The cloud of dust makes it impossible to see anything through the windshield as the Land Cruiser careens at an alarming 45-degree angle, clinging onto the ridiculously narrow ridge of a sand dune. I wish I had a remote control to change the channel. Unfortunately, I am living it. As this dune-bashing trip in the Arabian Desert takes us screeching, tilting, swinging across the sand, I grab on in desperation to someone’s seat, someone else’s arm, and my half-digested lunch.
All travel brochures about the Middle East speak beguilingly about the desert safari. Before you die, they urge, you must travel up to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. And once you have touched the sky from the viewing deck on the 124th floor, you have to go dune bashing and die soul-satisfied, your jeep turned turtle, buried in sand.
I exaggerate, of course. The package put together for the desert safari—a slice of Bedouin life, they promise—is as gilded as any of the gold coins sold in the souks. Original Bedouins, or Badawiyin, Arabic for desert-dwellers, lived an undoubtedly harder life in tents, hard-pressed for food and water, before the oil boom catapulted them to prosperity. But tonight, we are to be treated to an Arabian Nights fantasy, crafted out of stretches of sand, sun, and smoking shishas. I can’t wait.
We have flown out to Dubai to be with friends, and since our two young boys threaten to grow roots in the air-conditioned malls, we decide to haul them off to the great outdoors. Three families team up to hit those dunes. We are picked up from Dubai mid-afternoon, and driven southwest on the Hatta Road. The desert safari offers riding, dancing, dinner, and a sunset thrown in for free.
To notch up the mood, the driver stops at a remote outburst of stalls selling everything from magnets to souvenir camels of all sizes, materials, and digestive disorders, judging by their uniformly disgruntled expressions. There are eerie ceramic eyes dangling everywhere. I’m told they’re talismans meant to protect one from the evil eye, nadhar. The talismans mostly feature a blue evil eye, to ward off the Westerner’s often unintentionally evil eye, it is explained. I zero in on a slinky chiffon hip scarf, aglitter with coin-sized sequins, which seems appropriately Bedouin-glam.
When we reach our spot in the Al Aweer Desert, we swerve off-road towards a cluster of people and camels. Then we wait, in the baking heat of the Arabian April—desert as far as the eye can see, vehicles still bringing in excited tourists—until a cloud of smoke and sand on the horizon announces our rides. Thirty white Land Cruisers zoom in like well-trained seals, kicking up a private sandstorm. The drivers jump out, and proceed to let out some air from the tyres so that they will grip the sand better.
Our driver is the chatty type. He wants to discuss our genealogical roots and the Asian economy, while on his gravity-defying stunts. This involves him draping an arm casually over his seat, while he turns back to talk to us. Keep your eyes on the road, we’d have yelled, but there is no road. A dune as large as a two-storeyed building looms up ahead, and he gamely drives right into it, up, and then, almost free-falling, brakes his way down the other side. Citing medical reasons like spine surgery, some of us adults have been promised a slow car. “No fear, no worry, very slow, very safe,” we are told. We proceed to break speed records, race the others on our stretch, and send sand and blood pressure spiralling as we hurtle along. After scraping sideways on the sliding edge of a sand dune, and twisting mid-dune on to another, he turns towards us with a smile. “There are no slow cars,” he confesses.
Nevertheless, dune bashing is a thrill. For the kids, it’s like a sugar rush. Ours have the wild-eyed look and hoarse throats from half an hour of whooping in glee. Disappointed somewhat, that there are no wild beasts on the safari’s next challenge, one of the kids says hopefully, “Maybe they’ll give us poisonous snakes.” For others, the dune bashing is a chance to push one’s limits—and to bite off one’s cuticles.
The camp we’re headed to lies in a valley. It’s really a large square around a central stage, walled-in by stalls selling souvenirs, spices, and carpets. The doshak or seating area is set up like the quintessential Arab majlis, a central courtyard of sorts where a sheikh traditionally hosted his guests over dates and coffee. Rough camel and goat-hair rugs and cushions called tekay are thrown around low tables. The cloud of smoke in one stall lifts to unveil a string of youth lounging around shishas. In another, a woman etches henna tattoos on to eager palms. There is even a stall offering Arab garb, the white thawb or dishdasha for men, and the black abaya for women. (Having given in to the temptation of dressing up Arabian, I wake up to the perils next morning, when some not-very-flattering pictures of me make it to Facebook.)
Then the cry goes up—the sun is setting! People rush up, cradling cameras, to the top of the nearest dune. And once its audience is ready, the magnificent desert sun, a brilliant red scorcher, goes down fighting flamboyantly behind the faraway flat horizon, streaking the skies with fuchsias and flamingo pinks.
