what it’s like to spend a day in the arabian desert

I have never been in a desert before, so I was stoked when I found a day tour that promised dune bashing, camel riding, sand boarding, and a desert camp dinner. We booked the tour with GetYourGuide.com and it was about $70 USD per person. Here is the breakdown of the good and the bad:

1. Pick-up from Hotel

Booking the tour was easy. Once we were in Dubai, I emailed them the day before to confirm the tour and pick-up location and they responded fairly quickly. The pick-up time was scheduled for 2 pm, which was nice because that meant we had the morning to do whatever we wanted. We ended up going to the Dubai Miracle Garden, then picked up lunch to eat in our hotel room, and it was plenty of time for us to chill out before the tour. Our guide, Nabeel sent a What’s App message at around 1:40 telling us he would get to our hotel at about 2:30. I really appreciated this because we just hung out in our room until then, instead of waiting in the lobby, wondering where our guide was – which is most of my experiences with such tours, anywhere in the world. Our ride was an SUV. We were grouped with a family of four so unfortunately, we got stuck in the back.

2. Sand ATV

Our first stop, after about 45 minutes of driving was the standard random stop to entice tourists into spending money. It was a camp for sand dune ATVing (and of course some souvenirs – many people got suckered into buying keffiyehs, or those checkered scarves worn on the head to keep cool). ATVing was not included in the tour, so I’m not sure how much it is but I imagine it wasn’t cheap, since they know tourists are willing to fork up the money. We decided not to do it because it was sweltering hot already. We spent around 40 minutes here and left at around 4 pm to go to our next stop

3. Dune Bashing

After maybe about 15 minutes or so of driving, we stopped in the middle of the Sharjah Desert. The tour is not just our SUV but a fleet of probably 10-15 SUVs, all from the same group. At this point, all of the guides got out to check their tire pressure to get ready for dune bashing. I actually had no idea what to expect. For some reason, I was thinking dune bashing meant heavy duty goggles in an ATV in the desert. In reality, it was a 4WD with the guide driving very fast over one sand dune after another. This was more exciting than how I’m describing it. There were times when I thought the car was going to flip over going over a dune, but in a safe way – if that makes sense. This went on for about 10-15 minutes but after the first five minutes of excitement, I was kind of done with it because I started to get a little car sick. I probably wouldn’t do it again because of this but it was a cool one-time experience

This looks like I snapped a crooked picture of the desert but it was actually our SUV that was crooked
4. Sand-boarding

The next adventure was sand boarding. I’ve never been on any type of board, whether it be sand, snow, or surf, so this was another cool first. They take you to a “baby dune”, which is like the bunny slopes of skiing. Once you nail this, they take you to a steeper dune. I definitely ate a bunch of sand that day but eventually got the hang of sand boarding. If you feel like you’re going too fast, all you have to do it bend your knees and it will help slow down. Another tip is to take off your shoes or wear sandals. Ben and I wore sneakers for some reason, which we also kept on while sand-boarding. Let’s just say that every time we emptied our sneakers of the sand, more would somehow magically appear somewhere in there

After sand-boarding, we were treated to a sunset in the desert and it was a sight to see. The sun starts setting just before 5 pm over there in November

Ate a bunch of sand on this day
5. Camel Ride

This was another thing that I had pictured differently in my head. I thought we would be riding through the desert on a camel. Instead, it was an actual camp with very sad-looking camels. It was like the time I was seven years old and went on a camel ride at the Bronx Zoo, except we got to take our own photos. Here, you line up for your turn, the ride lasts about two minutes since they literally just lead you around the camp, and there isn’t even time for any pictures because they want to keep the line moving, and they want you to buy the souvenir picture. We did get suckered into buying the souvenir picture but not without me using my haggling skills. They wanted 100 AED ($30 USD) but I got them to go down to 60 AED ($16 USD). We probably didn’t need this but we also wanted a picture of the two of us together on the camel so we just bit the bullet

6. Dinner in the Desert

This was a large “camp” that was right outside the camel camp so at least we didn’t have to travel far. I say “camp” because it’s actually a makeshift building in the middle of the desert, with (thankfully) real bathrooms, and not Porta Potties. However, it was probably the worst stop of the tour. Where do I even begin? It’s a dinner and a show but it’s many different tour groups all together, so we had to wait for everyone to arrive. They gave us little chicken shawarma as a snack and soft drinks first, but we waited an hour before the show and actual dinner started. The seating situation was a Covid nightmare. We sat with the family from our 4WD, but all the tables were right next to each other, so it wasn’t exactly Covid-safe. On top of that, you could order hookah for your table, so with strangers blowing smoke all around you, that was just another layer of added risk. Ben and I did not feel comfortable at all. We didn’t want to catch Covid, especially not before flying to the Maldives the following week and needing a negative test. So we kept our masks on the whole time and when it was time to eat dinner, we found a cozy little gazebo away from everyone and ate by ourselves, like hermits. Hey, better safe than sorry! 

As for the food, it was actually pretty good. It was a Middle Eastern barbecue, and they had lamb, beef, chicken kebabs, and fish, along with sides like rice, salad, hummus, and tabbouleh. Although good, the dinner was not worth the wait or the risk of catching Covid. Nor was the show, which was a glow in the dark performance, fire spitting, and belly dancing. I mean don’t get me wrong, it was cool but given the circumstances, I could have done without it. If you can find a tour without the dinner, I would highly recommend booking that one and just heading back early. You’ll find better food in the city anyway. The drive back to Downtown Dubai was about an hour and we got back at around 9:30 pm

Quick Tips for the Desert:
  • Wear a hat or some sort of protective head gear. The sun gets extra hot out there
  • Bring extra water
  • It’s not as cold in the desert at night as you’d think. We brought a jacket because we thought it was freezing but ended up being fine in our T-shirts. It could also be because we were inside the camp and surrounded by people

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