online that really resonates and whose message sticks with you. That was what happened when I clicked through and watched Tim Minchin’s commencement address to graduates at the University of Western Australia a few weeks ago. It manages to both entertain and deliver some really important messages in one bespectacled, flouncy haired hit. Well done that man! Loved it so much that I wanted to share it on my own blog.

Tim Minchin’s commencement address,

University of Western Australia, Perth

(upon receiving an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters)

September 17, 2013


“In darker days, I did a corporate gig for a big company who made and sold accounting software.  In a bid I presume to inspire their sales people to greater heights. They forked out twelve grand for an inspirational speaker who was this “extreme sports” guy who had had a couple of his limbs frozen off when he got stuck on a ledge on some mountain.  It was weird!  Software sales people, I think, need to hear from someone who has had a long, successful and happy career in software sales, not from an overly-optimistic mountaineer.  Some poor guy who had arrived in the morning hoping to learn more about sales techniques ended up going home worried more about the blood flow to his extremities.  It’s not inspirational, it’s confusing.  And if the mountain was meant to be a symbol of life’s challenges, and the loss of limbs a metaphor for sacrifice, the software guy’s not going to get it, is he?  Because he didn’t do an Arts degree, did he?  [laughter]  He should have — Arts degrees are awesome, and they help you find meaning where there is none.  And let me assure you, there is none.  [laughter]  Don’t go looking for it!  Looking for meaning is like looking for a rhyme scheme in a cookbook — you won’t find it, and it’ll bugger up your soufflé.  If you didn’t like that metaphor, you won’t like the rest of it.


Point being, I’m not an inspirational speaker, I’ve never lost a limb on a mountainside, metaphorically or otherwise, and I’m not here to give career advice, because I’ve never had what most consider “a job”.  However, I have had large groups of people listen to what I say for quite a few years now, and it’s given me an inflated sense of self-importance.  So I will now, at the ripe old age of 37.9, bestow upon you nine life lessons, to echo of course the nine lessons and carols of the traditional Christmas service, which is also pretty obscure.  You might find some of this stuff inspiring, you’ll definitely find some of it boring, and you’ll definitely forget all of it within a week.  And be warned, there’ll be lots of hokey similes and obscure aphorisms that start well and end up making no sense.  So listen up, or you’ll get lost, like a blind man clapping in a pharmacy trying to echo-locate the contact lens fluid.  [turns around]  Looking for my old poetry teacher…


Here we go!  Ready?


One: you don’t have to have a dream.    Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams.  Fine — if you have something you’ve always wanted to do, [funny voice] dreamed of, like in your heart, go for it.  After all, it’s something to do with your time — chasing a dream — and if it’s a big enough one, it’ll take you most of our life to achieve, so by the time you get to it, and are staring into the meaninglessness of your achievement, you’ll be almost dead, so it won’t matter.  I never really had one of these dreams, and so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals.  Be micro-ambitious – put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you.  You never know where you might end up.  Just be aware, the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams — if you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out of the corner of your eye.


All right? Good!  Advice, metaphor — look at me go!


Two: don’t seek happiness.  Happiness is like an orgasm.  If you think about it too much, it goes away.  Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy, and you might get some as a side effect.  We didn’t evolve to be constantly content.  Contented homo erectus got eaten before passing on their genes.


Three: remember, it’s all luck.  We are lucky to be here.  You are incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you to get educated and encourage you to go to uni.  Or, if you’re born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy, but you’re still lucky — lucky that you happen to be made of the sort of DNA that went on to make the sort of brain which when placed in a horrible childhood environment would make decisions that meant you eventually ended up graduating uni.  Well done you for dragging yourself up by your shoelaces, but you were lucky — you didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up, they’re not even your shoelaces.  I suppose I’ve worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved, but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of attending lectures when I was here at U.W.A.  Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures, will humble you and make you more compassionate.  Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on intellectually.


