A Magnificent Place With A Traumatic History

In the Malaysian part of Borneo there is a state called Sabah, known as the land beneath the wind. Within Sabah there is a district called Ranau, and within the district of Ranau lies a small, quiet village called Bongkud.

Set in the foothills of Mt. Kinabalu, Bongkud is a scenic village with a small population, still majorly reliant on agriculture and labour to sustain themselves. In recent years they have had the support of volunteers on expeditions with Camps International, a company I feel extremely proud and grateful to lead for, who have installed vital infrastructure and educational aid to improve the quality of life for locals, and given employment to many too. I have been to Bongkud on two of my three trips to Borneo with ‘Camps’ so far.

On the outskirts of the village, about a 500m walk from the Camp Bongkud facility, lies a hill known simply to locals as Bongkud Hill, or Bukit Bongkud in Malaysian. Standing at about 620m ASL, making it a mountain by UK technicalities, it is an imposing feature visible from anywhere in the village. It is coated in a sea of green ferns and rubber trees from bottom to top.

From below, Bongkud Hill looks stunning. However, an expedition wouldn’t be an expedition without going on adventures, so it is a Camps tradition that groups staying in Bongkud summit the hill at dawn at least once during their stay. As a Leader I’ve been fortunate enough to hike up there five or six times now – in 2016 I joined other groups each morning whilst my team remained asleep so I could recce it and get some exercise each morning before our own team ascent, and in 2018 I got up there with another team I was leading. I acquired a bit of a reputation for pushing my groups to do it early – leaving camp at 5am meant a much higher chance of catching the 6am sunrise from the top than the usual 5.30-6am schedule but this paid dividends when the teams witnessed why we’d done so.

The views are glorious from the moment you step outside the village centre. Within 20m of ascent, the misty morning valleys come into view to the right hand side. After a few hundred metres the path steepens to a sharp left turn up an even steeper earthen and muddy set of cut steps that eventually lead you to the top.

 

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A (clean-shaven!) author with Bongkud resident and local guide Euan about halfway up Bongkud Hill in 2016 (taken by team member).

As you near the top you step onto a wide, shallow-gradient ridgeline that eventually leads to a viewing area. In 2016 this was a dead end – a small wooden shelter marking the summit – but now it’s been cut back, providing ample space for groups to enjoy the view or even for vehicles to access it via a new gravel road on the other side.

Following the typical ascent route Mt. Kinabalu is visible to the left, its jagged rocky shape often encased in cloud or mist, and to the right is an endless expanse of jungle valleys and rises with morning mist rolling through them.

 

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Malaysian volunteer staff, Kendall, taking in the view from near the top in 2016 (Rich Holt).

 

 

 

Once at the top, groups often take half an hour to celebrate, catch their breath and photograph views like this:

 

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View from summit of Bongkud Hill, 2018 (Rich Holt).

 

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View from summit of Bongkud Hill, 2018 (Rich Holt).

 

 

 

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Descending into the mist via the new track on Bongkud Hill, 2018 (Rich Holt).

 

 

 

But hidden within this magnificent scene lies a dark and little-known history of suffering that all Camps Leaders and Camp Borneo staff try to educate their teams about. It is something not taught in school history lessons. The rest of the world, unless they have visited Borneo or stumbled upon it for themselves, remains completely unaware despite it being branded the single worst atrocity to happen to Australian forces in history.

In 1945, during the Japanese occupation of Borneo during the Second World War, 2345 Australian and British POWs were marched from their POW Camp in the city of Sandakan, on Borneo’s east coast, inland to Ranau 250km away. The series of three major marches became known as the Sandakan Death Marches and were conducted when the Japanese believed allied forces were closing in on Sandakan.

These marches were an event of extreme suffering. Prisoners were tortured or murdered for the sheer sake of it. They were barely fed or provided any water. Those who fell too weak, or refused to continue, were shot or bayoneted on the spot. By the end only six men survived to tell the tale, having made their escape and reported on the atrocities. It was too late and logistically impractical for allied forces to conduct a rescue of anybody still out there.

