Two weekends ago, we went on a safari in Al Ain desert. Al Ain is one of the regions in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and 1.5 hours drive to Dubai. As we started approaching the desert, I was reminded of different movies which amazingly incorporated slices of the UAE deserts (e.g. the camels crossing in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, some scenes from Star Wars: The Force Awakens — the filming was so secretive that they used the code ‘Avco’ (apparently that is the cinema’s name where J.J. Abrams watched Star Wars for the first time) instead of Star Wars as the project’s name.) I must admit that those films added to the reasons why doing the desert safari is among my all-time unique UAE experiences.
For residents and tourists, winter in the UAE means more options for going around. While some attractions are cold weather-dependent like the Dubai Miracle Garden and Global Village, doing the desert safari is possible everyday (well, except when there is a sandstorm). Personally, I would prefer to go between November to February since the activities which comprised the safari are reasonably more enjoyable within these months.
I have tried the safaris in both the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It is funny though that while I have fear of heights, I thoroughly enjoy dune bashing all the time. Basically, a Nissan Patrol or Land Cruiser is used by the tour operators in the entire safari. The designated guide/driver picks the guests up from the hotel or shopping mall as meeting point (never from the residence). Upon booking, we always request that they come to us first as we prefer to take the seats beside the driver (best spot if you are in-charge of filming and if it is your first time given you are the courageous type; otherwise, you will probably be closing your eyes the entire ride and/or request for a stop over to vomit) and the middle section, respectively, as these give the best bashing, shaking, and however you will refer to it and viewing experience.
(Guests will have plenty of photo taking opportunities with an unobstructed view of the desert. It depends on the tour operators, some do a sort of stop over during the dune bashing to do this or just few kilometers before proceeding to the camp.)
What happens during dune bashing? Imagine that the driver is bring you up to the tip of the pyramid. However, the surface is not cement-like, but of powdery sand which reacts to the acceleration and weight of the vehicle. The driver will take an unpredictable path, the car will jiggle, he will deliberately do zigzaggy and other weird movements and patterns (do not worry though, these entail calculated risks) until you reach the top. Then, he would ‘hang’ the car there for a second and if you are lucky, the pilot, err, the driver would say “look to your left! and front!” and before you know it, you are going down the hill that will make you think you are in a new Final Destination movie. It does not end there, he will take you to another ‘climb’ and each one will produce a different range of thrill.
While wearing a seatbelt is a must, I suggest to be hands-free or do not hold any part of the vehicle anymore. Just go with the ‘bashing’. It is important, too, to have a right mix of passengers. If the other passengers are not that courageous, please do not request the driver to zoom it to the extreme level.
Camel farm/ Camel ride
Some tours exclude a visit to a camel farm and instead proceed near to or to the camp itself for a camel ride experience. In Abu Dhabi, a camel farm visit is always part of the experience. (Note: If you are in Abu Dhabi and do not have enough time to go on a desert safari which approximately takes 6 hours to complete but you wish to have a face-to-face encounter and/or even ride a camel, you may visit the Heritage Village near the Corniche/Marina Mall where admission is free. However, you would have to pay (a reasonable) AED 10 (or almost USD 3) to ride the camel. Photo with the camel is free of charge. I should note that a UAE visit is not complete without really riding a camel. In our most recent safari, we even had a selfie with our face so close to the camel).
The last stop will be at the desert camp where a lot of action is to take place. The tour operators have separate camps which are strategically located to appear that each is a lone camp. Creating the effect of being in a middle of nowhere. You will be welcomed through a generous offer of an arabic coffee, tea and dates (fruit). The activities available will be announced as early as possible for the guests to better manage their time. There would be camel riding (i.e. if it was not made available before approaching the camp), henna tattoo, photo taking while wearing the traditional dresses, quad biking (you have to pay extra, but worth it), sand boarding, etc. This time, we had a chance to see a saluki (dog).
Do not be too surprised if you find a bar at the desert camp. You probably have heard of the notorious stories about tourists and residents in jail for illegal drinking in the UAE. Consumption in the camp is permitted though and have to be paid extra. The arabic dinner buffet (part of the desert safari package) is served before the finale, which is the belly dancing.
Dinner is usually the different selections of salad, kebab, arabic bread, biryani, rice, pasta, fruits, Um Ali (Arabic for ‘Mother of Ali’) and more. Personally, I would suggest that you try all or particularly those unfamiliar to you for a unique experience particularly the desert Um Ali (translated as ‘Mother of Ali’). There is also an option to try shisha (tobacco concoction smoked in a hookah).
As you are halfway with your dinner, the belly dancer makes a dramatic entrance. While I do not want to spoil it, I thought it is interesting to take note that the dancer is the same person that did your henna tattoo earlier (she was fully covered then). Human capital strategy, perhaps? The dancer randomly selects male (first) and female guests to join her in separate dances. Later on, there will be group belly dancing which is really fun. I prefer to be taking photos and videos though.
There is one tour operator in Abu Dhabi (Al Badeya Eyes Tourism) which we availed the services a couple of years ago because it is widely endorsed by the tourism authority. They replaced the belly dancing part by a film showing (i.e. historical and about the UAE) and of course, there was no alcoholic beverages. Personally, I do not think that it is spoiling the fun, but providing an option for those who genuinely opt for clean fun. I strongly advise that you ask for the specific inclusions in your package before booking the safari, I remember when one of my guests was looking forward to the belly dancing experience, but was forced to enjoy the film showing instead. Lesson learned.
You know what is the best part, in addition to the dune bashing? To me, it was when all the lights are turned off after the belly dancing (or film showing) and you will have the chance to stare at the stars. In the UAE, it is magical/a luxury to watch the stars as these are seen miles away from the city centre. Next time, it would be interesting to do an overnight safari.