Four: exercise!  I’m sorry, you pasty, pale, smoking philosophy grads, arching your eyebrows into a Cartesian curve as you watch the Human Movement mob wind their way through the miniature traffic cones of their existence.  You are wrong, and they are right.  Well, you’re half right — you think, therefore you are, but also you jog, therefore you sleep, therefore you’re not overwhelmed by existential angst.  You can’t be Kant, and you don’t want to be.  Play a sport, do yoga, pump iron, run, whatever, but take care of your body — you’re going to need it.  Most of you mob are going to live to nearly a hundred, and even the poorest of you are going to achieve a level of wealth that most humans throughout history could not have dreamed of.  And this long, luxurious life ahead of you is going to make you depressed.  But don’t despair!  There is an inverse correlation between depression and exercise.  Do it!  Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run!


Five: be hard on your opinions.  A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arseholes, in that everyone has one.  There is great wisdom in this, but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arseholes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.  [laughter]  I used to take exams in here!  It’s revenge.  We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others.  Be hard on your beliefs — take them out on the veranda and hit them with a cricket bat.  Be intellectually rigorous.  Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges.  Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance.  We tend to generate false dichotomies, then argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully-executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.  By the way, while I have science and arts graduates in front of me, please don’t make the mistake of thinking the arts and sciences are at odds with one another.   That is a recent, stupid, and damaging idea.  You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art, to make beautiful things.  If you need proof: Twain, Douglas Adams, Vonnegut, McEwan, Sagan, Shakespeare, Dickens, for a start.  You don’t need to be superstitious to be a poet, you don’t need to hate GM technology to care about the beauty of the planet, you don’t have to claim a soul to have compassion.  Science is not a body of knowledge, nor a belief system — it is just a term that describes humankind’s incremental understanding through observation.  Science is awesome.  The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated.  The idea that many Australians, including our new P.M. and my distant cousin Nick Minchin believe, that the science of anthropogenic global warming is controversial, is a powerful indication of the extent of our failure to communicate.  The fact that thirty percent of the people in this room just bristled is further evidence still.  The fact that that bristling is more to do with politics than science is even more despairing.


Six: be a teacher.  Please, please be a teacher!  Teachers are the most admirable people in the world.  You don’t have to do it forever, but if you’re in doubt about what to do, be an amazing teacher.  Just through your twenties, be a teacher.  Be a primary school teacher, especially if you’re a bloke — we need male primary school teachers.  Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher.  Share your ideas, don’t take for granted your education, rejoice in what you learned, and spray it.


Seven: define yourself by what you love.   I found myself doing this thing a bit recently where if someone asks me what sort of music I like, I say I don’t listen to the radio because pop song lyrics annoy me, or if someone asks me what food I like I say I think truffle oil is over-used and slightly obnoxious.  And I see it all the time on-line — people whose idea of being part of a subculture is to hate Coldplay or football or feminists or the Liberal Party.  We have a tendency to define ourselves in opposition to stuff — as a comedian, I make my living out of it.  But try to express also your passion for things you love.  Be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire.  Send thank-you cards and give standing ovations — be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff.


Eight: respect people with less power than you.  I have, in the past, made important decisions about people I work with — agents and producers — big decisions, based largely on how they treat the wait-staff in the restaurants we’re having the meeting in.  I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you based on how you treat the least powerful.  So there.


Nine: finally, don’t rush.  You don’t need to already know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.  I’m not saying, sit around smoking cones all day, but also, don’t panic.  Most people I know who were sure of their career path at twenty are having mid-life crises now.  I said at the beginning of this ramble, which is already three and a half minutes long, that life is meaningless.  It was not a flippant assertion.  I think it’s absurd, the idea of seeking meaning in the set of circumstances that happen to exist out of thirteen point eight billion years worth of unguided events.  Leave it to humans to think that the universe has a purpose for them.  However, I am no nihilist, I am not even a cynic — I am actually rather romantic.  And here’s my idea of romance: you’ll soon be dead.  Life will sometimes seem long and tough, and God, it’s tiring, and you will sometimes be happy and sometimes sad, and then you’ll be old, and then you’ll be dead.  There is only one sensible thing to do with this empty existence, and that is, fill it.  Not “fillet”, fill it.  And in my opinion, until I change it, life is best filled by learning as much as you can about as much as you can, taking pride in whatever you’re doing, sharing ideas, running, being enthusiastic.  And then there’s love and travel and wine and sex and art and kids and giving and mountain climbing, but you know all that stuff already.  It’s an incredibly exciting thing, this one, meaningless life of yours!  Good luck!  And thank you for indulging me.”



