Dubai: Working for more than a decade as a photojournalist, I’ve encountered many daunting situations. But what I experienced at Jebel Jais on Friday easily ranks among one of the most demanding assignments in my career.
I enjoy adventurous outdoor photoshoots: desert safaris, yearly flash floods in the valleys of Hatta and Fujairah. I look forward to such assignments as an opportunity to explore new vistas of nature and document the unfolding of something unique.
It is not often one gets to see snowfall on a mountain surrounded by a desert known for its searing summer temperatures.
Exposed to extreme heat for most the year, UAE residents jump at any opportunity to experience cooler climes, which is the reason why Jebel Jais in Ras Al Khaimah, which is significantly cooler than the rest of the country throughout the year, is a popular outdoor destination.
Setting off from Sharjah at around 12 noon on Friday to cover an anticipated snowfall on Jebel Jais, I was expecting a smooth run.
But the normal two-hour drive to the UAE’s highest point turned out to be a 12-hour nightmare.
As I drove along Mohammad Bin Zayed road, the excitement was palpable during the windy dusty drive, with more cars heading towards Ras Al Khaimah than normal.
But as I hit the traffic on Khuzam road in the city of Ras Al Khaimah, which leads to the valley of Jebel Jais, I realised that we were in for a longer adventure than I had imagined.
In a hurry to catch the snowfall I had forgotten to pack any water or snacks for the road. And that proved to be near disastrous for me and my cousin who accompanied me.
It was around 1.30pm when we encountered a large traffic jam, tailing back to around 3km from the foothills of Jebel Jais, and by the time we began our ascent we had spent an hour negotiating the traffic.
The quiet, suburban areas surrounding the mountains were experiencing unusual traffic volumes, with many motorists seeking alternative routes to the summit, in an attempt to avoid the snarl on the main road.
As we snaked our way up the mountain, it was raining intermittently with powerful gusts of wind making driving a real challenge.
Temperatures continued to dip with every metre of incline and the rain gave birth to small rivulets flowing down the crevices of the mountain on either side of the winding road.
People could be seen stopping over to enjoy the waterfalls, taking selfies and videos.
I could see clouds touch the mountain peaks and mist floating in the air, an out-of-the-world sight here in the UAE.
Every professional photographer would die to be in such a setting, capturing the beauty and vagaries of nature and I couldn’t help but pull over and get lost in capturing the images every few minutes.
Before long, we hit the traffic jam again, more than a kilometre away from the summit. Rather than waiting I decided to hand over the wheel to my companion and walked in the freezing cold with my camera in hand.
There were hundreds of cars stranded on that narrow road and I trudged past the honking motorists and crazy adventurists in my quest to reach the summit.
Within minutes I couldn’t feel my fingers, they were numb in the freezing cold. Fighting my way up against a nasty hailstorm and incessant showers, I reached the summit after an hour’s trek.
On the way I captured some Emiratis collecting ice in sheets of cloth.
As it was getting too dangerous to drive, police patrols had stopped the cars at a reasonable distance from the summit and were sending motorists back, which had resulted in the congestion.
When I reached the top, it started snowing again and I could see thick sheets of snow covering the rocks and the floor.
I felt like I had scaled Mount Everest.
I quickly took whatever pictures I could. Somebody had made a snowman, while others were making snowballs. The temperature was sub-zero now and I knew I had to begin my descent quickly, but I was already exhausted. I was wearing three layers of clothing and my head and ears were covered, still I was feeling exposed. I had imagined the descent would be easier, but walking downhill with a hailstorm pushing you down was no less than swimming against the current in a freezing river.
I was struggling past vehicles with windows rolled up and people snuggling inside and I couldn’t locate my car.
To make matters worse, I realised that I had forgotten my mobile in the car so I couldn’t call my cousin to ask his whereabouts.
Somehow I managed to walk up to the police patrol and just when I when I was about to ask them for help I saw my car, it was as if finding your caravan after days lost in the desert. I hauled myself back in the car, without being able to move for at least 10 minutes.
The clock in the car was showing 5pm now and it was already dark up there.
Once I regained my bearings, I was relieved that the worst was over. Or so I thought. Little did I realise the worst was yet to come. The journey back took an agonising six hours, due to the chaos caused by hail, and impatient motorists.
Many, who didn’t have the patience to bear the traffic, pulled over and camped by the roadside.
Unable to go either up or down Jebel Jais, some brought out their grills and helped themselves with the warmth of a barbecue and coffee in the chilly weather.
By the time the tangle had unravelled for us, it was midnight.
The lack of water and food was telling on us as well, but luckily as we crawled our way back, we found a small mosque by the roadside and pulled over.
Though we refreshed ourselves, there was another pressing issue at hand: sending the pictures for print.
Understandably, there was no internet and it took more than three hours for me to send the pictures, just in time for the print deadline.
And then, miraculously, the traffic eased. By the time we reached home, it was already 1am.
It was literally, a trip to the clouds and back.
(As told to Shafaat Shahbandari, Staff Reporter)