Spending a night in the dunes of Dubai is the ideal way for first-timers to get a taste of desert adventures
Thirty minutes’ drive from Dubai’s glittering metropolis, I sat behind the wheel of a four-wheel-drive Toyota Landcruiser at the foot of a huge sand dune. ‘Faster!’ urged my guide above the blare of the car radio, as I sped up and lurched over the top in a spray of sand.
Before the discovery of oil, Dubai was an arid desert with more camels than people. The landscape outside the city hasn’t changed much since then, with mountains and wadis – seasonal river beds – archeological sites, old settlements and ruins such as the camouflaged Hatta Fort. Here you can see wildlife such as monitor lizards, gerbils and desert fox if you’re lucky; scorpions and snakes if you’re not.
Instead of heading back to Dubai city after the day’s activities, we were to join 20-25 of Alpha Tours’ daily desert visitors on a desert safari and then overnight in a Bedouin-style camp. It didn’t take long to spot what we were all looking for. Just a few miles from the city, a family of camels strolled nonchalantly past some roadside electricity pylons. Off-road are farms where camels are bred for racing. Baby camel is even served as a delicacy at society weddings.
On arrival at the lunch camp there was the chance to try sandboarding, as we waited for our next mode of transport to arrive – the camels. Camel-riding is not an activity for the sophisticated or the faint-hearted. The camel next to mine bucked, almost throwing its passenger off. This was all part of the fun – as it wasn’t me – and we soon set off for a 15-minute jaunt, led by a Pakistani guide dressed as an Arab.
Half an hour’s drive from here, a buggy-driving centre rents out quad bikes. Dubai’s desert activities offer a nibble of adventure rather than a full bite, but they’re ideal for first time desert-goers. Those who want to skip the adventure altogether can drive out later to join the desert safari as it crosses into Sharjah.
Next, it was back into the 4WDs. Although it had loomed large to me, the dune I’d driven up that morning was a baby compared with the huge orange-coloured domes here. These were for experienced drivers only and I held my breath as we crawled slowly up, down and along their steep sides.
The sky was a fiery red, yellow and orange as we pulled into our palm-fringed camp for an Arabian feast. Children clamoured for 200-yard camel rides before darkness fell and adults flooded to the tented bar or visited the henna tattooist.
I later discovered the henna artist was from the Indian subcontinent and the evening belly dancer from the Far East. Dubai’s native Bedouin account for only 10 per cent of the country’s population and nowadays are more likely to be watching satellite TV in their high-walled houses than taking tourists for a ride on camels. This means, unlike in nearby Oman, you’re unlikely to meet locals in the desert, rather Pakistanis and Indians dressed up as Arabs.
As the piped music turned from Arabic to Russian, we smoked hubbly bubblies by candlelight. Romantic though it was, star-spotting in the pristine night, I couldn't help thinking the luxury Al Maha Desert Resort – the sophisticate's equivalent of the overnight desert experience – was probably more to the liking of Dubai’s sophisticated travellers.
Although a more authentic, adventurous experience is found in Doha and Oman, Dubai offers a taste of the desert, with activities from sand-skiing to desert mountain biking and hiking. On the migration route between Europe and Asia, it is also a twitcher's delight, with some of the region's most accessible birdwatching.
After a restless night on lumpy cushions, it was a relief to get up for sunrise, when the sun’s orange glow revealed the tracks of fox, lizard and gerbil etched in the sand.