David Whitley steps out into the moonlight on a remote Omani beach in order to watch turtles giving birth.


When it comes to childbirth, humans have it relatively easy. Well, they do when compared with mummy turtle anyway. There’s no-one to drive her to the hospital, no bed to lie on and no-one to pump her full of epidurals. She has to do the whole job on her own, and she’s giving birth to 100 or more littl’uns rather than just the solitary baby.


Under the light of the moon on the beach at Ras Al-Jinz, we sneak up on one such mother. She is lying in a pit that she has created in the sand, having dug the hole by relentlessly flapping away with her front flippers. After creating a sufficient indent in the beach, she then put her back flippers into action, tunnelling down to create a smaller, bigger hole. This done to her satisfaction, she sidled into position and started on the sloppy bit.


As we join her, around forty ping pong ball-like eggs are sat in the deeper hole. She’s popping them out like she’s auditioning for a job in a seedy Thai bar. It’s one of nature’s most incredible sights, and we’re privileged to be able to observe.


45km of coastline around Ras Al-Jinz is protected. On the far east of the Arabian Peninsula, and a good four hours away from the Omani capital, Muscat, it is regarded as worth the drive for most visitors. In truth, there are too many people allowed on the beach. It can become a bit circus-like as twenty or so tourists crowd around each tour guide, angling for a better view. It’s the wrong place for very young children – silence is required for the benefit of the turtles and you’re essentially standing around in the dark – but some idiots see fit to bring a baby or two along anyway.


But, crowd or not, the turtle-watching night tour is extraordinary – especially when you start to learn about the turtle’s journey. Apparently, every female turtle gives birth to her own young on the very beach that she was born. This can’t actually be true in every case, as there’d be only one beach in the world where turtles were born, but scientists accept that it’s broadly true even if they can’t quite explain why. Over a period of a couple of months, the turtle will give birth every few weeks, before disappearing and going on something of an Indian Ocean tour. In the two or three years out of the birthing cycle, the tagged turtles will be tracked off the coasts of India, Madagascar, Somalia and even Australia.


It’s not just one turtle on this beach we’ve come to see, however. We branch off from Mummy Turtle One to see Mummy Turtle Two painstakingly trudge her way down the sands, lifting her weight with her flippers for each exhausted step. She finally makes it to the water’s edge, and a wave comes in to lift her back out into the ocean. She has completed the process that Mummy Turtle One is soon to go through. Once all the eggs are out, she will shuffle forwards and start filling in the hole with her back flippers. That done, she will try to disguise the exact location by heading up the beach, violently throwing sand behind her with her front flippers. It leaves a smooth indented groove in the sand, and hopefully her eggs are free from predators such as foxes.


But it’s not just foxes that the turtles have to worry about. In the sea, sharks try and take them, and on the land there are damaging human influences. Poachers are the most obvious, but artificial light from car headlamps and streetlights is arguably more dangerous. Four or five days after the eggs are dropped into the nest, the baby turtles make an incredible breakaway up through the sand. The instinct is to follow the natural horizon light to the sea, but in practice, they head to wherever is brightest. The Visitor Centre as Ras Al-Jinz is deliberately kept back (a fifteen minute walk) so that the turtles don’t go the wrong way. And while mum huffed and puffed off a few days ago, the babies opt for a heart-breakingly cute scamper.


Suddenly, we’re warned to stand back and not move. It soon becomes clear why. Four of the tiny turtles have broken out of their next and are toddling towards the ocean like spiders flitting up a wall. The hushed “awwwwwwwwws” fill the night air, as the kids plunge into footprints and up the other side again like they’re giant sand dunes. Eventually, their madcap sprint sees them, like mum a few days before, at the water’s edge. The ocean laps, the turtles have their escort to another world, and they wash away to a whole new set of battles. Good luck little guys


by David Whitley





David Whitley discovers a Dubai beyond all the offshore island and big tower stereotypes...

It’s difficult to get any less bling than walking out of your hotel, turning the corner and stumbling across fifteen men slaughtering a cow. The stricken beast lies on the floor, its throat cut, as the customers chugging away on their hookah pipes in the local café look on nonchalantly. Deira, it’s fair to say, is the part of Dubai that doesn’t make the tourist brochures. The wealthy Emirate has carefully crafted a reputation for ostentatious opulence. But, contrary to popular belief, there is more to it than seven star hotels, mega-skyscrapers and giant shopping malls. Dubai is often portrayed as lacking history, soul and character, but beyond the towering skyline of Sheikh Zayed Road and the Jumeirah beach resorts, such attributes are there to be found.

Deira is very much Old Dubai. On the eastern side of Dubai Creek, it is firmly detached from where the big money is on display. The streets are full of mobile phone shops, Indian-run grocery stores, cheap Lebanese eateries and grubby internet cafés full of underpaid ‘guest workers’ phoning home. The souks – even the Gold Souk and its world-leading array of jewellery shops – have a proper ramshackle feel here. The roads are chaotic, with people ambling along the middle in groups or making death-defying chicken runs across the major carriageways. Crowds gather willy-nilly to watch police cars and there’s hardly an Emirati or Westerner in sight.

