Dune-driving outside Dubai.
Looking out the window at the wide, dried-out wilderness, I had sympathy for the desert-crossers who had gone before me. Just minutes earlier, however, I’d been considering the turbocharged city, now just a mile or two behind me — an otherworldly skyline interrupted by the heaven-reaching needle of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on earth.
The Burj Khalifa is emblematic of Dubai’s explosion. A former fishing village known for its thriving seaside souk (market), the place acquired a modern skeleton after oil was discovered in the mid-1960s. In the ’80s and ’90s, the city established a free-trade zone, all to attract overseas dollars. Then came the burst of ambitious building projects and man-made attractions — the towering spiral serving as the crowning centerpiece in the riot of glass and steel.
As we pursued the low-lying mountains of sand in the distance, our driver, Ravi, seemed to be warming up for the dune drive ahead, steering the Land Cruiser in and out of lanes with a confident disregard for turn signals.
Through the warm, soupy air, I saw the silhouettes of plodding beasts emerge like a mirage, and Ravi confirmed my suspicion: camels, slowly lumbering around a track. The racecourse was among a chain of attractions that tapered off, seemingly sinking into the sand, with every mile that put us past the city.
An hour or so beyond the city limits, we finally halted at the entrance to Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, a 225-square-kilometer patch of undeveloped earth. As the United Arab Emirates’ first national park, the concept is refreshing. Created in 2003, the reserve is home to the creatures — antelope, hedgehogs, wildcats — that roamed the desert before mega-buildings and beach resorts moved in.
The landscape was just as surreal as the city skyline, but in the opposite extreme: There was nothing but the natural, with waves of sand all the way to the horizon. To allow travelers to experience the landscape, the reserve has blessed only four tour outfitters to enter, so long as the guides travel on set pathways and stick to the small crop of Bedouin-style compounds created for dining and camping.
Ravi jumped out of our SUV to let some air out of the tires, and then we pulled in line with a caravan of identical vehicles, carrying travelers and families from Europe and Asia and elsewhere. Later, I learned that the tire trick was one tactic for navigating the dunes: When the wheels are softer, the sand-prints they make are broader and you’re less likely to get stuck.
Together, our fleet drove into the heart of the desert. Though there wasn’t a level surface in sight, the ride was surprisingly fluid. Rather than the bumpy jaunt I was expecting, it felt like being in the ocean, when the waves toss you around at whatever wild angle they choose. After 15 minutes of seesawing and surfing — and just as unease was starting to grow a lump in my belly — all the vehicles swung into parked rows, army-like, for our first pit stop: a falconry display.
Nomadic Bedouins began the sport more than 2,500 years ago, our guide told us. “They didn’t have much protein,” he said, “and the falcon was basically their shotgun.
“They used this guy to hunt with,” he added, nodding to the twitching bird with talons clamped onto his arm, ready for takeoff.
The practice is testament to the desert people’s resourcefulness. There weren’t large indigenous falcons in the region, so the Bedouins caught the birds as they migrated south from Asia and Europe to Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula. They trained them to go out, kill small prey and fly back, using them to hunt for half of the year, then freeing them to return home until the following year.
The falcon took off, circling out and back like he was on a string, then nose-dived toward the sand, where the guide had dropped a chunk of meat.
Back in the vehicles, we drove deeper and deeper before unloading again, this time to soak in the beauty of the sun being swallowed by sand. As it dipped, the panorama became a work of modern art, with big, flat swaths of color stacking on top of each other.
At our final stop for dinner at one of the camps, I watched as couples and families from all over the world interacted. Kids chattered and wriggled, with mothers watching. Couples leaned toward each other as we sat on the ground, perched atop slouchy pillows gathered around long, low dining tables. Travelers snapped photos of one another. The distance between countries seemed to lessen.
In the middle of the compound, buffet lines were overstocked with grilled meats, sticky sweets made of dates, and more bean, veggie and grain salads than one plate could support. A large tribal rug created a dance floor on the pockmarked sand, setting the stage for an end-of-evening belly-dancing show, a flash of hips and hands and fabric.
True, certain aspects of the scene smacked of tourism: Some travelers were scurrying around, riding camels, getting tattooed with henna, striking poses while wearing traditional dress — all for a fee. Yet other moments carried the intimacy and unhurriedness of genuine cultural discovery. After dinner, we lingered in conversation with our companions for the evening, nested on pillows, feet kicked out to the side, speaking of our lives and journeys.
Perhaps the most authentic moment came when the camp guides shut off the torch lights and let the millions of starry pixels shine full-blast. That moment was, for me, more spectacular than any display of skyscraper or city. And for a few minutes, the tourist trappings and camp disappeared, and it was just me and my travel mates between expanses of sand and sky.