One of those days

You may be expecting that with a title like that this may be a blog post about a shitty day at work, or some other slightly melancholy topic. Well no. This one is actually about one of those AWESOME days. The kind of day when things just seem to click, flow and, well, work out for the best.

When the alarm went off at silly o’clock this morning it marked the start of my day in Abu Dhabi running the Abu Dhabi Striders Half Marathon, being held on Yas Island and both starting and ending at Yas Waterworld, the big waterpark that I have been wanting to go to for ages but never gotten round to doing so. Well, today was the day.

Chris with camel at Abu Dhabi Half MarathonThe last, and only other, half marathon I have run was actually a couple of years ago when I was visiting some friends in New York. I was very fortunate to be able to blag myself a place in the Brooklyn Half Marathon and had a really good race, in spite of virtually no sleep and a skin full of Manhattan cocktails the night before as way of (poor) preparation. Still, the race went swimmingly and I finished feeling really good. This time around there were no cocktails and a little more sleep, but that was was where the serious preparation ended. There have been no huge distance runs in the preceding weeks and I must confess that I have been somewhat less active than normal on the training front for the past fortnight. As such, I had no firm time targets; just a willingness to turn up and give it my best.

So, the starting klaxon went and we were off. Within the first kilometer one of the members of the tri club here in Dubai, who I know is a very strong athlete and competes at a high level in half Ironman distance triathlons, passed me with another friend. Now I thought at that point, ” ah well, off he goes. I hope he has a good race,” but I kept them in my sights relatively comfortably and so figured I would stick with them for as long as I was able and try out the pace. Well I did and comfortably for about 16km, during which I was asked what time I was going for. “Err, sub two hours would be nice,” was my answer, to which I was advised that I could probably stop if that was my aim as I was well on track. They were going for sub 1 hour 45 minutes and so I figured why not try for that then?

At 16km I was still feeling really good so I extended my pace and pulled away. I made the decision to effectively push really hard and sprint the last 2 km, and crossed the line in a time of 1 hour 37 mins 48 seconds, coming well under the initial vague target of 2 hours. And I still felt good! Who’d have thunk it?! Truly one of those times when things just seem to click and go really well.

The day then got better as I spent it hanging out with a beautiful girl at the waterpark. A great day indeed. In fact, one of those days!

Falling in the Dark

Life is a series of opportunities and experiences, some odder and more extreme than others. I had the chance recently to take part in one such experience that most sane members of society would consider utterly insane, and I can see that they may well have a point. The activity in question was nighttime skydiving, which as you might have correctly guessed involves skydiving. At night. In the dark.

skydiving essentialsHaving recently acquired my USPA B-license I was eligible to sign up for the jump, which is only generally run once a year and is limited in terms of how many jumpers can take part. As it is part of the requirements for the D-license it was an extra bonus that I was able to get that part of my skydiving career under my belt at this stage. So, after making a mad dash out of work on the Saturday evening in question, skillfully navigating myself away from the car park that was Sheikh Zayed road and heading out to the desert dropzone, it was time to manifest, grab my rig and get psyched up for what was always going to be a mad experience. The fact that pretty much every other skydiver regardless, it seemed, of their experience level looked nervous simply added to the feeling of epic trepidation that I was certainly feeling.

The briefing was conducted once everyone had arrived and like pretty much everything we ever do in skydiving it was completely focused on safety and ensuring that the jumps went as smoothly as possible. That is one thing that crops up again and again with ‘extreme’ sports: the uncompromising focus on safety, in spite of what most people view as simply a bunch of unhinged loonies engaging in reckless tomfoolery.

