Going on a Desert Safari, Dubai Style

 

There’s lots not to miss in Dubai. But top of my list was the desert safari.

Okay, it’s a tourist thing. But it’s still exotic, a peek at traditional Bedouin life — and a total giggle.
My two friends and I were picked up at our hotel in a four wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser for the hour drive into the dunes. Along the way, a procession of camels crossed our path, probably a hundred of them, loping down the street, heading for race training.

Camels being taken to a track for race training in Dubai, UAE. The small objects on some camel's backs are robot jockeys that are radio controlled. Camels are not strong enough to race with heavy weights. In earlier times, small children were used as jockeys but when laws were passed prohibiting this practice, the children were replaced with the five pound robots. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Camels en route to race training in Dubai.  The small objects on some camels’ backs are radio-controlled robot jockeys.  Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Several had a small box atop the saddle. Camels are more fragile than you think and can’t race carrying a lot of weight. So in past years, it was young children in the saddles, sometimes with catastrophic results. Laws were passed, robots invented and today, the camels race with radio controlled machines that weigh maybe five pounds.

We stopped briefly at a camel camp, with adorable camel babies as guide Yasir Ali explained a bit about camel farming and added, casually, “ Here camels have more value than humans.”

In Your Bucket Because

  • You want something a bit more adventurous than siting in a bus for a city tour.
  • You would like to learn more about traditional Bedouin life.
  • You don’t mind trekking halfway around the globe for your answers.
  • Good for folks with an adventurous spirit and in the case of the dune bashing, a strong stomach.

Then off to the dune bashing, an experience not for the faint of stomach. “I am quite experienced in this,” Yasir said as we careened up, over and down the dunes, often sideways, while he seemed to defy the laws of physics with the car.

Sand Is A Many Colored Thing

The sand here had changed from uniform gold to a strange multi colored mix with a thin sprinkled layer of red atop the gold. And the colors remained distinctly separated somehow. So while I’ve always thought sand was basically beige it turns out in the seven Emirate states, dunes run the gamut of seven colors, from light tan through gold, red and even black.

Multicolored desert sand outside Dubai, UAE. Desert sand in the Middle East comes in seven colors, ranging from light beiige through red to black. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Multicolored desert sand outside Dubai, UAE. Desert sand in the Middle East comes in seven colors, ranging from light beiige through red to black. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Yasir also stopped by a scrubby ground cover littered by what looked like yellow plastic toys. It turned out to be something he called desert gourd and was used in previous times to treat diabetes but in more modern times, has been found to have anti inflammatory properties. It’s also rich in calcium.

Sunset was glorious as a blood red ball slid behind the dunes. And then we were at the camp, a collection of cloth tents with pillows for seating and rugs for floors. We were greeted with rose water to wash our hands and Arabic coffee to perk us up, then off to try a hookah.

Camel riding at Bedouin camp during desert safari in Dubai, UAE. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Camel riding at Bedouin camp during desert safari in Dubai, UAE. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

The hookah, an instrument for vaporizing and smoking flavored tobacco where the vapor is passed through a water basin, is ubiquitous in the Middle East. We encountered it everywhere, including on the swimming pool deck of several very upper class hotels.

And of course, I had to give it a go. But, um, you can’t blow the smoke out of your mouth unless you inhale and produce bubbles in the device, no matter how hard you suck on it. My friends have a great shot of me turning purple and coughing my head off. So much for my smoking experiment.

Freshly applied henna dye applied during desert safari outside Dubai, UAE. The henna is allowed to dry, then rubbed off, leaving a non permanent tattoo behind. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Freshly applied henna dye applied during desert safari outside Dubai, UAE. The henna is allowed to dry, then rubbed off, leaving a non permanent tattoo behind. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Later that evening, we got henna tattoos and a chance to ride a camel. The saddles are far more comfy than you expect and the most exciting part is when the beast rocks forward, then backward to stand, a motion that feels like it’s becoming some kid’s transformer toy under your rump.

On To The Henna And More

As for the henna, for $5 I had an intricate design dribbled onto my hand. You leave the black mud on for 30 minutes, then scrape it off. To my disappointment, it left behind a barely visible light orange design. But by the next morning, t had turned into a deep terra cotta that lasted for more than a week.

Belly Dancer twirls for guests at Desert Safari outside Dubai. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Belly Dancer twirls for guests at Desert Safari outside Dubai. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Dinner that included grilled lamb, chicken and beef, tabbouleh (a salad), and hummus, all of it really yummy.

And then the high point of the night, Larissa the belly dancer whose hips took on a life of their own as she twirled with scarf, then baton and finally a knife in the dim light … much to the appreciation of a line of local men in their robes.

The irony didn’t escape me. Back in town, at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding we had talked about women wearing head to toe robes to conceal them from the prying eyes of men and here was Larissa, midriff bare, shoulders uncovered while a line of guys just sat there and stared.

There is, of course, history in that. Tomb paintings in Egypt of dancers go back to 5,000 BC. Some things simply endure.

Practicalities

  • The most comfortable time to visit Dubai is winter, specifically November through March.
  • Nights then can be cool, dropping into the 50s.This is NOT a walkable city.
  • Sign up for tours both in the city and out in the desert.Tourism now accounts for 20 percent of Dubai’s income, which is saying a lot in a Middle Eastern country rich from oil. Visitors went from 3.6 million in 2001 to more than 10 million in 2012. There are 82,000 hotel rooms, some 20,000 more than just three years ago.Women do NOT have to wear a veil but they should dress with sense. There are plenty of women on the streets in jeans and sleeveless blouses but halter tops with bare stomachs are not a good idea.
  • On money … US dollars are acceptable as are US credit cards. But you need local money, the Dirham, in the souks (old markets). Current exchange rate is about 3.6 AED to $1.
  • More info on Dubai. And tours.
  • YouTube video on camel farms

 

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