The Sandakan death marches passed through the village of Bongkud en route to Ranau, and local elders still remember them happening. Any local who attempted to help the POWs, even by the simplest act of providing food or water, was met with the same fate as the POWs.

The Australian survivors spoke very differently of the scenery around Bongkud than I have in this article. They said that the sight of Mt. Kinabalu reminded them they were in an inescapable hell and, with every misty morning, they would question whether it would be their last day alive.

Today Bongkud could not be any more peaceful. It is a calm, friendly place where the sight of expedition teams puts a beaming smile on the face of every local. Local children and teens play football on the village pitch, or volleyball on any of the many courts. There is a thriving market once a week in the village centre and fresh fruit grows in abundance in every garden. But it is vitally important to remember how fortunate we are and to remain grateful that we live in a different time where we can enjoy the place for its peace and joy rather than the suffering that so many once would have associated it with.

 

For more photos of Bongkud Hill and its surrounding scenery check out my Instagram, or for more content like this article hit the FOLLOW button in the sidebar. Thank you for reading.

Rich

 

 

Mistakes In The Outdoors Can Be Our Most Valuable Learning Experiences

DISCLAIMER: Some of the hyperlinks in this article discuss various climbing and abseiling/rappelling techniques. They are linked so non-climbing readers can follow the context of the story without drowning in technical jargon. Readers must be aware that climbing and mountaineering are sports with a danger of personal injury or death. Do not attempt these techniques without appropriate coaching or training. Participants in these sports must be aware of, and accept, these risks and remain responsible for their own actions. Disclaimer paraphrased from the recognised BMC Statement.

Mistakes. We all make them. Nobody is immune and, if you think you are, you clearly need to address some narcissism issues.

Now I’ll precurse this article by saying I don’t think mistakes are good. By their very definition they are acts or judgements that are wrong. But they are valuable. They’re valuable if you take the time to reflect back on them, see where you went wrong (sometimes our natural embedded self worth, or unconscious or conscious incompetence, means we need somebody else to tell us that bit), and learn from them so we don’t make the same mistake in the future.

Nowhere could this be more relevant than in the outdoors. I’ve had (and continue to have) the privilege of learning from some of the UK’s, perhaps even the world’s, most-experienced adventurers and all of them reflect back on poor judgements they’ve made in the past as valuable learning experiences that got them where they are today. Often we have to get out there and cock something up or run into conflict to see what we could do better in the future. Because we’re in the outdoors making those mistakes can sometimes mean dicing death or injury. We have a little more to lose than just making a bad sale or cooking a tasteless meal for a fancy dinner party.

A sequence of errors on a climbing trip…

One mistake I remember as a valuable learning experience happened several years ago when two friends and I decided to go climbing in the UK. Because they’re now established and respected professionals in this fairly small and close-knit industry I’m going to call them ‘Jack and Jill’ so as not to undermine them.

Jack and Jill were committed members of the climbing community. Jack had climbed for about eight years already and was leading Trad E-Grades, Jill about two years and leading at HVS. I was the least-experienced climber having only started a year or so earlier and not quite caught the bug yet. I could lead a grippy Severe on a good day or a VDiff/HVDiff most of the time. At the time I really only climbed the minimum amount to pass the relevant modules on my Outdoor Education BSc. I’ve since done considerably more climbing both personally and professionally but trekking, SCUBA diving, paddlesports, bushcraft and the many facets of geography/geology/ecology remain my ‘preferred’ disciplines.

So, in an effort to drag me out and teach me about how great climbing could be, Jack and Jill declared we’d go for a day on Idwal Slabs.

“Rich, I think the main reason you don’t see its appeal is because single-pitch climbing doesn’t give you the same sense of adventure that summiting a mountain or diving a shipwreck do, so we’re gonna introduce you to multi-pitch climbing. It’ll feel more like proper mountaineering”, was the jist of what they said to me.

It was a chilly February but a fairly bland winter for the mountaineering community. There was no decent snow or ice so we’d be doing ‘summer’ rock climbing. We decided to do a route graded at VDiff. Due to the big holds and grippiness of the rock we chose to ascend in solid winter-mountaineering boots rather than tight climbing shoes. This was within all of our climbing competence.

