Looking back on my short time in the Middle East, I can easily say that, by far, the coolest thing I did in Dubai was the desert night tour. Realizing I only had a single full day to check out Dubai, I did some research and asked around before I went, and a friend with a cousin who lived in Dubai told me the desert night tour was not to be missed. (Thanks, Little A!) As much as I love my Lonely Planet and Time Out travel books when planning a trip, there is no substitute for a personal recommendation! So, the night I arrived, it was off to the concierge for me – even before I went up to my room, and I reserved a seat on the Desert Safari tour to leave the hotel the next afternoon around 3:30pm. The next day, after a morning of touring, a little snack, and some relaxing in my room, it was time for my tour.
Our driver from Extreme Adventure Tours (http://www.adventure-dubai.com/index.php) came and scooped up me and the 5 other people from my hotel who had also signed up. My fellow tourers for the evening’s adventures were a couple from Singapore, a Colombian woman who is now living in the area of New Jersey that I grew up in, and two IT professionals who were in town for business. We all piled into the Extreme Adventures Chevy Tahoe and we were off!
Forty-five or so minutes after we left downtown Dubai, we arrived at the meet-up area. For safety reasons, a few tour cars will meet up to drive out together, that way if one breaks down (or flips over, which, trust me, does not seem out of the realm of possibility on this tour!) it won’t be stuck out in the middle of the desert by itself. The meet-up area was basically a rest stop, that has been tricked out for the tourists. There was a pillowed seating area where we were told we could sit and take pictures…… I took this picture of the area, but no one actually went in to sit down and have their picture taken in the tent. I think that felt too touristy even for most of the tourists!! They had some souvenir shops where one guy was pushing me to buy a jingly belly dancing outfit…… I resisted. They had a few animals around – some donkeys you could pet, some birds in cages you could check out, and the really sad part: caged monkeys. These poor, adorable little monkeys didn’t have anything in the cage with them to keep them entertained, and they just looked bored. These are not animals that should be caged. I couldn’t even bring myself to take a picture because I didn’t want to encourage the caging of these animals – and I didn’t want a reminder of how sad they looked, though I still can’t get it out of my mind. And as tempted as I was to approach the cage, and try to comfort these monkeys, I didn’t in any way want to signal to the people running this place that this was even remotely OK, so I kept my distance. Anyway, thankfully, we didn’t stick around there too long, and we were off in the Tahoe again, as soon as our driver had let some of the air out of the tires to make it easier to handle on sand (and to make it a slightly less bumpy ride).
Our driver led the small caravan of cars down the highway, stopping to turn onto the desert sand at a marked point. Along the way, we passed a portion of road with sand on both sides, that was partially covered, and there was a truck clearly charged with clearing the sand off the road…… man, that must be a frustrating job! In the reasonably strong winds that were whipping about, it was pretty clear that that guy would never be out of work! The sand covered bout 1/2 the road as we passed, and watching him try to clear it off made me think of Sisyphus from Greek Mythology (making me reach WAY back into the middle school memory banks for that one!) For those who don’t remember Sisyphus, he’s the one was condemned to roll or push the boulder up the mountain, only to have it come back down and start all over again.
[As a side note, I think I might challenge myself to try using the word “sisyphean” in everyday conversations…..
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2010
…… well, on second thought, maybe I won’t….. it might make me feel like a wannabe-intellectual snob….. ]
OK, back to the subject at hand here! We turned off the road, and into the desert sand, and it became quite a bumpy ride!! Our driver had no qualms about trying sharp turns atop a steep dune or rapid descents down longer dunes. Thankfully, the other cars in the caravan gave us some space most of the time – since everyone makes their own path out there, one did come barreling towards us from one direction or another every once in a while, but the drivers all seemed surprisingly in control given the huge lack of traction in this situation! Overall, I’d compare the ride to a roller-coaster ride – thankfully without the barrel-rolls! If you go on this tour I’d make 3 recommendations: 1 – if you get carsick, consider taking precautionary measures like dramamine or gravol (though I do get carsick sometimes, I didn’t take anything before this trip – it didn’t even occur to me! I wound up being fine, but Tim the IT guy wasn’t so lucky, and he got to feeling quite ill on the ride. Once we reached the “village” where we had dinner, he wound up laying down through all of it); 2 – pick the right shoes (and word to the wise: ladies ballerina flats are not the right shoes – I just wound up taking them off and going barefoot, as that was easier); and, 3 – WEAR YOUR SEATBELT!!! That thing kept me from hitting my head on the roof of the Tahoe at least once or twice! And if you want them not to go too wild, let them know – apparently they tailor their driving to what the passengers will be comfortable with, so if you’re not into as wild a ride, just say so.
