Desert adventures and man-made wonders

(The unedited version of my article published in The Hindu - MetroPlus on 26 September 2015) 

Desert Safari - Photography: Natasha Jacob
“Fasten seat belt and seat upright please…” the Emirates stewardess’s voice comes floating down the aisle as I shake out of my mid-morning catnap. The speakers crackle and the Captain’s voice confirms that we are about to land. I lift the blind of a sunny window and have my first glimpse of the Arabian Desert stretching out below us with wave-like sand dunes that soon merge with a city in monochrome. In fact, the first thing I notice about Dubai is how the city has managed – inadvertently or otherwise – a colour scheme that’s a million shades of sand, interspersed with a deep aquamarine blue in places where it meets the sea.

Its summer and we are greeted by a dry desert heat that is reputed to reach an unofficial 52°C in July/August! A Hummer picks us up from the Airport and we get out first glimpse of the city. At a distance, a Lamborghini Aventador zips off flapping it’s wing-like doors in mid-air – yes, Dubai has everything that money can buy, including snow!  From the tallest skyscrapers and highways skirted with desert palm and ghaf trees, to desalinated, recycled water, Dubai is a unique mix of the exotic orient and the capitalist west, where the police ride Ferraris and the government funds the Mahr (dowry to the bride) at Emirati weddings - to uphold Bedouin culture!   

We check in at the spanking new Hyatt Regency Dubai Creek Heights that overlooks the scenic Dubai Creek that flows into the city, from the Arabian Gulf. The Creek is where Dubai had its early beginnings as a settlement of Bedouin tribes, with fishing and diving for pearls as the main source of sustenance. It still is the lifeline of the city, cutting across historic Bur Dubai on the west and Deira – the commercial centre on the east. The sprawling Creek Park here is now the greenest part of the city, with a Dolphinarium and recreational facilities, while the creek itself is the dock for abras (water taxis), dhow boats and also the sea plane that takes tourists on a birds eye view tour of Dubai!

We begin our exploration the next day at the Dubai Museum, housed in the ancient Al Fahidi Fort that was built in 1787 to protect the settlement from invading tribes. Built of sea rock and gypsum, the Al Fahidi Fort - once the ruler’s palace, garrison and a prison - is now the oldest building in Dubai! Inside the courtyard are traditional boats and models of Arabic desert homes, complete with a barjeel (wind tower). Our tour guide Natasha explains that these wind towers were an essential feature of a summer abode in the desert as they direct airflow into the room, cooling it in the process. She points out how the barjeel has stayed on as a signature design element, and rightly so, I can spot quite a few barjeel -like design capping most of Dubai’s tallest skyscrapers!
The museum also has underground galleries depicting life in Dubai during ancient times. Above the museum is a Dhow boat (a traditional Arabic boat used for fishing and commercial activities in the olden days).

Our next stop is the posh Jumeirah Beach where the locals and expats come to chill out. The Burj Al Arab hotel – shaped like a sailboat - is a perfect backdrop for the beach, and joins Dubai’s obsession with the ‘largest, tallest, longest’, as the world’s most luxurious hotel. It’s an exercise in excess, with approximately 19,267 square feet of 24-carat gold leaf decoration, has 24-carat gold plated iPads and serves the world’s most expensive drink, a daiquiri called ‘The Birth of an Icon’ - made with St. Lucia Distillers Nine Cask Founders Rum, aged Cointreau, and dehydrated gold dust - costing a whopping US $4,083 per glass! The other popular drink here is the $1,347 per glass ‘Diamonds are forever’ cocktail that comes in a Swarovski cocktail glass made with a diamond-filled stem, which you get to keep!

We then drive past Jumeirah mosque, stop at the lawns of Za’abeel Palace (the residence of Sheikh Mohammad the ruler of Dubai), take the prominent Sheikh Zayed Road to Dubai Marina and then to the man-made island fronds where Atlantis The Palm and the upcoming ‘World Islands’ are located. Along the palm frond are designer apartments and villas where the who’s who of Bollywood and Hollywood reside. The Lost Chambers at The Atlantis is surely one of the well-planned underwater aquariums in the world. No wonder then that this, along with the Ambassador Lagoon (where you can dive among the sharks) and Aquaventure Water Park are must-visits in Dubai.