We set off from Liverpool just before 9am and made a short stop on the way. We got to the Ogwen Valley and hiked up to the base of the slabs by about 11:30am.

Now, any climbers reading this may already see the red flags. It was nearly lunch in a month where the daylight hours are shorter, and we were about to multi-pitch. Due to my relative inexperience (we’d trained to multi-pitch in uni but I hadn’t done it ‘in anger’) we’d decided not to simul-climb. Instead Jack and Jill would take it in turns to lead pitches, bringing me up between them. This adds a little time to the process but we estimated we’d still be fairly fast because they were both exceptionally quick and I was pretty confident at that climbing grade too.

Jack set off first and we made fairly good progress initially. We got a few pitches done just as efficiently as planned. But then my climbing endurance started to waiver and we got considerably slower. Every time Jack or Jill had to belay me their hands started to stiffen up, meaning their progress became slower too.

We decided to anchor up and have a quick lunch at about 2pm. That was when we realised, if we continued at this speed on the current plan, we’d be descending in the dark. Not the end of the world; we’d all done plenty of night navigation and it was somewhat of a specialisation of mine after doing it regularly for the preceding few months whilst attempting to join a fairly tough military reserve unit. A quicker option was preferable though.

We changed our plan. Originally we were going to ascend the full route then descend down the mountain on foot but Jack mentioned there was an abseil ‘escape’ we could take about 3/4 the way up.

“There’s usually a line up there to drop off on”, he said.

So we pushed on. It was hitting dusk as we topped-out on the grassy ledge leading to the abseil a bit further around the mountain. The wind was starting to pick up and we were getting chilly.

At this stage I felt pretty done-in. I wanted nothing more than to be down off the hillside, walking back to the car ready for a hot meal and celebratory energy drink. Despite usually brandishing a stoic mindset, I found myself vocalising how I felt.

We made our way around the ledge to the abseil point. It was dark now and we’d got our headlights out. To our annoyance we found the lines we’d been expecting weren’t there. Looking over the precipice was vast blackness. We couldn’t see the bottom.

“Right, we’ll have to ab off and see if we’ve got enough rope. We’ll be cutting it quite fine I think. If not, prusik back up and we’ll look at our options” Jack declared.

We decided I’d go first. Jack set the system up and I knotted the end of the rope so I couldn’t accidentally plummet to my death if the rope was too short, then tied my prusik. I didn’t particularly want to have to ascend back up; not only was I feeling pretty done but prusiking up a rope can be bloody hard work!

I started to lower myself over the edge, the black void wide open beneath me. I shifted my prusik farther down the rope and fed it through my bug. I gained some confidence and descended pretty quickly. To my joy, the ground appeared beneath me and I felt my feet settle on terra firma.

“SAFE!“, I shouted as I removed myself from the rope.

Jack and Jill followed me down and we retrieved the rope. It was time for the fairly simple task of hiking to the footpath that would lead us out of here.

We got one of our maps out and consulted it. We decided our route and set off. About fifteen minutes into the walk the terrain around us no longer matched what it should have done on the map. Despite all being fairly competent at Night Nav, a combination of fatigue, urgency to get off the mountain and complacency meant we’d gone wrong.

We got together for a chat.

“Well, we’re not trying to navigate to any precise spot. We know we’re heading in the right direction to hit the tourist track, there’s no more particularly dangerous terrain other than a few short rocky steps we might have to lower down, and it’s already dark so time isn’t of particular concern as long as we grizz it out for a bit longer”, one of us said, I can’t recall who.

It was a fair argument. We estimated we were probably 50-60m from where we wanted to be. It was too dark to accurately relocate quickly so we decided to press on and see what we came across.

As expected, we hit a few rocky sections and did some quick ropework to lower off them. After some time (I forget specifically, perhaps about forty minutes) the track came into view. It stood out fairly prominently – a white scar across the black landscape, softly reflecting the ambient light of what had turned out to be a gloriously clear and starry night.

We were ecstatic! The slope in front of us opened out to a shallow, grassy descent and we accelerated towards the prominent footpath. Finally, we reached it. It was all plain sailing from here. The Llyn Idwal path is one of the most touristic in the UK and an easy, rapid descent back to the car park for anybody that knows it. We reached the car soon after and looked back at what an ‘epic’ it had been. Over all, a climb and descent we estimated would take four or five hours had taken us about ten.

