An afternoon in the desert.

Dubai is dull.  At least in March 2017 it was dull.  It’s a building site.  There are no pavements.  As you tramp along the uneven boardwalks or even edge along by the traffic, all you can see are skyscrapers.  And in between the skyscrapers are huge dusty red building sites that are soon to become skyscrapers, and the clank and drone from these roadside sandpits is monotonous and wearying in the dry heat.

The centre of Dubai is at least finished, the area round the Opera House.  It’s all futuristic, brightly-lit and pristine.  An enormous shopping mall has air con, and an aquarium along one vast wall, which is very attractive.  The pedestrian areas outside are wide and spacious, with well-kept lawns.  All of this is built round a lake, and in the early evenings, a lights-and-music show, where fountain sprays dart across the water, synchronised with a booming soundtrack, is the only exciting and slightly exotic feature of the city.  This area does give eastern promise.  But everywhere else, and getting to anywhere else, is a noisy city desert.  We had plans for another kind.

Our driver was from Pakistan, but I forget his name, if he ever told us, and picked us up at 3 at the hotel.  I thought this seemed rather late for a day excursion, what did I know?  What do I ever know?  Until I experience it and then know about it?  This is a metaphor, by the way.

There were five of us, one of us knew all about jeeps, exhaustion engines, treading on tyres and what gear was best to wear, so we put Sam in the front.  Byron, Ali, Rich, Rob and myself hunched in the back two rows, clinging to overhead crash bars and clung on, Sam chatted amiably with the driver, who was an amiable chap to chat to.

We drove 40 miles out of the prototype metropolis up a wide motorway before turning off towards more deserted land, no pun intended, it just seemed emptier.  And suddenly marvellously deserty, a landscape I’d never seen before, increasingly wide-screen distances of sand, with just a few shrubs dotted on the surface, and the promise of more undulating terrain further ahead.  We were apparently part of a troupe of about 100 jeeps setting forth at this time of day, and we parked up in a huge space, and had to deflate our tyres.   This was because in the heat of the day, though midday was long gone, the air inside tyres that aren’t turning would expand and blow them off their hubs.

Though in a dusty car park, we’d parked by an oasis, a real one, not one out of an encyclopaedia, an isolated copse of cooling trees, tropical palms with a breeze floating through them, in the middle of sand for miles around.  First we were taken to a gap in the trees, an oasis within the oasis, where there sat two camels, draped in a carpet each and looking bored on the sand.  People queued up to have their photo taken with the camels, as if they’d somehow tamed them, and the rest of us waited, water bottles provided by several nearby cool boxes.

After this we were pointed through the trees to a sort of arena, a wide semicircle of low steps and bean benches to sit on while we watched a terrific gyr falcon display, given by an Australian chap with an entertaining presentation and a way with the birds.  A lot of what he said I knew, having been given a falconry day by Helen for a birthday – interesting stuff like the fact these guys are not pets, there’s absolutely no affection there, they see us, when we wander into their heads at all, as providers of food, nothing more; do not try and pet one of these, it’ll have your finger off before you can say ‘Pretty Polly’ –  but to see the bird, and in action, as he loosed it into the air to circle us, then threw the lure onto the floor for it to spot and whizz in to grab it was still spectacular. 

in the car park we reflated our tyres and moved off in convoy, straight into the desert.  The road, a tyre-tracked path by now, was still flat, but on either side the dunes were rising.  Small hillocks became tall ridges and cones of windswept sand, and all of a sudden, we all turned off and accelerated straight into the raw landscape.  This was the thrill, the joy of the day, a roller coaster of a ride, leaping and twisting up and over countless dunes.  The desert floor beneath us was of course never solid, so even darting between dunes we were swerving.  But the frequent climaxes were shooting up the side of a dune, and wrenching the wheel right on the tip of the ridge, sending the jeep swirling off at a different angle down the other side.  It was exhilarating, to say the least! The new world terrain for me, unreal to be there, and then to be part of it, swooping and looping up and over, swerving round, sometimes losing sight of the car in front, sometimes scaling a dune to find the next car virtually under our bumpers, it was a fairground ride for adults, for real, in a real moonscape I never thought I’d ever see.

