Last month I had the pleasure of yet again donning my swim shorts, climbing shoes and chalk and hot footing it over to Oman with a bunch of fellow adrenaline junkies, where we piled into a boat and spent the day scaling sea cliffs along the Musandam coast.
Deep water soloing, for those who are not familiar with the activity, involves climbing without the use of ropes, over deep water, with this acting as a ‘safety’ in the event of falling or, eventually, jumping from a chosen finish point. It is insanely fun and one of the best ways to spend a glorious day with like-minded friends, exploring one of the most stunning coastlines on the planet. There is simply no way to access the sites that we had the pleasure of climbing other than by boat, and the combination of puzzle, physical exercise and sheer natural beauty makes the endeavour all consuming. One cliff we found ourselves climbing saw divers surface close-by, a surreal experience in and of itself.
Check out this video I edited, which incorporates footage from both last year’s trip and this year’s. Enjoy!
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.
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.
After 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.
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.
Following the initial few days in Switzerland and skydiving just over the border, with the Alps on the immediate horizon, my recent trip took me into the heart of the Alps and Chamonix, my base for the next week.
Chamonix is regarded as the alpine capital of the Alps, and it is easy to appreciate why, with the town nestled snugly in the valley that is dominated by the breathtaking Mont Blanc, and the various peaks that collectively make up the Mont Blanc massif, including the famous Aguille du Midi, which is worth taking a cable car up to even if just for the briefest of glimpes out over the valley thousands of feet below. Chamonix is somewhat unique in that it is pretty busy and active throughout the year, whereas a lot of alpine resorts go into more of a summer hibernation outside of the manic ski season. In addition to being charmingly pretty, with the requisite array of cosy coffee shops, pubs, alpine supply stores, restaurants and chalets, the town just buzzes with an energy that comes from being full of people with a common goal: to experience the best that the surrounding natural resources have to offer, whether that be miles and miles of trails to run or hike up and down, alpine slopes and the valley spread out below over which to paraglide, or the wealth of climbing on offer, both rock and alpine, with an ascent of Mont Blanc itself being the focus of many visitors’ attentions. Even if you did not describe yourself as an active, outdoorsey type, after even just a couple of hours in Chamonix I could see you reaching for the hiking boots and standing in line for a lift pass, such is the lure of the surrounding terrain.
My accommodation for the week was a beautiful chalet a few kilometres outside of Chamonix, Chalet Tissieres, situated in the shadow of the Boisson glacier, one of the many huge glaciers that extend down into the valley from the snowy heights above. Run by a lovely lady by the name of Renske and her husband, and staffed by a young English couple, the chalet was a welcoming sanctuary, with the other guests all climbers and outdoor enthusiasts themselves, making for inspiring dinnertime conversation. With a warm, comfortable bed, great company and hearty food available, the chalet was the perfect launch pad for the week’s various adventures. The fact that it was situated a few kilometres down valley of Chamonix itself was not an issue thanks to my trusty little rental car, which did a famous job of ferrying me along the alpine roads and offering the freedom to explore at my leisure.
One of the first activities to tackle on my list of ‘absolute must dos’ was paragliding, or parapenting as they say in France. I had been very tempted to sign up to a course to gain my license to paraglide but figured that a) it would significantly limit the time available in which to engage in other mountain-based activities, and b) who knows, I might even hate it, in which case committing to a full course would be a bind. Of course I didn’t really imagine for a second that I wouldn’t enjoy it, and that is exactly what the case was as I found myself soaring like an eagle over the valley and town, skirting along the sides of the surrounding peaks, with my pilot Simon in control and my place being seated in front, taking in the incredible views from the armchair-like comfort of my harness. Surreal was the word I used to describe the experience at the time and it really was, from literally running off the side of the Brevant to gliding noiselessly through the crisp alpine air, with fellow flyers above, below and around us as would birds. I am used to flying under canopy as a skydiver, but paragliding is so much slower, gentler, smoother and relaxing, in large part down to the fact that you spend significantly more time in the air compared to a skydiving canopy flight, during which you only ever fly down, whereas paragliders can ‘catch a thermal’ and rise higher, a bizarre sensation indeed. In the right conditions, and with the appropriate level of skill, paragliding pilots can literally spend hours flying. I find that amazing!
