Jabal ad Dukhan – 440ft
Jan 18-19, 2010
11:30pm – 2:00am
September 4, 2016 (2:45am)
It’s not too often that you find yourself in Bahrain. I therefore felt that I needed to take full advantage of my 11 layover in this Persian Gulf Kingdom (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bahrain) on my way back from India.
I was to arrive at 11:00pm local time in the capital Manama, and my flight left for London at 10:00am the next morning, giving me 11 hrs on the ground. I could either try to sleep at the airport or go for the gold and climb the highest point instead. It was a clear choice. Bahrain is an island country only about 20 miles long, so I didn’t think the high point would be too tough to get to.
As soon as I got off the plane I exchanged dollars for dinars and approached a taxi driver. They all wore traditional white arab headdresses. “I’d like to go to Jabal ad Dukhan,” I said, and pointed to the high point on my map.
Taxi dude: “Why do you want to go there,” he asked with a thick accent, “there’s nothing there.”
Me: “I want to climb the highest mountain in Bahrain”
Taxi dude: “It’s dark, you can’t climb it and you can’t see anything. There are no hotels there.”
Me: “I’ve got a light, see” and I turned on my headlamp.
He and the other drivers couldn’t fathom why a young foreigner would show up in the middle of the night and want to climb a dusty hill in the middle of nowhere. Mostly everyone else at the airport was a well-dressed businessman twice my age. Eventually we agreed on a price of 30 dinars and it was a deal. We sped off into the night.
Driving through Manama felt like driving through Las Vegas or LA; sleek tall buildings with fancy lights, palm trees everywhere, and the only cars on the road were BMW’s, Mercedes, and Porsches. After 20km we reached the boondocks of Manama and soon after I could see some hills through the darkness. “That’s Jabal ad Dukhan,” the driver said. I told him to wait here and I’d be back in half an hour. I knew he wouldn’t go anywhere because I hadn’t paid him yet. I jumped out the door and bolted towards the tallest of the hills. I didn’t even need a headlamp because the lights from the city reflected brightly on the white rocks and sand.
I climbed up a steep little 300ft hill and found myself on the roof of Bahrain. No sweat. The city glowed peacefully in the distance. The temp was a nice 20C with a little breeze. I started to snap a few victory pictures but then noticed something peculiar a half mile down below. I could still see the taxi but a big jeep had pulled up next to it and three people got out. They looked to be questioning the taxi driver.
Uh oh I thought, I’m guessing that they’re not too happy with me being here. I remember the taxi driver saying something about a “defense area” nearby and come to think of it the lights on the other side of the road look to be those of an airbase. I knew I would probably get questioned when I was down but since they couldn’t see me up here I might as well get a few pictures (without the flash) and enjoy the scenery for a minute or two. I took a quick glance at the beauty and grabbed a few rocks as souvenirs then headed down to face the music.
But then I started thinking about my pictures. Man, it would be quite a shame if they made me delete all my pictures, or worse, if they confiscated my camera. I had some pictures from the Taj Mahal that hadn’t been backed up yet. Plus, I needed proof that I had made it to the top of Bahrain. So I stopped for a second and made a critical move: I removed the small XD memory card with all my pictures and put it in my pocket. The camera has a built-in memory with a 10-picture capacity, so I took two dummy pictures of me on the top, so if they looked they could see that the pictures were benign and didn’t threaten Bahrain’s security.
I hopped over a few oil pipelines then made it back to the taxi. For the last two hundred feet I walked coolly. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a tough-looking guy dressed in camo approaching me from the side. I could probably outrun him but didn’t want to try. He looked like a Bahraini military guy. I kept a calm beeline to the taxi but he reached me first and demanded “PASSPORT.” Uh oh, this isn’t good. I handed my passport over, and he said “Wait here.” He walked with my passport over to a small guardhouse nearby and radioed something on the walkie-talkie.
I sat in the taxi and nervously awaited my fate. When I asked the driver he said “No problem, no problem. Only a few minute.” That wasn’t very reassuring.
After 20 minutes the guard appeared again and jumped in the front seat of the taxi. He ordered something in Arabic to the driver and we silently drove to another nearby guard station. “What’s going on,” I asked. “No problem, no problem,” the taxi driver replied. Two other military guards dressed in camo opened the spiky steel gate. And closed it behind us. He told me to come into the office and bring my stuff.
