Not long ago an oasis was created in Dubai to transform a pocket of its arid sand-sea to green. Just forty minutes by road beyond the dazzling lights, flashy malls and neck-achingly tall superstructures of Dubai’s metropolis, the hidden Al Qudra oasis has since become central to a thriving ecosystem that includes visitors such as greater flamingos, falcons, desert foxes and oryx.
A network of curving lakes set deep in the dunes of Dubai’s Saih Al Salam Desert Reserve, the Al Qudra lakes also offer fans of nature and the great outdoors a scenic and peaceful retreat that seems a world away from the city. As well as a long looping cycle track passing the lakes, there are picnic areas, places for wild camping and walking tracks along the lake’s banks and leading into the surrounding dunes.
In an emirate known for its man-made brilliance, where beaches, peninsulas and whole islands have been built from scratch, it’s only fitting that an oasis and natural haven for wildlife should be added to the mix. The fact that Al Qudra is artificial does little to detract from its beauty – especially at dawn – and it’s also a good location to experience Arabia’s star-spangled night skies, free from light pollution.
In fact Al Qudra lakes make a great public base for a do-it-yourself jaunt from the city. One of the best ways to experience the stillness and beauty of the desert is to stay overnight during the cooler months between November and March when temperatures are just right. The wide peninsulas jutting into the eastern lakes are an ideal backdrop to set up camp, build a campfire, stargaze and get up to watch the spectacular golden sunrise reflected on the lake, when huge flocks of birds gather on the banks.
You’ll have to bring tents and camping gear, but if you don’t want to lug it on holiday you can purchase it at Adventure HQ in Dubai’s Times Square Centre, which also rents out bikes. As well as a grocery store and bike hire shop at the turn-off to the lakes, there are some great camping spots close to the road that negate the need for a four-wheel drive car. To venture off track, hire a jeep and head south away from the lakes to find more secluded wild camping spots. Some wild attractions in the UAE are prone to littering so be sure to leave no trace behind, especially trash and plastic bags that harm the wildlife and pollute the area.
If basic camping’s off the agenda, the five-star luxury desert resort of Bab Al Shams is located nearby. Book a room or simply pop by for supper with the stunning desert sunset as your backdrop.
Ride of your life
The lakes cover a wide wilderness area bisected by the popular 50-mile-long Al Qudra bike track that loops through the desert with two clusters of freshwater pools to the east and west. One of the longest continuous cycle paths in the world, it runs through beautiful Arabian sands with sheltered places to stop dotting the route.
Cycling the 22-mile straight stretch - known as the Stick - is particularly magical at sunrise when it feels as if you are rolling into daybreak, and the desert air is still cool. The section is even illuminated at night for those tempted by an after-dark cycle. The tracks are suitable for a gentle cycle or a speedy marathon and are relatively flat with tree-lined avenues by the lakes and undulating humps over the dunes allowing for some fun and breezy downhill freewheeling.
There’s a car park and facilities at the start-point of the Stick track close to Dubai Ranches, but the main hub for the Al Qudra lakes is further on, where Zad Food Store offers supplies, coffee, organic smoothies and Arabian snacks. Next door, the Trek Bicycle Store hires out bikes. Cycle Safe Dubai arranges bike rides on early Friday mornings (the beginning of the emirates’ weekend) for everyone from beginners to pros.
Watch the birdies
Part of a government project to enrich the Al Qudra desert, the lakes form a green belt seeded with trees and bushes bearing fruit, flowers and nuts. Reed beds are being cultivated along the edges of the wetland areas and the lakes have been stocked with fish. As a result, the oasis has been successful in attracting an extraordinary range of wildlife including more than 130 different species of birds. Some rare and exotic migratory birds have even chosen Al Qudra as a stopover.
As well as the ground-nesting birds that have begun breeding along the leafy peninsulas, geese and ducks have arrived in their droves. Greater Flamingos can be seen standing in the shallows, while black swans glide across the water. Starlings, vultures and falcons can be seen flying overhead, and rare steppe eagles and asian houbaras are even occasionally glimpsed. It’s quickly become a hotspot for birders, with a number of wildlife hides being recently added. Sunrise at the lakes is the golden hour for bird-spotting and enjoying the scenery – twitchers should definitely bring binoculars.
Aside from feathered creatures, Al Qudra is good for wildlife watching in general. On a quiet stroll you can spot desert foxes, Arabian oryx, gazelles and camels, and if you look closely enough you may even see tiny desert dwellers such as jerboa mice or scarab beetles.
Camping, cycling and migratory bird-spotting aside, Al Qudra lakes have become the core of a desert parkland that attracts visitors for a simple stroll, picnic or barbecue. A landscaped area of shady trees, snaking waterways and islets with benches overlooking the water, it’s a tranquil side to Dubai where you can meditate on the scene; an easy escape from the city that you can visit yourself without joining a tour. If you prefer to be led by a local guide, there are a few tours that include bird-watching and wildlife-spotting in the Al Qudra locality, and plenty of bike tours make good use of Al Qudra’s excellent desert track.