The mysterious sands of Qatar

Sally van Gent has lived adventurously. She’s dined with the Bedouin, dived deep into the Arabian Sea, and climbed aboard a tanker for a midnight rendezvous. Her latest memoir, The Navy-blue Suitcase, is a collection of stories from her travelling life told with ‘optimism, humour, an indefatigable faith in a better future, and a powerful sense that life is what you make of it, no matter what cards you’ve been dealt’ (ANZ LitLovers LitBlog). Today we’re sharing a little snippet from the years that Sally spent living in Doha, Qatar.


Patterns in the rock

There are no fancy restaurants or indoor cinemas in Doha. Those Westerners who work for the oil company have their own pool and sporting facilities, but for the rest of us, our social life centres around a modest sailing club and whatever home entertainment we can devise.

We know all of the expatriates in Doha who drink and want to let off steam: the Lebanese, the Armenians and French, the Germans, Brits and South Americans, Singaporeans and Aussies. Between them they throw some wonderfully wild and varied parties – so good that no one wants to fly home for Christmas.

There’s no work on Fridays, and in summer we sail or swim. Winter brings with it mild, balmy days, and we take our children into the desert to explore old forts or to slide down sand dunes on cheap tin trays.

We’re heading north one afternoon, driving along a track parallel to the beach, when there’s a flash of pink and we spot a dozen flamingos  wading through the shallows. To our left a limestone outcrop rises from the sand, and we drive over and park beside it. The children in the group run off to play on its slopes while we adults lay out the rugs,
unpack the picnic baskets and pour coffee.

Before we can drink it, Angus and his friend Hamish wave to us from the top of the hill and cry out, ‘Come and see what we’ve found!’

I climb up the slope and the boys lead me to where a rectangle has been cut deep into the rock, perhaps for the purpose of catching rainwater. Strange indentations spread out around it – circles, and holes set out in rows, reminiscent of a board game the locals play. There are boat-shapes with what look like oars. I call out to my friends and for an hour we search the rocks, finding more and more carvings. Who would do this? And why?

Illustration by Sally van Gent.

As evening unfolds the wind stills, and the late-afternoon light casts a rosy glow onto the desert. I look out over its vast sameness and am reminded of how the Bedouin pick out subtle variations in the sand, recognising landmarks that we Westerners will never see.

It’s time to pack up the picnic things and take our children home. The sun is going down and on our way back to the city we pass cars pulled over to the side of the road so their owners can turn to Mecca. They prostrate themselves on the ground and pray.

Later we ask our Qatari friends about the carvings in the rock but few have seen them. Those who have tell us they are very old, ancient even, but as to who made them or for what reason, they have no idea.

 Find out more about The Navy-blue Suitcase here.

The beginnings of an apple orchard

Sally van Gent’s Clay Gully is one of those rare books: a delightful read that transports without exaggerating. In these first few pages, she describes the process of finding the house and their decision to grow an apple orchard. All accompanied by Sally’s lovely illustrations. The perfect book to read for anyone planning a big life change in 2017 …

After several months of fruitless searching around Bendigo in central Victoria, the agent calls to tell us he has found our perfect home. Apparently the house is in the middle of ten acres of bush and farmland. Right away I know we can’t afford a property like that. The agent insists I at least drive past the place.

He tells me, ‘If you wait a bit the price will come down. I’ve heard the owners are about to go bankrupt.’

How would you like to pay this man to sell your house, I wonder.

Out of curiosity I drive down the winding dirt road. To the left are green paddocks where a horse is grazing. On the other side there is forest, all the way down the hill. At the bottom, where there is a wide curve in the road, I spot the house through the gum trees. It stands in the centre of a lightly treed paddock and to the side is open bush land. The agent persuades us to have a look  inside. The house, though adequate, is unimpressive. It has a dingy seventies-style kitchen and worse, there is ghastly brown and cream shag-pile carpet almost everywhere. I look at the view through the living-room window and I don’t care.

It’s been a wet spring and water cascades over the paddocks, draining from the bush higher up the hill. The agent sends us off to walk around the property unaccompanied as he doesn’t want to get his feet soaked. Above the house the gum trees lean out over two dams. Up here the rich soil of the paddocks gives way to stony ground, and a patchwork of wildflowers grows between the grey, lichen-coated boulders.

Three months later we receive another call from the agent. ‘The owners have gone broke, are you still interested in the house?’