There is a bit of a rush to get the best seats in the camp, and as dusk settles in, the belly dancer makes the scramble worth it. Belly dancing has been reported in temple engravings of Mesopotamia, as far back as 1,000 B.C. Its origins are hazy, ranging from preparing women for labour to the rituals of temple priestesses. Our dancer is not the veiled dark-haired beauty of so many films and fantasies, but a Scandinavian-looking blonde who performs with detached professional skill, knives and kaftans effortlessly woven into belly-wobbling routines. She invites women from the audience to the stage, deftly declining the inebriated men who try to hop on instead, her smile never leaving her lips. A denim-clad five-year-old tot from our group scrambles to the stage sportingly and shakes her shoulders to bring the house down. The belly dancer, smile undimmed, bows out.
The bar is doing a thriving trade and dinner is called. This is definitely not the highlight of the desert safari: The food is cold and gritty to parched throats more in need of water, while the swelling crowds dissuade all but the bravest. However, no one complains. A reckless energy tinges the air; laughter and talk mingle with the swirling shisha smoke.
All of a sudden, the music gives way to a throb of drumbeats. A tall, thin young man with a gelled ponytail and what can best be described as many-tiered skirts comes to the stage and without preamble, begins to spin around, eyes shut. After his first 20 spins, we are hooked. The Tanoura dancer builds it up, whipping around, in a semi-trance, to one scintillating crescendo after another, his skirts whirling around while he whisks out discs, five of them, juggling them as he spins. Tanoura draws from the spiritual whirling of the Sufi dervishes of Egypt. The belief that the world begins and ends at the same point necessitates this circular spinning in one spot. In his divine trance therefore, the dancer pirouettes, a word too daintily inappropriate for the raw performance he delivers for around 20 minutes. It is one of the most mesmerising acts I’ve seen.
The desert safari offers one last performance—a woman who dances with fire—but she seems wary and is relieved when word gets out that the Cruisers have arrived to take us back to base.
It’s been a spellbinding night. I look at the dust-streaked faces around me and the tired grins after seven hours of adrenaline. The star-spangled sky hovers over, almost close enough to touch. As we walk out, high on Tanoura spinning, incense smoke, and the camaraderie of good friends, it seems anything is possible on an Arabian night.
It is then that I see our dune bashing Land Cruisers lying in wait. No! Not on a full stomach! Can I ride the camel back instead? I climb into the vehicle and notice the evil-eye talisman dangling on the rear-view mirror. I give it a rub just to be on the safe side. It works. I live to see another day.
Appeared in the October 2014 issue as “Been There, Dune That”.
Dubai is the second largest of the seven emirates that form the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is the most cosmopolitan and populated emirate, with only 15 per cent of its people estimated to be nationals. It is on the Persian Gulf coastline, 126 km northeast of Abu Dhabi. The safari is conducted in one of the vast strips of desert outside the main city, usually off Hatta Road.
There are several daily non-stop flights from India to Dubai, on both Indian and international carriers. Flying time is 3-4 hours. A 30-day tourist visa can be sought through travel agents, airlines, hotels, or a UAE national sponsor. The visa costs ₹6,800 (14 days) and ₹4,150 (96 hours/4 days). Visitors flying Emirates can obtain their visa on the airline’s website. The application form, also available at www.dubaivisa.net, can be filled and couriered to the nearest visa application centre along with a demand draft. The visa processing time is 3-4 working days.
Dubai is part of a tropical desert and is sunny through the year. Summer (May-Oct) is long, with temperatures in the range of 30-45°C. The beaches are best avoided during this time, because the water heats up to 37°C. There is low rainfall between December and March, reducing the temperature to 25°C during the day and 10°C at night. Dubai is so completely organised around air-conditioned offices, hotels, malls, cars, and restaurants, that it is tolerable for a tourist at any time of the year. However, the desert safari is an outdoor activity, and December through March are the best months for it.
The Desert Safari
Most tour operators offer an evening desert safari. Tourists are picked up at 3 p.m. and taken to a desig-nated spot, about an hour away, where they transfer to a four-wheel drive to go dune bashing. The evening ends at a recreated Bedouin camp. Tours cost AED 290-440/₹4,600-7,000 per head. More expensive ones include Arabic coffee, dates, and extras like camel rides, shisha, and Arab costumes, or falcons for photograph-taking. Other organisers usually charge separately for these. Quad biking is priced at AED 100/₹1,600. Liquor can be bought at the bar.
Need To Know
Credit cards are accepted in most malls and stores, but it is better to carry dirhams on the desert safari.
It is best for women to dress conservatively on the safari.
Alcohol, although permitted, is restricted to licensed bars or hotels.
During Ramadan, eating and drinking in public places before sunset is not allowed. The desert safari during Ramadan does not include the bar or belly dance.
Those who are sensitive to sand, or asthmatic, should carry masks or scarves and their medication.
Jane De Suza is an author and creative consultant. Her books include the humorous thriller "The Spy Who Lost Her Head" and the best-selling SuperZero series for kids. She lives in Bangalore, writes for magazines and advertising brands across the world; and brings back masks, germs and funny stories from her frequent travels.