Soon after landing I arranged to meet up with my mountain guide for the latter part of the week, in addition to organising a mountain bike rental for the following day’s fun. Danny, my friendly American guide whom I had been put in touch with by a mutual friend and fellow alpine guide, was simply brimming with enthusiasm and ideas for what we could achieve during our four days together. The first thing we did following our initial coffee was to go on a kit run, identifying the various bits of essential clothing and equipment that I would need for my time in and on the mountains, pointing out that which I would be best purchasing and those bits of kit that should be hired. Purchasing such items as alpine climbing trousers and an expensive ‘puffy’ jacket when I live in a part of the world where the temperature rarely exceeds about 25 degrees celcius seemed odd but its amazing how swept up in the mountain climbing fever one can become, coming precariously close to further credit card bashing when I nearly justified to myself the idea of buying my own pair of mountaineering boots. I did relent, reminding myself of the fact that a) I lived in the desert, and b) had no idea when I would next be on a mountain, meaning that on a scale of ‘unessential to absolutely must-have’ mountain boots fell quite low down. Still, by the end of the day I was suitably attired and equipped to tackle the surrounding peaks with Danny like a true alpine climber. First, however, was a day of downhill mountain biking fun!
Sitting in the Times Square Mall in Dubai, diners on the second floor have a view out over the Adventure HQ climbing wall and high wire course, a really fun attraction to have in a mall in my opinion. Watching a group of kids all scale the climbing tower just drove home to me in a sort of epiphany moment just how incredibly rewarding climbing is and how it’s such an incredible activity for both a healthy body and mind.
It is that perfect combination of an activity that not only exercises the body – and it is a full body workout – but also engages the mind in such a complete manner, with no room for distraction or dwelling on the day’s trials and tribulations. It requires laser focus to do it well and, most importantly, safely, and as such offers the mind a much needed break which I am convinced allows your sub conscious to then do its thing and make sense of those issues or questions you may have been puzzling over. It is, in essence, a form of vertical, active meditation.
As an activity for kids it is perfect, offering the ideal combination of exercise, fun, mental challenge and providing valuable returns in terms of feelings of achievement when a move goes well and the chance to think, appraise and reform ideas in the event that a move does not work out as initially planned. These are all essential skills for children to acquire, and definitely ones that adults alike should continue to cultivate and improve on.
Of course, the other wonderful aspect of climbing is the social nature of it. Both a solo sport and yet one that actively promotes close cooperation and interaction with others. What closer social experience is there than carefully looking out for someone’s welfare whilst they tackle a wall by acting as their belay partner? A solo activity that can then be discussed, critiqued, reviewed and enjoyed by friends. Perfect combination in my opinion.
Alas, I am in mourning. Not one to usually subscribe to fashion trends or fork out for ‘designer labels’ I must confess that I joined the crowd last year when I purchased a beautiful pair of ‘designer’ sunglasses whilst skydiving in the US. Adorning my head at any opportunity when the sun is present, which means most of the time now that I live out in the UAE, we sadly parted company yesterday but in a pretty awesome way 🙂
A group of fellow adrenaline junkies and I here in Dubai all headed over to Oman yesterday for a day of Deep Water Soloing, or climbing up sea cliffs with only water to break our falls. I must confess that I have tombstoned before – an experience that I engaged in as a foolish youth (well, as a newly qualified vet anyway) and which resulted in my friend and I jumping from a cliff that was, in hindsight, stupidly high – but had never climbed in this fashion before. The experience was amazing and I am convinced that there is no better way to spend a hot, sunny day than with a group of like-minded friends bobbing round a stunning coastline looking for daredevil acts to engage in, whether it be climbing or diving.
So, what happened to cause the loss of your beloved then? Well, good question. I am glad you asked. The second cliff we climbed up led to the jump being significantly higher than our first stop and in hindsight choosing to wear my Gatorz sunglasses, a cap and hang on to my GoPro Hero3 was folly. Anyway, I jumped, landed and very quickly realised that the only items I still had on me were my board shorts and climbing shoes – who’d have thunk it but landing in water from a height actually involves a fair amount of force so it should have been no surprise that my oh-so-cool headwear and I were separated.
Caps float so that was ok, the least expensive and most easily replaced item being easily retrieved from the ocean. Metal sunglasses – expensive ones at that – and considerably more expensive GoPro cameras, however, do not float. Which sucked! Thankfully, with the swift deployment of my snorkel and mask, which I was so glad I took along even just for the fact that there was some amazing sealife to observe during the day, I spied the GoPro (phew!) and was able to dive down to retrieve it. If it were another metre down, however, then I think I may have had issues as it was just about on my free-diving limit. Still, camera and footage saved it was then time to hunt for the illusive Gatorz. In hindsight, gunmetal blue may not have been the best colour to take along as everything looks sort of blue at depth and it soon became apparent that I was not going to find my sunnies. Boo! So, a gift to the ocean they were to remain and who knows, maybe some diver will come across them and be the new owner of what are an awesome pair of quality sunglasses. As for me, I had best get ordering a new pair – maybe red would be a good idea for next time, although the lesson I took away from the experience was NOT to wear sunglasses when climbing and then jumping down – they rarely stay with you!
