Oil tankers button up the horizon bright as warning beacons. Beneath the blackness of the ocean sky at night, their floodlit decks abut one another such that from the shore the view could be peninsular. That daisy chain of bow and stern stretch for untold kilometres from the port terminal to where anchor is weighed and each vessel drops off the edge of the visible horizon and into the Indian ocean proper. Some will ride the Agulhas current around the South African cape, but for most their laden hulls will cut the water south and east, curving under Sri Lanka until they reach the oil thirsty Orient. Few places in the world but here can give the straight profile of a coastline a proboscis it never had before.
Down at the port meanwhile, the 300km Habshan pipeline from Abu Dhabi has to gush in to something. Set out like mythical checkers pieces stacked three high, oil storage tanks are epic of proportion. Each cylindrical tank bunkers more cubic metres of refined oil than crystal blue seawater lost in the Great Blue Hole of Belize. Perhaps not depth-wise, but diametrically these oil bunkers could be scooped-out sinkholes. The barren, serrated mountains lying behind them seem to shrink in their grandiose presence. There are few bigger statements of a globalized economy paid for in petrodollars than this. Nor is playing dumb an option. Turn your back on them and still they find a means to remind you they are the reason you are ultimately there. For those downwind of it, the air that carries the gas condensate is acrid and unpleasant but otherwise hard to pin down. It smells, as you might expect, like any compost fermenting in the infernal bowels of the earth since the Carboniferous period.
The mountains themselves saw action long before the tankers. They came through like a row of tiger shark teeth ninety million years ago when the Arabian plate was ordered to hump the floor of the Tethys Ocean, but instead slipped under it. The stuff that made the sea floor buckle and the saltwater rush in was so heavy with plutonic rocks that after it rose up it refused to bow back down, so after all this time this petrified lower jaw bites into the sky hard as the day the upper jaw crawled out of that now rearranged ocean to bite the land.
Ninety million years of gentle wind, fitful rain, and desiccating sunlight could not do the work of erosion quite like a bundle of dynamite. At intervals along the steep pitch of the peaks engineers have blown their tops to make room for giant pylons that power towns and villages running on 56 degrees of longitude up to the Straits to Hormuz. The electricity cables form a cobweb over a landscape that had little interference to contend with for all but the last few seasons of its long geomorphic history. If it weren’t a suicide mission, zip-wiring those cables from mountaintop to flat bed would be a thrill and a half. Time changes the work of everything and everything changes the work of time. In which order, our world in flux does not reveal.
The settlement just north of the terminal consists of shabby roadside buildings wide enough to take an oversize 4WD in for cleaning. For all the dust and fine-grained sand that blows up and over from the western desert, settling evenly on everything moving or otherwise, the big cars remain improbably clean. If not for the army of poorly-paid labour drafted in from the Sub-Continent cleanliness would scarcely be the next best thing to godliness. All this spit and polish shines in an ethnocultural context, where religious piety comes in a shroud of either immaculately-laundered white for males or a beautifully-tailored black for females. Ironic when you consider it, the black syrupy source of national affluence – one of a dirty duo alongside coal – stains fabric like nothing else. Yet the white kanduras and black abayas, for all their over the ankle length, never show so much as a minor blemish. Same score with fleets of $80,000 Toyota, Nissan and Lexus 4WD desert tractors that continually roll off the big boat from Yokohama. White is the shade of choice and not only for reasons of Bedouin sartorial tradition. As any driver of a black car will testify, as no woman in a black abaya will, white reflects the phenomenal heat of summer and black does not. Until familiarity breeds contempt, which it often does in an indigenous population spoiled by oil wealth into treating anything of value as easily replaceable, the new eight cylinder heavyweights are as shipshape and immaculate as the kanduras sitting in the driver’s seat. Are cars and kanduras (dishdashas) white in defiance of the colour of oil, or did oil come out black as a defiant warning to those who would wear white never to get too close?
These are strange days we live in. Fuel is the fuel that sends heads spinning and markets trembling. The blood that makes the world’s economy boil is transfused into everything from heaters that keep the hearth burning against winters that never seemed so cold to boats that deliver desperate refugees to a premature end, from American aircraft carriers plowing dying oceans to Russian jets zipping over a Syria they have neither seen nor cared for.
In a country that reserves the severest punishment for drug dealers, these storage tanks are meth labs on an industrial scale. High is the feeling from the fumes, empty is the feeling when the tank runs dry. Pure as crystal, dirty as the thoughts we ascribe it. How many more drug runs before the peninsula sinks under a rising ocean?