By Alan Goldbetter
This is the second half of a two-part story from adventure-climber and Misty Mountain Ambassador, Alan Goldbetter.
The shouting woke us around midnight. There was no mistaking it. These screams were definitely directed at us, and there was no avoiding it. The three of us, half frightened and half asleep, looked bewilderingly at each other in the dim glow of the Land Rover’s headlights, wondering what to do. Finally, with the shouts persisting, I told my friend he would have to go speak to the men. After all, he was the only one who spoke Arabic; what were we going to say?
As he slowly staggered toward the two white-robed men, my wife and I watched with rapt attention through the mosquito netting of the tent. What had we been thinking? Three foreigners camping in the middle of the Bahrani desert, without any idea of whose land it was or if camping was allowed. We had tried to find out the rules regarding camping, but all anyone would say was that there just weren’t any rules in the desert.
Finally, my friend opened his mouth and in heavily accented Arabic responded to the shouting men. Almost immediately the men, recognizing his accent, switched to English. “Are you okay?” one of them asked. “Do you need anything?” the other queried. My shoulders slowly began to relax as I glanced around quizzically. My friend responded, “No. No. We’re just out here camping.” Camping in a small tent, in the middle of the desert, is not a common activity in Bahrain. The men did not seem to understand. “Yes, but do you need some water? Would you like some tea?” they replied. Finally, with tensions completely evaporated, my friend explained to the men just what we were doing out there. As soon as they understood that we had been sleeping, they apologized profusely, got back in their vehicle, and left as to not disturb us anymore. While the times have certainly changed, water is still regarded as a precious commodity in the desert. To offer it to a complete stranger, a foreigner in your land, is no small gesture. It was with these thoughts in my mind that I closed my eyes and slowly drifted off to sleep again.
Bahrain is a tiny country. An island nation less than 300 square miles in size, it is sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in the center of the Persian Gulf. Much like its neighbors, almost all of the country’s relatively great wealth comes from oil. With only one major city, and a few smaller surrounding towns, the vast majority of the land is flat, open desert that flows right into the sea. In addition, it is also almost entirely covered in oil infrastructure, giving the desert an industrial, melancholic feel.
With only six days in the country, we had little time to waste. Our first two days were spent learning about and visiting many of Bahrain’s most historical sites. Around seemingly every corner we were met with prehistoric ruins and the kindest strangers. One man offered all three of us rides on his Arabian endurance-racing horse, after which he eloquently said his goodbyes and galloped away into the sunset. A bored security guard took us on a behind the scenes tour of an ancient mosque and on top of a 100-foot (30m) tall minaret normally closed to the public. In the evenings we dined on spiced lamb, fresh hummus, and local dates. One morning we were even given a bag of fresh camel milk after finishing our tour of the Royal Camel Farm.
We had covered a lot of ground, but still no climbing. Thankfully, the time had come. The third day began with a visit to the U.S. military base with hopes of ascending the “tallest climbing structure” in the country. The climbing wall, positioned inside its own fishbowl-like showroom, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, offered little privacy and less airflow. Feeling like a circus animal on display, I smeared and edged my way up the polished holds to the top, a whopping 24 feet (8 meters) above the padded floor. Clad in the required lilac-colored helmet, I was lowered back down where I prepared to attempt another of the five top-rope lines.
After only a few routes I was hot, sweaty, and content. I had climbed all that was necessary to check that box. Now, the unknown outdoor climbing potential beckoned me. Loaded with a rope, rack, and camping equipment, we hit the road heading south, desert-bound.
An hour later we arrived at Jabal ad Dukhan, the first and most promising of the potential climbing sites I had located using Google Earth. In addition, being the tallest natural point in the country, it made for an obvious choice. Unfortunately, what sat before us was far from inspiring. A hill consisting of alternating bands of loose rock and dried mud was topped by a large spherical object, which I imagined to be part of some post-apocalyptic Epcot Center. Located close by, our second sight proved even worse, containing only a few short boulders perched on top of a steep hillside. Did climbing really not exist in Bahrain?
Continuing farther south, I spotted our third location out of the window long before we reached it. Locally known as Dinosaur Rocks, I could make out the collection of blocks atop a low hill. Still, with no point of reference, I had no idea how tall they were. Parking beside an oil well we began walking over the smooth, water-sculpted rock to the boulders. Upon reaching them, I was pleasantly rewarded with some cool lines. Ranging from 10 to 20 feet (3-6m) in height, a crashpad would have been far more useful than the trad rack I had, but I convinced myself that the landing zones were flat enough and began to boulder anyways. When I was feeling sufficiently warmed up, I made my way under the large roof on the right-most boulder. The hardest obvious line at the boulders, I scanned the roof above me and, to my great surprisingly, spotted a line of chalked up holds reaching all the way to the roof’s lip!
As the day wound down and the sun sunk ever lower in the horizon, we pulled off the road around dusk and set up a camp for the night. Perched on top of a small overlook, sipping a cold drink, and listening to the food sizzle on our portable grill, I tried to imagine who had left the chalk on the boulder. Was it a lone visiting climber, just trying to get their fix? Or maybe some member of a small, local climbing community who trains there between pilgrimages to international destination areas?
Maybe unsurprisingly, I concluded that Bahrain was not, in fact, home to a secret collection of world-class crags. Still, I had gotten to spend the week in the best of company doing one of my favorite things, hunting for rocks in a unique and interesting environment. If only I had known then how soon I would be interacting with the unique and interesting locals, I would have stayed up and been sure to have tea ready for their arrival.