The jumps were to be performed from a helicopter, which is always a treat in itself, and each skydiver had three lights on them: a green glowstick on the back of the helmet (so we could be seen by other skydivers as we jumped from the helicopter), a red light on our chest strap (so we could be seen by other skydivers should we be falling with our backs to the earth), and a strobe light attached to our left ankles, to be switched on only once we were safely under canopy. It was drilled into us how much of a bad idea it would be for us to make the mistake of switching our strobes on in the helicopter, as someone had done the year before. Basically it takes about 30 minutes to regain night vision and so having a bright light suddenly go off in front of you before leaping would have done nothing good for everyone’s ability to see.

The plan was for everyone to complete two jumps in total: one solo jump and the second a group jump with one or more other people. As the number of jumpers that could go up at any one time was relatively small and the ground control had to be certain that everyone who had just jumped had landed and returned to the dropzone safely, the progression of the evening was a little slower than I think I had initially anticipated. As such, I spent a lot of time actually just kicking back on the sofa, waking up just in time for my jumps.

Gearing up and cracking the chemical light sticks on both my helmet and chest strap, I couldn’t help but feel like a character in the sci fi movie Tron. One thing that was a little disappointing was that the ‘glow in the dark’ Batman t-shirt that I had excitedly purchased the day before did anything but. In fact, the whites of my eyes were probably glowing more than the bat logo! Shame as I reckon it would have looked mental to have the bat logo looming out of the dark.

The helicopter ride up was a strange sensation, as the only lights visible were the soft luminous glows of various red and green light sticks, and the various dials and switches of the main cockpit area. As such, the atmosphere was one of calm anticipation as we each mentally prepared and rehearsed what was about to follow.

Once at jump altitude it was a relatively swift business of leaping out, dropping silently away from the helicopter blinking before us, whilst savouring the utterly alien sensation of freefall in the dark. I found that we had surprisingly more time in actual freefall than initially expected and when pull-altitude eventually came I felt satisfied that my appetite for this new form of adrenaline shot had been sated. The canopy portion of the descent was much as it is in daylight, apart from remembering to twist on our strobes and the fact that, well, we couldn’t see much. One of the strange and apparently unnerving phenomenon that can occur when jumping at night is that your own shadow can end up looking like another skydiver flying in uncomfortably close proximity to you, with a lot of jumpers instinctively turning to fly away from the perceived danger. The problem, of course, is that one’s shadow tends to follow and can’t be shaken off, so it takes a few moments to realise that you’re actually trying to escape yourself!

skydiving at night in DubaiLanding was, in many ways, a much calmer process in the dark as the fact that you can’t easily see everything around makes you focus intently on what is immediately approaching, and also on good altitude awareness and steady canopy control on the approach. I think my landings in the dark were smoother than many of my daylight ones. The landing area itself was very clearly marked, with lights in an arrow shape, and the fact that we had the road and InFlight tunnel very brightly lit up made it easy to know where to aim for.

Having checked in with ground control – one of the important safety measures in place to ensure that everyone was present and accounted for after each jump run and before the next – I headed back in to get my rig packed and wait for the next jump, this one being a two-way.

Jumping with someone else in the dark was just as insane, and we had time enough to turn a few points before turning, tracking and pulling as we normally would.

A late finish (1.30 in the morning!) but a great way to spend an evening here in Dubai and a unique experience to record in the personal history.


The Ultimate Mates Day Out

Two of my good friends from back home in the UK have been over very recently and although our week saw us indulging in such fun activities as heading to the top of the Burj Khalifa for high tea, a classic Dubai evening brunch, and even neon crazy golf, one of the highlights from my point of view was the day spent in Abu Dhabi, which managed to somehow combine a spot of culture with pure, adrenaline-fueled awesomeness. Unfortunately one of the aforementioned friends was not present that day as he had to return earlier to the UK, such is his unflappable devotion to the health and well-being of the country’s pets. Still, one of my good mates from here in Dubai jumped into the void and so our trio of musketeers headed down to the UAE’s capital.