I have a taste of what weekends are likely to look like here in the Emirates and I have to say that I like it. As mentioned before, weekends officially start on Friday and run through to include Saturday, with the working week recommencing on Sunday. It was very novel to be able to lie in, albeit not much of one and nothing compared to the ‘norm’ which apparently involves staying up very late on Thursday and not surfacing from bed until the early afternoon on Fridays. I guess this Friday was a little different in as much as I had the car to collect, although the decision to elect such an early time to pick it up was a smart move as it meant I had relatively quiet roads on which to get used to driving here in Dubai. One tip I would certainly give any new driver here is to go and make a sat nav one of your very first purchases and definately have it on you before you head out onto the roads for the first time. The last thing you want to be doing on new and foreign roads is missing turn offs, cutting across busy intersections at the last moment and generally getting lost and stressed. For the sake of a hundred quid or so it’s small change and should keep you much safer. Besides, you’ll probably save the cost of the device in petrol not wasted by driving around getting aimlessly lost.
I had been reading Outdoors UAE magazine, which Kevin had in the villa, and had picked up the November issue, which had a focus on climbing. As a much enjoyed past-time back in the UK I had wanted to keep it up out here and so searched for the options. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem as though there is a huge amount of choice as far as indoor climbing goes, with most of the action occurring outside and in the winter, when it is warm as opposed to uncomfortably hot and humid. There are, however, a couple of places to get some indoor wall climbing fixes and I headed off to The Pyramids, opposite Wafi Mall and the Raffles Dubai hotel to check out what they had on offer. I booked an hour’s slot with one of their climbing instructors and found they had a couple of relatively high faces and some bouldering set in a corner of what is actually a health centre/ gym. Thankfully I was able to find some shoes that (just) fit me, although I did have to change into one that was a little too big for my right foot midway through climbing as I was actually in agony. Basically, my instructor, a lovely lady originally from India, acted as my belay partner whilst I top-roped a few of the routes that she suggested, starting off relatively easy and getting progressively tougher as the hour wore on. I felt quite pleased by how swiftly I got back into the groove and climbed pretty well, even if I do say so myself. The penultimate route did, however, prove a little tough and I had several false starts as I just failed to keep good traction on the wall, owing in large part to the small, fingery holds and features being something that I am not overly keen on, preferring the bigger, meatier holds and overhanging routes. Still, once I got into it I managed to do a pretty good job of navigating the route and descended hot, sweaty and tired but ultimately happy. I was able to wear my GoPro during the session as well, meaning that I got some fun footage of the routes being scaled and which I daresay I will never get around to editing – much like my snowboarding clips!
Wafi Mall itself was pretty much deserted, something I found odd considering it was the weekend, although it did mean that there was not much in the way of competition for seats at a cafe I found for a spot of dinner, a drink and some much needed web surfing and Facebook catch-up. A good first day to the weekend I would say.
As I had a car I was pretty keen to get out to Skydive Dubai in order to kick start my freefall account as a new resident. As I wasn’t sure when they would be sending loads up, and mindful of the fact that the weather can often change quickly ending jumping early, I set the alarm for 6am, promptly snoozing it for an hour, and decided to head out after confirming that they were in fact jumping. The journey proved to be a little bit of a challenge, especially as the skydive centre in the desert wasn’t actually on the sat nav, and with no obvious landmarks coming up I had to use some initiative and guesswork. The first attempt to head to Al Ain, the road to which the drop-zone is located, felt wrong, as I ended up on the motorway towards Abu Dhabi, which I was fairly certain was incorrect. In hindsight, based on the way I returned home, it may well have been ok but I wasn’t really prepared to take a chance, not this time anyway. A quick call to the DZ whilst driving back through the Marina proved less than helpful and so the next plan was to aim for a landmark that I recalled seeing en route when Chandy drove me out in November: the Meydan racecourse. This got me as far as the cycle track, which I will definately return to try out, especially given the fact it is free to use, and after getting some directions from a friendly cyclist, found myself on the road I knew I needed all along: the E66 (route 66), otherwise known as the Al Ain road, which I knew for a fact would take me directly to the DZ.
The drive out along Route 66 takes you past some of the major local landmarks including the Meydan Racecourse, the venue for the richest horserace in the world, the Sevens stadium, which was built as a venue for the Rugby Sevens tournament which is run each Winter and also is used as a venue for a number of other events, including music concerts. The road also drives past the camel racing track, which made for some double taking the first time I passed it. The sight of camels running along with people on their backs was not one I was really prepared for, in spite of being aware that camel racing was a big deal here in the UAE.
