“The last time we went camping in the desert, my sister got bit on the bum by a Scorpion!!” Announced one of my students, the day before I was off on my first camping trip in the UAE desert… It was the last thing I needed to hear.
The experience all sounded very sore, and embarrassing, and potentially fatal; NONE of the adjectives I wished to add to my weekend. But it turned out that (as usual!) I was over-reacting: Scorpions don’t bite… they just sting. And actually they’re pretty rare – and only strike humans when threatened… So there were no gruesome assaults by arachnids – just a whole new world of sand, and rock, and vastness to explore.
So, let’s start with my favourite Emirati desert. Not got a favourite Emirati desert? Sort it out! Mine’s the Sharjah Desert.
Sharjah is the Emirate to the East of Dubai,
less populated, and far more traditional and conservative than its famous neighbours … But don’t let this put you off – as it’s unnervingly gorgeous.
It’s really two deserts: the red desert, and the white desert. The former boasts golden-orange dunes, while the latter is more traditional yellow sands. The easiest way to meet this expanse of ammophilous adventure is by booking yourself onto a Desert Safari – organised and incessant tourist traps, but immensely fun ones. They’ll take you jeep-bashing through the golden dunes of the red desert, before dropping you at a campsite in the white desert, where you’ll get to ride on a camel. Play with a falcon. Watch a belly-dancing- flame-thrower over a barbecue of spiced lamb – all of the stereotypical Arabian things – you’ll feel like you’ve been transported right back into the worlds of Scheherazade and Sheba… And you’ll adore every second of it.
But if you’re keen to avoid fellow tourists at all costs? Fossil Rock is a great spot for camping.
We trekked across the gritty glaze of the white desert for 5 hours, past camels, and mosques, and ariose calls to prayer before setting up our tents in the shadow of the gargantuan Jebel Maleihah.
Here, the odd pylon on the horizon was the only reminder that civilisation exists, and late October proved a perfect climate for sleeping outside our tents and under an amplitude of stars. Away from the cities, the Arabian Peninsula has the most impressive skyscape I’ve seen in the Northern Hemisphere – the moon is so monstrous, it’s never quite dark – once the sun sets everything is bathed in a milky-white manteau.
As someone who grew up in the wettest city in Britain (… Swansea! Winner of the award in 2004, 2006 and 2013), I never expected to fall-in-love with the endless aridity of the Emirati sands. But how could you not become intoxicated by the Arabian sun on your face? The juxtaposition of the infinite blue sky against the sand? The contented yet curious camels with their lazy gaze and fluttering lashes who approach for an inquisitive hello?
If you’re looking for a more mountainous desert excursion, then head further East into the Emirate of Fujairah. Here, the Hajjar mountains dare you
to scale their steep and petrous paths, and to revel at glimpses of the iridescent Gulf of Oman on the horizon.
Craggy valley trails lead past locals unaccustomed to wandering foreigners, who will excitedly invite you into their houses for coffee and dates, politely eager to know what brings you to the The Middle East, whether you’ve traveled far, and if Europe really is as cold as everybody says it is. There are few finer ways to spend an afternoon…