Grand Mosque Abu DhabiThe day started in actual fact with me dragging myself up at my more usual 5am to attend a regular triathlon swim training session, followed by a leisurely breakfast and a chance to plan the day ahead. The bare bones of the day focused primarily on Al Forsan, a big sports campus in Abu Dhabi, which includes such activities as shooting, paintball, equestrian sports, karting and wakeboarding. As my friend was visiting then it was decided that it would also be a great idea to make a brief stop off at the Grand Mosque, which even from a distance is an impressively humbling structure, gleaming bright white in the sunlight, with what feel like hundreds of perfectly aligned minarets towering toward the heavens like proud shoulders on parade. I had incorrectly always assumed that the mosque would be situated in a busy, difficult to navigate and park in section of the city and yet was surprised to discover that accessing it was super simple making a visit an absolute doddle and a must for any visitor or resident alike.

shoes outside Grand MosqueIn spite of the large numbers of visitors present, the mosque is so large and expansive in it’s design that one cannot help but experience that same level of calm and tranquility that you get when quietly shuffling around some of the huge cathedrals in Europe, albeit with a much brighter atmosphere given how light the mosque is both inside and out. One of the features that I particularly liked were the large pools that run around the perimeter and which on a windless day perfectly reflect the grandeur of the mosque itself, creating a powerfully striking visual image. Even the restrooms are a sight to behold!

A visit to the mosque can be as lengthy or rapid as you choose, and we managed to see most of what we wanted within the hour, hopping back in the car to make our way back out towards Al Forsan and the rest of the day’s fun.

Fun, however, cannot start until bellies are full and so an impromptu pause for lunch at the Abu Dhabi golf club was called for, where I had what my friend reliably informed me was voted the “best dish in the world” (beef rendang) – it was pretty amazing to be fair. One thing that the UAE does have in spades is good eating and it is so easy to understand why many new residents pile on the pounds during their initial few months. Good job there is so much sport then is what I say!

Al Forsan has quickly become one of my favourite places to spend time over here and until this day I had only actually used the wakeboarding facilities. In our eagerness we arrived early, as most of the park’s activities didn’t start until 3pm. Still, another excuse to take a break and enjoy some tea with friends, whilst finalising exactly what our afternoon was going to look like. The decision was pretty much this: start off by shooting some guns before getting all competitive on the karting racetrack, and then finish the day pulling some gnarly moves on the water down at the wakeboarding lakes.

Bang Bang

Pistol shooting in Abu Dhabi, Al ForsanI have fired air pistols and rifles before but have never discharged a real gun, even when I visited Texas, which is probably the kind of place it is almost illegal not to have fired a gun in! With identifications checked and our weapons selected – I went for a Sig pistol – we headed downstairs to the range to meet our quartermasters and start the session. It was quite surreal and felt quite edgy as we were handed our pieces, always careful to follow the exact instructions of our tutors on how to best hold, aim and finally fire our guns. The kickback that they gave was more than movie and TV depictions of pistol firing allude to and the advice to breath in and hold your breath steady prior to gently squeezing the trigger once the ‘bite point’ had been reached really did help. In fact I found myself hitting pretty much the centre of the target each time, only dropping a couple of shots slightly wide once the target was moved to a range of fifteen metres, which happens to coincide with about the limits of my contact lenses. Still, maybe with some laser surgery perhaps I do have a promising future as a double ‘0’ after all 🙂

On the grid

One macho activity ticked off, it was time to get our petrol heads on and hit the track for some kart racing. The track at Al Forsan is a fantastic playground, with wide sweeping bends, hairpin chicanes and full throttle straights on which to exercise the Hamiltons and Alonsos in all of us. Our session was a little light in numbers, with the three of us paired up with just one other young lad, whom we did all end up lapping several times, and as such it often felt like we were just driving solo. I am convinced that a larger group on the track would make for a far more competitive, faster and overall more fun session, but it was still awesome.

Big Air

Third and final on our list for the day was wakeboarding and a chance to once again hit the ramps and improve on some of the skills I had previously been working on, especially after I pretty much concussed myself during the last visit. With some really good boarding on show all round, we felt that the smaller lake had been tamed enough to allow us to graduate onto the big, fast lake, where I finally plucked up the courage to take on one of the bigger kickers. The difference between the first and second lakes’ ramps was pretty noticeable, as I literally felt like I was back skydiving coming off the larger kicker. In spite of looking and feeling on several occasions as if I was going to stack it on the landing, I managed to remain in control to power on through to the rest of the run. The next challenges are to a) try the opposite kickers, and b) have a go at a basic trick such as a 180-degree rotation off the ramps. Hmm, we’ll see how that goes….

