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Dune Bashing in Dubai: The Desert is a Huge Playground

In Dubai, they say that God has given the desert to the Arabs in order to educate them to become placid, humble people. But the desert ist not what it was anymore. It was taken over by men, and turned into a huge playground for the adrenaline loving. Dune Bashing in Dubai has become a must-do for desert tourists.

A petrol station arises from nowhere. We head right towards it and pause. Djadi stops the engine, gets out and disappears into the interior of the building. I am irritated. Sunset is in about an hour and I want to photograph the desert before dusk. After a three hour drive through the traffic jams of Dubai, it would be nice to know that we are finally there. Yet we now find ourselves lost in the middle of nowhere, five tourists standing next to an off-road vehicle. Two Russians, a young German backpacker, S. and I. A smell of motor oil and rubber is in the air. It is hot and sweaty. The Russians light a cigarette. Two Arabs try to persuade us to go into their nearby store to buy something but we decline. We want to get going, straight into the desert. We are there already, kind of. We have seen nothing but sand, stones, and undergrowth for a while. Still, this does not look like the desert we had imagined. The backpacker is drawing faces into the sand with his feet.

Some minutes of waiting later, Djadi comes back from the darkness of inside the store. He deflates the tires. Meaning that we might soon leave the paved street. We will need a broader tire bed to drive in the sand. And we have guessed right. A short way from the petrol station we leave the highway and drive across a sandy street. Djadi stops once more to fasten his seatbelt and get his seat in an upright position. He then casts a glance to the back of the car to make sure we all have our seat belts fastened. He tells us that he has never experienced anything like it but that he has seen vehicles turning over. I peer at the roof of our Landcruiser. It has rollover bars attached to it to protect us from any forces that might have an impact on the car sheet in case Djadi loses control. We head towards dunes. One more turn, and we finally see the desert in front of us. Solitary, with nothing but sand around us.

In my daydream, that is. In reality, the dream of a deserted desert is over before it has begun. People group around their cars everywhere. White off-road vehicles bomb up and down the orange colored dunes and disperse dust. We are not the only ones who have come into this part of the desert south of Dubai. A part of the desert that is not yet populated. Measured against the number of people who are here, it is.

Djadi revs up as he heads for the first sand dune. We are pushed back into our seats and get tossed to the left and to the right. We have reached the top of the dune. Djadi guns the engine and jerks the wheel violently. We are riding on the sand for a few seconds, then we speed downwards. One of the Russians is squeaking with joy. I have to laugh spontaneously as my stomach is jumping through my body. But actually, I don’t like this at all. To me, this is a highly questionable idea of fun.

We did not find any tour operator to do a desert safari without dune bashing, one of the most popular recreational pleasures in the Emirates. And so I now find myself in a white 4WD Toyota Landcruiser and wonder about this kind of sport while we are speed cruising the dunes. More than once, Djadi exhausts the rules of gravity to the maximum degree. At a certain time, my body has adjusted to the jerky movements. Smoothly, my head and stomach swing in time with the steering wheel. I have made myself comfortable in my seat and the roller coaster drive through the sand is beginning to bore me. This is, well, nice. But… If I could have chosen, I’d rather have walked through the desert all by my own – or in the company of camels. Meanwhile, the engine draws gasoline in gallons per minute. Somehow, they have to use all the oil they pump from the earth in the Emirates.

The Russians apparently have a lot of fun. They whoop Djadi into doing risky maneuvers and they have turned up the volume on the radio so that loud pop music now fills the car. Even on the way from Dubai Djadi has proven his skill as a race driver, with 50 miles per hour in the city and 95 on the highway. We had asked him to get us out of Dubai fast, after being stuck in traffic for so long. We didn’t have to ask twice. Now he is in his element. To him, the desert is one huge playground, a track made from fine sand. The dunes are ramps and ground loops, and we are playing motor race. Ever so often, sand comes flying on our windshield, and around us everything is raised dust and splashes of sand. Some vehicles driving in front of us let their cars jump violently. The Russians plead Djadi to do the same.

The United Arab Emirates are almost completely covered by sandy desert. Parts of it are so hostile to life that even the Beduins avoid them and instead make camp in outer regions of the desert, near the populated areas. They say that God has given the desert to the Arabs in order to educate them to become placid, humble people. In here, man is without a chance against the force of nature. He must succumb to elemental power. He is in constant danger of getting lost and of dying of thirst or even hunger. From the year one, the desert has been synonymous with a safe haven of solitude.

But even the desert is powerless against mass tourism.

Here, we cannot get lost. There is no danger at all, except maybe for being knocked down by a 4WD. We cannot get lost because Djadi knows this place like his own sandbox. He drives tourists through the desert at least once a day. And we cannot get lost because all cars have the same destination: A Bedouin camp, about 25 miles south of Dubai. Not a real one though. A copied and rebuilt one, ready to cater to and entertain around 300 tourists at once. Here, visitors can ride a round on a camel if they are willing to stand in line with everybody else who is eager to do the same for 45 minutes. The shishas are just as popular. You could go and get a henna tattoo, try on Arabic costumes or write your name with sand on cheap trinket. You could even buy beer in cans which is really extraordinary as it requires strict and expensive licenses to sell alcohol in the Emirates. In fact, these are so expensive that they are only held by first class hotels. ass tourism obviously is a profitable business. In the midst of all this, a folklore show is in full swing on a stage. All is acted out for the tourists from India, the Middle East, and Europe.

In the desert scenery, the Bedouin camp looks almost as grotesque as the army of vehicles parked beyond its gates. Both is here because of the tourists. Tourists like the Russians and the backpacker. Tourists like me. I am in the midst of a giant tourist trap and I want nothing but to get out of here. Instead of standing in line for the buffet with 298 other people, S. and I sneak out of the camp and climb a dune from which we have a perfect view over whatever is going on there. There is nobody except us. We had hoped to see the stars, but we don’t. On the horizon, the lights of Dubai are glowing menacingly. The orange light absorbs the light of the sky. We sit in silence until the program in the camp is over and then slowly walk back to our car. We meet Djadi who is sitting on the front seat and playing something on his phone. He is apparently amazed to see us out here. We tell him that we have imagined the desert differently. More real.

The real desert? That is something completely different, he says. He shakes his head and laughs.

About the Author

Anna loves travel, photography, and writing. All at once, everyday. She collects entrance cards, plane tickets, and old atlases and has been searching for the perfect globe for some years. Follow Anna on Facebook or Twitter!

5 Comments

  1. Beautiful writing. I’ve lived in Dubai for 6 years, and have dune-bashed twice, and it’s always as you describe it, from what I gather. Although the 3-hour drive time is a little unusual.
    There are some better ways of seeing the desert here. You mentioned you didn’t find a tour operator who does a safari without the bashing – Platinum Heritage do a great one (blogged here: thehedonista.com/2013/11/19/heritage-platinum-desert-safari/) and there is also the Full Moon Drumming if you come at the right time: thehedonista.com/2011/12/12/full-moon-drumming/ but you will have to organise a car out there (Careem or a standard Taxi will do it) and finally, I recommend that people stay a night at Bab al Shams – it’s a two in one – you get the desert and the accommodation in one, and can sit on the rooftop smoking shisha and hoping against hope there isn’t too much heat haze, humidity or dust in the air to see the stars.

    • Thanks for the advice, Sarah! If I ever get to Dubai again, I’ll definitely rent my own car to go to the desert. We just had four days in Dubai, so there was not that much time to research the best tour operators – and unfortunately, not enough time to spend a night in the desert which I would have loved to do!

Your thoughts are welcome!