We’re standing at the crest of a sandy red ridge, being blasted by a shimmering wall of heat as we look at rusty mounds stretching in all directions. A large group of people are clambering up and down the hill, slipping and sliding on the loose sand as they follow the trail of other people’s footprints. They pause to take out cameras, practising poses like they’re in a photo shoot for the cover of a magazine.
In front of us the rolling dunes disappear off into the dusty distance. Behind us a row of shiny white off-road vehicles await, drivers in long white tunics sitting in their shade and chatting. More cars speed towards us, skidding over hills, spraying sand as they swerve a little to avoid the group of camels casually meandering across the desert in search of who-knows-what. We’re not quite sure what to make of it all. We’re on a desert safari and are getting a bit concerned about whether we’re in over our heads.
Months ago when we arranged a stopover in Dubai we thought this might be a good opportunity to go out and see a proper arabian desert. I asked the travel agent if she could recommend a desert trip that might be suitable for a toddler. She responded that only one company would take a young child and sent us minimal details mentioning driving through desert dunes, seeing a sunset, and enjoying an arabian barbeque. Sounds good, we thought, and signed ourselves up. I thought I’d look into it more a bit closer to the time and then well… didn’t get around to it. So we had found ourselves sitting in the hotel lobby that afternoon unsure about what was ahead of us, waiting for someone to show up and take us off on some kind of desert adventure.
Our driver duly showed up and escorted us to a 4×4 with a Portuguese couple in the back, and an American lady in front. We awkwardly climbed aboard to the distinct impression that every one else in the car was thinking “oh no, they have a BABY. This trip is RUINED”, and attempted to keep our rather excited toddler from non-stop shouting at the scenery as we headed off. The driver obviously wasn’t keen on listening to toddler chatter, so music blared from the radio as we took an hour long drive out of Dubai. Crowded blocks of palatial high-rise buildings gave way to smaller more nondescript houses that grew more sparsely the further we went. Out on the highway, apparently well on our way to Oman, the surroundings grew drier and dustier. We stopped, near the end of civilisation, at the obligatory rip-off roadside shop where the occupants desperately tried to sell us expensive headscarves we didn’t need. A very short drive later we pulled off the road completely to join a couple of other identical looking vehicles and all the drivers proceeded to let some air out of their tyres. Our desert excursion was about to begin.
On we went, further onto the sandy slopes. The driver merrily sending us skidding from side to side as the car juddered down to take its place in the line of vehicles already waiting at the bottom of the aforementioned sandy ridge. All passengers disembarked for their first glimpse at what awaited us, swarming up the nearest slope which was already marred with countless footprints. I started to ponder the whole ‘only company to take young children’ bit more deeply than I’d had time to up until now… maybe rather than this being the only company equipped to take children, this might be the only company careless enough to risk their lives? Were we about to become the worst parents in the world, or was this a reasonable trip to bring him on? For now we just took advantage of the chance to explore this strange landscape more closely. The sand looked just like what you’d find on a nice beach, only covered in a loose layer of rusty paprika-like dust.
Back at the car it was more worrying when the driver recommended strapping our toddler into the middle seat and ‘holding’ the chest strap. I compromised by looping his seat belt through mine so it became a lap belt. We sat close on either side to provide extra support to his head. Surely this wasn’t going to be like the severe bone-rattling jaunt we’d endured across Fraser Island? We prepared ourselves to abandon the vehicle if things got too crazy. The icing on the cake was when the driver then handed me a plastic bag ‘for when the child vomits’. I was still trying to muster up a response to that when he slammed the door and got behind the wheel. Pausing only for the still-wandering camels to move out of the way, the entire convoy of vehicles powered up and chugged off in a line towards the nearest dunes. Vomit? Did people vomit on this trip?!
