Sweeping across continents, there are few places more perfect for escapism than the world’s bleak and beautiful deserts. The desert city of Dubai is surrounded by an epic Arabian landscape of sand flats and drifting dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see. Travellers looking for a thrilling ride or quiet contemplation in an other-worldly place can get lost in Dubai’s unique natural playground – here’s how...
1. Dune bashing
Hold onto your hats on an exhilarating voyage across the rolling orange-tinged dunes of Dubai’s sandsea aboard a robust four-by-four. With an experienced dune-basher at the helm, hardy big horse-power vehicles tackle mountains of sand at speed, flying over crests and bumping down precipices in a stark and serene landscape. As part of the experience, there’s a stop to capture the landscape on camera before heading off to a traditional Bedouin camp for supper at dusk.
2. Quad biking
Quad biking in Arabia is like leasing your own moon buggy to zoom around the lunar landscape. It’s a really fun way to explore the desert, giving you a buzz of adventure as you tackle humped dunes and speed along flat plains of sand. The best quad-biking spot in Dubai is Al Hamar, translated as Big Red and named after its towering russet-hued mountain of sand not far from the city bounds. You can hire quad bikes and helmets by the half hour and explore your surrounds unhindered, following a natural track through the desert terrain.
3. Hot air ballooning
There are few more graceful or romantic ways to see a landscape than in a hot air balloon, taking off at dawn to see the glittering sands of the desert shifting through the colour spectrum as the sun climbs above the horizon. With more than fifteen years experience and a first-class safety ethic, Balloon Adventures Dubai operates tours with take-offs at first light from Dubai Desert Reserve to soar more than a thousand metres above wave-like sandseas, oases and wandering wildlife with the jagged peaks of the Hajar Mountains emerging in the distance. Half-day tours include flights with an expert and experienced pilot and a lavish breakfast including caviar, salmon and eggs benedict. For an unusual twist, you can choose a tour with one of Dubai’s resident champion falcons along for the ride in the balloon basket. Once you land there’s also the option to continue the experience with a vintage open-top jeep ride across the desert to a luxury Bedouin camp.
4. Sand-boarding and dune jumping
The environment couldn’t be more different in terms of climate and makeup, but Dubai has something in common with the alpine mountains – smooth slopes and a soft landing. Rather than sliding down on a snowboard, you can strap on a sand-board for a similar experience on the dunes, just much hotter. Adventure tour company Dream Explorer Dubai offers half-day sand-boarding sessions out in a scenic desert location reached by Hummer. Alternatively you can hire boards at Big Red (Al Hamar) and try it out for yourself.
Much as you might leap down mountain snow-drifts with the soft stuff breaking you fall, so you can go dune-jumping in Dubai’s desert. Scramble up a steep gradient and make the leap with a guaranteed soft landing, no gimmicks or equipment required.
5. Vintage safaris
Tour the desert in style in one of Platinum Heritage’s fleet of gorgeous open-topped 1950s jeeps. The vintage vehicles make you feel like an old-world explorer, charting the desert in the days before easy access and commercial travel. A variety of packages include a day tour culminating in a night in a private luxury desert camp.
6. Camel rides and treks
Climb aboard the ancient ships of the desert – as camels are often referred to in the region – for a quintessential Arabian experience exploring the desert at sunrise during winter or sunset during summer. Camel riding tours with ground tour operator Arabian Adventures take in the beautiful vistas of Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve where the sands are at their most magical, glittering gold, orange, red and purple, as the light changes. The route passes feeding stations where there’s a good chance of spotting desert dwellers such as gazelle and Arabian oryx, and includes a stop by the lakes for a glass of bubbly.
To truly fall in love with Dubai’s desert hinterland, you can spend the night in one of a few luxury desert resorts and experience the serenity, ever-changing light and wild inhabitants of this alien landscape. Just 14 miles beyond the city’s bounds, Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa is a private oasis and lavish fort offering guests the perfect gateway to the desert with four-by-four safaris, camel rides among the dunes, Arabian falconry demonstrations and more.
Another top spot for overnighting in the desert is Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, set within Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and providing a glamping experience with all the bells and whistles. Like a high-end Arabian safari lodge, luxury Bedouin-style tents feature comfy double beds and private plunge pools looking out onto the desert, and packages include guided wildlife-spotting hikes through the dunes and tours by jeep.