We dust off our tents and head for a night under the stars
Time Out Dubai staff
Last week, we overheard our friends complaining that they don’t spend enough time outdoors now they live in the UAE. We were nothing short of flabbergasted. Why? Well, a) in Dubai you’re never more than 10 minutes or so from the beach; b) for seven months of the year the weather is truly glorious; and c) our experiences of camping in the UAE are by far the best camping trips we’ve ever had.
So, in a mission to prove nature naysayers wrong, team Time Out packed up, hit the road and camped overnight in some of the UAE’s most glorious locations, covering everything from glamorous five-star experiences to random corners of the desert. The season lasts until early April, which will come around sooner than we all think, so read up, book a weekend and bunk up au naturel.
Don’t have a car? Don’t worry! During December, car rental group Hertz UAE is offering a discounted rate for all Time Out readers (from 15 to 30 per cent, depending on car model). Call 800 43789 and quote ‘Time Out Dubai’ when booking.
Sheesa Beach Camp, Dibba Camping style: permanent dorm-style tents Keywords: Bunk beds, goats, dhow trips Let’s get this straight: the Sheesa Beach campsite in Dibba isn’t on a beach. It’s near a beach, yes, but not as near as the three-minute walk promised by staff when they pointed us in the vague direction of the Gulf of Oman. No, the campsite is set up in a goat-attracting date plantation a good 15-minute walk from the beach, which was a little disappointing. However, we soon got into the swing of things once daylight dimmed, lanterns were lit and the campsite stopped looking like a scout camp and more a fun place to hang out with friends.
We found that this is the key – go in a group and take over one of the dorm room-style tents. Note: no need for tent pegs and a mallet here – the marquees are permanently erect and complete with bunk beds (note: couples could find themselves sharing with strangers). There’s also a sparkling toilet and shower block. Be armed to the teeth with books, board games, playing cards and snacks (we arrived at 5pm with very little to do other than wait for dinner at 8pm) and you’re in for a jolly time. Such preparation will also put you in good stead for the next morning, when non-scuba divers are left until noon to be picked up for the dhow cruise.
We can’t help but feel the ‘Camp and Cruise Combo’ package offered by Sheesa is weighted all wrong – we would have preferred to get there early, take our cruise and head back for dinner and a few spooky stories around the fire, rather than arriving in Dibba at sunset and departing for Dubai late the next day. But that’s just us.
Getting there: Head north down Dubai Bypass Outer Road (611) until you meet Al Dhaid Road (88). Turn eastward and continue as far as Route 89, which you follow north until reaching Dibba. Once you’ve crossed the Omani border into Dibba, turn right after the mosque and head to the port where you’ll find the Sheesa Beach office. Staff will escort you to the campsite from there. The Camp and Cruise combo costs Dhs395 per adult, Dhs295 for children aged five to 12, free for under fives. Pick-up and drop-off in Dubai can be arranged for an extra Dhs400. www.sheesabeach.com/camping (050 333 6046).
Khasab Tours’ Island Camp, Musandam Camping style: catered beachside camp, with tents pitched for you Keywords: Beach, bonfires, turtles, sharks The number-one rule when camping in Khasab: check that each person has their passport before leaving Dubai. The Omani border check en route means that a whole car load of very unhappy people may be pitching tents in their own backyards if one person slips up. Luckily, we were a crew of happy campers and had no mishaps.
We headed to Khasab for a trip with Khasab Tours, which organises dhow cruises and camping on one of the rocky offshore islands. Driving to Musandam takes about two and a half hours, and after passing through sleepy Ras Al Khaimah, we came to the Omani checkpoint. This is where the drive and scenery gets exciting. Driving the winding road along the coastline, we eventually came to a small park mid-hill and pulled off the road overlooking a bay that we’d heard housed basking sharks. Sure enough, down below was a not-so-small shark and the odd turtle popping up for air.
The dhow, which departs from Khasab Port, will take you out for the afternoon to sip drinks in the sun and snorkel, before it’s time to head to a secluded beach, where the camp and your tents will have been set up before you arrive. Sit back and relax as the tour operators prepare a buffet meal and you chat around the bonfire after dinner. Tip: pack extra plastic glasses, as our experience was that if you didn’t already have one, then tough luck.
Getting there: Musandam is a two-and-a half-hour drive from Dubai. After passing through Ras Al Khaimah on Emirates Road (E311), follow signs north to Oman and you’ll eventually come to an Omani checkpoint. From here, follow the coast road past the Golden Tulip Hotel, on your left, all the way to Khasab port. Dhs600 per person (no pick-up). Khasab Travel and Tours, www.khasabtours.com (04 266 9950).