It’s a totally surreal experience to be ‘out in the wild desert’ surrounded by a cavalcade of over seventy vehicles all racing in loops and circles about you. Despite our fears, the dune-driving itself wasn’t bad at all. A little bouncing around, but nothing likely to do you damage once you were strapped in. Our toddler was admittedly confused about what the heck was going on initially, especially from his restricted vantage point. But soon enough he got the idea and was chanting ‘up and down’, grinning as sand sprayed about us and other vehicles flashed past at speed. His father, however, was looking decidedly green within a couple of minutes!
Off we went, a playful herd of cars racing across the dunes, peeling off out of formation to chug up hills and bounce back down again in small groups, one following the other. The roller coaster ride was exhilarating, but occasionally seeing a car ahead of you as it tilted at crazy angles made you realise what kind of feats your own car was actually performing. This was not for the faint-hearted, though the drivers were clearly well-experienced, casually swerving here and there in increasing attempts to freak out their passengers. ‘Whee!’ squealed the Rascal. “Ugh!”, responded his father at the sight of the next drop ahead. As the fleet of cars wove their crazy patterns back and forth through the dunes you could see ones from other companies doing the exact same in other locations. Entire armies of cars descending upon the desert each night to crowd it with spinning wheels and picture-snapping tourists.
Some time later we stopped off to watch as the sun began to set over the desert. Growing more swollen as it began to touch the horizon, then disappearing surprisingly fast until only a faint glow remained across the seas of sand. Our driver was suddenly feeling friendly towards us, running over to enthusiastically offer to take our photo. Someone was obviously expecting to be cleaning baby puke off the roof of his car by now. In fact, everyone in our car was noticeably warmer towards us at this point. So we joined the crowds posing against the stunning backdrop. We also complained loudly about that one lone car that had decided to place itself directly in the path of the setting sun and ruin the photographs of everyone else as they posed endlessly on a dune in front of us. We sat on the sand with the Rascal who did what every baby does on the beach, threw fistfuls of sand into the wind and watched the ribbons of red stream from his hands until they ran out. When the last of the sun’s rays grew weak we returned to finish the drive.
Darkness was falling swiftly now, and the cars all made a direct beeline across the desert instead of detouring over the dunes. Soon we arrived at the car park for our arabian barbeque experience. We were seated with the rest of our group in a large open courtyard around a raised stage, and left to chat and enjoy the evening. The soft drinks were flowing freely. The smell of food began to waft from the buildings that surrounded us. We were bizarrely instructed to queue separately when it came to picking up food from gender-specific buffet tables. Yet it was ultimately the exact same food when we brought back the laden plates to our table. We had plenty of time now to chat with our fellow passengers who were also very impressed with our non-vomiting toddler. He was definitely running out of energy by now, but made a good attempt at sampling all the food before the entertainment began.
The first dancer was male. He started making his leaps and bounds, not a bad show for what it was. Then his costume started to light up, and even the bored spectators started paying closer attention. The music picked up pace and he began to wheel and spin faster like a bizarre human spinning top, all lit up like a fairground carousel. It was very strange, but definitely a unique performance.
When the second female traditional dancer came out I felt sorry for her to have to follow what we’d just seen. This was your typical belly-dancing routine which was fine, but a lot duller to watch after seeing the flashing LED extravaganza.
The dancing was over, only scraps remained of the food. It was time to load up the vehicles with all the sleepy tourists and start the drive back to Dubai. We reached the road, just one of the many vehicles fleeing the desert. Most passengers dozed as we trundled back through traffic. My little toddler sprawled across our seat, all spent. It was quiet as we left the desert behind us. Just the peaceful murmur of conversation between the driver and the couple of us still awake. Soon we were safely back at our hotel to catch a few hours sleep before our departure to the airport in the morning. We would later find pockets of red sand that had hitchhiked home with us in the creases of our clothing.
It was definitely a typical tourist excursion to the desert, complete with the crowds of people, basic food and kitschy dancing to entertain the masses. It certainly didn’t offer any sense of being out in a lonely desert experiencing anything authentic. But it was a lot of fun, and some tasty food. Highly recommended if you find yourself at a loss for something to do in Dubai on a nice warm evening…