Good Samaritan

There was an unexpected bonus end to the day when as we were leaving, a very pretty girl who had been wakeboarding as well and whom all of us had noticed on arrival, was leaving at the same time. Wanting to be polite I casually enquired as to how her session went and then wished her a good evening as we disembarked from the bus and headed for the car. We then saw that she was waiting as though for a taxi, which was confirmed when she started walking towards the road itself. Bearing in mind that Al Forsan is a little out of the way, the chances of being able to flag down a taxi were remote at best. The dilemma was do we do the gentlemanly thing of pulling up and offering a lift, running the risk of perhaps freaking her out as would always be the case when an unknown 4WD with tinted windows and three guys pulls up. I figured that the worst that could happen was that she politely refused an offer of assistance and we all went on our merry way, with the best being that we could be of help.

As it turned out she happily accepted our offer and when it transpired that she was basically heading back to the same area of town as my friend lived in, it seemed like divine providence: we were meant to stop and offer assistance. Miss France, as I shall refer to her as to save giving real names here, was originally from Paris, having only recently moved to Dubai to continue working in telecoms security, a pretty cool, techy sector as far as I could tell. She had recently decided to take up wakeboarding and had taken a taxi from Dubai to Al Forsan and back on a couple of occasions in a bid to really progress, which is some commitment to learning! She was actually the perfect car companion, not only stunningly beautiful and French, always a winner in my eyes such is my penchant for the accent, but clearly incredibly intelligent, confident and easy to talk with. Basically the perfect woman. As I said, a great bonus end to the day: the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from doing a good deed for others and a new friend here in the big city.

Tips for a trip to the Grand Mosque & Al Forsan:

Grand Mosque

  • Remember to take/ wear something to cover your knees if a guy, as you’ll otherwise be asked to don a kandoora for your visit. Women need to dress modestly and cover their heads, so bringing a scarf to do so is a good idea.
  • Be prepared to take your shoes off as you won’t be able to enter the main prayer hall with shoes on your feet. You can keep your socks on but you might want to leave either the brightly coloured Super Ted pair or the ones with big holes at the toes at home.
  • Be prepared to say “WOW!” I did as the mosque came into view for the first time. It truly is an impressive structure.

Al Forsan:

  • Take your ID – if you want to do any shooting then you’ll definitely need it.
  • Plan to spend several hours there, as there is sooooooo much to do.
  • Take some mates with you as it is a cracking place to hang out with friends.

Surfing in the Sand

With a sudden hiss, followed by a low rumble the sight of an absolutely perfect wave formed behind me as I started paddling forward. Moments later I was up on the board. Surfing. In the desert. On a real wave!

There really seems to be little that you can’t do here in the UAE and now I can add surfing in the middle of an area that by rights shouldn’t even be able to dream of hosting World Class surf competitions to the list of the seemingly implausable that is, in fact, possible.

Aquathon race
At the end of the race, with my shiny new medal

I had signed up for my first competitive race of the new season here in the UAE, an aquathon held at the waterpark, Wadi Adventure in Al Ain. A very early start and a couple of hours drive east of Dubai found me in the shadows of Jebel Hafeet, one of the mountains that many of my cyclist friends have spent time peddling up, and the site of what can only be described as a water sports enthusiasts’ dreamland: Wadi Adventure.

The race itself involved swimming an initial 400m in one of the white water rafting lakes, followed by a 2.5km run around the park, then back into the lake for a second 400m swim, and ending with a final 2.5km run to the finish line. The swim was fantastic, with the water perfectly clean, cool and actually very refreshing, something that was certainly welcome the second time around after the initial run in the rapidly rising desert heat. It would appear that my training over the summer months has actually paid dividends as I had a really strong race and was pleased to come over the line in a time of about 43 minutes and in 10th place in the Open Male category.

One of the perks of competing on the day, other than the shiny new medal and the post-race breakfast, was that we got to stay in the park for the day if we wanted. Well, seeing what was on offer in terms of activities, I certainly wanted.

