In search of the Ghost Village being consumed by the Arabian desert
The temperature is creeping up close to 40 degrees Celsius. It's so hot out here that the air wobbles and mirages of water dance on the road. It's not even 9am. I'm imagining how Antoine de Saint-Exupéry must have felt as he staggered waterless through the Libyan Sahara after his plane crashed, hallucinating all the time and almost losing his mind. We, on the other hand, are only 70 km from downtown Dubai, just a kilometre or so off the highway, and have a couple of litres of water in the car. But if we got lost out here in this heat we wouldn't last long.
We're in Al Madam in the heart of the beautiful rolling red dunes of the Sharjah desert between Dubai and Oman, home to an abandoned village that is slowly being consumed by the shifting sands. Built in the 1970s and consisting of just two rows of houses and a mosque, the village was inhabited for a short period of time before being abandoned, the reason for which is somewhat shrouded in mystery.
It took me a while to work out the exact location of the ghost village and when I did it was already early summer, not the ideal season for wandering around in the desert, but giving a good idea of the harsh living conditions that the residents must have faced. Leaving the car on the last bit of fairly solid ground to ensure that we didn't get stuck out here longer than intended, we strode out into the golden sands, following leaf-shaped camel footprints and the trails left behind by other scurrying beasties and a lone off-roader.
The village sees a few visitors, mostly urbex fans and photographers, but we're the only ones who have come out today in this heat. You can wander at will, and since none of the buildings have doors or windows anymore, it's fairly easy to get inside for a closer look. A couple of the houses still have furniture, including what must have been a comfy velvet bed in one, now slowly collapsing from the elements. The sand has quietly invaded all of the buildings, creating drifts of various heights, some almost as high as the ceiling. There's a patch of blue carpet in one, a wall-mounted fuse box being consumed by a dune in another. Bathrooms still have pipes on the walls, and the last remaining curtains have been stolen by the winds, now wrapping themselves seductively around a bony tree.
The villagers must have had a love of strong colours, perhaps in contrast to the palette of the surrounding landscape, with vivid green and blue paint adorning the walls. A glassless window perfectly frames the mosque. Trees dot the landscape, remnants of the original gardens that were planted here and that are bravely hanging on. Gate posts stand to attention, with bent pieces of metal hanging where the original doors would have been. I poke my head into one house, practically impossible to squeeze into as the dunes are so high. There are footprints inside. A cat? A desert fox? Something else? I don't wait to find out. There's a spooky feeling here. I think I can hear music. I hear someone sneeze. But there's no one here. The desert plays tricks on you.
One house has spray cans on the floor and some very unimaginative graffiti on the wall. The wallpaper of a verdant European garden scene has now been defaced with "Plata Plomo". I'm sure even Pablo wouldn't have approved of this lazy tagging.
Mystery surrounds why the village was abandoned. Some say there was a fearsome djinn that scared the villagers away, but the more likely reason is that it just wasn't suitably located. Fierce winds and sandstorms barrel through this area, the ever encroaching sands being practically impossible to stop, and no one wants to spend their days constantly sweeping to try and keep the desert at bay. The powdery sand is incredibly fine, and even a light breeze sends it swirling in twisters up into the air and through the open windows. It gets everywhere, in your shoes, in your pockets, in your eyes. Two days after my visit I was still finding grains in my hair and ears.
Nature is slowly reclaiming her territory here, showing humans how little power they have against her strength. And as slow as this encroachment of the sands may be, one day the desert will reclaim this land completely, and all traces of the abandoned village will disappear under the dunes. Go now if you're brave enough, and catch a glimpse before the shifting sands hide it forever.
How to go there:
Take the E44 eastwards out of Dubai as far as Al Madam. At the roundabout, turn right onto the Umm Al Quwain - Al Shuwaib Road and drive for a kilometre or so until you see a turning on the right to the Al Madam Industrial Area. Continue until the end of the paved road and either leave your car here, or carry on (if you know how to drive on very soft sand) past the lone tree. You should be able to see the small village ahead of you.