The Skydive Dubai desert drop zone looms out of nowhere and is in a state of constant change as construction continues on the wind tunnel and hotel which are being built and which will make the site one of the premier skydive resorts in the world. The DZ itself is lovely, with some fantastic landing areas, fringed on all sides by the desert, and first class facilities, including two huge packing areas and a cafe. As this was my first trip back since my day of helicopter jumping back in November I requested a re-orientation and was shown the important areas and talked through the landing patterns and DZ rules by Ivan, one of the instructors.
As we were walking outside a sight that I was certainly not expecting met me: there in front of me stood none other than the F1 Champion and all time motor racing great, Michael Schumacher! There was absolutely no mistaking the guy and it turned out that he was out with his family getting some jumps in and, by the looks of it, putting his son through the AFF course. In many respects it makes sense to see F1 drivers involved in skydiving – they are, essentially by virtue of the job they do, adrenaline junkies and so skydiving must be a perfect release for them. After all, what other activity is going to come even close to the sheer on the edge thrill that you must get from racing at the speeds they do?!
I saw Michael a few more times during the day, including finding myself standing right next to him and his two sons and daughter (I am assuming thats who they were) whilst I removed my chute following my second jump. In hindsight I should have just been bold and said hi, instead choosing to act as though he was just another regular skydiver, which I told myself he was. I guess the reason I didn’t say anything was that I wasn’t sure if he would have found any approach annoying, considering that he must get gushing fans hounding him all of the time and was likely just looking to spend some time out with his family without being bothered. I realised after leaving the DZ that, in actual fact, the worst that could have happened from being polite and saying hi was that he didn’t say anything back and ignored me. I could have lived with that. In hindsight I very much doubt that would been the response, as he seemed to be in very good spirits, and I am still kicking myself for not seizing such a great opportunity. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that I now have something in common with one of the greatest F1 champions ever, and that is really cool 🙂
My jumps were fun, as expected, and saw me complete two solo belly skydives, focusing on just getting back into the swing of freefall and canopy control, something that felt awesome to be back into. I ended the day having completed jump number 49 and feeling ready to get my B-licence nailed. Unfortunately, the Palm DZ is still on a D, or 500 jumps, limit whilst construction continues, but I am hoping that it will revert back to a B-licence DZ soon as it is most definately the Holy Grail of DZs to aim for. The ultimate aim is to be able to jump with either my little bro or dad whilst they do a tandem, which I reckon would just be such an awesome experience.
Skydives complete, it was back to Dubai and The Springs for a spot of afternoon chilling by the pool and getting some reading done. I am now convinced that it is so much easier to study having taken a refreshing dip in a pool and to sit and read whilst baking in the sunshine than it is sat at some dull desk someplace, and found the task of reading my CPD notes a pleasure. Go figure!
The evening’s entertainment choice was to head along to Safa Park, a fantastic expanse of well maintained and beautiful parkland in the centre of Dubai and overlooked by the beautiful downtown skyline, including the truly mesmerizing Burj Khalifa, which twinkled away like an icicle in the sun, to watch Majid deliver a talk. I had initially expected the talk to be given in a lecture theatre and for Majid to be the only speaker. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the venue for the event, known as Pecha Kucha, was The Archive, a charming little library-come-cafe near Gate 5 of the park – the opposite end, incidentally, to where I had parked and entered, not that it mattered as it mean’t I got to stroll through the park itself, which was lovely at night.The format for the event was that there were a number of speakers during the evening, all with twenty slides that stay on the outdoor screen for twenty seconds, meaning that the presentations were all pretty slick and short. The topics ranged from subjects as diverse as ‘Moving Art’ to Majid’s talk on ‘The Secret Lives of Vets,’ focusing heavily on the important work of vets in protecting us humans from the very real threat of zoonoses. The atmosphere was really chilled, with everyone sat outside either on standard chairs, which were arranged in an amphitheatre style set-up, or on one of the beanbags, cushions or carpet that were to found at the front. Food was available in the short interval, with the burger I got being too big to finish, and as already mentioned, the atmosphere was just really great, with a very impressive turnout and a pretty eclectic crowd.
Majid introduced me to some of his good friends, and I also had the pleasure of meeting his beautiful new wife, which was a real honour. One of his friends, Paul, was the person hosting the event and I offered to give a talk myself at the next event, something that I reckon would be a lot of fun and for which I already have an idea.
Overall, as far as weekends go I can say that my first official weekend in Dubai has been brilliant and I know that I have barely even begun to scratch the surface of what is on offer here. In fact I have already been identifying events and concerts that I fancy going along to, including some pretty tempting acts coming up at the venues on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, including the legends of rock, Metallica, who I definately have to see! One of the challenges, I reckon, of living here in Dubai is working out how I am going to fit in all of the fun whilst also having to work. Ah well, not a bad ‘dilemma’ to be faced with.
Talking of work, I’d best log off now as its an early start to head to the clinic for the first day of the working week tomorrow.