We stopped to take some pictures of the view. The red sand desert was gorgeous! The other cars in the caravan caught up with us a little while later, so our driver found a good spot for some sand-boarding, and we all got out. The sun was just about to set, so we got some more great pictures, and the adventurous among us (myself included) could try the sand-boarding. There were two kinds of sandboards: a stand up one that looks just like a snowboard; and a sit down one, that looks like a snowboard with no bindings, and just a strap to loop your feet into at the front. I was going to try the stand up one, until I saw a guy who looked much more athletic than me give it a go, and wind up with a face-full of red sand…..
So, I opted for the sit down version. I climbed up the sand dune, fighting my way up the hill. Now, I grew up not too far from a beach, and I already know that it can be hard to walk or run on sand….. that gets even harder when it forms a very steep dune! I probably was slipping every 4th or 5th step, but eventually I made it up there! At the top of the dune, I lined the sandboard up, and climbed on top of the board. Next thing I knew, I was flying down the sand dune……. straight into a scraggly little bush at the bottom of the hill! I hit it, and flopped onto my back, but what a rush! Totally worth all the red sand down my pants! Very fun! The stand up board looked fun too, and some people (who moved like they must be experienced snowboarders) made it look easy, but the ones who didn’t looked like they really ate some sand, so I’m glad I stuck to the sit-down one!!
Once we were done with the sand-boarding and the sun had set, we were back off and on our way to another meeting point. This meeting point had more of a camp kind of a feel to it. Outside, next to the parking lot, they had camel rides, so we all lined up to take our turns riding the camels. The set up kind of reminded me of pony rides at a child’s birthday party, but that didn’t put me off from the activity! I lined up, like the rest, and took my turn on the camel. The ride itself is a little bumpy, but otherwise no different than one would expect. The part that caught me off guard, however, was the beginning and end of the ride! The camel first lays down so that you can climb up, and for a short girl like me, even with the camel laying down, the body is still tall enough to be hard to climb on and off of! And there is no foot hold like on a horse’s saddle to give you a lift up. So I, very ungracefully, mounted my camel, and waited for the rest of the camels behind mine to be ready. Then our line of camels were all full of passengers, and the camel stood up. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a camel stand up, but I never really took note of how they do it until I was on top of one! (If you’re curious, here’s a YouTube video that shows a camel standing up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDDdQOE6vxY) First they kind of go up on their front knees and extend their back legs, so that they’re almost in something like the yoga pose “downward facing dog”…… what does that mean when you’re on top of one?
That the angle of the saddle that you’re sitting changes dramatically throughout the way up! It sort of reminded me of how people look when they ride a mechanical bull – or a real bull, for that matter! Thankfully, this is slower. You have to hold onto the handle on the saddle-thingy and lean way back or way forward as needed. The ride itself was relatively uneventful, as we basically just went around in a circle in a big lot. Then, having been on the camel when he stood up (not sure why I’m assuming it was a male camel, but I am!) I thought I was prepared for him to lay back down again. Yet, the suddenness with which he quickly knelt down on his front knees took me off guard and I let out a tiny little yelp or whoop…. truth be told, I can’t really recollect exactly what the noise was that I made, I just know I made one!! Anyway, that was the end of my first camel riding experience.
After camel rides, we went into the little “village” that was set up for us to have dinner and evening entertainment. We walked into a big square plaza-type set up, that had a large carpeted stage in the center, and low tables with pillows to sit on all around it. Along the edges of this “plaza” were little shops/stalls with souvenirs, a little bar area to get drinks (alcoholic beverages were served but at an extra cost), a little stall where you could get henna tattoos, a stall where the buffet was set up for dinner, an area where they had hooka pipes to smoke shisha (flavored tobacco that you smoke out of a hookah pipe – for more on this, check out wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hookah) – all included in the price of the tour! And the dinner, which was a sampling of traditional Arabic foods, was very tasty.
Then, after we had gotten our henna tattoos, eaten our meal, had a look around through the souvenir shops, and some had smoked some shisha, we sat down for the entertainment portion of the evening. The entertainment was a belly-dancer, who came out wearing these long gold wing-thingies. She danced and fluttered with them for a while, then put the wings aside, and did more of what I think of as a traditional belly dance. It was pretty interesting, and the men were certainly intrigued!
She moved really well, though many watching seemed tired and ready to go home, so I wouldn’t say she had the whole crowd enthralled or anything. Overall, the tour took about 6 hours from pickup to dropoff, so by the end of it, people were starting to fade. But the tour included all of the food, non-alcoholic beverages, and activities, all for about $75 US (270AED) – I think it was a GREAT value! I highly recommend it to anyone who goes through Dubai. You see cool sights, experience unusual things (at least unusual for us westerners), get some authentic local food, and see some amazing natural views. Not to be missed!
Awaiting my next adventure to share with you all,
the travelling chitalian.