That evening, we look forward to the Desert Safari, and after a light lunch, a Khandura-clad Emirati driver picks us up in a Toyota Land Cruiser. We head towards the sands of Al Ain and as the desert deepens in colour to rich ochre, we try to strike a conversation with him. Answering in monosyllables, he reveals that driving the desert safari is a unique skill that requires a special licence, given only to the Emiratis. We stop on the way at a place teeming with tourists, to hire quad bikes and buggies to ride into the cordoned-off desert. Tyres deflated, and Arabic music blaring from the speakers, our desert safari begins as we hit the sand dunes for some serious gut-wrenching dune-bashing. Climbing and plunging at almost 90 degrees into the dunes, there’s never a dull moment in the 30 minute roller-coaster ride in the sand. In between, we pass by a camel farm in the middle of the desert, watch the other vehicles and stop on top of one of the tallest dunes to allow the Land Cruiser to cool off. It’s a beautiful sight as the sun sets over the desert and soon we’re on the way to the Desert Camp where camel rides, falconry and refreshments await us. A hookah corner and henna are also part of the deal, followed by a Tanura show and belly-dancing before we wind up with an Arabian-style dinner of ground lamb kebabs, grilled chicken, hummus, rice, baba ghanoush, tabouleh and other typical Arab fare.

Next on our itinerary is Abu Dhabi - Dubai’s rich cousin and the most prosperous emirate in the UAE – about an hour and a half drive from Dubai.  Our first stop is the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and I have dressed with care in a long sleeved shirt and not-so-fitting trousers and scarf as otherwise I may have to hire an abaya (purdah) at the mosque, to enter. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque dominates Abu Dhabi’s skyline even as we enter the city, with its dreamy cloud-like domes snuggling into a powder blue summer sky.

The Grand Mosque is truly grand, with 83 magnificent sparking white domes decorated with marble cladding and gold-glass mosaic, chandeliers dripping millions of Swarovski crystals, marble columns inlaid with mother of pearl and the world’s largest carpet intricately woven with the choicest wool. The mosque can seat 40,000 worshippers at a time, and is a man-made marvel, no doubt! But strolling through its cool marble interiors, we get our first authentic taste of the Arab world. As we enter the sprawling courtyard, a guard signals me to unfurl my shirt cuff and cover my wrist. It’s visiting time, and the mosque is swarmed with tourists from all parts of the world. Next to us are a group of Chinese senior citizens who get carried away by the grandeur and opulence and strike all kinds of dramatic poses with their selfie sticks. Soon a guard catches up with them and instructs them to delete the pictures from their iPhones as posing and all public display of affection is strictly forbidden. When they protest and plead, the guard deletes the pictures himself!

We stop for lunch at the famous yet modest Al Ibrahimi Restaurant Madinat Zayed and tuck into a sumptuous spread of the softest roti, chicken curry and biriyani. Soon we are on our way as we drive past the famous Corniche Beach where ‘Fast and Furious 7’ was filmed, the Emirates Palace and other important landmarks. Our next stop is Ferrari World theme park on Yas Island – the ultimate destination for adrenaline junkies! It’s home to the world’s fastest roller coaster – the Formula Rossa - that travels at 240 Km per hour, covering the 2.07Km track in just 90 seconds! The air is charged with energy, and it’s worth stopping by here, even if you are not planning to enter.

Back in Dubai, we do all the touristy things. We take the Dhow cruise in the evening – traditional boats done up with a restaurant-like interior and deck and brightly lit – for a one hour cruise around the creek, complete with Bollywood-style entertainment and a hearty dinner. The next day we explore the Mall of Emirates and Ski Dubai – the indoor snow park with ski slopes where the temperature is -4°C. We hit the Dubai Mall one evening to watch the musical fountain and climb the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building - in a superfast elevator that whisks us to the 124th floor in just 60 seconds flat, for a breathtaking view of the sprawling land and sea, ogle at the King Crocodile that has come all the way from Australia and made the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo – perhaps the only one of its kind inside a mall - its home.

A trip to Dubai is never complete without a visit to the Gold Souk, but the best time to do it would be at sundown as this involves a fair amount of walking from shop to shop. The plethora of designs is mind-boggling, and could actually leave you in a fix, especially if you’re a finicky shopper. But for those who don’t want to rough it out in the Dubai sun, the duty free at Dubai International Airport has an equally interesting lineup of jewellery outlets with some exclusive designs and deals. Flying out of Dubai at night is exciting too, as from the sky, the city looks like one of those glittering intricately fashioned jewels from the gold souk, smug in its richness and heady complexity, resting calmly in the stillness of the night, on the sands of the Arabian Desert.
Fabiola Jacob
Best time to visit

December to February is the best time to be in Dubai as the temperature dips to a pleasant 30° C during the day and to a chilly 18° C at night. The Dubai Shopping Festival and other activities are held during this season. Dubai also has some of the best water parks in the world, which are best enjoyed in winter. 


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