Dubai has never ranked high on my travel list. Most people come here either to shop or to lounge around on the city’s sandy shores like beached whales slowly roasting in the Arabian sun. Neither of these two options has much appeal to me. So my expectations on a recent visit to the city were naturally low.
And no, the city did not surprise me. Dubai lacks the sophisticated ostentatiousness of Monaco, the unbridled hedonism of Las Vegas, and the harmonious refinement of Singapore, all of which make these cities interesting if not necessarily admirable. The fact is there is an absence of any real discernible culture in Dubai, which isn’t all that surprising considering that the city is basically a 30 kilometer stretch of hotels and shopping malls interspersed with entertainment centers and amusement parks. It is, in essence, the world’s largest tourist trap.
What Dubai does have, though, is sand – a lot of it. Given the fact that the desert is the UAE’s most enduring natural legacy (other than oil), I endeavored to spend as much time in it rather than the urban landscapes that scare the coastline. This proved to be more difficult than I had imagined, mostly due to a lack of creativity when it comes to tour offerings. This is a country that thinks it knows what you want and expects you to step in line, and Dubai has done its best to turn this natural attraction into another cliché driven venture with tour companies offering the same worn trope of dune bashing (essentially driving somewhat fast over sand) followed by a “cultural experience” of sitting down for a meal in a fake Bedouin camp complete with belly dancing and henna painting. Luckily, there is one particular area close to Dubai that can still provide a glimpse of what this part of the world looked like before the combustible engine.
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
The 225 square kilometer Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) sits between the coast and the Empty Quarter, a vast stretch of uninhabited sand dunes. What makes this area unique is that while it is still mainly sand, it contains enough water to support flora and fauna. It was in areas such as these that the Bedouin would hunt and make their camps. It is also precisely this biome which has been virtually erased by development in the UAE.
Established by royal decree in 2003, the DDCR is a well-managed park with restricted access. Its main draws are two species of gazelle and the national animal of the Emirates, the Arabian oryx, reintroduced to the UAE in 1999 after nearly becoming extinct. The DDCR also contains foxes, wild cats, lizards, snakes (including vipers), and a variety of birds. The success of the park’s conservation efforts can be measured by the ever-growing biodiversity with new species making the DDCR their home each year.
Because the DDCR is a sensitive ecological zone, access is limited to only a handful of tour operators and guests of a luxury hotel located in the park. It’s not cheap to visit, but then again most activities in the UAE are not particularly friendly to one’s wallet. If you have the money than staying at the Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa (upwards of $500 a night) is probably the best way to experience the DDCR. The hotel offers a range of activities (nature walks, jeep safaris, camel rides, etc.) in the morning and at night, increasing your chances of spotting some the park’s shyer species.
If your budget or time is limited, then you can book half day tours in the morning or evening through Platinum Heritage (starting at $160) or Arabian Adventures (starting at $60). Both companies offer essentially the same safari services, the only difference being that for an extra $100 Platinum Heritage provides breakfast at Al Maha (and judging by the photos, a free turban).
Another tour operator, Royal Shaheen, offers excursions centered on falconry demonstrations in the DDCR starting at $175. They come well recommended and are a great choice for birds of prey enthusiasts. The cheapest company, Lama Tours, (~$50); will take you to the DDCR for the typical desert dinner and show, but don’t expect to see much in the way of wildlife with them. You can also get an aerial view of the DDCR with Balloon Adventures Dubai.
I went with Arabian Adventures’ morning dune safari (~$65) and was very pleased with their service. Their guides were both knowledgeable and courteous. More importantly, the tour was not rushed (one of the main reasons I avoid organized outings), with ample opportunities to photograph the wildlife at leisure. Most of the time is spent in the jeep, but there are a few spots where you can stretch your legs and explore the park a little on foot.
A trip to the DDCR may not be on the same level as say a safari in the Serengeti, but it makes for a nice getaway from the crowds and smog of Dubai. It’s a reaffirmation that the creations of the natural world rival anything made by man, and that what once was can surely be again.