As you can see, a considerable sequence of errors was made that day. It will be very easy for more intrepid readers to criticise a lot. I don’t oppose them in doing so. We learnt a lot and have never made the same mistakes. For example:

  • The decision to go when we did. In hindsight, doing that route in February requires a very early start to make the most of the daylight. Starting a multi-pitch when most people would be getting ready for lunch, in the tail end of winter, meant finishing in the dark was almost inevitable.
  • The way we chose to climb. Climbing with three people on one rope is inefficient the way we did it. Simul-climbing is a rapid way of ascending with more than two climbers linked together but is known for being quite dangerous and isn’t for beginners. The climbing method we were using works best in pairs. Ideally we should have invited a fourth climber so we could climb in two pairs or I could have declined the invitation so Jack and Jill could go and zoom up there in their own time. Or I could have gone with just one of them. There was a range of arguably better options.
  • Physical preparation for the climb. It was a mistake on my part to not prepare more thoroughly to go multi-pitching. Due to the aforementioned military training I possessed considerable strength and endurance at the time but, in an ideal world, I would have been able to climb much quicker and longer with a few weeks hammering the indoor walls or single-pitch crags first.
  • Some good calls we made. Choosing to cut our losses and escape the route when we topped-out on the main slab was a good call. Imagine how long it could have taken to continue climbing the next (more difficult) section before navigating our way down the mountain. Beyond that – the inconvenience of setting up our own abseil wasn’t an error, though we would have endured less stress knowing we had a longer rope. One should never rely on the thought of a line being fixed and we hadn’t – we had the right equipment. Knowing the rough size of the abseil and the length of our rope meant we knew we’d be close; we physically had to test it out to see if we could get all the way down. It was well ingrained in all of us to ALWAYS tie a knot in the end of the rope so we could never accidentally abseil off it.
  • Getting complacent in our navigation. Whilst it worked out for us this time, it was a reminder to never get complacent or lazy with navigation. Always check exactly where you are. Never set off without truly knowing. The ‘educated guess’ method has its place to an extent on a glorious summers’ day in easy terrain where features are easy to find and relocation is quick and simple, but certainly not at night when under moderate stress and fatigue. Many good, competent mountaineers and hikers have died because they made simple navigational errors when they were tired or became complacent.
  • Don’t celebrate until it’s over. We were all extremely well versed in the Llyn Idwal footpath, knowing it like the back of our hand. It was like a second home at the time and I’d be confident in saying going wrong once we were on it was pretty much impossible. To that end, we dashed down in a great mood. We wouldn’t have done so elsewhere. Reaching a footpath does not mean you’re in the clear. Take a wrong turn on many routes and you can end up on the other side of the mountain from where you want to be, or on some routes you could still walk yourself to your death (the ever-popular Snowdon is particularly renowned for some hidden killers next to major tourist tracks). Reaching a path should change nothing in your commitment to navigation unless you really know it inside-out.

Over all, I can say I learnt a lot during and after that long day on the hill. Whilst I cringe and cower at the thought of some of our decisions that day, as I imagine Jack and Jill do too, I’m glad for the experience.

Since then I’ve engaged in climbing considerably more and would not repeat the same errors. I no longer let the young bravado or cockiness of ‘winging it’ carry me through in my navigation (or anything else I do in the outdoors). I’m known these days to be a fairly calm character under duress but that is only because I plan and prepare everything to a much higher standard beforehand and have learnt to adjust or adapt my plans accordingly when a situation changes.

Reflecting on every experience in the outdoors – good or bad – is arguably the most critical stage of the learning process. We can assess what went well or where we went wrong. For some that could mean taking notes and reviewing them intensely. For others, a chat or moment’s headspace whilst nursing the post-summit pint will do the trick.

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Thanks for reading!

Rich

 

 

The controversial question nobody seems to be asking about single-use plastic alternatives!

Fighting single-use plastics is all the craze right now and, generally, I couldn’t be more supportive of it.