Bedouin Oasis Camp, Ras Al Khaimah Camping style: majlis-style tents, catered Keywords: Stargazing, goat-hair tents, camel trekking, flushing toilets Just a little over an hour’s drive from Dubai Marina, this Bedouin-style camp in the Ras Al Khaimah desert sits relatively near Banyan Tree Al Wadi, but far enough away to be completely secluded. With real goat-hair tents, cushions for seating, a barbecue, an authentic underground oven and, of course, a camp fire (perfect for cooler nights like the ones we’re experiencing at the moment), this spot is the perfect getaway, and streaks ahead of the usual desert experiences offered by some other tour operators.
Though our visit to the camp was as a twosome, and we made the most of the campfire under a blanket of stars, the camp – which has its own little bar – is equally suited to larger groups who plan to stay up late, chatting and smoking shisha. There’s a barbecue in the evenings, accompanied by a spread of mezze and fresh saj bread, and a light buffet breakfast in the mornings. For overnight stays, tents, toothbrushes, toothpaste and towels are provided (and yes, there are flushing toilets here). Depending on the package you opt for, there are a number of activities that can be organised by the camp’s management, including camel trekking, which we can highly recommend – though be sure to wear long shorts or full trousers to avoid discomfort.
Getting there: Travelling on Emirates Road, take exit 119 towards Ras Al Khaimah and follow the signs for Banyan Tree Al Wadi resort. Shortly after seeing signs for the hotel, you should begin to spot signs for the Bedouin Oasis, which will lead you to your meeting point. Dhs190 per person per night, minimum booking of five guests. Pick-up and drop-off can be arranged at an extra cost. www.arabianincentive.com (04 266 6020).
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve Camping style: organised tours, comfortable tents Keywords: Dramatic entrance, oryx spotting, barbecues, good for groups Caught up in the relentless pace of city life, it’s sometimes easy to forget that thousands of acres of open desert lie on our doorstep. Yet we jumped into a 4x4 mid-afternoon, and in less than an hour we were 45km south-east of the city, at the gates of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, and skidding off in search of an adventure on the golden dunes.
Our enthusiastic guide, Vinod, boasted about his collection of muscle cars, before showing off the raw power of our six-litre Chevy. Cackling like a maniac, he sped the 4x4 up and over dunes, throwing the vehicle savagely from side to side and whisking up a sandstorm in our wake. Our queasy stomachs were only rested to take in the most cinematic of sunsets, rich red rays cascading over the billowing folds of sand to create ethereal patches of light and dark. It was a relief to make the final leg of our journey in more leisurely style, arriving at camp on the back of 10-year-old camel Bunny.
Nestled in an isolated spot on the site of an old camel farm, we were greeted by our hosts with a hearty selection of barbecued meats, as well as a herd of oryx. At around 9pm, festivities in neighbouring camps ceased and a thick darkness fell, and while the handful of other campers returned to their not-uncomfortable tents, we trekked out into the pitch-black wilderness and lay shivering happily under the light of a hundred tiny stars until the wee hours.
Getting there: Although located only 45km southeast from Dubai, the conservation reserve can only be visited as part of an official organised tour. Arabian Adventures’ Starlight Express costs Dhs650 per person, plus Dhs85 for barbecue. www.arabian-adventures.com (04 303 4888).
Diy camping in Dhaid Camping style: 4x4 adventure Keywords: Dunes, marshmallows, keep it clean We headed out to Dhaid in our trusty Ford one Saturday, armed with two cool boxes, Google Maps, a large bottle of hand sanitizer and a playlist that included Pearl Jam, Incubus… and Frank Sinatra (all essential driving music). Just over an hour later, we found ourselves on Dhaid Road with plenty of sandy scenery around – the desert on this stretch is well-known as one of the country’s best off-roading and camping spots, so we knew to expect quadbiking and 4x4 action. For the same reason, we saw a fair bit of trash about and, just to be on the safe side, pitched our tent on relatively open ground, avoiding the base of bigger dunes (having a car fly over you as you fry your sausages is never a good thing).
We managed to pitch our battered tent just in time to watch the sunset before setting up our barbecue. Yet while we remembered to pack essentials such as coal and skewers, we managed to forget the plates. If you ever find yourself in this situation and are too lazy to drive back to the city, you’ll be pleased to know that meat placed on serviettes and then on top of plastic bags makes a decent enough alternative (afterwards, roll it inwards and vôila, instant trash storage).
