Dubai Dunes





David Whitley leaves the big city behind and finds himself starstruck on the sand





Above the tarmac, the wisps of sand dance in the wind. They move with the hypnotic rhythms of a belly dancer.




We’re not far out of Dubai. The city proper hugs the coastal strip, but it keeps coughing up seemingly unattached and unloved developments between the barren chunks of scrubby white sand.




Until you start heading inland, it’s easy to forget that the 21st century supercity of Dubai is built on top of a desert. Yet soon enough, the development disappears and the dunes begin. Left and right, the gentle golden hills roll off into the horizon, while the sand intrudes on the hard shoulder. There must be a daily sweeping mission to stop the road getting buried.




The world suddenly seems a rather empty place until a camel lumbers on by. Fences are put up to stop them ambling across the road, causing accidents.




The sandhills start getting larger and redder in colour. Thin rusty waves top the dunes, sliding down in isobar-like packs to create serpentine patterns. The desert has an entrancing majesty that acts as a siren call. The vast emptiness is overpowering.



We make a turn and arrive at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.  A flotilla of 4x4 vehicles soon arrives, and streams of desert virgins wander on over for the brief falcon show. When it enters its swoop, the peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on earth. One soars and divebombs around us before its trainer puts a glove over the meaty bait. The falcon suddenly forgets dinner was ever there.




The most exciting swoops are to be had on the dunes, however. The Landcruisers form a vehicular conga and set off across the desert to the camp where we’ll have dinner. They lurch up and down the dunes, heavily revving to make the biggest climbs, then tottering along tiny ridges before sliding down the sides and kicking up mountains of sand into the air.




There doesn’t appear to be much of a circuit – it’s all just interchangeable dunes – but apparently we’re looping 15km through the desert. It’s tremendous fun, although there are plenty of casualties. As we pull in for a photo stop, the injury list is apparent. Six 4WDs are still sat on top of their respective dunes, with passengers stood by the side. The drivers have misjudged and tow rope-wielding help has arrived to pull them into a position where they can get moving again.




By now, the sun is a bright red circle, slowly descending. On its way into the black of night, it bathes the desert in other-worldly light. The softly windblown waves of red sand move like the scales on the back of an incomprehensibly huge beast; every grain of sand takes on its own colour and personality. Everyone around seems to disappear. I’ve got a weird tunnel vision. It’s just me, the drifting sand and, finally, darkness.




Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of Arabian Adventures on their Sundowner desert adventure.




You can get a stopover in Dubai on the Globehopper RTW or the Navigator RTW



David Whitley finds himself in a hazily-bordered part of Arabia, throwing stones into a mirage
Masood eyes up the ground carefully. He’s looking for one that’s just the right size.

He spots the perfect stone and stoops to pick it up. Carefully slotting it into the curve of one finger, he takes a short run and hurls the stone as high and as far as he can.

The technique is all there – he’d be your first choice as a boundary fielder if you were putting together a cricket team. The stone flies fast, high and with the optimum curve. But it falls short, hitting the wall of the canyon and bouncing down towards the glassy-watered pools and palm trees. Wadi Shuwayhah is an exceptional sight, largely because you just don’t expect it to appear. We’d left the desert dunes and had been bouncing along the dirt tracks through the Hajar Mountains. The scenery as you head south-east from Dubai switches between two types of spectacularly barren. As the sandhills start to flatten, proper rocky, volcanic hills appear in the distance. The two blend until you’re suddenly driving across a rubbly moonscape.

And then, just as grey-black stones become a new normality, the earth falls away. Pulling up at the side of the wadi, the opposing canyon wall stares back, every bit as majestic (albeit smaller) than those of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
The jolt comes in looking down below; it looks completely different. The date palm groves and neatly cut stream beds make it an overly optimistic painter’s mirage. It’s somewhere to take in, jaw slackened.

The route to Hatta is not simple. Hatta is part of Dubai, but you have to leave Dubai to get there, heading through the Emirate of Sharjah, where the dunes are sadly strewn with litter and remnant panels from battered buggies. You also cross over into Oman – the border checks are very half-arsed and passports aren’t stamped. And it’s in this oddly uncared about stretch of hazily-bordered neverland that Wadi Shuwayhah lies.

Masood’s failure is an instant, unspoken macho challenge. Suddenly the boys in the group feel compelled to take off their jackets, put whatever they’re holding down and start scrabbling around for stones.

Internal debate over the ideal smoothness and size – enough weight to carry it, not too much to make it drop too early – is written over their faces. But projectiles are picked, run-ups are made and stones are watched as they fall agonisingly short.
And so it continues, with second and third attempts merging into twentieth and thirtieth attempts. The only thing stopping every rock on one side being hurled at the other is that there are only four of us. Masood is the first to crack the jackpot, his stone kicking up a miniature cloud of dust on the other side.
The joy is in the simplicity though. This is the exact opposite of Dubai’s ski slopes in shopping malls, butler service resorts and ever-increasing glass towers. It’s a game that local men have probably played for centuries. And it’s so blissfully, peacefully absorbing that we’re reluctant to leave.

Disclosure: David was a guest of Arabian Adventures on their Secrets Of The Desert Tour.







10 tips for Dubai


If you’re stopping over in Dubai for a couple of days, David Whitley has some advice that will help prepare you for what you’re about to encounter