The weeks continue to fly by. Early last week, I met up with a friend from my days in Taiwan, and ended up drinking a fair amount of gin and talking rubbish all evening. Just like the good old days. Later in the week I was given a pay rise as a reward for my efforts in my first 6 months here. Somehow, I seem to be doing a good job.
So this week, I have taken the week off, and am in the middle of showing the MIL and the SIL the sights and sounds of Dubai. Well those sights and sounds other than the insides of shopping malls. A desert safari was always on the cards, as none of us had been on one yet, so I booked one for Saturday with a company called Arabian Nights Tours. We were told that we would be picked up at just after 3pm on Saturday afternoon.
After a little bit of confusion over our location (the Springs is like a maze to the uninitiated), our driver arrived in his shiny silver Toyota Land Cruiser. Named Kashmir, our driver was an amiable chap from Tanzania, who made sure we were all comfortable and looked after us well. With everyone squeezed into the huge vehicle, we set off from our villa at about 3.30pm, and headed out of town, towards the Hatta road and the desert.
After 45 minutes we reached a rendezvous point at a small group of shops and cafés, where a large gathering of other Land Cruisers from various was building up. Kashmir told us we had a few minutes to visit the shops and answer the call of nature and so on, so I took it as an opportunity to get some drinks. I was invited to buy all manner of trinkets and foodstuffs and drinks by the many shopkeepers stood around, and by the time I left, I had a new hat and a bagful of goodies for the rest of the journey.
We ended up staying at the rendezvous point for a good 20 minutes. By the time we set off again, there must have been 30 of the giant 4x4s parked in front of the shops. The Arabian Nights group set off as one, executing a swift U-turn before turning off the main road onto a smaller provincial road, then turning onto the sand itself, and we were treated to a little taster of dune bashing as the car dipped and weaved around a few small dunes. Not too bad, I thought to myself. We stopped again, right next to a camel farm, and everyone was ordered out of the cars while the drivers adjusted the air pressures in their tyres for the dune bashing to come. As we milled around and had a peek at the camels in their pens, a man with a camera wandered round, taking what we thought were still pictures of everyone in their individual groups. There were people from all around the world in the various cars, most of them unaware of what lay ahead. The MIL showed me how the sand here was different to that on the beach. It was smooth, fine, almost like powder, and blew off our hands easily.
Then we all climbed back into the vehicles and set off into the desert for real. A procession of white Land Cruisers in single file headed into the real dunes of the real desert, and soon we realised that this wasn't a game any more. We climbed up enormous dunes, then drove along the smallest of crests at the top before sliding sideways down the other side. There were steep descents and climbs, and the car lurched left and right as it navigated its way through the sand. It wasn't too rough, being on the smooth, fine desert sand, but it was pretty...well, invigorating I suppose. The oohs and aahs carried on for a while, and the BOY sang songs and basically didn't shut up all the way, while I soon fell silent, trying to swallow my increasing trepidation as the dunes got bigger.
The fear levels were increased when we got stuck on the side of a dune, after sliding down sideways from the crest. The wheels just wouldn't move us, and we soon realised why sensible people always come out into the desert in groups of cars, rather than one. The cars behind stopped and aided our driver, digging his wheels out and barking instructions until we were on our way again. Then Kashmir had problems with a particularly steep dune, taking four attempts to climb it. Sensing my rising panic, Kashmir patted my shoulder. I felt like a right wimp. In the back, the BOY chattered and sang, the SIL cackled insanely, the wife sat with a fixed, macabre grin, and the MIL did her best impression of someone who wasn't trying to stop herself from barfing all down my back. The quietest, calmest person was the GIRL, who sat there in her booster seat as if it was just another ride to a shopping mall. All the while, we barely noticed that we were getting deeper and deeper into the desert, and all signs of civilisation were disappearing. There were no road signs, no pylons, no tarmac roads. We were truly in the wild now. The only signs of life we spotted were the other cars and the odd group of camels.
Thankfully, just before the BOY's increasingly hysterical singing and squealing had driven me to distraction and potential murderous intent, we stopped, and everyone left the cramped confines of their cars again, massaging hands aching from holding on for dear life. We were able to climb up the nearby dunes and take in the views all around. It was then that I appreciated where we were; high up in the middle of the desert, with no sign of a building all around, and very few signs of vegetation. I had the feeling of magnificent isolation, and half wished that I had been all alone there to witness it in complete solitude.
A small drink of water was offered by the drivers, and then we headed off again. The dunes soon petered out and we were driving along flat desert plains. Patches of greenery materialised around us, and I realised we were driving in dry wadi beds, and we couldn't have been far from the camp we were heading for. At least, I hoped so.
We stopped again just as the sun was making its way towards the horizon. A light haze sat above the distant dunes, but the red colours we were expecting never came. Instead, the suns orange disc slowly dulled as it sank, and then disappeared altogether in the haze.
The final leg of our journey took us onto the first tarmac road we had seen for seemingly miles. It's hard to tell out there. The road was an unfinished new one, being built right in the middle of nowhere. Pieces of construction machinery stood idly by the new road, like sleeping robot cattle. We drove along this incomplete road for a short distance, then veered off into more dunes, round a corner, through a gate, and the camp appeared ahead.
We pulled up and Kashmir smiled at us all knowingly. We all smiled back, glad to be out of the woods, or the dunes, even. The camp was a fort-styled structure, with wood walls and towers on each corner. Inside, bedoiun-style low tables and floor cushions waited for the guests. A log fire set in a pit was just getting going, and a falcon swooped overhead. In one corner the barbeque was smoking away, tended to by 3 men preparing our feast, in another a souvenir shop with gaudy lighting attracted the visitors like moths to a lamp. The best thing I spied was the little window surrounded by cable lights selling something I was more than ready for - BOOZE.
So a cooling, calming bottle of Corona Extra later, we sat under the darkening skies of the desert and watched a belly dancer twirl and shimmy in the middle of the camp. Men watched admiringly and women shook their heads, and the dancer proceeded to humiliate a procession of tourists. Been there ,done that. I'm glad I had the foresight to choose a seat away from the middle and avoided being dragged up.
Then they served the food, and it was actually pretty good. It was hot and tasty and everything else that food should be, but it's always a gamble on these occassions. After eating, a few of the party decided to get henna tattoos done by a very skilful lady sitting in one corner. The final piece of entertainment was a the showing of a film depicting snippets taken by the cameraman we had seen earlier at the camel farm, mixed with shots from the desert , various landmarks of Dubai and the odd bit of clichéd stuff with camels and belly dancers atop dunes and the like. The bright lights of the camp were lowered while the film played, so I finally got a chance to see the much-vaunted starlit sky in the desert. It was definitely clearer, but with all the lights round the camp, even when they were dimmed, I wouldn't call it spectacular. I felt like walking away from the camp to get a better view, but soon the film was over, and we were called back to our cars.
The drive back was a relaxed affair. We were all pretty tired, and glad that Kashmir decided against taking us back through the dunes. I don't think it's an option anyway, in reality, and we were soon back on proper roads heading back to the city and the bright lights of Sheik Zayed Road. We floated past the twinkling skyscrapers as the GIRL slept soundly in the back, and got home just before 10pm, feeling that we'd had a real adventure.