Wild WadiAfter befriending a fellow Brit, who had ventured out from Dubai by bus and taxi only to find the park didn’t open for another hour, we purchased our various activity bands and headed in for an active day. Charles was starting his day with a surf lesson whilst I had an hour and a half to just kick back, relax and read before my first activity of the day: rafting. They have built some impressive infrastructure at the park and after an initial briefing and kit check we were out on the lake to practice our rafting skills around the more pedestrian, slower rafting circuit before transferring to where the real fun was to be had with some proper white water.

Many of the rafting and kayaking instructors are Napalese, such is the rich whitewater heritage of the country, and ours was incredibly skilled as he navigated us round the various twists, turns, drops and bumps of the circuit, shouting to us when to paddle, stop, get in the centre of the raft, and generally be useful as opposed to increasing the risk of a capsize. Having said that, after a few tours round we were given the option of whether we wanted to turn the raft over. No question really: of course! I have GoPro footage of being in the raft and then rather rapidly not being in the raft and bobbing along as I was swept downstream, popping into the lake that is both the start and end of the circuit. Amazing fun!

Next up was kayaking, which was a lot harder than I think I had been initially expecting. Having done a little kayaking many years ago I thought I would have been a lot more comfortable being submerged but actually found being so rather uncomfortable. Still, we knew what to do to free ourselves from our kayaks in the event that we did end up head under and so all was good. There were four of us in our group, and after some initial tutoring from our guide set off on the route. As with rafting, we started with something a little more measured and I felt very confident paddling up to, over and through the various drops and obstacles. I did, however, discover how easy it is to tip over in a kayak at the final section of the course – I would like to say that was the only time I did so but I would be lying 🙂

Starting the session I had assumed that, as with rafting, we would hone some basic skills in the slower section of the course before graduating on to the serious white water. Thankfully that didn’t turn out to be the case, as all of us were more than happy with the workout we had in the first course. As I said, kayaking was a lot tougher than I thought and I think it would be safe to say that we’d have all spent considerably more time in the water, or under it, than we would in our kayaks had we ventured into rougher waters.

By the time I had finished the kayak session I was very ready for lunch. However, whilst en route I was stopped by one of the surf managers whom I had spoken to earlier in the morning. The surfing gets booked out a long time in advance, by as much as a month, and so I had asked whether I could be informed if anyone did not turn up. The chances of that happening were, according to most, pretty slim, but on this occasion it seemed as if my luck was in as a gap in an intermediate session had just opened up, starting about 5 minutes after our conversation. So it was that I was to get my surfing fix afterall.

waves at Wild Wadi, Al Ain
Perfect waves on demand

Paddling out to join the five other surfers on the water was incredible if not initially a little daunting, as from the shore the wave that was generated was pretty big so I wasn’t quite certain what it was going to be like up close and personal. The group I was gatecrashing were French and had come together from both Oman and Dubai to do a couple of hours of surfing. The last time I had been surfing was in California and I wouldn’t necessarily have called myself an intermediate. However, in the interests of nabbing the available slot I was willing to give it a go. As it turned out I was actually pretty ok, standing up and surfing far more than stacking it, helped I am sure by the sheer perfection of the synthetically generated wave, which rose from apparently nowhere every 90 seconds.

An hour of perfect, regular wave riding was enough to really feel good and ready for food so surfboard returned, it was off to lunch and one of the most welcome, if not biggest, lasagnas I have ever eaten. By that time it was late afternoon and so with one last set of activities to tick off the list, namely the climbing and zip-line, thoughts were turning to getting home to Dubai. The climbing consisted of a couple of levels of high-wire obstacles, much like Go Ape, and we nipped round both levels swiftly before heading up to the zip line for a ride over the lakes, which was great. I honestly think it would be so awesome if there more zip-lines in normal, everyday life. How brilliant would it be to be able to zip line between buildings rather than having to walk or grab a cab? The final activity of the day was a log swing, which after having had bad experiences on those pirate ship fairground rides in the past, I wasn’t too upset about only going on once. Still, it was on our list so had to be done, and done it was.

