We recently published our list of the 50 Essential UAE Experiences and right up there in the top ten was the obligatory desert safari. It is easy to see why this is such a popular excursion with tourists and residents alike – as it provides an opportunity to get out into the desert and gain an insight into the traditions of the UAE and its culture.
The desert safari also ticks off all of the staple desert experiences that you would expect, including dune bashing and camel riding – so that you can really feel like Lawrence Of Arabia. When looking into which desert safari is best for you, it is imperative that you do your research as there are lots of companies throughout the UAE that offer this experience and not all of them are good. Be wary of the heavily discounted safaris available on daily deal websites, as they generally involve hundreds of guests being shuttled around and generally leave little time to actually participate in any of the offered activities. Look for good reviews (try Trip Advisor) and ensure you know exactly what the desert safari package actually entails. Plus if you read a review that recommends a specific guide or driver, you request them when making the booking, as they will really enhance the overall experience that you will have.
We have undertaken two desert safaris during our time in the Emirates and both were from Abu Dhabi. Generally the desert safari experience starts with you being collected from a designated pickup point (this will be in either a 4×4 vehicle or a mini bus depending on the company) and then being whisked out into the desert sands somewhere between the Capital and Al Ain.
The areas of Al Khatim & Al Khazna are popular due to their pristine dunes of yellow sand, the uninterrupted desert vistas and the general isolation of the area. Once you are close to the desert camp where the majority of the afternoons activities are centred, the fun really starts.
On our most recent desert safari the driver suddenly pulled the vehicle onto the sand and began to reduce the air in the tyres – so we knew that dune bashing was about to start. This is the highlight of any desert safari trip as you bounce through the impressive desert landscape, riding the crest of the sand dunes and gliding down their steep inclines. It is an immensely fun experience, but not one for the faint-of-heart or for young children. There is a distinct thrill to the desert driving, and the sense of danger definitely adds to the adrenaline rush – never in our lives have we seen the windscreen and all passenger windows covered in sand in such quick succession! Most desert safaris will have between 30 and 45 minutes of dune bashing, but you are always left wanting more…
Travelling to the desert camps through the sandy environment really gives you a greater appreciation of the country and its certainly nice to see something different to the mega-malls where the majority of people seem to spend their time. The shifting patterns of the sand is completely entrancing and it appears as though the dune stretch out forever. You are more than likely to see camels during your trip through the sands and we were lucky to see a new born camel, as well as a camel farm during ours.
Seeing a camel up close is very different to what you may expect. These ‘ships of the sea’ are a lot bigger than you might envision and can get somewhat feisty at times. It is really nice to see these animals in their natural environment and to truly expereince how the bedouin culture has evolved to cope with the rapidly modernising world around it. If you are lucky enough to visit one of the many camel farms spread throughout the desert region, their is generally an opportunity for photos, touching and feeding of these gracious beasts.
Before arriving at your designated desert camp there is usually a stop to watch the sun go down, generally from a high vantage point on top of the dunes. A desert sunset is certainly an impressive and serene experience as the last rays of sunlight stretch out across the sea of sand from the horizon, before suddenly being enveloped by darkness. It is not until you take the time to watch the sunset that you really appreciate how quickly this process happens here in the UAE – the sun is literally gone within minutes.
Arriving at the desert camp during twilight is a magical experience as you are greeted with palm tress strung with twinkling fairy lights, whilst Arabic music drifts across the breeze and the aroma of your BBQ dinner cooking fills your nostrils. It is upon arrival here that you will be free to roam around and enjoy a plethora of activities on offer. These generally include: henna tattoos, having your photo taken in traditional Emirati dress, falconry, sand boarding, camel riding and quad biking (which always comes at an additional cost).
You will find that most people will head to the camel riding as this is essentially the heart of any desert safari experience. Although in reality you don’t spend very long (or go very far) on the camels themselves. It is great for a photo opportunity and for the thrill of the mount and dismount as it is a somewhat uncomfortable experience at a great height. If you are looking to undertake a serious camel trek we highly recommended Wadi Rum in Jordan which is a far more extensive experience.
In theory sand Boarding sounds like a great – we mean, who doesn’t like the sound of surfing on the sand? Unfortunately it involves a lot of exhaustive climbing up sand dunes and then either not moving, or travelling very slowly downwards on the sand board. For some reason the friction between the boards and the sand seem to prohibit much movement, though we don’t know if this is just a UAE thing?
Before your BBQ dinner is served your generally treated to entertainment in the form of a falcon show or belly dancing. The falcon shows are great to watch as you will learn about the falconry and see the way in which they hunt for their prey in the desert. It is amazing to think that they can spot their prey from hundreds of meters up in the sky and its even more thrilling as they come gliding just above your head to retrieve it. The bellydancing on the other hand is completely inauthentic and only displayed for tourists (we mean bellydancing isn’t even a UAE tradition, so why include it?). The bellydancer will generally dance for a short time before plucking people out of the audience to embarrass them into dancing too.
Once the designated entertainment has finished the BBQ meal will be served. This is generally in the form of a buffet which is served to you (so as to preserve portion control) and includes some typically Arabic dishes such as hummus, tabolah, shish tawook, biriyani and kofta – this is normally rounded out with a desert of Um Ali which is a sweetened bread pudding. All desert safaris come with unlimited soft drinks which is a bonus, so ensure that you try the karak chai and Arabic coffee.
After dinner there will be time for a spot of shisha (an instrument for smoking flavoured tobacco, where the vapor is passed through a water basin) with a chance to gaze up at the stars – which can be stunning away from the light pollution of the cities. Some camps will even switch off all the lights to really enhance the amount that you can see.
As you gaze up at the stars with shisha pipe in hand you really could be in another world and you start to feel like a true bedouin. Then before you know it, its time to disembark and you are whisked back to the lights of the big city and it feels as though the majesty of the shifting desert sands was just a distant memory, or perhaps even a mirage…
We have summarised below the two companies that we have used for desert safari tours and the pros and cons of each one:
Desert Rose: This safari is less family friendly as the dune bashing is quite extensive and lasts longer than most (50 mins), but is a great experience in the desert for anyone looking for the ultimate thrill. The entertainment here is bellydancing and not falconry, but they do have shisha. The camp at Desert Rose is nicer and the toilets are clean. There is also the option to purchase alcohol on this one: http://www.desertrosetourism.com
Al Badeyah Eyes: Has less dune bashing but is great for families. They have ponies for young children to ride, as well as a large play area and goat farm. The falcon show is brilliant but instead of shisha they show a short movie about the history of the UAE: http://abet-uae.com
Ultimately we would say that of the two safaris that we have undertaken that Desert Rose is the best for thrill seekers and those without children. Whilst Al Badeyah Eyes is great for families as they really take into consideration the children, and ensure that they have a great time! Either way a desert safari is an essential part of any trip to the United Arab Emirates and something that everyone should experience at least once.
ll views within this blog are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE, unless otherwise stated.