A Night in the Desert – Dubai Overnight Desert Safari
Ever wondered what it was like for Lawrence of Arabia out in the desert? Do you think you could survive a night in the desert, alone amongst the dunes? If you plan to holiday in Dubai it’s worth considering an overnight Desert Safari. The dune bashing, desert camp and Arabian supper may be rather touristy experiences, but they are fun and the kids love them. Book onto a Dubai desert trip overnight experience, and after the crowds, belly dancers and camels head home, I guarantee a night you will never forget. And a desert sunrise to match…
The desert for tourists
In my mind the idea of a desert safari conjures up notions of Lawrence of Arabia or Wilfred Thesiger wandering across a desert wilderness on a camel. Not exactly a family activity you might think. But there is another version which is. It’s a lot less wild and independent, a lot more packaged and family friendly and ideal for tourists looking for a taste of everything desert without risk or hardship. It’s a desert-in-a-day packaged experience, although you will still get sand in all your bits.
For sheer convenience it begins with a pick up at your hotel. No, not by camel but by a shiny white, air conditioned 4WD. No Bedouin guide either; instead a professional driver whisks you out of town, into the desert and up onto the dunes to join a dozen other white 4WDs, tires already deflated, ready to tackle the dunes. This is a hedonistic modern caravan but there are no camels to squeal; you do that for yourself as you veer, tilt and lurch up over the ridges of shifting dunes, before crashing down sheer sandy drops chasing the car in front.
Arabian sand sport
4WD dune bashing is your starter. More desert sport awaits at the Desert Camp, a giant arena within the gated conservation area where you are greeted by men in white robes inviting you to try some all-Arabian experiences; henna tattoos, smoking hookah pipes, trying on traditional dishdash dress and holding a falcon. They offer you sand boards and point you towards a slope that looks tame yet is a real challenge to navigate with a board strapped to your feet.
They help you onto a camel and walk you around; smiling happily when the animal suddenly lies down and you feel like a car crash in action.
A Dubai desert trip is a taste of Arabia
A buffet follows, with local foods and then a belly dancer. It’s all very colourful and fast moving. Yet inauthentic. You just know that if it weren’t for the tourists this camp wouldn’t exist; along with all the other camps packed into this small space of desert. The drivers would probably be taking your taxi fare at Dubai airport instead and the chefs would be working in a mall restaurant.
So yes, if our day trip had ended here, I’d have been disappointed. But once the camp is cleared, once the falcon goes away, the staff wander off to another camp, the tea urn is turned off, the plates are cleared and the darkness falls, the real experience begins.
Despite how it’s portrayed in films, it’s noisy in the desert. The camels grunt and snort pretty much all the time. The camp generator drones on. There is nothing to deflect the wind so it can howl around your ears. Our kids chitter as they play in the sand. But once our beds are made, sleeping bags carefully placed in the middle of the arena on freshly swept patterned rugs, then it all begins to calm down. The camels are led off to their stables; we can just about glimpse them walking away in the dark. The generator splutters to silence. And we climb into our beds, with our own non alcoholic mini bar on hand. We crack open a can and look up, the bubbles going up my nose. It’s peaceful and silent and amazing. Above us, only stars. And maybe planets. We try to pick out Venus.
The magic of a night in the desert
At some point in the night I awake and the moon has come out to play. It’s a full moon in a dark, dark sky; no light pollution here. And it seems unreal. Too big. Too bright. Am I dreaming?
I set our alarms for 5.30 a.m and in the darkness of the appointed hour we sleepily creep outside of the camp. It’s cold and I shiver. There’s a gentle pink bleeding into the world, but we aren’t quite ready for it. I need to see the sun rise from the top of a dune. I try to climb a peak and it crumbles away beneath me. It’s like walking in syrup. I fall on my knees and scramble up, sand running through my fingers. And sit at the top. And watch it all begin, as it has since biblical times and long before.
The real desert trip
This is without a doubt the real thing. Our desert safari might be conceived for the tourists, packaged for the tourists and delivered to tourists on time and on budget, but once the rest of the pack have gone home, it is, ultimately, just the wilderness and you. The desert doesn’t put this show on for tourists only.
I look out over miles of untouched sand stretching into Oman and beyond. The Empty Quarter they call it. It is empty. And it helps you empty your mind. Unclutter it. I feel small and insignificant and rather plain next to all that natural beauty. And that’s good.
A tangible sense of wilderness
In my opinion you can’t visit Dubai without getting a taste of the desert. And this is a safe and easy way to do it. No scorpions in your pants; no hassle; a pick up and drop off from your door and a full buffet dinner. But if you are planning a desert safari in Dubai then it’s worth investing extra cash into the overnight camp to spend a whole night in the desert. Into the late evening and overnight we have the whole camp to ourselves apart from two French women. Even the staff leave.
Why do it? Well, the desert is one of the earth’s great wildernesses. And there aren’t many of our wildernesses still with us. I read with dismay recently about Bjork’s flight to save Iceland’s wild places from the aluminium plants. You have to experience real wilderness to know what it is to be alone and to understand your place in the world.
Lessons drawn in the sand
But what I also learnt is that the desert isn’t like it is in the movies, when you are consuming it in a comfy chair with popcorn. It’s hot and windy. It’s impossible for a muggle to navigate, hard to get anywhere by foot and only marginally easier by camel. In parts it glitters with litter (‘desert picnics’ explains Shereef our driver) and in other places it’s stuffed with camels. It’s fun to cartwheel, thrilling to drive, and ultimately gobsmackingly, awe inspiringly beautiful. And it changes every single day; the wind slicing through the dunes, moving and reshaping them by lifting off the top layer of sand every time the sun rises on those ripples.
Unless you are a bit of an explorer, you’ll never spend long periods in the desert. But if you are in Dubai, it’s worth trying out the packaged up Dubai desert safari. You get a henna tattoo, a good night’s sleep, a brief realisation that you really, really don’t matter, and an understanding that a camel, not a dog is man’s best friend; even if it snorts for England.
For an African desert adventure read my post on Tunisia for families.