It’s 5am as we cruise down Sheikh Zayed Road in the pre-dawn blackness. We’ve been awake since the witching hour, because the early bird, we’ve heard, catches the worm. The early bird that has dragged us all out of bed is Thunder the falcon, currently sitting happily in the front seat of the car. Thunder won’t be chasing worms, though. It’s quail served via drone on the menu today.
Road tripping with a falcon is the kind of unexpected and “only in Dubai” experience worthy of a wealth of hashtags that we’ve come to expect from outings with Arva Ahmed, the foodie tour guide behind Frying Pan Adventures. Today, though, it is not about the food. Ahmed has teamed up with Gulf Photo Plus and together they’re taking us out into the desert for a photography tour of Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. It’s Royal Shaheen, specialists in falcon training, who have brought their friend Thunder along for the ride. They are on hand to guide us through the desert and help us understand what we’re looking at, while Gulf Photo Plus is on hand to help us see it better through the eye of a camera lens.
We cruise through the dark, and see the colours of the sky slowly change as the sun gets ready to rise, but Thunder is in another world, in the peace and darkness of her hood (or burka in Arabic). It’s “out of sight, out of mind” for Thunder, explains our Royal Shaheen guide; one of many English idioms that originates from falconry.
Once at the conservation reserve (which occupies 4.7 percent of Dubai’s land area, and is where you’ll find Al Maha Desert Resort), it’s a quick pit stop to the office where we are shown case after case of creepy-crawlies collected from the desert, including beetles, scorpions and spiders. The collection includes the infamous camel spider, but the guide reassures as that spiders and scorpions typically come out only at night, and the camel spider’s gruesome reputation is grossly exaggerated. We’d be “lucky” to see one today, he jokes.
We drive on and into the heart of the desert and as the sun finally fully comes up in all its glory, the beauty of the landscape dawns on us for the first time. Vast, open and seemingly endless, yet not uniform and non-descript as we had (in all honesty) imagined. The varied textures of sand on the dunes are an incredible sight, mimicking the waves of the ocean (under which these sands once stood). The sands also tell a story of desert life, which our Royal Shaheen guides interpret for us, pointing out the tracks of beetles, birds and gazelles.
We’re using a simple compact camera, already five years old or more. Even through this amateur lens the desert still looks magnificent. Tonya Colson from Gulf Photo Plus offers us welcome guidance on settings (we’re embarrassed, but will admit, today is the first time we’ve understood what macro is for), as well as composition.
We expected desert life to be shy, and at best, to get a fleeting, rare glimpse. Instead, our trail takes us alongside Arabian oryx (as well as their sandy-coloured young, which are better camouflaged against the terrain), Arabian gazelles, sand gazelles and several varieties of bird. There’s also the ghaf tree, whose tentacle-like roots make it a hardy desert dweller and we spot one that has been fried by lightning but still stands on its tripod of gargantuan roots.
The highlight, however, is breakfast time for Thunder. Well before we get to sit in the shade by a man-made lake and enjoy our own breakfast, we witness Thunder dive into the sky, on the hunt for hers. She’s actually chasing a dead quail, but it has been launched into the sky, as if in flight, via a drone. Eager Thunder tears the drone out of the sky, along with the quail. It is a bizarre sight to look into the intimidating eyes of this bird, finally free of its hood, and ripping into its prey.
As the heat of the day begins (and begins to get the better of us), it’s time to head back to city life. Today, we’ve seen the beauty of the desert with new eyes, a better understanding and knowledge of how to document it, too.
Dhs1,200 per person. The next desert photography trail takes place on Saturday October 24, running twice a month until April 2016. www.fryingpanadventures.com. www.gulfphotoplus.com.