The best way to truly appreciate what life in the UAE was like before its meteoric rise from sand to skyscrapers is to actually experience it for yourself.
I’m not suggesting you grab the nearest camel and head for the dunes. There’s a better, safer and much more enjoyable alternative – an overnight stay at a desert Bedouin camp.
Our experience is with Platinum Heritage, one of the city’s best companies for desert safaris in and around Dubai, who have invited us down for the night. Based inside the protected Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve in Margham, Platinum Heritage specialises in plenty more than wildlife-spotting.
At first, the name of our tour package –Overnight Desert Safari – left my wife and I slightly puzzled. Would we be given infrared goggles to spot oryx, camels and other species? The reality is that there are only so many words you can fit into a title when a tour includes falconry, a safari, dinner, traditional Emirati dancing, henna, shisha, accommodation and breakfast with a Bedouin.
At the camp, guests hop straight into a board beautiful 1950s convertible Land Rovers and head off on safari. When there are no animals in sight, the driver puts his foot down and takes us on a bumpy but equally exciting ride, not exactly dune bashing but definitely adrenaline-fuelled.
We spot some Arabian oryx, gazelles and most amusingly, a sandfish – a tiny lizard-like skink, which our guide jokingly tries to catch, only to fall face first in the sand as it quickly “swims” underground.
We also learn about the medicinal plants of the desert, as well as the life-saving qualities of the trusted camel, essential for survival prior to the arrival of fast cars, caviar and air-conditioning.
At the base of a dune, we all clamber out, looking very much like a pack of tourists – after all, we’ve been fitted with shemaghs or ghutrahs, traditional Middle Eastern headdress that we get to keep as gifts.
The Platinum Heritage team have done a great job protecting us from sun on the drive. Now they add the Lawrence of Arabia touch to the selfies we all take with an amazing backdrop of rolling dunes as the auburn sun starts to set.
Next up is falconry, a fairly short display, which sees a few guests catch their breath as one of the birds of prey swoops inches away from their heads on its way to catch its meal.
As night falls, we head to the Bedouin camp, an open-air bazaar-like setting, with a henna stand in one corner and underground food stations in the other. These shallow rock wells were used to slow-cook traditional Emirati meat dishes. Just like the extra-tender meat that these ovens produce, the salads and mezze-style dishes that accompany are equally delicious. Stomachs full, we head over to the central majlis, where our friendly driver, Hajaj, joins us for shisha and Middle Eastern coffee. My wife and I listen attentively to tales of his upbringing in the UAE and its spectacular metamorphosis.
Lounging on comfy cushions, we’re treated to two Emirati dances: yola, where young men skilfully spin wooden rifles to the rhythm of the music and a woman performing khaliji – a folkloric dance from the Arabian Peninsula, more about neck and hair spinning than belly dancing.
With just the overnight guests left, I begin to truly take in the peace and quiet of the desert. We’re 65 kilometres from Dubai and there’s not a car to be heard, no flashing lights or bustling bars. It’s not even 9pm and I actually feel sleepy. Despite this realisation of how overstimulating life in Dubai can be, I chat to the mix of visitors until the lights go out at 11pm.
This proves to be a light lesson in desert living, as we totter through the sand towards the toilets, brush our teeth in the dark and then hesitantly find our way back to our modest Bedouin abode. No air-conditioning means it’s slightly stuffy inside, but we decide to leave the canvas “door” closed after overhearing the word “scorpions” several times throughout the day.
We wake up just in time for breakfast with a local Bedouin. With a guide as interpreter, he answers questions about his nomadic life and why the arrival of expats in the UAE “has made life easier”.
It’s a fitting finale to this crash course in heritage. The activities are fun and insightful, and it has have helped me appreciate Dubai’s past and present even more. Dhs895. Pick-up from locations across Dubai, www.platinum-heritage.com.