Pleased with our ingenuity, for dessert we took it a step further and used cigarette lighters to toast our marshmallows on spare skewers. Here’s to camping lite. Just please, please, clean up after yourselves.
Getting there: Head towards Sharjah from Emirates Road or Sheikh Zayed Road, and then take the E88 (Dhaid Road), passing Sharjah International Airport. Pick any spot you like.
Madam, near Big Red Camping style: free, easy desert camping (no need for a 4x4) Keywords: Sand-beds, not far from Dubai, red dunes For a taste of camping without travelling too far afield, the area around Big Red is perfect. 4x4 drivers can venture off-road into the rich red sand to try a spot of dune-bashing and find the ideal camping spot – we’d advise choosing a location in the valleys between dunes to protect you from the wind – while those without a 4x4 can park up on the side of the highway and walk through the dunes on foot. Even if you don’t have a car, the area is a manageable taxi ride away (it shouldn’t cost you more than Dhs150 to get there, although hailing a cab home could be a challenge).
Our favourite spot is about 9km before the village of Madam: we usually ditch the car roadside, then carry our camping gear over the fence and into the dunes. The further you walk (or drive) from the main road, the more secluded the spot, and you’ll also avoid the (all-too-frequent) litter and burned-out fires from previous campers. However, it’s best to travel light – we’ve learned from experience that heaving heavy suitcases over shifting sand dunes is not a fun way to spend the weekend.
The bonus of camping on sand is that you don’t need a mallet to hammer in your tent pegs, and it’s relatively comfy to lie on, so there’s no need to bother with an airbed (we’ve been known to dig out the sand under our tent into a more ergonomic shape for the ultimate sleeping position). Just check the area for ‘wildlife’ before you set up camp to avoid unwelcome creepy-crawlies finding their way into your sleeping bag, and always take all your rubbish with you and cover your campfire site with sand, leaving the area exactly as you found it.
Getting there: Head down the Dubai-Hatta Road (E44) for about 45 minutes towards the village of Madam, which is just before the Hatta border crossing. We usually drive right down to the Madam roundabout, do a U-turn, then cruise back down the E44 towards Dubai, scouting out the landscape until we spot a gap in the fence and the perfect camping patch.
Even more options Local camping experiences to add to your to-do list.
Luxury camping in Oman Several companies offer high-end ‘glamping’ experiences around our neighbouring country. Hud Hud is a particularly luxurious option, with bespoke service and gourmet food (prices vary but are on the higher end of the scale; www.hudhudtravels.com). Another option is the Desert Nights Camp in Oman’s Wahiba Sands (pictured), which is very secluded but complete with hot water and beautiful linen (from Dhs1,100 for a deluxe double tented suite; www.omanhotels.com/desertnightscamp).
Liwa This part of the Empty Quarter near Abu Dhabi is famous for its mammoth (up to 200-metre) dunes, complete lack of light or noise pollution and almost a total absence of litter. However, exploration is for 4x4 experts only. To get there drive towards Abu Dhabi and head for Hamim Village (about 150 minutes away). About 2km after the petrol station, turn left along a fairly wide track – continue down here until you find a spot you like (remember to travel in a convoy of two cars or more). Explorer Tours will take you on a fully equipped trip from Dhs3,800 for four people (www.explorertours.ae, 04 286 1991).
Hatta Mountains This rocky region is shared with Oman and is full of natural spring-water pools. There are many places to stop and get cosy for the night, although on the few occasions we’ve visited we’ve been appalled by the amount of litter in the area. Perhaps plan a feel-good clean-up camping trip with a group of friends?
Top camping tips Camping expert Adam Hickman from school expedition company World Challenge shares his checklist.
Be prepared ‘Plan ahead and make a list of what you need to take. Last-minute camping trips are great, but it’s very frustrating to go all the way to Musandam without your passport. Make sure you’re carrying enough suitable clothes, food and so on, and always take more water than you think you will need.’
Check the weather before you go ‘It’s easy to become blasé in the UAE, but storms do happen, especially in the winter months. Getting caught out in the desert is unpleasant, but getting caught out in a wadi can be deadly.’
Drive safely ‘If driving off-road, ensure you have the appropriate experience and equipment to do so. Always travel with a minimum of two vehicles and carry self-rescue equipment in case you get stuck (a shovel, tow rope and tyre inflator).’
Leave no trace ‘Campsites should be left the way you found them. All litter should go home with you and campfires should be extinguished and the remains buried. Always leave a site as you would want to find it.’ www.world-challenge.ae.