Our short 3-day layover in Dubai included visits to the largest shopping mall in the world as well as to Burj Khalifa – the tallest building. For our final full day in the United Arab Emirates, we were off on the obligatory Dubai Desert Safari.
We were not expecting much, but it turned out to be great fun with Dune Bashing, an Arab campsite way out in the desert, sunset photos, getting dressed up in the traditional gear, henna tattooing, camels, shishas, tea, barbecue, birds of prey and belly dancing!
What more could you want?
Booking in Advance
A month earlier we had sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org requesting rates and itinerary for their Evening Desert Safari.
They advise you to make a prior reservation before arrival into Dubai in order to avoid any over-booking problems on your chosen date. You simply send them your name, direct contact number, pick up location and the exact date you want to do the tour. They then send you the booking details. Payment can be made in cash/credit card on the first date of the safari excursion directly to their English-speaking drivers.
We agreed to pay AED 195 ($53) per person to share a Land Cruiser, including a complimentary pick-up and drop-off service from our hotel in Dubai. For a bit extra, you can take a private Land Cruiser or even a private Hummer.
The guide arrived in the lobby of our hotel – Winchester Hotel Apartments – right on time between 3.00 pm-3.30 pm, and we mounted a comfortable air-conditioned 4×4 Land Cruiser. We then drove around the suburbs of Dubai while the driver picked up another 3 people (5 of us in all, plus the driver). For us, even this part of the trip was interesting as we hadn’t had time to discover ourselves the less touristy areas of the city.
We were quite impressed with the quality, style and cleanliness of the suburban estates we passed through. Everywhere seemed to be very calm and organized (this may also have been just a natural reaction immediately following 3 weeks travelling around Sri Lanka).
Before long, we were heading out of the city and into the desert via a modern well-maintained highway. Along the way, we noticed various tented camps by the roadside. Apparently, local families often camp out in the desert at weekends to take a break from the city (and to let the camel stretch it’s legs 😎 ).
Getting into the Mood
After around 40 minutes we stopped at what looked like a final frontier town before starting the desert safari proper. There were a lot of coaches and Land Cruisers like our own. There were also large groups of foreigners milling around the souvenir shops and coke stands. This was obviously the usual tourist drop-off and assembly area.
We were divided into little convoys of vehicles (almost like the old “caravans”). Each group would travel separately over the dunes to the main desert safari campsite several kilometers away.
Before setting out into the sand dunes, we took a look around the little shops. I couldn’t resist buying a keffiyeh, the traditional Middle Eastern cotton headdress fashioned from a square scarf and typically worn by Arabs and Kurds. The keffiyeh came to prominence during the 1960s with the beginning of the Palestinian Liberation movement and its adoption by Palestinian politician Yasser Arafat.
With a little help from the vendors, I learned how to tie the scarf and was surprised how light and comfortable it was. I kept it on for the rest of the evening.
Dune Bashing Brilliance
After a quick potty break, it was time to head out into the desert for the really active part of the evening. We drove out slowly over the dunes in a convoy of around 5 or 6 Land Cruisers. When we were a good way out into the desert, well clear of any signs of civilization, the driver stopped the vehicle. By this time, we also seemed to have lost the other vehicles in our convoy. We all got out while he deflated the tyres to around 50%.
Now is about the time you might start to regret having that last serving of curry and rice for lunch.
When we got back in, the driver started slowly to test the suspension. One of the 2 young girls in the back yelled out:
“Go for it! Real Animal-Style!”
Without the need for any further subtle hints, the driver put the pedal to the metal.
So this was Dune Bashing. A race up the incline of successively higher dune formations, then frantic skidding around on the crests, punctuated by some truly stomach-churning drops and jarring twists. Visibility periodically disappears in torrential sprays of displaced red sand.
Encouraged by the cries and squeals of his captive audience, our driver kept going for it, and I could see the face of the young woman in the front seat of the vehicle steadily going green.
After around 15 minutes the driver stopped, at the request of the green lady. She was given about 3 minutes to recover, and then we were off again. This time we were both shaken and stirred.
Though doubtless the driver driver had done this hundreds of times, I was impressed at how he managed to keep the vehicle upright.
Sunset in the Desert
Another 15 minutes and we’d all just about had enough. We parked up in a nice secluded area of the desert and took some refreshment.
They time these safari events perfectly: It was about 30 minutes before sunset, and we were rewarded with some breathtaking vistas of the (now) peaceful desert. The color and even the texture of the sand is really something special.
We all separated on foot and found our own little spots in the dunes to enjoy the sunset. As far as we were concerned, this little safari trip had already been well worth the effort.
As the day was drawing to a close, we headed on further into the desert to the North Tours ‘Desert Safari Campsite’. This area is set up like a traditional enclosed circular Bedouin camp.
Before the evening festivities start, you have an hour or so of free time to try out a number of interesting activities. For AED 100/-pp, you can try your hand (or should I say feet) at Sand boarding. If you’re not feeling so energetic, you can hire a Quad Bike instead AED 125/-pp. For the kids (or the young at heart) you can take a short camel ride through the desert.
Inside the Dubai Desert Safari Campsite
Inside the camp, there is a tent stocked with traditional Arab clothing. There you’ll find some smiling assistants who will help you don a dishdasha (long white robe) and headscarf (keffiyeh).
For the ladies, you can don the abaya, a long black robe with a hijab (the head-scarf which covers the neck and part of the head). You can even add a niqab which covers the mouth and nose and only leaves the eyes exposed. You can try on what you want, and take photos using some of the traditional bedouin backdrops that are built in and around the campsite.
If you have time, you can even get an intricate henna tattoo to really put you in the mood. All of these little extras are complimentary.
It’s around this time that you can finally pay the Dubai Desert Safari company for your tickets. It’s probably better to do this with a credit card, since you’ll be needing your cash for the bar. By now you’ll be ready for some alcohol (there is a fully stocked bar – pay per consumption – cash only).
Soft drinks are complimentary.
The campsite has a large central podium around which the Arabic seating is arranged (floor furnished with carpets, low tables and cushions). Behind the seating area they had set up two kitchen areas – one on each side. Here you can take a plate and choose from a good selection of meats and veggies (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options are available).
The campsite is big – catering to perhaps 500 or 600 people – but is well organized, and queueing isn’t a problem. There are also separate restroom facilities for men and women.
There is entertainment during dinner, with music, fire dancers and finally the long-awaited belly dancer (our belly dancer turned out to be Russian!). All top-notch fun, and not in the least tacky. There is even an exquisitely well-dressed guy walking around the site with a falcon.
Back to the City
As soon as the belly dancer has finished her act it’s time to find your guide, and then locate your transport to head back to the city. The whole safari experience takes around 6 hours, but seems much less, and at $53 per person is unbeatable value.
Our driver dropped us off just after 9.00 pm. He was taking us back to our hotel, but we asked him to instead drop us off at the Dubai Mall (for a last shop-around before our departure the following day). This he did with no problem.
Our Dubai Desert Safari experience made a fitting end to this short stopover in the city. After our final trip to the Mall, all that remained was to sleep for 3 hours before yet again getting up at 5 am for our final flights back home.
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