As soon as my alarm starts to buzz at 3am, I regret signing up for a tour of The Empty Quarter. There’s probably nothing I love more than getting out into the desert, but waking up before the crack of dawn for a three-hour drive to Liwa on a Friday morning? What was I thinking?
We’re told that in order to make it down to the camel race in time, we need to be at the hotel for 6.30am. It’s still dark when we get on the road, but since I insist on no less than four petrol station pitstops for karak and Chips Oman, we are already late. As the sun rises over the desert, my mood – to the despair of my companion Greg – has gone from “do not speak to me, ever” to “please listen to my constant stream of nonsense for the next two hours”. Fun times.
As we approach Liwa, however, the magnificence of the sand dunes leaves me speechless. The road to Qasr Al Sarab, where the tour leaves from, winds its way over, around and through the most astoundingly beautiful, rolling dunes we’ve ever seen. And we’re only at the beginning.
We’re lucky enough to be taking the tour on the day of a camel race (these only happen sporadically during racing season). So, once at the hotel, we hop into a 4x4 with our excellent tour guide, Shalika, and head to Liwa Camel Race Track. Once again, we’re mesmerised. It’s the most dramatic race track we’ve come across, nestled in a valley of towering red-orange dunes.
Banish images of Dubai’s Marmoum’s manicured lawns from your mind. There are no stands here, and no fancy facilities (the state-of-the-art starting post is simply a long strip of material strung between two poles with hand-written numbers) and the whole place has a rural small-town feel. Everyone here seems to know each other, and we’re the only spectators. With the towering dunes in the background, it makes for a surreal setting. Like stepping back in time... although, this bygone era is one where Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols speed alongside the course.
The owners retreat to a majlis post-race while trainers bring out the camels in packs to trot around the track. We head to a nearby camel farm to see the dromedaries being showered and cared for while Shalika talks us through the ins and outs of racing. They even unwrap one of the little robot jockeys to give us a closer look.
It’s such an immersive experience that we’re reluctant to leave. (I say “we”, when really I mean “I”... I have to be practically dragged away from the track edge – every time a camel appears, I’m convinced that another race is about to begin.)
Truthfully, after the excitement of the track, I’m reluctant to head to a farm. How could it possibly match up? Well, reader, I am an idiot.
As soon as we pull into the cool, lush oasis of the farm, I change my tune. It’s a world away from the sand and dust of the racetrack, and chatting to the local farmers about how they cool the greenhouses and grow the produce is genuinely fascinating. We’re led through several layers of gauzy tarp-like material and find ourselves surrounded by rows upon rows upon rows of vines covered in plump red and green tomatoes.
We sample a few, and they are sweet, juicy and delicious, so it’s all the more shocking that people pay such extortionate prices for tomatoes imported from Holland when such perfect fruits are quite literally growing out of the desert down the road.
It turns out that everything grown here is organic, too, as the desert heat kills off most of the insects that usually feed off crops. Just pop a few vitamins and nutrients into the water supply, and voila.
We walk away with armfuls of aubergines, brilliant yellow and green courgettes, cucumber and tomato (“we should probably apologise to the gardener,” says Greg), and head back to the hotel for an off-roading jaunt out into the desert. Tours during the week include a visit to a local date factory, but it’s sadly closed on a Friday.
Things only get more epic. Shalika expertly scales some hill-sized dunes and speeds us through the desert pointing out Mars-esque salt flats and the site where Star Wars: The Force Awakens famously built a set in 2014 (sadly sans any spaceship ruins).
As we gaze out at the vast landscape from the top of the highest dune, we marvel that this all so close to home. We leave with piles of veggies, hundreds of photos, and the resolve to return for a visit to the date factory. As we hit the road, we’re already setting the alarm – again.
Dhs520+ (adults), Dhs365+ (children aged 1-11). The tour runs daily. Timings vary. Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, Liwa, Abu Dhabi, (02 895 8700).
Four to try Adventurous trips around Abu Dhabi
Qasr Al Sarab also offers fat biking tours. Take to the dunes on two wheels, pedalling up one side and freewheeling down the other. You’ll need a lot of leg power, but it’s worth it.
Dhs180. Daily. Timings vary. Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, Liwa (02 656 1399).
LIWA OVERNIGHT adventure
Abu Dhabi Adventure offers a private overnight tour into The Empty Quarter, including sandboarding, a barbecue and a visit to Moreeb – one of the world’s tallest dunes.
Prices and timings vary. www.abudhabiadventure.com (055 484 2001).
Paddle through a thriving eco-system and spot turtles, snakes, fish, flamingos and more, or head out on a night tour in an LED-bottomed boat with Noukhada Adventure Company.
Dhs160.Timings vary. www.noukhada.ae (02 558 1889).
Head down the coast to Sir Bani Yas Island, where you can try out traditional pearl diving methods for yourself, and keep anything you find.
Dhs500 (adults), Dhs250 (children aged 8-12). Timings vary. Sir Bani Yas Island, www.sirbaniyasisland.com (02 801 5429).