The Arabian Desert is exactly that image you conjure up in your mind when hearing the word “desert”: hot, dry, windy, sucking every ounce of moisture and energy from you as you stumble along in the ever-shifting sands. What’s there to see and do in this bare, brutal landscape? Plenty to wow you, for a day at least.
A desert safari is one of the most popular tour activities for visitors to Dubai, or other cities/emirates in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It’s a great way to learn about the origins of Emirati culture, have lots of sporting fun, and also unwind in an unusual landscape – as I did with Platinum Heritage.
See the sweetest sunrise
Sunrise in a harsh environment like the Arabian desert is especially precious. The chilling wind and pitch-black darkness can make a night in the desert feel like infinity; the sun’s warm rays become a reminder to treasure each day.
To imagine what was like being a nomad in the desert in ancient times, try riding into the dawn on a camel ($68/person). In the mood to splurge? Then watch the sunrise from a hot air balloon ($368/person) instead.
If you choose a morning desert safari in Dubai, be prepared to wake up before the crack of dawn (4-5am), to be picked up from your hotel. I missed my chance because some guests in my group were late and we had to wait in their hotel lobby – so don’t be that guy!
Breakfast with a Bedouin
When my tour group finally arrived at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, where morning desert safari would take place, we switched cars – to a 1950s-era Land Rover – to be brought to our Bedouin camp.
Here, we were greeted by our “guest of honor”, Amm (uncle) Hamad, a true blue Bedouin. This was in fact a special cultural session, where we learned about the traditional Bedouin way of life.
For the Bedouin, the nomadic lifestyle is a necessity (as it is for Mongolian nomads). Camps of families and tribes moved whenever food and water ran out. The Bedouin inhabited the Arabian desert long before modern territorial borders were drawn, so shifting to a sedentary lifestyle and receiving substantial incentives from the UAE government was considered fair exchange for accepting citizenship.
As the air started to heat up and my stomach started to rumble, our guide announced it was time for breakfast. Now, I recommend you book a tour providing a traditional Bedouin breakfast, because it’s a rarity in Dubai’s all-too-cosmopolitan food scene – and it’s delicious.
The first thought that ran through my mind as I scarfed down my meal was: why isn’t date syrup a thing yet? I’m not sure how much it costs, but it certainly tasted just as good as maple syrup.
Ride the ships of the desert
Outside of the Bedouin camp it’s hard to find any color, any movement, other than that of ever-shifting dunes and the occasional shrub here and there, attempting to pin down the sand. Luckily, our four-legged guides made it much easier:
Camels really do seem like the perfect pets. They don’t smell. They can go without food and water for days. They’ll carry you on their backs for hours on end, through mind-numbing heat. Also, forget goat or almond or rice or soy milk. Fresh camel milk – low in lactose, high in nutrients – is the tops.
Patient and docile, they leaned in happily to receive my scratches. It’s hard to imagine them as prized steeds in the national sport of camel racing.
A note on camel riding
Ethical tourism and animal welfare is important to me, as I’m sure it is for many of you. I’ve received comments from readers that the camels they saw during their desert safari did not appear healthy and well cared for. However, the camels I met on my camel ride in Dubai seemed placid and well-fed (agitated camels will spit at you.)
If you’re planning to ride a camel in Dubai or anywhere, consider this: Are they in their natural habitat? Are they well cared for or being exploited? Then, make your decision.
Discover the (wild-ish) life
I found the landscape of the Arabian desert as barren as I’d imagined from photos: a hard blue sky over miles and miles of sand. Without cover from clouds or trees the countless thoughts on my mind were soon pared down to just two: hide from the sun. Hide from the wind.
If you’re an animal lover or wildlife advocate, choose a desert safari that includes a visit to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. This special area of the Arabian desert studies endemic species like the Arabian Oryx.
>Hunted to extinction in the wild in the 1970s, the Arabian Oryx thrived in a captive breeding program in London and was later reintroduced into the Arabian peninsula.
Stopping here for photos, I suddenly heard the sea – as if in my ears, instead of my eyes, were deceiving me. After a moment of consternation, I discovered it was the wind weaving through the Ghaf tree, sounding the presence of water and life.
Go dune-bashing, sandboarding, quad biking, and…cycling?
The Arabian desert is a paradise for adventure and extreme sport lovers, beginning with dune bashing: essentially, well, bashing the sand dunes by riding over them in a 4×4 vehicle. Clinging to the sides of our ancient Land Rover as it careened all too carelessly over the dunes, I was glad we’d all been given black shawls to cover our face and eyes from the vengeance of the ultra-fine desert sand. Note: Don’t wear a cap unless it has a chin strap. You’ll definitely lose it.
Various desert safari tours in Dubai also offer sandboarding (like snowboarding, but on sand), quad biking, and cycling with fatbikes (off-road bicycles with oversized tires that can traverse soft terrain). I must admit that I was too vain – I’d forgotten to bring sunblock – to spend that much time out on the scorching dunes!
When choosing a desert safari, look to see which sports activities are included. Most tours like this activity-packed evening desert safari will include dune bashing and sandboarding, but not quad biking or fatbike cycling (unless indicated; usually with a higher tour price).
Enjoy magical, intoxicating Arabian nights
An evening safari in Dubai is ideal for culture lovers. Since you can’t really explore the desert after dark, expect more traditional cultural experiences like henna painting, belly dancing performances, and smoking shisha (water pipe, if you’re so inclined) after taking in a majestic sunset that lights the entire desert on fire.
If you really want to escape from civilization, staying overnight in a desert camp is a surreal experience that stands in especially stark contrast to Dubai’s concrete jungle. At night, the skies come to life with ancient stars while you admire them from your insignificant place on Earth. Wen you finally head back to the city, the world feels wide and full of possibilities again.
Make your desert safari happen
As an independent traveler, I’m not a fan of organized tours. But with so many things to do in an environment where you want to be well taken care of, a desert safari is something I’d recommend to all visitors to Dubai/anywhere in the UAE.
Tip: prices will be higher in peak tourist season (November-March); book in advance to ensure availability.
What excites you most about a desert safari? Will you be adding a desert safari to your itinerary in Dubai?
I was hosted by Dubai Tourism on assignment for another publication. All opinions expressed here are my own.