What to do when Allah gives you sand? Plough over it in a 4×4, hitch a ride on a camel and try your hand at surfing dunes… Ben Rhodes goes on desert safari in Dubai.

As I teetered at the top of the dune in the blistering desert heat, head as dry as a cactus, lungs as polluted as a Beijing bypass, I found myself wanting for nothing more than to ride a “horse designed by committee”. It’s incredible how circumstance affects desires…

Head over heels for the desert

We arrived in Dubai a few days earlier to enjoy the city’s nightlife and had planned to end our week in the Middle East with an overnight trip to the desert for some true bromance and to see what the area was like before Sheikh Rashid masterminded the exponential boom of sky scrapers.

We were picked up by Suliman, a son of a Zanzibar army officer who has lived in Dubai for the last 30 years and used to play on the beaches now turned into multi-million pound tourist complexes. “Are you Italian?” asked Suliman, as we began to head out to the desert. We answered negatively. “Good.” He replied. “The last time I had Italians dune bashing they forced me to go faster. So I did. And they were sick all over my jeep.”

Dune bashing is in essence simply riding a jeep up and down dune hills. But in practice it is far from simple as the sands are constantly shifting and once you get to the crest of the dune you have to judge/hope/pray that there is not a vertical downward slope the other side. Suliman’s experience at reading the sand and benevolence to his non-Latin passengers meant we always felt on the right side of danger, except for when his hands left the wheel nearly capsizing us at the top of a 40 foot dune (I’m sure he knew what he was doing). Dune bashing is a popular local past-time on the weekend in Dubai, where the Emirati and expats take great pride in their beloved 4×4 vehicles. As there is no parks or places to walk in the city this feels a bit like a distorted, carbon-heavy alternative of “dog walking”, with people taking their four-wheeled pets out to the country for a spin.

The Bash Street Kids

We survived the bashing in one piece and headed to watch sunset at the camp, where all the different tour safari jeeps meet for a barbecue and entertainment. First served up was a chicken schwarma (the local take on a kebab, stuffed with chips for that extra greasy goodness) with a fairly generous buffet to follow. There was also entertainment put on and when the brochure said that there would be belly dancing I thought I knew what to expect. And whilst the belly dancing was as you would think, with an impressive display of booty shaking (albeit the dancer looked more Russian than authentic Bedouin belle), what really bedazzled was the other act of the night: a man best described as a cross between Cliff Richard and Dale Winton wearing a perma-grin and a garish dress. His act involved spinning around furiously for five minutes with the dress pirouetting around him as it erupted in a display of fairly lights. A stunned crowd looked on and then gave him the rapturous reception he deserved before returning to their lamb kofte. Whilst they may not have been a traditional Bedouin experience it was a mouth-watering and eye-opening evening all the same.

You spin me round, baby right round…

The entertainment finished relatively early so we drove back to our own private camp with Suliman. The camp was perfectly set up for star-gazing, with open fronted shelters for sleeping and a large fire pit set up in the middle, and most importantly a large crate of beer. Unfortunately the stars were not quite as clear as you would imagine, as the burning throb of Dubai city shimmered permanently over the horizon. With the camp fire set up it was time for a bit of bromance and to light up the shisha pipe – shisha is basically a massive bong filled with fruit flavoured tobacco, with the fragrant apple scent hiding the fact that you’re toking the equivalent of forty Marlboro reds at once. After a few hours of campfire bonhomie, we ended the night with a ceremonial pitch-black hand-stand and press-up competition before collapsing into our sleeping bags. I had meant to check my sleeping bags for scorpions but drunkenly forgot – thankfully the booze flowing through my veins seemed to fend them off.

The next morning’s activities started early with the choice between camel-riding or sandboarding, neither of which seemed particularly appealing at 7am after a skinful of beer and rum.  We plumped for the sandboarding first as the one least likely to make us vomit and made our way to the top of the dune where an array of boards in various states of repair awaited. I picked what looked like a purpose made sandboard, a short wooden plank designed to propel me at top speed down the dune. As I shimmied to the edge of the slope I was sure my run would end either with high fives all round at the bottom of the dune or crashing out in a high-speed blaze of glory. Alas it ended with a with a miserable face first sand dunk right where I began, earning me a unanimous “nil points”. This was an obvious case of the tools rather than the workman being in the wrong so, after schlepping back up the sand-dune, I changed to another board (an old snowboard) which glided much more effortlessly over the sand. On this evidence, however, snowboarding can sleep safe in the knowledge that sandboarding will never be as fast, fun or cool.

Surfs up!

Suitably humiliated we headed over to the caravan of camels awaiting us. I had heard tales of camel rides being either the most painful thing imaginable or the most pleasurable thing (admittedly for women rather than men) so I approached with a mix of trepidation, anticipation and nausea. As I dutifully held on tight to the seat, the camel stood up much faster than I expected and within a nano second we were eight feet in the air. Once erect, we set off into the wilderness with our guides for a surprisingly relaxing ride, with the rhythmic up and down movements of the camel creating a meditative ambience and a chance for reflection with my fellow travellers. Whilst I wouldn’t rush out to go again, we all agreed it was much more pleasant than we thought… though the 30 minute, rather than the two hour, option still seemed a prudent choice.

And so our desert safari came to an end. As the desert is right on Dubai’s doorstep you can squeeze a great deal into a short overnight sojourn, although this does mean you never really felt a million miles away from civilisation. But if you find yourself in Dubai for more than a couple of days it is well worthwhile heading to the dunes for some alfresco amusement and contemplative reflection. Even if it’s not exactly off the tourist trail it’s a welcome respite from the man-made mega-structures of the city.

Ben’s trip was kindly organised by Gulf Ventures travel company. For further information on all tours please visit www.gulfventures.com, or for desert safaris and excursions contact Sarath Vidanage direct (Tel: +971 4 404 5880 or Mobile: +971 50 552 3297 Email: sarath.vidanage@gulfventures.com). Meanwhile head to Urban Travel Blog’s guide to city breaks in Dubai for more mayhem in the United Arab Emirates.

3 thoughts on “Shisha, Sun and Sand: On Safari in Dubai

  1. Amazing experience and awesome shisha. Was dying to have a proper shisha and I would definitely suggest each and every person on this earth to go for desert safari in Dubai. It is one such awesome experience that will thrill you.

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