THE DESERT’S AT THE DOOR
Fifty years ago, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, was just a cluster of huts sheltering the fishermen and pearl divers who pulled a living from the Creek. Aside from this small settlement, the rest was sand – 6,000 square kilometres of it.When oil was discovered in 1966, the Emirate began to blossom like the desert after rain. Money flooded in and construction started; at one time it was estimated that a quarter of all the building cranes in the world were at work in Dubai. But beyond the encroaching city, the desert remains and it’s worth seeing.
Draw of the desert
A drive of less than an hour leaves the city of Dubai behind and brings you to the edge of the Arabian Desert. Almost 4,000 sq km of this vast expanse – second in size only to the Sahara – belongs to the Emirate of Dubai. At first glance, red dunes under a hot sun look like an environment that can take care of itself. But in fact, the desert was no match for the aftershock of Dubai’s prosperity. If the ever-expanding city centre was one problem, the effects of the four-wheel drive vehicle were worse.The tracks of these vehicles squeezed the life out of fragile plants that had survived, until then, for millennia and by 1964, mechanised hunters had all but wiped out the desert’s most beautiful creature, the white Arabian oryx. The breed was saved from extinction by the then ruler of Dubai, Sheik Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the architect of modern Dubai. He sent a small herd of oryx to a sanctuary in Arizona, in the United Staes where they bred in safety. Thirty-five years later, 90 oryx, the descendants of the original herd, were brought back to Dubai’s desert and released in a newly established national park where they now number 250.
When five per cent of the desert was designated a Desert Conservation area in 2002, the problem of ‘dune bashing’ was addressed. Previously, some 19 tour operators had been offering these desert joy rides; that number was reduced to four and wild as the rides may seem, they follow an agreed route. Although ecotourism is in Dubai’s future plans, for the present the experience of sharing this awesome space with the oryx, the desert fox and the Arabian gazelle comes at a price.You can stay in one of the 40 or so villas of a luxurious desert resort, Al Maha, built to look like a Bedouin encampment in an oasis. Costs range from $600 to $1500 a night for the smaller villas but they are the epitome of Arabian luxury. Staff members outnumber guests three to one and each villa enjoys its own, chilled private pool –where oryx now sometimes come to drink.There are falcon displays and the chance to ride into the desert on a horse or camel.
For a much less expensive foray into the desert, book a dune drive and desert dinner with Arabian Adventures.The evening begins with a hair-raising fourwheel drive over the rolling dunes (consider taking a Dramamine) then a stop where you struggle up a dune on your own two feet to photograph the setting sun. At dusk, you get your first glimpse of the Bedouin tent set out for the evening’s feast; the sight is pure romance.
During the evening there’s a chance to have your hands painted with henna, try a puff on a Hubble-bubble pipe, watch some belly dancing and to experience a short ride on a camel. I can report it feels as if you’d straddled a large padded footstool that suddenly morphed to a great height and began to stride around the room. At the end of the evening, before guests climb back into the long convoy of fourwheel drive vehicles for the return to the hotels, the lights are switched off for several minutes.The scene is dimly lit by the moon and stars, the dunes like dry ocean waves rolling into the darkness. Hundreds of people sit in absolute silence for several minutes.When the lights come on again, there’s a momentary pause – and then applause. It could be for the feast, or for the entertainment, but I think it’s probably for the desert.
Al Maha Desert Resort
Book online at www.al-maha.com.The resort will arrange transportation from Dubai.
Book at your hotel or directly on www.arabian-adventures.com for the Sundowner Dune Dinner.
Seven places to shop in Dubai
The choices are almost endless, but here are some highlights:
- The Gold Souk is a covered alleyway lined with hundreds of shops that burst with gold jewellery. If you are good at haggling, you could pay as little as a quarter of the price you’d pay at home.
- The Spice Souk is heaped with sacks of fragrant spices, some familiar enough to buy, others tempting enough to try.
- The Souk Al Kabeer and the Meena Bazaar are like two Aladdin’s caves, full of glittering Indian and Pakistan dress fabrics.
- The Souk Madinat Jumeirah is a cross between a mall and a bazaar; it opens on to the picturesque waterways of the Jumeirah Hotels with the sail-like structure of the Burj Al Arab in the background.
- The Burjuman Mall, of all the Emirate’s 37 malls, has the highest luxe factor. Here trade Prada, Chanel, Kenzo, and others of that ilk; there’s also a Saks Fifth Avenue.
- The Mall of the Emirates is laid out in three levels. Most of its 350 shops bear familiar high-street names. Claiming to be the biggest mall outside of the US, it’s also the home of Ski Dubai. You can gaze through glass walls at the winter scenes inside.
- The Airport Duty Free Shop is a legendary last shopping stop for many travellers. From cameras to cashmeres, there’s something to coax the last dirham from your pocket as you bid Dubai adieu.
Seven things to do in Dubai
There’s more than just shopping in Dubai. For instance:
- Delve into Dubai’s heritage
Visit the Dubai museum in Al Fahidi Fort and the museum in the former home of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoour, the present ruler’s grandfather. This building, dating from 1800, is now part of the Heritage and Diving Village.
- Tour the Jumeirah Mosque
It’s open to the public at 10am on Thursday and Sunday mornings. Admission is free and it’s an opportunity to learn something about Muslim beliefs in a welcoming atmosphere. (Shoulders, arms and legs must be fully covered; women need a headscarf.)
- Visit the Nad Al Sheba Club
Go for a four-hour tour of these racing stables where valuable horses are housed in the manner to which they have become accustomed. The tour starts at 7am and is only available between September and June.
Tee off on Dubai’s first true desert course. All the information you need about the Arabian Ranches Desert Course is on its website at: www.arabianranchesgolfdubai.com. You can even book your tee time online.
- Enjoy afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab
Marvel at the world’s only 7-star hotel over tea or feast on seafood in the hotel’s Al Mahara restaurant; it features a panoramic salt-water aquarium. A three minute simulated submarine descent gets you there. For either option, book by email at: email@example.com.
There are five pistes of varying degrees of difficulty at Ski Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates. The “world’s first indoor black run” stretches for 400 metres and has a 60-metre drop. The area, big as three football fields, is covered in real snow. Equipment and clothes are provided, but not hats or gloves. The temperature is minus 5 degrees C. Open daily, from 10am to 11pm.
- Board the Wonder Bus
This amphibious tour bus leaves from the Burjuman Centre, cruises the creek for an hour, and then crawls back on land to continue Dubai sightseeing.