Sunday, March 15, 2009

St.Patrick's Day, Fort Hunting and Zoos

Hunting Forts in Qatar.
St Patrick's Day was celebrated early for us in Qatar particularly as the weekend is Friday-Saturday and the prospect of a late night and a 4.30 a.m rise to prepare for work doesn't often appeal to many of us!

The Cognition team gathered at the Kalifah apartments in many variations of "the wearing of the green" as Joy's outfit- which demonstrated a little known fact that St.Patrick had spent some time in meditation in a Northern Indian monastery before he went to Ireland to lead the Irish into the faith. My own costume revealed the other newly revealed discovery about St Patrick's travels before he returned to Ireland... he had passed through the Middle East - picking up the scarf from his pilgrimage to Mecca on the way.

The evening was a great fun with several people revealing that their ability at producing rhyming scatalogical limericks under pressure was well developed.

On Saturday the Mazda crew headed off to look for the 18th-19th century forts scattered across Qatar. The guide book told us that "some have been restored and some are excavation sites for archeologists but visitors may be disappointed by a lack of information once they reach the site." It wasn't far out although it did fail to mention that its own description of how to find the forts was somewhat sketchy and vague.

Anyway, full of optimism we set off to look for Al Wajbah Fort which had been the focus for a famous 1893 battle between the forces of the Al Thanis and the Turks. The fort is described as being found at the Emir's Palace and easily reached "if coming from Doha by turning off at the Roundabout before the palace, going over the speed bumps, turning right at the end of the gravel drive and into the fort." Unfortunately the guide-book hadn't taken into account the massive road restructuring around the area and a lack of signage to indicate which of the exit points we should take which meant that we failed dismally on finding fort number 1 on our list.

Undaunted, we headed NW 110km through the desert to look for the Al Zubara Fort. On our way we passed the camel racing track and came across a small private zoo & ostrich farm. The brochure we picked up there informed us that on Friday afternoons the park offered, for free: Reception, a tour of over 50 embalmed animals, a tour of the park and a chance to enjoy horse-riding, camel-riding, shooting and a chance to wear Qatari national costumes along with fun-fairs and competitions. We got took the offer of a tour of the embalmed animals and the park presented by the enthusiastic workers.

The embalmed animals would have benefitted from being displayed a little more sympathetically than being placed amid polysterene painted rocks on a bed of sand in small rooms off the main hall - we were shown stuffed gazelles, sting rays, sparrows, hawks, wild cats and lizards before being taken on a walk to see the Ostriches and the lone Oryx along with the other animals the owner had on display.

The Oryx, happily relaxing in the shade, was shaken out of its dream of wide open spaces by one of the guides tossing a stone into the shrubs which motivated the animal to begin its pacing between the shrubs and a small cage about 10 metres away until it sensed that we had had enough and been led away to view the Ostriches.

The ostriches, however, needed no stoning to display themselves to an audience. The female birds took the chance to snap and clack their beaks at us as they peered through and over the netting fence and an arrogant, red-flushed male stalked, pecking and blustering at the other males, from the back of the paddock towards the gathering of females. Here, he immediately demonstrated that these were his harem and that we should be impressed.

Once, in the manner of all good Mills & Boon stories, he had had his way with her he strode off to boast of his exploits to the other younger males which had stood off in the background while he had paraded to the human audience.

We were then taken to view the concrete cages of Arabian sheep, Qatari gazelles, desert goats and camels that made up the rest of the zoo. Always obliging, the park guides ensured we saw the animals in the open even if they were sheltering from the already fierce heat in the little shade their cages offered them.

At the final cage, before being shown the cages of the monkey and the baboon, the solitary wolf, the two hyena and odd dogs, we were handed an ostrich egg to hold. The guides told us that this weighed in at just over a kilogram and was due to hatch in the next few days.

We headed past the camels, donkeys and horses, taking the opportunity to capture a few more closeups of camel expressions for Joy to paint, and back to the cars to head further north and the Al Zubara fort.

Unlike the first Fort this was easy to find. It had been built in 1938 beside the ruins of an earlier fort. It had been used as a coastguard station and, until the 1980s, had been a military base. We were able to wander over the fort and, for the eternal boy in all of us, imagine we were with Beau Geste and the foriegn legion holding off the desert hordes for the glory of the colonising power.

Neville was immediately on the main tower and its flag pole to gaze over the desert to the grey waters of the gulf in the haze of distance. Needless to say he was immediately followed by the rest of us. All posing for our own classic boyhood dream photograph opportunity.

Our next target - the fort at Al Rakiyat - proved, again, that the guidebook and map needed a little more precision if they were to point tourists to the place. We failed to discover the camel farm that marked the turn off to a "few hundred metre off road drive" to the "restored fort". The guide book, in its normal vagueness, informed us that, given we had found the place, the fort had been built somewhere between the 17th and 19th centuries and been restored in 1988.

Despite enquiring from the locals we were left confused so headed off to the little seaside township of Madinat Al Shamai and the chance for lunch and a reassessment of our fort hunting.
We sat on the walls at the dhow harbour watching the local fishermen preparing for a evenings fishing and speculating on the vivid blue of the water as we assessed the chances of finding the fort at Umm Salal Mohammed and if the Al Koot Fort at the Souq Waqif would be open.

Umm Salal Mohammed is described as being notable and impressive for its thick high walls and facade situated near a Barzan Tower which was used as a watch tower and located in the township of Umm Salal Mohammed. The photos in guide book showed uswhat we should've been looking for which gave us even more confidence than would be otherwise merited.

We found the turn-off and headed into the township and the place pictured in the guide-book. Beside the town mosque were the ruins we were told was the fort. We applauded ourselves and piled out of the cars to jubilantly photograph the rather picturesque buildings. We were even photographed ourselvesby the locals who snapped away with their cell phones at the crazy Europeans climbing over the fallen blocks and rubble.

Satisfied that we had found two of the targeted forts we headed back to Doha to get a chance to explore the Al Koot fort at the souq. Al Koot was closed... according to the locals sheltering under a tree outside the only gate to the site, was always closed despite what the guidebook said.

At least, we thought, we had found and seen three of the six forts we'd set out to discover. However, a closer look at the map, over a meal at the souq, showed us that the guidebook was wrong - again. The Umm Salal Fort was not the Fort but a fortified house and the real Fort was in a different place in the township than that described.

So, back to the planning stages if we are to see the real fort sites in Qatar.

A ceramic sculpture - Woman - by a local Qatari potter.
Looks a lot like a woman in an abaya.

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