An Enchanting Desert Safari in Dubai
While Dubai is well-known for launching projects that include superlatives and breaking world records of all sorts, the government also realized that its desert habitat was quickly vanishing.
The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, a 45-minute drive from the city, straddles an area of 225 square kilometers — 4.7 percent of Dubai’s total land area. It was the first national park of the United Arab Emirates, aimed to protect Dubai’s breathtakingly stunning desert habitat.
“We are increasingly aware of the urgent need to take good care of our priceless natural heritage, all the more so as Dubai is expanding so fast,” the chairman of DDCR, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, is quoted as saying on the website. “The reserve protects our last unspoiled desert and unique Arabian way of life for future generations to enjoy.”
The reserve has also become a magnet for tourists, who want to enjoy a magical taste of 1,001 nights and try to get away from the busy and crowded city, Dubai. Here, on the reserve, there is nothing but sand dunes as far as the eye can see and the land is unspoiled by skyscrapers and modern buildings.
Several tour operators offer adventure journeys into the depths of the reserve, including dune driving, camel treks, archery, sand boarding and camping. Among those operators is Arabian Adventures and one of their most popular tours is the Sundowner.
Visitors joining this tour are in for a thrilling journey. Trained safari guides take them into the heart of the desert with several stops along the way.
The Sundowner begins with a falconry demonstration. The falcon is the national bird of UAE and represents force and courage; they are fast flying birds that like to take their prey in the air. They have been used for hunting for centuries and falconry is a traditional sport of the Arabian Gulf.
During the safari, a handler explains the history of the falcon and its character traits and then shows off the bird’s hunting abilities. At the beginning, the falcon’s eyes and ears were covered by a little helmet as to help the bird relax. Once the handler removed the helmet, the falcon went into attacking mode. The bird also had a GPS tracker on its back, to locate it in case it goes missing.
On a rope, the handler had attached a piece of meat, which he began swinging. As soon as the falcon was released, it eyed it’s prey, circled and then quickly swooped — only for the handler to swish it out of reach, so the falcon would commence yet another attack.
The demonstration beautifully displayed the speed and natural instincts of the falcons, that are also referred to as “hunting dogs of the skies.” The handler repeated the exercise several times before he let the falcon catch the bait and gave him a little extra as a reward. The tour then continued with the most entertaining part of the evening: dune bashing.
Perched together in a 4x4 vehicle, going up and down the dunes at high speed feels like riding a roller coaster in the best possible way. Our guide and driver for the day was Faisal, who originally comes from Pakistan. He was as cool and nonchalant as he was skilled; with at times only one hand on the steering wheel and going as fast as possible, he managed to point out a mountain chain on the horizon, explain about the desert’s wildlife as we passed by a lonely gazelle slouching in the sand or adjust the GPS.
“We are doing the dune bashing during this time of the day on purpose,” Faisal said with a laugh. “We couldn’t do it after people have their dinner. They would feel sick.”
Faisal stopped two times to allow photo opportunities; the stunning sunset was the perfect backdrop for gorgeous pictures. Although the Sundowner tour consists of a whole convoy of cars that can each fit up to six people, one only had to take a few steps away from the groups, and felt like being completely alone in the desert.
The Bedouin-style camp, the last stop of the night, was a feast for the eyes. Pillows and carpets laid out on the ground made for comfortable seating areas, while some stalls and shops offered sand art and camel milk products, such as ice cream.
A few camels with colorful muzzles and saddles were lined up, ready to take visitors for a spin. There was also an opportunity for henna painting — the art of temporary tattooing based on plant dyes; this was especially popular with the women, who could choose between different patterns such as butterflies, flowers or scorpions.
Dinner consisted of a wide range of Middle Eastern food, ranging from fresh salads to grilled meats, as well as the tradition al mezzeh (a selection of small dishes served in the Middle East and the Balkans that include favorites like hummus and falafel). A belly dancer — a slender young woman from Brazil — performed in the middle of the camp to entertain the tourists while waiting for the devilishly sweet desserts to be served.
After dinner, it seemed like the perfect time to smoke shisha. Since it becomes quite chilly in the desert once the sun goes down, we huddled around the hookah to enjoy the apple-flavored shisha.
“It’s still very common among young people to gather and smoke shisha together,” Faisal said. “We do it all the time, to socialize. It’s one of the traditions that is kept alive.”
Later in the evening, all the lights at the camp were turned off, and everybody was invited to a few minutes of star gazing. Lying flat back on the sand in pitch black surroundings and staring into the sky lit by a full moon and a host of bright stars — the ending to this lovely desert safari couldn’t have been happier.
This article was first published in the Jakarta Globe newspaper on March 25, 2014.