As we drive into the desert, Dubai’s glitzy resorts, private canal developments, cranes and sky scrapers disappear in the rear-vision mirror of our four-wheel drive giving way to pancake-flat desert plains as far as our eyes can see.
I have signed up for a four-wheel driving trip into the desert.
Our driver, Roy, is from Hyderabad in India. “This was what Dubai looked like once,” he says waving his hand at the vast expanse of sand.
In 1833, the Maktoum family led the Bani Yas tribe out of the desert to settle at the mouth of the creek. As the creek was a natural harbour, Dubai quickly became a trading port as well as a centre for fishing and pearling. Then the discovery of oil in 1966 changed the lives of the tribes forever.
Oil money poured in and the sheikhs used their new found wealth to build schools, hospitals, roads and a modern telecommunications network. The largest man-made harbour in the world was constructed in Jebel Ali, and a trade zone with business and tax incentives was created around the port.
Dubai is now a metropolis of gleaming skyscrapers which continues to push the boundaries with its re-invention of the concept of luxury. Its newest development, is a man-made island called Palm Jumeirah, where the recently opened mega spectacular Atlantis dazzles with 17ha of water-themed amusement park facilities, a marine habitat, accommodation and restaurants.
Although Dubai’s glitz and glamour is captivating, a trip into the desert offers an insight into Dubai’s Bedouin roots.
Only 40 years ago, the city was a desert backwater, with sand, mud huts and Bedouin tents. Back then, the current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, was only a young boy.
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
45km from Dubai city, we drive into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, which was recently accepted as a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s global environmental organisation and leading authority on conservation and sustainable development.
The reserve operates as a national park with the aim of protecting Dubai’s desert landscape along with its many indigenous plant and animal species. A small section of the reserve is set aside for desert activities like sand skiing, camel treks, horse riding and dune driving.
As we enter the reserve, Roy gets out of the vehicle to let some air out of the tyres for a smooth ride on the soft sand. Then we’re off and speeding towards the dunes.
He steers the vehicle up a steep, 40 meter-high sand dune, pausing at the top.
“We’re going down this?” I squeak. “Don’t worry, I will be gentle with you,” says Roy chuckling. Before I can protest, he takes his foot off the breaks and we slide down the dune. My stomach drops through the floor as I hang on to the door handle screaming.
For those who like roller coaster rides, dune bashing is a lot of fun. The only difference is you’re at the total mercy of the driver. But Roy reassures us that he’s never had an accident.
Several other climb-and-slide experiences follow, lasting a total of about 45 minutes. I feel like I’m in a ship at sea being tossed by the waves in an ocean of sand. As far as I can see there are no landmarks, roads or signs. But Roy has driven through this terrain countless times and seems to know which way to go.
Roy tells us we’re looking for a convoy of 13 other dune-bashing vehicles, which have started before us. After being tossed up and down several sand dunes, the convoy is still nowhere in sight. At one point I’m sure we must be lost. But there’s nothing else to do by sit back and enjoy the ride.
Finally, the vehicles appear like dots in the distance, swirls of dust clouds puffing around their tyres.
We stop at the crest of a dune to watch the sunset. The fiery yellow sun washes the sky with a magnificent orange hue, slowly sinking behind the folds of sand. The picture is surreal and the silence is eerie. All the vehicles have their engines switched off as everyone marvels at the setting sun.
On our way to dinner, we stop at a camel enclosure. Even though life in Dubai is no longer nomadic, camels, which were once the ships of the desert, now replaced by four-wheel drives, continue to play an important role in Bedouin culture.
Camel racing is a popular sport and the UAE has 15 racetracks across the country with spacious modern stadiums.
Each year, over 17,000 camels from the oil-rich Gulf countries — the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain — are registered for a camel beauty contest which takes place over two weeks in the UAE’s Western desert.
Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the son of Dubai’s ruler Sheik Mohammed and his heir apparent, bought 16 camels for US$4.5 million including one which the sheik paid US$2.7 million for.
We end our evening in a traditional Bedouin camp, eating crossed-legged on the carpeted sand floor while a whirling dervish, from the mystical Sufi Islam sect originating in Turkey, entertains us with his frenetic whirling dance.
We ride camels outside the camp, sip Arabic coffee and nibble on fresh dates. The longest queues are for the henna artist. At the end of the evening, we puff dizzily on a shisha pipe with Roy. As the apple and cinnamon tobacco in the pipe takes effect, we recount our action-packed adventure driving on the dunes. It’s an experience that any visitor to Dubai should not miss.
“Next time I come back to Dubai, I want to sit in the driver’s seat,” I say with bravado. I make Roy promise to teach me to drive on the dunes. “I’m up for it if you are,” he replies grinning from ear to ear.
We shake hands and seal our pact with another puff of the shisa pipe.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Emirates Airline