Located approximately 222km from Abu Dhabi is the sleepy haven of Liwa Oasis, a place of seclusion and tranquility, as far from the glitz and glamour of the city as you can get in the UAE. It takes just over two hours to drive to Liwa from Abu Dhabi, making it the perfect place for a weekend getaway or mini break.
To begin to Liwa you will need to follow the coastal road (E11) from Abu Dhabi. Your adventure starts immediately with the driving! As we all know driving can at times be completely crazy on the roads of the UAE and this road exemplifies that – it is basically a truck road, which means you have large trucks and lorries driving exceptionally slowly in the right lane, and everyone else driving at extreme speed in the left lane. You then end up weaving between the two lanes trying to get to your destination as safely as possible! We advise that only confident drives undertake this journey. When you see the signs for Madinat Zayed you need turn off the coastal road and onto the E45 highway, that runs all the way down to Liwa.
The road down to Liwa is very good and very quiet so you will encounter few other vehicles. On route you will pass through the town of Madinat Zayed, which is the administrative center of Al Gharbia, and a good place to re-fuel (petrol stations are few and far between in this area) or grab some groceries. There is little in terms of things to see and do within Madinat Zayed but it is a nice place to take a break from the journey. You will notice just how green the town is, which is a surprise considering that you are deep in the desert, but there is an abundance of parks, gardens and manicured roundabouts all full of plants and flowers – though little else of interest to the casual tourist.
Before coming to the UAE two years ago, I had an idea in my mind that once outside of the cities it would be reminiscent of the Arabian Nights stereotype of sand dunes, camels and souqs, Unfortunately in my experience this was not the case.. until we reached Liwa.
Upon leaving Madinat Zayed you are truly in the Rub Al Khali desert (ربع الخالي) also known as the Empty Quarter. This is the second largest desert in the world, covering 650,000 square kilometers, which is approximately a third of the Arabian Peninsula. This huge sea of sand stretches all the way from the United Arab Emirates into Oman, Saudi Arabia & Yemen.
Just before you arrive in Mezairaa, the town which acts as the gateway to Liwa, you will be surprised by the landscape. The flat planes suddenly become mountains of sand and dotted among these are hundreds of palm oases, the sheer vibrancy of the greenery and vegetation makes you feel as if you are viewing a mirage after hours of driving through the desert sand-scape. More interesting is the fact that it is not just dates palms, but also other species of trees – which is truly a rarity in the UAE.
From Mezairaa the road narrows and winds through the sand dunes to the one must see attraction of the Liwa area – Tal Moreeb… Just beware of the camels!
Tal Moreeb (GPS 22.971108, 53.776838), also known as Moreeb hill, is south of the Liwa oasis & consists of a large plain surrounded by sand dunes, of which the tallest is Moreeb Dune – reportedly the highest sand dune in the world! In Arabic the name Tal Moreeb literally translates as ‘hill of horror’ and it’s easy to see why, as the dune towers 300m above you with a steep incline of 50 degrees and then extends for 1.6km along the plane – it is the largest thing for miles around and can only really be described as a wall of sand.
The road to the dune is a fun drive, and is one lane in each direction with no central reservation – so drive slowly as you will encounter sand in the road as well as camels. The drive is exhilarating as you twist and turn along the sand dunes, passing through salt flats and more sand than you can believe. The great thing about this desert drive is that you do not need a 4×4 vehicle as the road is paved all the way to the dune. At the time of our visit there were only a few cars on the road, and there are lots of layby’s where you can safely pull over to take photographs or just gawp at the astounding scenery. Just one word of advice – don’t pull too far off the road as you will get stuck in the sand… like we did! The really tricky thing is that the signs leading to the dune area are sporadic at best, and in some cases so faded that you can’t see the direction in which the arrows are pointing – but really this is all part of the adventure, and you can’t really go too far wrong.
Tal Moreeb is a major desert motor sports centre, with desert races taking place on the sand dunes as part of the Liwa Festival, which is held every January. This is a massive event for the community and the area has been setup to facilitate that. When you arrive at the dunes after travelling through the untouched desert, you will be surprised to see a huge paved car park, mosque, children’s play area, restaurants and more! Thankfully this doesn’t detract from the wondrous landscape and the visual impact of the sand dunes.
So if you are in the area in January make sure you visit for the Liwa Festival. The seven day festival brings together the region’s most powerful four wheel drives and bikers to tackle the dune, with a variety of races (cars, bikes, falcons, camels and horses), the event also features a classic car show, fireworks display, and a variety of food stalls.
The great thing about the dunes of the Empty Quater is that you get unrestricted views of the sea of sand, with no power lines or roads to spoil the view. We recommend that you visit the Tal Moreeb area either early in the morning for sunrise, or late afternoon for sunset – this way it is not too hot and you can even attempt to climb the dunes if your up for it. Our experience is that walking in the sand is a lot harder than it looks & these dunes are BIG! Though, if you do make it to the top, you will be rewarded with one of the most beautiful views on earth, with an ocean of dunes below you looking like waves in the sea. If you stick around after the sun sets you will also be rewarded with a sky filled with stars (if its a clear day) as you’re far away from any light pollution or major towns out in the desert sands. If you do climb the dunes in the evening it may be worth taking a torch with you as the descent is steep.
