(First appeared in The Hindu, August 6, 2011)
A must-do on your itinerary, the Desert Safari in Dubai is filled with ups and downs, good food and some great dancing.
It took me my fifth trip to Dubai, last winter, to experience the Desert Safari; justifiably item no 1 in the things-to-do-in-Dubai list. And, am I glad I did! Mike, the Filipino driver of our Toyota Land Cruiser, is punctual and picks me up at three. Already in are a three-member family of Indian origin from San Francisco and a father and son from Brazil, trailing their favourite football team. In the 2-3-1 seating formation, I get to sit with Mike. Off we go out of Dubai some 60 km and Mike stops in front of a wayside shop in the wilderness. He announces a half an hour break and suggests we use the shop washroom because the next break would be hours away. The Pakistani shopkeeper is very hospitable, inviting us in to use the washrooms, past the shelves. Everybody stocks up. Water and soft drinks are twice the normal price and Wrigley’s chewing gum thrice. I am sure there will be due reward for Mike and the drivers of seven other Land Cruisers that arrive.
Soon we are off in a convoy and off road. As the sand dunes appear, the drivers get active; each Land Cruiser taking off in an unpredictable direction. What follows is a show of exceptional driving skills and diesel power. Some attack the sand dunes head-on, climb up to the peak and then disappear on to the other side. Some stay slanted on the slopes, often sliding sideways, gripping the dry sand in full throttle with torque maximised in low gear. Tyres crunch the dry sand and the occupants heave a sigh of relief as the four-wheel drives manage to stabilise themselves. In the process, they kick up more than sand. For one thing, stomachs churn. (Keep the plastic bag handy if you have a delicate tummy).
Soon we reach a sandy mound and everybody gets down. For a while the sand turns orange in the setting sun that soon mellows; even in winter, the Arabian sun is harsh through the day making cap and sunglasses part of the recommended accessories. All around are stretches of sand reaching up to the horizon. It is a humbling experience. The group falls silent in the midst of Nature’s expansive 360° presence.
By the time we reach the campsite shaped like a fort, the sun has vanished. We are received with tea and dates at the walled camp. The bar is open and food is getting ready. The Afghani chef is making naan — piping hot, bubbled and brown — it tastes fantastic even without any accompaniments. Elsewhere, the sight of four varieties of kebabs on the barbecue scales up our appetite. There are shi-shas (hookahs) and a choice of flavours. You need to pull hard for the vapour to pass through water and the smoke reaches parts the cigarette smoke cannot.
I am helped with my shi-sha by an Arab attendant who knows a bit of Hindi. We get talking and he turns out to be Shamsuddin from Chennai. Soon it is my turn to show off my Tamil. In the adjoining stall, Arab robes and head gears are available for keepsake photographs. Tourists are taking turns to be photographed before passing them on to others. How much a dress can change looks! Some really look Arabs. I “book” the robe and headgear being used by an IT group from Hyderabad. Finding the wait too long, I turn to someone I thought was another Indian and ask him for the headgear, if he was through. He turns out to be one of the genuine Arab attendants. You should have seen his face!
Picking our food, we sit on flat, large cushions around low tables, arranged in a large circle. The tall Arab MC invites us to moon watching by lying on our backs. It is a starry night washed by moonlight. We settle down to experience the total silence. Nothing stirs. In that zero gravity state, nothing exists except the dark blue sky…
We are woken up by the MC announcing the arrival of the belly dancer. She tiptoes in a silver wrap. She is tall and lithe. She soon emerges out of the swirling wrap like a black butterfly. She sways to the tune of Arabic songs, switching between flowing, gyrating and vigorous movements. In between, her belly quivers at an incredible rate, enough to keep pace with trained musicians. That justifies the name to what the uninitiated will otherwise see as a moderately sensuous dance.
As the artist departs with a bow, amid lot of applause, the day in an Arab desert comes to a close. In uncharacteristic slow steps I leave the tented camp, role-playing Lawrence of Arabia, feeling as if still attired in the robe and head gear…