Desert Adventures: Exploring Zekreet's sculptures, abandoned city and dramatic cliffs
One of the things I didn't know would happen when I moved to a city that is a hub for a major international airline? That I would watch a lot of promotional videos.
From the ads on the Qatar Airways in-flight entertainment system to the videos in the airport and on social media, I saw tons of footage of Qatar's highlights (thanks to the airline and the tourism board's campaigns to encourage stop overs in Doha).
Since Qatar is such a small country (you can drive from the top to the bottom in around two and a half hours), I managed to visit most of the attractions before I actually moved to Doha.
Except for one: those tall, black sculptures in the middle of the desert. Surrounded by dramatic sandy cliffs, the promotional videos showed herds of camels trouping past, the contrast of tradition and modernity stark and palpable. They were out there somewhere, only accessible by 4x4 vehicles, and a mystery to me.
Thanks to the cooler winter weather and a friendly tour guide with a Land Cruiser, I was finally able to see Richard Serra's East-West, West-East sculptures for myself.
On the way, we also stopped to visit an abandoned film set in the middle of a nature reserve and saw animals ranging from falcons to oryx (a kind of buck and, incidentally, the Qatar Airways logo).
Sculptures in the desert
The Richard Serra sculptures are located in western Qatar's Zekreet peninsula, in a long valley lined on both sides by curved rocky cliffs.
The nearest major town is Dukhan, and the area can be reached by taking the Dukhan highway from Doha and then turning off before the hospital and cutting back under the highway through a camel underpass (really). From there onwards, it's all rock formations and sand.
The four tall metal sculptures are arranged in a row in the valley, and create an amazing contrast with their sharp black lines against the open sky and jagged natural rocks.
You can climb up these limestone cliffs for great views of the surrounding area, or just to observe the wind-sculpted formations up close.
The sculptures are part of the Ras Abrouq Nature Reserve, which is home to a range of animals capable of surviving in the harsh sandy landscape.
This is also where the remnants of a traditional Qatari village can be found, called "Film City", as the town was built in modern times as a location for a local movie. After the filming ended, the set was left in the reserve and has now become a tourist attraction in its own right.
The Film City has multiple buildings, including watch towers and a small mosque, and visitors can climb inside the towers and take stairs up to the roof tops to take in the view.
There is also an oasis just in front of the "town", complete with green vegetation and even some ostriches. Just short distance away is a pen filled with local wild life, including the iconic oryx and some of its smaller cousins.
In a nearby valley, you can see more of the structures built for the film - this time, it's small houses built with layers and layers of stones. They nestle in the base of cliffs, next to desert fox holes, and perch on top of mushroom-shaped mounds.
We visited over a weekend, and the area was quite busy despite its remote location. Apart from a few cars with tourists like ourselves, there were also groups of falcon trainers, who use the flat barren sand near the sculptures for training their birds of prey.
Our guide explained how one of the new techniques to do this is by using drones. I didn't understand what he meant until I saw a remote-controlled mini airplane take to the sky, followed by an eager falcon.
Modernity and tradition, coexisting once again.