The entire day was amazing fun and super active, with the surfing certainly being one of my key highlights. It was so surreal to be spending the day in water with a mountain in the close background, but I have learnt to expect such surprises here in the UAE. I certainly intend to go back and booking a group of friends to go surfing would be an excellent way to spend an awesome day together.

Downhill all the way!

mountain bike ChamonixTeeth clenched, eyes fixed ahead in a state of complete focus and with the almost audible buzz of a brain doing overtime, processing the rapidly changing scene flashing past. This is what it was like to experience downhill mountain biking during my time in Chamonix. The rush of hurtling down a mountain, on what I can only assume is usually a ski run in the winter, clad in impact padding and relying on a combination of balance, balls and the sheer hardy and tough awesomeness of the incredible bike I was riding, was amazing and I am so glad I decided to bite the bullet and hire a bike for the day, even though I was convinced that I was going to break myself in the process.

Mountain bike, ChamonixHaving only ever mountain biked maybe twice before, and neither time being that extreme, I wasn’t really sure what I was signing up to when I headed into the rental shop in Chamonix and spoke with the friendly British owner, Spencer. I ended up agreeing to rent the best bike in the shop, a downhill monster (Nukeproof, for anyone who cares to know), with all the pads and helmet thrown in for good measure, and so I returned later that day to pick up my steed for the following day, in addition to some tips on where would be a good playground for a novice such as myself.

The first challenge I faced, even before getting to the top of any run, was how to get my swanky new yet beefy bike into my tiny car! After being somewhat put off the idea of removing the front wheel – something I later discovered was stupidly simple to do – I faced the puzzle of fitting the bike into my little Skoda, which I just about achieved, albeit after having to ‘close’ the boot with the use of my Sat Nav’s power cord to tether the door closed, followed by a very careful and smooth drive back to the chalet, all the while praying that I avoided any local members of the Gendarmerie.

Mountain biking in ChamonixApparently I had rented quite a nice bike unbeknownst to me, as several of the guests at the chalet soon gathered to collectively ooh and aah at what to me was simply a heavy yet bouncy bike. It did leave me with a sense of being that person who has all of the gear but generally no idea – some pressure, it seemed, now existed to do something with my apparently awesome toy the next day. Two of the guys at the chalet, brothers Rob and James, were both there solely for the purposes of spending each day hurtling down mountain tracks on their bikes. They very kindly offered to take me under their collective wing and let me join them the next day, which in hindsight was a much more enjoyable and rewarding option that just going off on my clueless own. I was assured that the next day would be epic!

And epic it was! A relatively short drive up the valley saw us arrive at an area known as Les Tours, right on the French-Swiss border, and a classic Alpine picture postcard of grassy slopes with small herds of bell-clad horned cattle shuffling along or sitting leisurely chewing their cud, all with an acoustic soundtrack of gently chiming bells, which had the effect of making me feel as though I could have been in Tibet.

The epic mountain bikers in ChamonixPadded up and psyched up, with lift passes excitedly clutched, we headed up for the first run of the day, and my moment of truth. I think it would be safe to say that the first descent for me was somewhat slower and more leisurely than Rob and James were used to and in spite of their excellent tuition, especially when it came to effective sharp cornering, I still ended up off the track and on my backside more than once. Still, with the amount of padding I had on it didn’t actually hurt so there was no disincentive to feeling a little braver and bolder as the day wore on. In fact, by the end of the day I found myself hurtling down the green run feeling almost like a pro, and whizzing past other groups, whilst the guys went and got their fix by tackling the championship downhill course that was on-site, complete with rather insane looking jumps!

Atart of the downhill, ChamonixAfter a leisurely mountain-top lunch and an attempted descent into Switzerland, which was quickly abandoned when it transpired how a) technical the route was and b) the fact that the time was pushing on such that we’d have more than likely had to catch a train back round to ‘our side of the mountain.’ Several more descents, each one getting a little faster and way more exciting, and it was the end of the adrenaline fest that was our day mountain-biking. The journey back into Chamonix was a little more assured now that I had been shown how to remove the front wheel, and I returned my steed to its stable in plenty of time. A great day and no broken bones or missing teeth, so a result all round!