For the past week I’ve been visiting the UAE, my 40th country. My first several days were spent in the capital of Abu Dhabi. This past weekend was a public holiday, and my friend Louise and I spent it on a trip to Dubai with tons of adventures, including a desert safari.
Every culture and city has its tourist attractions. Venice has gondolas, Vienna has horse-drawn carriages, Bangkok (unfortunately) has ping-pong shows and Dubai has desert safaris.
Local Venetians would never step foot on a gondola meant for tourists, since a real gondola costs a fraction of the price and lasts only a couple minutes. Ping-pong shows are almost exclusively for tourists. Desert safaris might be viewed as a purely tourist attraction too, but you still get a definite taste of the local culture. There were a bunch of locals enjoying the festivities along with the rest of us.
My desert safari was booked through Brilliant Tourism. We got on a bus at the Dubai City Center around 3 PM and were taken to the Desert Tent Safari Camp in the Al Awir Desert. From the side of the highway, modified 4×4 SUVs were on hand to pick us up and drive us across the dunes to the camp.
Our ride was on par with an extreme roller coaster, with the notable difference of a lack of safety features. The SUV raced across the dunes, swiveling and sliding side to side, racing up the front of a dune and flying down the other side. The vehicles undergo extensive modifications to take the stress, but many still break down and have to be repaired on the spot.
This aspect of the safari is definitely part of the culture. Nearly every local (not immigrant) resident of the country has their own vehicle for playing around in the sand. That’s just one of their vehicles, but that’s the subject of the next post.
The ride was over in three minutes as we arrived at the oasis. Essentially the camp consists of a raised dance platform surrounded by Moroccan-style tables (low with cushions in lieu of chairs), which in turn were surrounded by a square structure containing cooking facilities, craft stalls and VIP sections for watching the show.
I spent the first few minutes minutes exploring the venue. What I should have done was jumped in line for the camel ride, which was the primary attraction at that time. When I finally did get in line, it took so long to get to the camels that the sun had set and my photos and video were worthless. The free ride lasted all of about two minutes (after waiting two hours). Basically the camel handler walked the camels out about 100 feet, took your photos and then walked you back. Still, it was nice to have the experience of being on the back of a camel. Balancing on the back as it stood up was certainly adventurous!
There were several activities around the oasis to partake in. Another set of camels were reserved for those willing to pay 30 AED (Arab Emirates Dirham) for a longer ride. A ring track had been set up for quads to ride around for 15 minutes at 100 AED. A man with a falcon would perch him on your arm and take your photo for 10 AED. Later on, a stall had henna tattoos available (free for women, a small charge for men).
Around 6:30, the dinner festivities started. After finding a place to sit, we all had to rush out and fight (literally) our way through a line to get a small handful of what I thought were sweet potato fries (but might have been green banana fries) and a small chicken pastry as an appetizer. Not the greatest quality, but still tasty.
Then the entertainment started. The first performer was a belly dancer. There was nothing particularly special about her, but not disappointing either. I’ve seen a few belly dancers in my travels, and I’d consider her pretty average.
The next performer was anything but average. The dance is called a tanoura and the man literally spun around the stage for ten solid minutes with a costume which just got more and more impressive. I don’t even know where the six umbrellas came from.
From there it went from great to wonderful, as the next performer was a fire dancer, and a really good one too. This one only lasted five minutes, but it felt the longest. The worst part was my video of the performance didn’t save correctly. Still, the photos, taken with my Samsung S7 while recording, where still good quality and convey the atmosphere.
Finally it was time for dinner. It was around 7:30 at this point, and I was starving! This time the food lines were slightly more organized. As I’ve only been in the country for a couple days, I can’t vouch for these being local dishes. They were certainly similar to some Indian and Moroccan meals I’ve had in the past. The basics were rice, potatoes, chicken and flat bread, all with lots and lots of spices. There was also Italian pasta, Greek hummus and barbecued kebabs. Again, not the best quality food, but I wasn’t expecting five-star fare.
A few minutes later another belly dancer came on stage, this one a little better than the first. She danced while we ate, and ten minutes later the show was over. Scrambling to get my last couple bites of food in my mouth, we were ushered out of the oasis and to the long lines of people waiting for the 4x4s to come pick us up and bring us to the Dubai bus.
You might read this and think the desert safari wasn’t that great. Personally, I really enjoyed it and I think it’s a great way to experience a bit of the local culture, or rather the culture in the UAE outside of the big cities. As long as you don’t go into it expecting top-of-the-line service, food and entertainment, I’m sure you will enjoy it too.
There are dozens of tour companies offering a desert safari adventure, but they all go to the same desert. The camps are separated by enough dunes to look isolated, and I didn’t realize there were so many close to me until I saw it on Google Maps. The 4x4s have company logos on the doors, which don’t correspond to the booking sites and it becomes a bit of a free-for-all. I know there are also overnight safaris, but I have no personal experience to write about.
The whole adventure lasted about six hours from pick-up in Dubai. The general price between the booking sites seems to be about 60-100 AED, depending on what kind of specials you can find. Of course, you can also pay much more if you want a really nice trip, or add-ons like the quads. One piece of advice: make sure you book on a non-holiday, as the festivities are mitigated on holy days.
I want to give a huge thanks to my friend Louise who invited me to the UAE with her and made the adventure possible!
If you’re traveling with more than one person, I’d recommend using Airbnb. Some locations can be fantastic.
Unfortunately the Couchsurfing website is blocked in the UAE, so that’s not an option here.
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