Written on the 5 March 2009
“CAN you see the flying camel,” quizzes Yeoman, as he gazes into the still of the Arabian Desert.
Through a plume of smoke, my Syrian guide can see that I’m smiling and he chuckles loudly. The orange embers of the aromatic shisha crackle and come to life under the stars of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve as we share the traditional ‘hubbly-bubbly’ water pipe.
Earlier in the day, I was whisked from my plush surrounds at the Harbour Hotel overlooking The Palm project in order to savour a taste of the ‘real Dubai’. Three hours later we are crashing over sand dunes in a V8 powered Chevrolet 4WD en route to a traditional Bedouin encampment, where we will swap horsepower for camel power.
As the Chev churns up sand and we drop into the bowels of yet another sandy abyss, my Arabian Adventures guide talks up the beauty of this desolate landscape. The reserve was set up to protect wildlife such as the Arabian Oryx, the Arabian and sand gazelles and a wide variety of other mammal species, as well as to conduct extensive vegetation surveys and indigenous flora re-seeding programs.
We are chasing the sun as it disappears across the glimmering horizon. After 30 minutes, we arrive at a clearing for a rest and some refreshments while absorbing the ambience as the blazing sun rolls over the distant dunes for one last hurrah in the Gulf. The colours of the desert radiate in the after glow and cameras click quickly to capture the occasion.
Others in our convey get bogged in the sand and Yeoman seizes the opportunity to pull alongside a band of now baffled, jettisoned Americans.
“Which one of you is paying for the recovery?”
A collective shrug of the shoulders ensues as the group looks away, unsure how to respond to the joviality of our driver.
“Ok, well watch out for the snakes,”
Ipso facto the party search the ground for a trace of the desert python and the portly, gregarious Syrian laughs hard as we power on into the void.
We arrive at camp as the scent of Arabian cuisine drifts past the nostrils and into the night sky. We settle down to enjoy a feast of grilled meat, fresh salads and delectable Arabian sweets. The vino flows freely before we are entertained by bewitching belly dancers, while skilled henna artists ‘tattoo’ those keen to be inked for a couple of weeks. I walk past and one of the artists’ gestures for me to come into the tent: “Would you like a scorpion?” I agree and wander from the tent with my new skin art. Outside the camp, the camels are lined up as tourists do the obligatory lap and take pictures of themselves, ala Lawrence of Arabia.
“Lean back,” says the camel guide as I clamber onto the furry beast.
I lean back, but the camel, donning a doily over its head so as to prevent it from spitting at rich tourists, is not keen. The guide yanks at the rope and the camel finally stands and stretches its long legs. I feel to kick him gently in the ribs to spark a canter, but the guide tells me to go slow and we plod along tall and weird as cameras flash around us. I could be Ali Baba on the set of Arabian Nights as we cruise along the undulating terrain. But my trusty nag soon stops in its tracks and the guide ahead tells me the ride is over. We settle back inside the camp to share some shisha under a scintillating desert sky while belly dancers shimmy away in the distance.
Heading back into the bustle of Dubai late that evening, I’m smacked by the contrast.Here is a city struggling to cement its cultural identity by trying to become too many things to too many people, too soon. The desert au contraire offers tranquility amid the clutter, an escape to realign with nature in all its raw beauty.