As a SCUBA Diver, Kayak/Canoe Instructor and having done beach clean-ups in the UAE, UK and Borneo I’ve witnessed first-hand the damage we as humans are doing to our oceans. I’ve also seen the damage plastic litter is having in other environments, finding it in the desert and jungle as well as all over wilderness locations in Europe and the UK.

To put things simply; I’m not fond on single-use plastics. But I’m going to get controversial.

Is paper really the best alternative?

Many major businesses are vowing to reduce or completely remove single-use plastics from their operations, including McDonald’s replacing plastic straws with paper in the UK and Ireland and many UK supermarkets replacing plastic bags with paper ones but this all seems a little short-sighted; a knee-jerk reaction to the current anti-plastic social trend.

Paper cannot be a long-term solution. Ten years ago the social trend for the environmentally-conscious was deforestation. It faded out of the public eye and, come 2018, everybody seems to have forgotten and started seeing paper as a miracle material for packaging.

“Paper takes 6-18 months to biodegrade and is recyclable whereas plastic takes 50-500 years and is considerably less recyclable than people think” is the quote I keep getting from many of my environmentally-conscious friends. Yes – they’re correct – I’ve used this quote too when delivering Environmental Awareness sessions to schools. But it only tells half the story.

News break! Deforestation is still a huge global issue!

With global deforestation rates still ridiculously high this new demand for paper will surely hammer our forests hard, removing vital ecosystems worldwide. Just check out this 2008 article  on the production demands of a paper bag to see what I mean.

I’m not writing this today claiming to have a better idea or saying we should keep using plastic; if I had all the solutions I’d be a much richer man. I’m just amazed that nobody seems to be questioning the use of paper as an alternative.

That’s about all I have to say on the issue for now but be sure to follow my Environment section for further commentary.

Also, don’t forget to check out my Instagram for occasional environmental posts slotted amongst my travel and adventure photography reel.

Rich 🌲🙏🏽

 

 

Exploring A Notorious Arms Dealer’s Abandoned Cargo Plane

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If you’ve seen the 2005 Nicholas Cage film Lord of War, you’ll be loosely familiar with the tale of Russian gun-runner Viktor Bout.  Whilst Hollywood chose to rename the movie’s protagonist and fictionalise various events it cannot be denied that Bout was the main influence for the story. Bout now sits in an American jail cell after a long hare-and-hounds chase around the world that culminated in his arrest by US and Thai Authorities in Bangkok in 2008. Weapons and ammunition were not Bout’s only cargo – he flew everything from flowers to electronics too – but it was his willingness to make dodgy gun deals that ultimately led to his demise.

Shortly after arriving in the United Arab Emirates to work for an Outdoor Education company in September 2017 I learnt that the UAE has its own little slice of Viktor Bout’s legacy. Bout based many of his (fully legal on paper) air freight operations out of the emirate of Sharjah, and is said to have lived for a brief period in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the emirate I called home for seven months and may again sometime in the future.

During induction for my role as an Outdoor Instructor and Field Studies Tutor our head of Senior Field Studies, Hugh, told us he had something cool to show us as part of our geography familiarisation. Whilst driving along a desolate desert road in the emirate of Umm al-Quwain, passing a couple of water parks and not much else, the silhouette of a great aircraft appeared before us, behind it a vast runway and a couple of dusty old hangars.

The jet was a Russian Ilyushin IL-76 – the centrepiece of Soviet aircraft engineering – and the aircraft Viktor Bout was known to have operated when he was in business. There’s mixed reports on how the Ilyushin came to rest at the now-abandoned UAQ Airport; some say it was grounded by local forces as the American DEA started to close in on Bout and the British intelligence services requested the UAE to evict Bout (a request the UAE complied with, catalysing the collapse of Bout’s empire). Another opinion is that a private investor purchased the body to use as a ‘gate guard’ for the airport, a more likely theory considering its location at the front of the facility, standing proud over the road. All that can be confirmed on a search of its serial number is that it was once part of Bout’s fleet.

Hugh stopped the truck and we disembarked for a quick snoop around. This initial visit was fairly uneventful, learning a little bit about the socioeconomic impacts of an area expanding beyond its means and poking our heads into a few hangars, then we headed off to conduct another tiresome beach survey. But I knew I had to get back there and explore a little more.