Yes, definitely.

I walk into the back garden the first morning after we have moved in and confront a scene straight from the classic Hitchcock horror movie, The Birds. Along the top of the fence a row of strange, black birds with hooked beaks stare down at me through glowing red eyes. They don’t attempt to fly away when I move towards them. Instead they begin to rock back and forth in unison, all the time letting out weird, breathy whistles. When they finally fly off I see they have white wing feathers.

Birds from Clay Gully

Beside the house there’s a large shed with an earth floor where the previous owners conducted their business of making concrete garden ornaments. A giraffe with a broken neck sits near the side gate and on the back verandah there’s a whole farmyard of concrete chickens, ducks and small animals. My mother, who lives in a nearby retirement village, suggests the elderly people there might like them. Soon the animals have all found new homes and one old man, who’s been a farmer all his life, is absolutely delighted to have chickens and ducks in his backyard again.

At night a dozen large spiders with red-striped legs construct huge webs across the verandah. They catch a multitude of tiny moths, attracted by the kitchen light. These same moths provide a welcome dinner for two small frogs lying in wait on the window. The front of the property is divided by a broad irrigation channel, used to flood the paddocks in the days when they were part of a dairy farm. Contemplating the grassy, treeless area farthest from the house, we discuss its possible uses.

In this, our first year at Clay Gully, our dams fill with water in the spring and thunderstorms replenish them in the summer. Good rains are predicted for next year offering us the opportunity to establish an agricultural enterprise. I think of goats and chickens but my husband, Nick, vetoes all my suggestions. He knows only too well that I can’t kill anything and is already anticipating the vet bills involved in keeping alive aging hens, well past their egg-laying days.

A lover of good wine, his thoughts turn naturally to planting a vineyard, but I can see problems with this suggestion. Not having the necessary knowledge or equipment to process the grapes ourselves, we would be dependent on large wineries to take our fruit and set the price. Instead I think of the beautiful apples my grandfather grew in England – Bramley’s Seedling, Lord Lambourne and Red Astrachan. There must be a market for these delicious, forgotten varieties. My grandfather grew them without artificial fertilisers or pesticides. We decide to follow the long path leading to full organic certification of the orchard.

Clay Gully by Sally van Gent

It’s necessary to have a third dam dug in front of the house and to purchase additional rural water. The contractor isn’t pleased with me when I insist on having an island in the middle of the dam. It makes his job more difficult but I know it’ll look beautiful and will be a refuge for water birds.

Then we discover Badgers Keep, a wonderful heritage apple nursery with over 500 different cultivars. With so many to choose from, I spend many hours poring over their descriptions. One apple we should definitely grow is the Bramley’s Seedling. The population of the UK eats millions of Bramleys every year and I’m convinced that once Australians try them they will love them too. The variety has stood the test of time. The original tree, growing in a garden in Nottinghamshire, is still bearing fruit after 200 years.

Next I select Autumn Pearmain, striped and perfumed, and grown since the late 1500s. Then there is the Orleans Reinette, yellow, sweet and nutty, and the soft and juicy Beauty of Bath. My husband Nick, being Dutch, has his own favourite apple much loved on the continent. This is the Belle de Boskoop, sometimes known as Goudreinet. It has a strong flavour making it excellent for cooking. If left longer on the tree it turns into a fragrant, soft-pink dessert apple. We order the Bramley’s Seedling and Belle de Boskoop and by the time we’ve selected enough cultivars for their pollination, we have twenty-four different varieties. In all there will be 300 trees.

Click here to read more, and keep an eye out for Sally’s next book, The Navy-blue Suitcase.

Clay Gully by Sally van Gent

More mischief from our authors

So, Sally Hunter (née Foster) is about to swim in the Commonwealth Games, Kate Strohm‘s casually ambling all over the world, and Sally van Gent has so many author events coming up that we’ve been considering sending her a few cases of energy drinks to help her out!

Sally Foster

Sally Foster signing books at the launch of Born to Swim.


Kate Strohm (centre)

Kate Strohm discussing Siblings.


Sally van Gent

Sally van Gent relaxing at home in between a crazy, crazy schedule talking about Clay Gully.


































Phew! We can hardly keep up with these guys!

And, for no reason other than it’s Thursday and everyone’s been so amazing this week, here’s a little bit of funk to get us through to the weekend (courtesy of Geek in Residence, Simon!).