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The desert at the door

Fifty years ago, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, was just a cluster of huts sheltering the fishermen and pearl divers who pulled a living from the Creek. Aside from this small settlement, the rest was sand – 6,000 square kilometres of it.When oil was discovered in 1966, the Emirate began to blossom like the desert after rain. Money flooded in and construction started;  at one time it was estimated that a quarter of all the building cranes in the world were at work in Dubai. But beyond the encroaching city, the desert remains and it’s worth seeing.

Draw of the desert

 A drive of less than an hour leaves the city of Dubai behind and brings you to the edge of the Arabian Desert. Almost 4,000 sq km of this vast expanse – second in size only to the Sahara – belongs to the Emirate of Dubai. At first glance, red dunes under a hot sun look like an environment that can take care of itself. But in fact, the desert was no match for the aftershock of Dubai’s prosperity. If the ever-expanding city centre was one problem, the effects of the four-wheel drive vehicle were worse.The tracks of these vehicles squeezed the life out of fragile plants that had survived, until then, for millennia and by 1964, mechanised hunters had all but wiped out the desert’s most beautiful creature, the white Arabian oryx. The breed was saved from extinction by the then ruler of Dubai, Sheik Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the architect of modern Dubai. He sent a small herd of oryx to a sanctuary in Arizona, in the United Staes where they bred in safety. Thirty-five years later, 90 oryx, the descendants of the original herd, were brought back to Dubai’s desert and released in a newly established national park where they now number 250.

 When five per cent of the desert was designated a Desert Conservation area in 2002, the problem of ‘dune bashing’ was addressed. Previously, some 19 tour operators had been offering these desert joy rides; that number was reduced to four and wild as the rides may seem, they follow an agreed route. Although ecotourism is in Dubai’s future plans, for the present the experience of sharing this awesome space with the oryx, the desert fox and the Arabian gazelle comes at a price.You can stay in one of the 40 or so villas of a luxurious desert resort, Al Maha, built to look like a Bedouin encampment in an oasis. Costs range from $600 to $1500 a night for the smaller villas but they are the epitome of Arabian luxury. Staff members outnumber guests three to one and each villa enjoys its own, chilled private pool –where oryx now sometimes come to drink.There are falcon displays and the chance to ride into the desert on a horse or camel.

For a much less expensive foray into the desert, book a dune drive and desert dinner with Arabian Adventures.The evening begins with a hair-raising fourwheel drive over the rolling dunes (consider taking a Dramamine) then a stop where you struggle up a dune on your own two feet to photograph the setting sun. At dusk, you get your first glimpse of the Bedouin tent set out for the evening’s feast; the sight is pure romance.

 During the evening there’s a chance to have your hands painted with henna, try a puff on a Hubble-bubble pipe, watch some belly dancing and to experience a short ride on a camel. I can report it feels as if you’d straddled a large padded footstool that suddenly morphed to a great height and began to stride around the room. At the end of the evening, before guests climb back into the long convoy of fourwheel drive vehicles for the return to the hotels, the lights are switched off for several minutes.The scene is dimly lit by the moon and stars, the dunes like dry ocean waves rolling into the darkness. Hundreds of people sit in absolute silence for several minutes.When the lights come on again, there’s a momentary pause – and then applause. It could be for the feast, or for the entertainment, but I think it’s probably for the desert.