What a visit to the creek reveals about Dubai
Leaping onto the narrow timber boat, our knees buckle as it wobbles in the tide from larger craft. The motor roars and we chug across the water, the rapidly rising morning sun blinding our eyes and robbing the Grand Mosque and Rulers Court of their detail. Sweeping over to the other bank within a few minutes, we pass close to the bulging hulls of trading dhows. These wooden vessels are painted every shade of cornflower blue and aqua, and in various states of peeling and wear. They look calm and picturesque from the water but a wander along the quay revels a hub of activity with cargo being loaded, sailors staring down from wooden parapets, and noisy gatherings of men on the pavement.
The 14 lane highway that slices through the centre of Dubai and streaks off to Abu Dhabi is now the heart of the city’s communications. Flanked by gleaming high-rise towers that all flash and blink a variety of coloured lights at night, fringed by the Metro, its stations resembling shiny woodlice or a series of mirrored Thunderbird 2s, it keeps Dubai moving with an estimated 140,000 plus daily journeys.
A few decades ago the Sheikh Zayed Road was a single track where the main danger was a camel wandering into your path at night. The place where journeys were made, cargo was delivered, the business of the city was done, was the Dubai Creek. It wasn’t much to look at as a waterway being impeded by sand banks. Pearl divers took their wooden boats out into the Persian Gulf and a few Barasti huts grouped either side of its mouth. It took Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum to have the vision, in the 1960s, to dredge the sand away so that boats could glide up into the creek and moor on its banks to unload their precious cargo, and the first chapter of the new Dubai was written.
When I arrived almost 15 years ago, I used to visit shops and tailors in the areas Bur Dubai and Deira on opposite sides of the Creek. As Dubai expanded and got busier there was no need and the grid locked roads made it really difficult to get to. It was easy to forget this part of Dubai. I’d wander down occasionally to the Majlis Gallery or the fish market but always with a purpose. Tourist companies targeted a few spots and crocodiles of visitors with their guides jostle you in the Spice Souk.
Arriving early, when the hawkers from the souk have barely risen, when the corridors are empty and the light is low, is like stepping into a theatre before the play has begun. You notice details that would be overshadowed in the hustle and bustle of the main performance. And with a guide like my good friend Arva, you get under the superficial skin of Dubai that so many people pelt with derisive words as though the show was found wanting.
There is far too much to relate from the two tours I’ve done recently but I learned how to spot sustainable fish at the market, the health-giving properties of scores of mysterious spices, ate the best fresh dates and munched on the most interesting lgeimat (tiny doughnuts) I’ve ever tasted. I quenched my thirst with the water of a freshly hulled coconut, strong Ethiopian coffee in a museum filled with its artifacts, and black tea shared cross-legged on the floor of a dhow with Iranian sailors. I lost count of the times I whizzed back and forth across the Creek on a water taxi or abra, with numerous interesting other passengers going about their every day lives, the slight breeze giving solace from the intensity of the sun. I also ate the best kababs known to man, but the secret for these lies with Arva…
These pictures give a tiny glimpse of what there is to discover on the banks of the Creek in Bur Dubai and Deira:
Top tips for exploring the Dubai Creek
If you want to visit this area here are a few tips to guide your journey:
- Take the metro. Parking is extremely limited and the roads confusing and congested. Get off at Al Fahidi metro station and walk down the D90 street in the direction of the Creek. You’ll soon reach the Al Fahidi district and see the windtowers of the buildings.
- Visit the Majlis Gallery. In the heart of old Bur Dubai, this family-owned gallery has been established for 25 years and has exhibitions of modern, fine art as well as furniture and gifts. Worth a look to see the inside of a traditional building and it’s a calm pleasant place to wander round with some seriously collectable artworks (my walls are full of them!).
- Take a break at Creekside. This cafe is right on the water with a clean, modern interior, terrace with a view and a menu based on Emirati traditions. They’ll give you a map to the area too – as will the Majlis Gallery.
- Get up early for the fish market. It’s a must-do Dubai experience and is about to be modernised so do this while you can. But don’t take your fish on the metro – this is not allowed!
- Pop into Mawaheb for a coffee. This art studio for adults with special needs loves to have visitors and the art works are something special to take home.
- Grab a coconut. The most refreshing drink you can ask for this fruit with its top hacked off and a straw inserted. Fresh orange juice is good too; hygiene inspectors in Dubai mean that hawker stalls can be trusted however ramshackle they appear.
- Take an abra at the stations for a couple of dirhams. Visitors will be approached and offered a private journey. You may want to do this but a jaunt across the Creek with everyone else who is taking a water taxi is just as nice (I think).
- Have breakfast at the Sheikh Mohamad Centre for Cultural Understanding.
- Book a Frying Pan Food Adventure. Both my recent visits (and I’m a serial food tourist) have been led by Arva. I was a willing Guinea pig for the Food Lover’s Morning March and the new Creekside Photo Walk Series – both highly recommended.
Also to visit: the souks (spice souk, material souk, gold souk, and commercial souk), the new coffee museum, other art galleries such as XVA, the new Museum district in Deira, Heritage and Diving Village, the 10 dirham shops, abra crossings, Dubai Muncipality museum, scores of tiny restaurants and kiosks selling the most delicious and diverse food and the best view of the Creek from the top floor of the car park next to the spice souk.
Have you visited the Creek in Dubai? What’s your favourite part about it? Is there a hidden gem where you live?