The world’s only inland sea surrounded by sand dunes is an unmissable Qatar attraction, says Lisa Kjellsson
Imagine driving through the desert, up and down sun-scorched dunes with nothing but sand and sky in sight, and then spotting the glittering sea. It may sound like a mirage but there is one place on the planet where an inland sea is surrounded by desert – a globally unique natural wonder. Located in southeast Qatar near the border with Saudi Arabia, the body of water is known locally as Khor Al Adaid.
A Unesco world heritage site due to its rarity and thriving wildlife, turtles, ospreys, cormorants, flamingos and desert foxes call this seemingly uninhabitable landscape home. Even the Arabian antelope, a rare breed typically sighted in Oman and Saudi Arabia, roams wild. Previously the oryx – the national animal of Qatar – was extinct in the country, but an international breeding programme coined ‘Operation Oryx’ successfully reintroduced the horned species.
Curious to explore this lesser-known slice of the Middle East, I take a red-eye to Doha, at a glance an eclectic city with its juxtaposing mix of skyscrapers and Islamic architecture. Had I had more time I would have visited the Museum of Islamic Art and Souq Waqif with its myriad stalls selling everything from gold to spices and perfumes, but I jump straight in a 4×4 in pursuit of adventure. A trip some years ago to nearby Oman where I camped in the depths of the Empty Quarter made a lasting impression, so when I heard about a new desert lodge – the first of its kind in Qatar – it piqued my interest.
In Oman it took a full day’s drive through shifting landscapes to reach the towering sand dunes, but in tiny Qatar we seem to have barely left Doha when we swerve off road into pebbly terrain, passing a huge oil and gas refinery spewing black smoke into the sky. Arriving at the resort doesn’t feel as if we’ve left civilisation behind, even if we are amid sand dunes – especially when I spot surrounding CCTV cameras. Nevertheless, the safari chic air-conditioned accommodation makes The Outpost Al Barari feel like an oasis of sorts. The restaurant serves Middle Eastern dishes with Indian and Mediterranean influences, and in the lounge smooth piano music and an aroma of Cuban cigars lends it the ambience of a gentleman’s club. Qatari men dressed in the traditional footlong white thobe and corded headdress sweep past with their elegant wives draped in fine fabrics shielding them from the sun.
In the evening, the temperature drops and there’s a mild breeze as I relax with a mocktail on the patio, enveloped in the desert darkness and the sound of crickets. I gaze at the stars and the pool that glows turquoise in the otherwise black night, before making my way back to my accommodation, with its own little courtyard and pool, where I sleep in a four-poster bed with a historic map of the region reproduced on the bed headboard. The inland sea is only a short drive away, so I set off early in the morning before it gets too hot to explore it with Peter Van De Bunt, the resort’s proprietor.
The climate in the desert is hugely varied between seasons, ranging from 10 degrees in winter to a sizzling 50 degrees in July and August when the inland sea “turns into a bouillabaisse,” as Peter puts it. November and March are the sweet spots to go. On the way he points out shallow lagoons, the first sign that this is no ordinary desert, that form when seawater surfaces from underground. It later evaporates, leaving behind mineral-rich salt flats, called sabkha.
Nothing compares to the surreal sight of the desert spilling into the inland sea spreading before us. It may look tiny on the map, but looking at the water from the top of a dune, it seems to stretch on forever
The Khor Al Adaid sabkha attracts geologists from all over the world. This extreme environment is one of the few places on Earth where it is possible to study the formation of dolomite, a largely unsolved mystery. “Spending time out here in Qatar’s desert wilderness is experiencing nature in its purest form,” says Peter. “It’s a wonderful way to disconnect from the noise of everyday life.”
Nothing compares to the surreal sight of the desert spilling into the inland sea suddenly spreading before us. It may look tiny on the map, but looking at it from the top of a dune, the water seems to stretch on forever. A rusty lookout tower stands on a windswept beach that stretches 15 kilometres to the Saudi Arabian border. (You can technically lay on these and swim in the sea but I didn’t see anyone as it is a deserted, remote environment with any amenities.)
If we were to climb it we might spot humpback dolphins in the waves, but a couple of hundred years ago we’d quite possibly have caught sight of something more alarming – pirates. It’s not hard to imagine how this secluded corner of the Arabian Gulf became a hideaway for seafaring crooks in the 19th century. Piracy was rife and only came to an end when Britain signed a maritime treaty with the coastal sheikhdoms in 1820 to allow safe passage for East India Company ships.
Later, in 1916, Qatar became a British protectorate – an era that lasted until 1971. The transformation the country has undergone in recent years, not least in terms of opening up to international tourism, is quite remarkable and shows no signs of slowing down. As a result, the futuristic skyline of Doha bears no resemblance to the backwater emirate of only a few decades ago. But parts of the country still feel relatively untouched and I hope the inland sea remains a haven for wildlife and visitors.
One thing threatening the peace is dune bashing, the prolific motor sport, which blighted my stay at The Outpost. While the lodge itself doesn’t offer it as an activity, members of the public have been treating the desert like their own personal playground, disrupting the stillness. It was a shock to be woken up at 2am by flashing lights and the noise of revving engines, loud music and horn honking. When I visited at the start of the year, Peter admitted it was a problem and told me he would like to see the dunes better protected.
Since then, he has successfully lobbied the authorities and secured protected status for a two-kilometre radius surrounding the resort, where dune bashing will no longer be allowed. A win-win for guests and wildlife. “It’s important to recognise that this is the natural habitat of countless species and we have an obligation to safeguard them,” he says.
What became clear during my visit is that Qatar is still finding its feet as a year-round tourism destination, and not everything went according to plan. A scheduled visit to an oryx sanctuary was inexplicably cancelled at the last minute, so I never got to see the beautiful creatures brought back from the brink of extinction. Then again, it’s always good to have an excuse to return.
Visit Qatar yourself
Rooms at The Outpost Al Barari (theoutpostalbarari.com) are available from £160 per night. To plan your trip, see visitqatar.com