Did you know that almost one third of the earth’s land surface is covered by desert? I didn’t. Growing up in Canada, a country defined by its green forests, fresh lakes and winter snow, the desert was an image you saw in picture books, or an exotic scene in a movie. Today, the desert is my backyard.
The Arabian desert stretches north from Yemen all the way to Jordan and East to the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq. Less than an hour from my house, just beyond the the modern skyscrapers, golf courses and city traffic, is the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, 225 square kilometres of protected Arabian desert which forms the biggest piece of land that Dubai has dedicated to a single project. It is home to more than 230 varieties of birds, plants and animals and only select tour operators have been given the privilege of conducting activities in the pristine reserve.
I visited it for the first time four years ago on a Desert Safari with Arabian Adventures, a popular tourist attraction which includes late afternoon dune bashing in a 4×4 followed by a camel ride, dinner, belly dancing and shisha at a Bedouin encampment in the desert. The activities are fun. I have since been on safari four times with visiting guests, but it is the desert itself that captured my heart.
Sand dunes rolling silently into the horizon. Sky that turns brilliant shades of orange, red and pink with the setting sun. A Bedouin slowly leading his camels through the distant dunes. These images can calm even the busiest of minds and when the lights go out, and the night sky fills with stars, the rest of the world melts away.
It is peace and tranquility I am seeking when I venture to the desert on the weekend and few places are more peaceful than Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, the only hotel in the reserve. This 5 star resort has been built with minimal disruption to the environment and blends effortlessly into the natural landscape, each tented villa both luxurious and private with doors that open in all directions and a chilled pool surrounded by green vegetation. An afternoon spent lounging by the water with a good book, good company and a glass of champagne is an afternoon well spent.
It is even better when the wildlife that roams freely around the reserve wanders past your villa in search of shade. Birds chatter happily in the trees. A graceful Arabian Gazelle passes by periodically to say a quiet hello. An Arabian Oryx drinks from a watering hole in the distance. A Sand Gazelle emerges curiously from the bush where it has been working up the courage to join us for a romantic dinner on our deck.
There are plenty of other things to do in the reserve, desert safari, horseback riding, falconry, archery, nature walks and wildlife drives. Camel trekking is among the favourites. Often described as strange and lovely creatures (although smelly and grumpy also come to mind), camels plod through the sand with a rhythmic but awkward gait. Camel trekking through the dunes to watch the sunset with a glass of bubbly is a memorable way to end the day, but don’t drink too much. Camels are not a particularly comfortable or stable mode of transportation!
The desert is not always tranquil, its treacherous terrain, lack of water and extreme temperatures can be unforgiving and must be treated with respect. That said, its natural beauty and enchanting wildlife will forever entice me back to the shifting dunes.
I think I will go book my next weekend at Al Maha now. Or maybe I will try Qasr Al Sarab in Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter. Decisions, decisions.