Day trip to Qatar: Zekrit peninsula beckons with desert, art

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In the hot, shimmering desert sands of western Qatar, something alien, colossal, and very strange looms on the horizon.

It would seem that there is no logic in the appearance of four giant monoliths, stretching into the distance along a deserted corridor between low limestone cliffs.

Yet these metal invaders nestle oddly in the rugged landscape, adding a majestic dimension to this corner of the tiny Gulf country.

The steel plates, located across a kilometer of desert on Qatar’s Zekrit peninsula, are the work of Richard Serra, an American artist known for his imposing metal sculptures.

The 16.7-metre East-West/West-East landmarks were installed in 2014 after art-loving Qatari royalty asked Serra to leave his mark on their country.

A few years later, the license plates are as bold as ever. Tarnished with rust and scratched by graffiti, but no less impressive for that.

Follow the camel: unusual signs show the way.

These sentinels watching over the wasteland look like they’re going to live forever.

For its creator, the obscure location of the artwork in destination where summer temperatures can exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), was both a source of inspiration and anxiety.

“This is the nicest thing I have ever done,” he told them. Independent at the time of its installation. “This is the part that I would really like to see and I don’t know if it will.”

He didn’t have to worry.

Although the East-West/West-East route is hardly crowded, it has become an occasional pilgrimage site for locals, tourists and art lovers, adding to the list of activities in the Qatar desert that include dune riding, Bedouin camps and camel trekking.

Although getting there is not easy.

The nearest major highway is more than five kilometers away. There is no road leading to the sculpture, and the trails that cross the nearby desert are not clearly marked.

Anyone traveling there will need an SUV, which can’t usually be rented for self-driving in Qatar. So visitors will either need a local friend with access to big wheels or join an organized ride. Qatar Inbound Tours highly recommended (Souk Waqif, Souk Asiri, Waqif, Doha; +974 5553 1002).

Reach for the sky: metal sheets reach 16.7 meters in height.

And if you’re not with someone who knows the way, a GPS device will come in handy. Despite its size, East-West/West-East is not visible from the main road. The only clue to the turn is a sign that prosaically points the way to Camel Underpass No. 1. 7″.

Then you need to choose your route carefully through a labyrinth of rutted footprints in the sand, past random parking lots.

This is not a good place for a flat tire or a breakdown – there are few other vehicles and, apart from lizards and possibly a lost camel, there are practically no living creatures.

However, when the sculptures come into view, it’s worth it – especially for fans of classic sci-fi films.2001: Space Odyssey“.

Because they are spaced 250 meters apart in a straight line, they slowly rear up, each dwarfing the next in an apparently deliberate perspective trick.

Up close, they crane their necks, casting huge shadows that lengthen rapidly as the hot sun races through the afternoon. They are strong enough to absorb shock without making much noise, but when viewed from the side, they are almost invisible.

The sculpture has become a magnet for graffiti.

It’s hard to get a true sense of scale if there aren’t other people around, but it’s worth taking the somewhat rocky five-minute walk to the top of the nearby cliffs to fully see the monoliths stretching out to sea.

And if the temperature is not too unbearable, it is simply necessary to walk a full kilometer of the sculpture.

Serra’s fears about the lack of visitors were clearly unfounded, judging by the amount of graffiti scrawled on the metal plates over the years. While hardly an improvement, it has become part of a work of art.

As far back as CNN’s 2014 visit, some of the graffiti simply read “I was here,” but others are cause for artistic debate or national pride, and some of the more recent homegrown Qatari additions express defiance in the face of regional sanctions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tallest graffiti on one of the slabs appears to have been made by visitors from the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal.

While there is plenty to see on East-West/West-East, the artwork is not the only attraction the Zekrit Peninsula has to offer.

Desert winds created unusual shapes in the rock.

A short drive further west leads to the Al-Rim Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-protected area believed to be home to gazelles, oryx, ospreys and other rare desert fauna, though they seem difficult to spot.

There are more local oddities inside.

First, there is Film City, a fortified little town that stands empty in the desert, the Qatari flag flying from the mast on the tallest tower. The gates are usually open and visitors can stop, look around and, if they’re lucky, have a cup of sweet tea with a security guard.

There is no real intrigue around this place. It was built as a filming location and has occasionally appeared in Arabic dramas and commercials for the 2022 FIFA World Cup to be held in Qatar.

Somewhat more mysterious – at least in appearance – are the “desert mushrooms” of Qatar, a few more kilometers along the peninsula.

Here, centuries of wind erosion have hollowed out the limestone bowl, giving the stones beautiful mushroom shapes. One prominent feature, known as “umbrella rock”, is an island of weathered stone topped by an inaccessible building.

This and other small structures in the hollow are recreations of traditional shelters used to store dates.

These days they are just the final stop on a tour of one of the most unusual places in the Persian Gulf.

Or a beautiful backdrop for camping at night under the stars, sharing stories about strange things in the desert.