I walked in and sat down. The door slammed shut behind me. The five guards looked down at me. I gulped. The room was silent. A crow cawed ominously in the distance.
“I have an 11 hr layover in Bahrain and I wanted to climb the highest mountain,” I said with as much innocence as I could muster. “I wanted to get a souvenir to bring home to my family,” and I showed them the rocks I had collected. I offered them the rocks back. They declined. I tried to think of more to say but that pretty much summarized all of it. I could detect a slight smile on some of their faces. One guard demanded to see all my stuff. I hastily dumped out the contents of my backpack on the floor. Six sets of eyes pored over the gear critically.
“Clothes, sleeping bag, medicine, toothbrush, water,” I began. They couldn’t see anything wrong with me having that stuff. But eventually my list started to come to the end and I had to mention my camera. They wanted to take a look at it. Earlier, while I was waiting in the car, I had made another quick decision to delete those two dummy pictures on the camera. I didn’t want them to see those pics and decide to confiscate my camera. I showed them that the camera contained no pictures. “See, no pictures. I thought that I would get in trouble if I took any pictures so I deleted all of them.” They all kind of looked at each other and came to a consensus that I wasn’t a serious threat to the security of Bahrain.
As I looked them in the eye I noticed that all five of the guards looked pretty fresh. They were all about my age. I guess there’s not usually too much happening in this remote outpost in the Bahraini desert at 1:30am on a Monday night, so when an American tourist comes in and runs to the top of a mountain they had a good reason to get a little excited. It was probably the most excitement they’ve had in a long time.
“Ok, you may go,” they said, and returned my passport. I hastily stuffed my gear into my backpack and tried to divert their attention from my GPS. They might not have liked me recording the coordinates of their outpost. We got back in the taxi and sped off back to the airport. I think the taxi driver was relieved too because he turned on some loud American 80’s music on the radio and sang along.
I tried to get some sleep back at the airport but I tossed and turned for the rest of the night. They always say that the hardest part in climbing a mountain is the descent. I have discovered that this is especially true in Bahrain.
Almost every trip I’ve heard or read about to the highpoint of Bahrain has involved getting caught and questioned by the military, but I think I’ve discovered a near-optimal strategy.
At 2:30am on Friday night/Saturday morning (holy day so nobody was working) I parked my rental car in a little sheltered cove on the north side of the peak where the car was not visible from any building. I immediately jumped out of the car and started running up Jabal Ad Dukhan, without headlamp. I didn’t want to attract any unwanted attention, and even if somebody who might care had seen my car, I wanted to get back before they had time to catch me.
I jogged through the rocky desert evening, and was just barely able to use the ambient light from the nearby oil facilities to make my way. I scrambled up the north ridge, jogged hunched over, and reached the top about 10 minutes after leaving the car. Unfortunately the true summit is fenced off with razor wire. There’s a big tripod on a point about 6″ taller than where you stand outside it. So I could stand about 3′ from the summit and look down on it, but couldn’t actually touch it.
The summit is quite close to the radome facility, which is very lit up, and I didn’t want to stay too long lest someone there see me. I had read a report from some Norwegians who got caught on the summit by people from the summit facility.
I spent 15 seconds on top, snapping one picture without flash of the tripod and razor wire, then ran back down to the car. I got a few pictures on the way down, all without the flash, so nobody down below would see me.
I got to the car in about 7 minutes and immediately drove off into the night. My whole ascent was about 18 minutes round trip, so not really enough time for anyone to intervene even if they saw me from a distance. I nervously checked my rearview mirror every few seconds to make sure I wasn’t being followed, and after about 10 minutes finally relaxed.
I managed to find a secluded spot to pull off into the the desert south of the peak, and fell asleep around 3:30am.
The next morning I drove back to the area in the daylight and noticed there was a big sign that said something like “military area, entry prohibited, photography prohibited”, but I hadn’t see that sign at night.
I spent the rest of the day driving around Bahrain, including to an impressive 600-year-old tree in the middle of the desert, before returning to the airport for my flight to Kuwait.