After half an hour or so of this joy-riding, the convoy parked in a wide space between the bumps.  A bit of time to enjoy the view, climb a dune and enjoy the warm early evening breeze, more a waft of sunny air, then back to the buggies.  Another half hour of revving then dipping, whooping and screaming, and we stopped once more.  It was around 6 by now, and time for the famed sunset.  It was beautiful, as any other; for me it was obviously the setting that gave the scene its particular glow that evening.  The Little Prince was impossible to keep out of my head, and those of anyone who has read it, I’m sure.

Back to the dunes, a steadier convoy now, as we drifted back to the track, and back to the base camp, where the evening’s entertainments awaited us.  The most immediate attraction, and obviously the big shekel-spinner here was the camel ride.  You queued, were hoisted in twos onto camel’s backs, and led round a small circle to dismount.  Both the mounting and dismounting have been overplayed in my opinion, both are easy. Byron and Ali took their turn around the loop.  Then the two huge guys, Sam and Richard Watkyn (our guest bumper and euphonium player on this trip), hopped onto the back of a sturdy beast.  The camel, from its knees, sprang up and trotted off calmly with its handler round the track.  The two tiny guys, Rob and I, with about 8 feet between us and perhaps 20 stones (I’m 13 of them) were bundled onto the next camel, but he refused to spring up.  He refused to do anything.  Obviously he’d found his level, knee height, and was happy with it.  But to be fair, he wasn’t happy at all, and despite a lot of ‘cushing’ from his handler, failed to stagger to his feet.  Poor thing, he’d just had enough for the day.  Rob, being more sympathetic, dismounted, and the camel magically rose and plodded forward with a single passenger.  I did my round (which was a lifetime thing, I enjoyed each of the 3 minutes on the back of a camel) and encouraged Rob that it was his turn.  The handler was ready for this too, ignoring the queue, but Rob had perhaps decided that the poor animal had had enough, and refused to take his turn and pour on it any further misery.

Now we entered a large enclosure, piked logs as a perimeter, where the feasting and general pretending-to-be-nomadic adventures went on.  In a cage as we went in was the gyr falcon from the earlier presentation.  At least I think it was the same one it was hard to tell in the twilight.  Maybe it was green now, and a lot smaller and talkative.  People queued, as they had with camels, to have their photo taken with the lightning predator of the skies, and we went into the enclosure.  There were a few bead-selling and incense stalls along the path before it opened out onto a huge, medieval-like forum.  There were various huts, cooking different parts of a massive meal.  Mezes were already prepared, and having found a space, sitting cross-legged on carpets and cloth bolsters, a few of us provided the rest with drinks, and a few went off to find kebabs, koftas, samosas, stuffed vine leaves, falafels, and all sorts of Saharan starters.  The atmosphere in the whole encampment, after the day that we’d all had, the afternoon shooting the dunes in such other-wordly surroundings, was joyful and excited, a buzz of chatter in the dark. 

After filling our plates with barbecued chunks of meat, whatever it was, (as we queued for the BBQ I heard a gunshot in the darkness.  Perhaps Rob had been right about that camel.) and fish and tabbouleh, grilled aubergines, tahini sauces and local breads, round and flaky, we settled back to our places, loud music started and the belly dancing began.  As I always do, I found this beguiling, I don’t know why, perhaps it’s a primitive thing.  I don’t find it sexy in a traditional come-hither way, it’s attractive in that she can do things with her hips that a man can’t.  Which I suppose is very naturally sexy.

The party was dying down now, and several jeep-loads had left already.  It was my fault that we took advantage of the shisha area, where we sat even more lazily now on divans, and a waiter brought us the various devices to smoke and pass round, one pot bubbling with melon-flavoured tobacco in the middle, blackcurrant in the other.  The sky above was clear and close, and this was a wonderfully calm end to an exhilarating day.  We were the very last of the 100 jeeps to leave, yet our driver was patient.  In fact he joined us on the shisha.

A drift back towards the towers and rubble of Dubai, during which many of us fell asleep, and we were back at the hotel by half past ten.  This had been special.  A camel ride is one of those bucket list things, along with swimming with dolphins.  Seeing a real desert environment, not in an enclosure at a zoo had been special, shooting the dunes, though more of a mechanical rather than cerebral thrill was a huge thrill none the less, literally, and to top things off with a lovely meal and accroutrements under the desert stars was truly a day to remember, a standout day in 30 years of touring. 

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