Hitting the dunes in Dubai

by Dan.Hipgrave

Think of Dubai and you think of towering skyscrapers and man-made islands. But head in to the desert and there’s a wilder side to discover

'Ever rolled it before?’ I asked Azim, the driver of my robust, tank-like 4x4, as we dangerously sped over the desert dunes on the outskirts of Dubai. ‘On Arabian adventure tours we like to show you good time,’ was Azim’s dubiously uncertain answer, dodging the question like a politician. ‘Don’t ask him that!’ screamed one of my fellow tourist companions, fearing the worst whilst covering her face with hands trembling like a plate of jelly. The sundowner dune dinner seemed to have an interesting twist!

Earlier that day, I was picked up from my hotel in a gigantic GMC off-roader 4x4 and set out deep into the desert towards the ‘Dubai conservation reserve.’ As Azim let out air from the tyres (apparently making it easier to control the vehicle in the sandy terrain) the downside to this excursion was instantly visible. It was a massive tourist operation, which sometimes leaves me cold. As an old romantic, I'd been foolish enough to believe that, like Lawrence of Arabia, the desert would be all mine for the day - when, in fact, 26 other GMC 4x4s, carrying 162 people in total, were also joining us!

We set off like an army of ants, 27 cars in a line. Then to my surprise, Azim started attacking the dunes like a crazed getaway driver. ‘Are you all comfortable?’ he asked. Well yes, I would be, if you stopped driving over 40ft dunes at 80mph. Then it dawned on me why he had made me read a list of safety rules. The fun bit was clearly the journey to the Bedouin sundowner dinner.

We followed a track up and over dunes, completely helpless in the hands of Azim, the 4x4 sliding left to right, jumping up and thumping back down. Sand flew around like we were in the eye of a viscious storm. It was a full-on adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster ride that had me whooping like a child and left others crying for their mothers. ‘So, have you ever rolled it then?’ I repeated my question to the driver. I couldn’t understand how we hadn’t yet, as it defied the laws of gravity that this beast of a car hadn’t toppled! We arrived, on four wheels, at our camp for the dinner.

The camp was set out in true Bedouin style, although I doubt if traditional Bedouin people had a digital photo stall or electric hand-dryers in the toilets! Multicoloured rugs and cushions were strewn on the floor and the lighting was dim. Belly dancers rhythmically twirled around to the sound of Arabian music under the desert’s starry night. There was an opportunity to have a henna tattoo painted on your body and, of course, smoke sheesha pipes. To top it off, there was a free bar! The tables were set out in a manner that encouraged social interaction. The night turned out to be a lot of fun, with people dancing, chatting, drinking and eating. Perfect!

My desert jaunt wasn’t over yet, though. I made my way to the wonderfully tranquil Bab al Shams resort and spa hotel, where I had two nights' stay. It’s an idyllic hotel with a real feel of being deep in the desert. The half-a-mile drive up to the entrance is lined with fire torches, creating a rustic aroma of smoke and petroleum, whilst fairy lights in the trees give a magical vibe to the place. The low-level, sandcastle-like structure has been designed perfectly to blend into the environment. Inside, the place is again low-lit, creating a warm, cosy atmosphere, with cushions, throws and Moroccan-style lanterns placed in every nook and cranny.

As I was shown to my room, I got my first glimpse of the immense, beautifully designed infinity pool, looking straight out onto the desert plains. Lush grass verges lined the sun lounger area and believe me, grass is a welcome sight in the desert! My room was like an Arabic grotto: old relics and rugs hung on the walls, and the furniture was all dark wood. The bathroom was the highlight, with a stone sunken bath looking good enough to sleep in!

This is a place of complete relaxation - surrendering myself to the sun loungers by day, finding hidden corners in the outside bars at night. It’s a far cry from the towering skyscrapers and commotion of Dubai’s city.

At sunset, the hotel pets are brought out to play, including two well-groomed camels you can ride. Then, lying back in the rich golden-coloured sand, I watched a quite spectacular falcon display. The birds hypnotically swooped around my head against a perfect backdrop of the descending sun, creating amazing silhouettes. I was in my own private oasis.

My desert experience had been everything I had hoped. It’s romantic, quiet, exciting and feels very exclusive. My fear is that with mass expansion in Dubai being pushed out into the desert, Bab al Shams and the desert reserve will become less remote. There are already plans to build numerous resorts five miles into the desert from the city, due to be completed in six years. Now is the time to fulfil those Arabian dreams...



Dan Hipgrave made his name as the guitarist in rock band Toploader. He now travels the world as a journalist, writing regularly for publications such as The Independent, The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. He also presents a regular travel item on BBC2's Market Kitchen. Dan believes the best way to truly discover a place is to immerse into local cultures and hang out with locals - they always know best! Favourite places: Andalucia Fes / Marrakech and anywhere in South East Asia