A week after my lust to explore had been teased, I asked around the outdoor centre for a lift to the abandoned airfield. Not long later and I and three workmates were setting off for the 90 minute drive south.

It was approaching sunset as we pulled up in a gravel layby in front of the facility. The perimeter was marked by patches of broken chainlink fence and a lazily-established line of barbed wire. It was evident that this was a popular site for the edgier or more-curious passer-by because there were many footprints in the sand and no real barrier to prohibit entry. Sun-faded “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” signs were sporadically placed along the fence, many hanging limp after years of disregard. We crossed into the facility over a trodden-down section of barbed wire and made a beeline for the huge silhouette of the cargo jet about 300m to our left.

 

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The view from the gravel layby at the front of the facility. (Rich Holt)
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The IL-76 in the distance. (Rich Holt)

 

As we approached the IL-76 we were ecstatic to find its ladder had been left down from its port-side door, meaning entry would be a walk in the park. To our surprise other people were here checking it out too and we nodded a ‘hello’ to them as they made their way back to their car.

Once we reached the plane we took a few moments to enjoy its beauty. At some point in history a hotel had come along and painted their logo along its sides but the sun and sand had blasted the logo out of relevance long ago.

 

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The IL-76 from the front, note my colleague near the belly for scale. (Rich Holt)

 

After two or three minutes we set about penetrating the vast carcass. One by one we scrambled up the ladder and into the door sitting about 2.5m off the ground. It was surprisingly tricky to get in; we each had to ‘mantle’ on the plane floor and scratch at the sides of the door to shift our bodyweight inside or, once somebody was in there, help the next person up.

 

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A friend approaching the top of the ladder. (Rich Holt)

 

The main hold of the aircraft had been torn to shreds; every last bit of its interior stripped. I don’t think it was a move to hide anything nefarious – just the level of degradation to be expected with any accessible abandoned site after long enough.

 

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Inside the main hold. (Rich Holt)

 

Once inside, we decided to check out the front spotter’s area (possibly the navigator’s booth?) and the cockpit, both now coated in several layers of dust with very few of the controls remaining intact.

 

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The lower viewing port, possibly a navigator’s booth. Small metal staircase up to the cockpit in foreground. (Rich Holt)

 

 

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The remnants of the cockpit. (Rich Holt)

 

Once we reached the cockpit we were gifted with an opportunity too good to ignore! Located just behind the pilots’ seats were a series of footholds in the bulkhead/wall leading up to an open roof hatch. It was time to enjoy sunset in style. One by one we each clambered up the holds and heaved ourselves on top of the aircraft. This was a fairly simple task for myself at 6’4 (193cm), the main issue being angling my shoulders and backpack through the narrow hatch, but the big reaches of the 2m climb were a bit of an epic for my shorter pals (who found getting through the hatch itself much easier).

 

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Squeezing my way through the roof hatch. (Jaime Chong)

 

The view once we were on top of the plane was glorious. 360 degrees of endless desert expanse. To the west, or facing aft, the sun was setting over Umm al-Quwain’s mangrove marshes. Treading carefully so as not to slide over the aircraft’s rounded convex edges we made our way to the midpoint of the wings and sat to enjoy the scenery, occasionally standing to grab a few more shots.

 

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Selfie on top of the IL-76. (Rich Holt)

 

 

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Author watching sunset from the midpoint of the IL-76’s huge wings. (Jaime Chong)

 

Once the sun had set we made our way back down through the Ilyushin and decided to get going. A coffee at the nearby Al Hamra Mall was starting to sound rather appealing! Over all, this short hour-long adventure remains one of my best memories from my season in the UAE; it truly did feel like ‘getting off the grid’…

If you find yourself in the UAE this cool feature is located about an hour’s drive north of Dubai, right next to the turn-off for Barracuda Bottle Shop and a short hop from Dreamland water park. I’d advise extreme caution in visiting; it is still technically off-limits and things didn’t go so smoothly when I decided to return in February. I’ll write about that in the future but hint: I got held at gunpoint!

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