A visit to Tal Moreeb really is one of the must do experiences of any trip to the Emirates and is so much better than any desert safari that you can do out of Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Plus you can do it on your own (which is a bonus)! Once you have been into the depths of the Empty Quarter you really do feel like you are away from it all (at this point you are only 16km from the border with Saudi Arabia) and you can understand why this area has intrigued explorers for hundreds of years. The desert is synonymous with exploration and the first documented journey by a non-resident explorer, was made by British explorer Wilfred Thesiger who crossed the area several times and mapped large parts of the Empty Quarter including the mountains of Oman, during this time he visited not only Liwa, but also Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.
Hundreds of years later tourism is slowly on the rise in Liwa, but there are still not too many visitors – maybe this is part of the charm of the area, but it is a shame that with its close proximity to the capital, that more people don’t make the effort to visit.
During your travels through Liwa you are more than likely to encounter camels & camel farms, so why not stop at one and marvel at these gracious ships of the desert . The camel species found in the UAE are of the dromedary variety (meaning they have only one hump), and can grow up to ten feet tall. They are a vital part of Bedouin culture as not only a means of carrying goods across the desert, but also for the sport of camel racing. Camels have been domesticated for over 2000 years and there are no longer any left in the wild.
If you do decide to stop at one of the camel farms, the owners are generally very friendly and will allow you to take photos or possibly even feed them.
Liwa & Tal Moreeb can be visited as a day trip from Abu Dhabi, but why not make a weekend of it and stay at one of the hotels in the area? Tilal Liwa (GPS 23.534007, 53.800800) is a luxurious desert retreat located about half an hour from Madinat Zayed. The hotel is located in the Rub Al Khali desert and all rooms have floor to ceiling windows which look out into the sand. The hotel offers a variety of activities including camel rides, quad biking, and sand boarding – plus it has a stunning infinity pool that makes it appear as though you are swimming in the sand. Tilal Liwa is located close to Millionaire Street which is famous for the annual Al Dhafrah camel festival, generally held in December and attracting over 25,000 camels and their owners from all over the Gulf. The festival is well known for its camel beauty contests. Close to the hotel is a camel race track, so if you get up early you may be lucky enough to see one of the races which are generally held on Friday and Saturday mornings.
Liwa Hotel (GPS 23.124681, 53.776014) is located closer to the Tal Moreeb dune in the town of Mezairaa. Situated on a hilltop the hotel has spectacular views of the desert dunes & surrounding area. Much like Tilal Liwa the hotel takes on the appearance of a fort and includes a resident camel which wonders the hotel grounds. The hotel also has a swimming pool and large children’s play area.. Whichever hotel you chose you will be happy, and having stayed at both, we can guarantee that you will have the chance to relax and really get away from it all. Ensure you check the daily deal sites such as Groupon before booking, as these hotels regularly feature at a heavily discounted rate, including meals and activities.
Departing Liwa you can take an alternative route back to Abu Dhabi/Dubai by following the Mezairaa to Hameem road. Going this way, you will pass through many oasis villages where Bedouin life has gone on unchanged for hundreds of years, giving a feel of the real & authentic UAE. Traditionally men from Liwa’s Bani Yas tribe were pearl divers on the coast during the summer months, though the industry now seems to revolve around camel farming and date plantations. During the course of your journey you will also pass a number of abandoned forts which would have been used to protect the oases many years ago.
When you reach the village of Hameem you have the option to turn off to Qasr Al Sarab (GPS 22.900881, 54.338240). This is Star Wars territory and is where the most recent film ‘The Force Awakens’ was shot. Unfortunately there is no sign of the sets and they have since been moved to Abu Dhabi, and the actual location of filming is being kept a secret. There is no evidence of exactly where the shoot took place, but it was likely around the Qasr Al Sarab resort, as that is where cast and crew were based. Unfortunately all staff at the resort have signed confidentiality agreements so there is no confirmation on anything. Rumors suggest that once the film is released later this year, that the sets will be rebuilt in the desert and used as a tourist attraction. If you have the cash to splash, you can stay at the resort, but you are looking at prices in excess of one thousands dirhams a night.
From Hameem you can follow the E65 highway back towards the coast, but ensure that you fill up with petrol at Hameem as there is not another petrol station for at least 100km. The scenery here is un-fenced desert dunes and as you progress towards the coast, the colour of the sand changes from red to yellow to white. The route is slow going as there is only one lane in each direction, but it is far more scenic than returning via Madinat Zayed. The desert is completely untouched except for oil fields, and there is no sign of civilization – though if you’re really lucky you might be able to spot a wild oryx. Just before you join the coast road you may feel that your eyes are deceiving you as a huge aeroplane looms out of the desert, followed by a large jeep which marks your arrival at the Emirates National Auto Museum (GPS 24.098838, 54.417397). This is a private collection of cars belonging to Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, which are housed within a huge warehouse in the desert, and includes a 5 meter high Dodge. The opening hours and times of the museum tend to vary (it was closed when we passed through), but you can always call ahead to confrim. The entrance fee is 50 AED.
In summary a trip to Liwa is well worth the effort, as an opportunity to see some of the UAE’s natural beauty. Children will love the adventure and the experience of playing in the sand dunes. Best of all a trip to Tal Moreeb is pretty much free, you will have no expenditures other than petrol – so why not pack a picnic and do something different this weekend?
All views within this blog are our own & unless otherwise stated, all photos are © Out & About UAE