This is where Dubai’s many immigrants and imported labourers live and spend their money whilst not slaving away on construction sites. To stroll around gives a fascinating insight into the other side of Dubai – just mind the cow blood. If Deira is bustling, then Dubai Creek is positively chaotic. The city grew up as a trading hub – surprisingly little of Dubai’s modern-day prosperity is due to oil revenue - and it was this waterway where the merchant ships came in. This is not the case today – huge port facilities have been built to take the big ships – but you wouldn’t know it at first glance.

The Dhow Wharfage, on the Deira side of the Creek near the Souks, is where the defiantly old-school shipping happens. Lined up the water’s edge is box after box of goodies, be they spices or production-line vacuum cleaners. All are waiting to be loaded onto the dhows, then taken elsewhere in the Gulf. Quite how they’ll get there is another matter – these big wooden boats look one extra dose of rot away from an ignominious end on the seabed.

Weaving around the dhows, crunching into the jetties and shunting each other unceremoniously are the abras. There are seemingly hundreds of these miniature ferries darting across the Creek at any one time, and how there’s not a serious accident every ten minutes is difficult to fathom. Each one departs when it has enough passengers, taking a dodgem approach until it gets to open water. The driver collects the one dirham (approx AU$0.30) fare then smashes into the wharf on the other side a few minutes later. Passengers have to leap off while the abra is vaguely close to the decking, hoping it’s not going to bounce away again before they get the chance. You don’t get that sort of thrill ride in a taxi, that’s for sure.

On the other side of the Creek is Bur Dubai, the other traditional area of the city. It’s a little more spruced up and touristy than Deira, but it still has an air of authenticity. The market stalls pushing perfumes or Hindu beads are refreshingly non-blingy, while little laneways trapped between the temple and the mosque can turn into a massive human scrum as the worshippers pour out.

It’s also the area in which to get a sense of Dubai’s history – it didn’t quite spring from nowhere in the 1970s, although growth under the Makhtoum dynasty in the last 40 years has been astonishing. Next to the Grand Mosque is the Al-Fahaidi Fort, which is thought to be the oldest building in Dubai and dates to around 1800. Constructed out of gypsum and coral rock, it has that traditional sand-blown desert battlement look, with the lookout towers lurching up in competition with the city’s minarets.

Inside the fort is the Dubai Museum, an impressive 3D romp through the emirate’s past. Amongst all the Bedouin weaponry and videos of traditional dancing, visitors learn that archaeological digs have shown that the area has hosted fairly advanced civilisation for 5,000 years. Indeed, an Italian explorer dropped by in 1580 to find a prosperous pearling community. Dubai does have a history – it’s just that many of the people visiting simply aren’t looking for it.





By David Whitley


Dubai food tours


Arva Ahmed is changing her city. The 29-year-old came home from the US in 2010 “to reclaim my seat at the dinner table”, as she’s put it. Her quirkily titled food blog “I Live In A Frying Pan” has won a reputation across Dubai for sharp, insightful writing and encyclopedic knowledge.

Ahmed is one of the co-founders of Fooderati Arabia, an affiliation of 125 Dubai food writers who collaborate to investigate the city’s dazzling variety of cuisines.

Now she is launching Frying Pan Food Adventures, Dubai’s first-ever food tours, centred on the old districts by the Creek. “These are the pockets of town that depict a different, unglamorous, yet charming and historic side to Dubai,” she says.

These are the neighbourhoods where Dubai’s 19th-century trading links were established – and where vast numbers of new arrivals from South Asia, Africa and East Asia have settled, following the 1970s oil boom that spurred Dubai’s growth.

Each tour visits about 5 or 6 restaurants in a single area, walking a few minutes between each one. And they’re all in the evening: daytime is out because of the heat – and because everyone’s at work. It’s only after dark that Dubai’s street life gets going.

Dip into her African tour, which explores untouristed Hor Al-Anz to contrast Maghrebi cuisine from Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt with African dishes from Ethiopia and beyond.

The Indian tour focuses on Meena Bazaar, a web of streets in Bur Dubai that forms one of the city’s oldest commercial neighbourhoods. Ahmed led us from Gujarati nibbles to Punjabi delicacies to give a mouthwateringly vivid picture of the city’s North Indian culinary heritage, ending at a backstreet cafeteria for the deliciously sweet yoghurt dessert shrikhand, laced with cardamom.

I also loved the Arabian tour, which started with exquisite falafel at a garishly lit takeaway in Rigga, moving on to a Lebanese bakery for savoury manaqish pastries, then the Jordanian feast dish of lamb and yogurty rice known as mansaf, Yemeni roast chicken mandi, the Palestinian sweet treat kunafeh, and more.

Highlight of the night was an Iranian restaurant hidden on the upper level of a nondescript retail mall – otherwise impossible to find. Squatting cross-legged, we dipped hot bread into minty aubergine dip, before tucking into aromatic lamb kebabs.

And she knows her onions. Throughout each tour, Ahmed sparks with ideas, switching from a discussion of Dubai’s cultural mix to theories on the origin of the croissant, to stories of the 6th-century Persian king Khosrau, famed for combining meat with fruit.

There’s an intriguing hint of subversion to all this that undercuts Dubai’s carefully moulded tourist persona. Forget seven-star hotels and brand-conscious bling: Ahmed is shaping an image of Dubai that values cultural authenticity and one-to-one local encounters.

Like I said, she’s changing her city.

(At the time of writing prices had not been fixed for each tour, and may vary depending on date and group size – email ahead to check the details.)


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