There is nothing like a bit of exercise in the desert. Walking in the sand, let alone running, is aerobic enough and if you are trying to push a Toyota Land Cruiser, well you are aiming for the Guinness Book of World Records. Let us start the story. Drive about 90 minutes south of Abu Dhabi into the Empty Quarter, the Rub’al Khali, and after an eternity of sand you come to the lush oasis that is a unique luxury hotel, Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara (the name means ‘mirage in the desert’, and more anon). The gal arrived, and instantly joined the daily wadi-bashing activity.
With new friends Johannes and Monika, from Vienna, and with our highly skilled Indian driver, Nish from Kerala, off we set in the first of three identical vehicles in convoy (luxury travel tip, always try to be in the first car as then you can photograph the others trying to follow you down the precipitous slopes). We stopped after five minutes, to let the car tyre pressure down from the usual 35 PSI to 20 – usually, said Nish, he lets all four Yokohama tyres down to 13 but it has been raining and the sand is firmer than usual. Then off we started, to explore the dunes.
And oh what a thrill. The Empty Quarter is the largest sand desert anywhere, covering 250,000 square miles in all. Covering much of the Arabian Peninsula, including Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as well as UAE, it is some 620 miles north to south, and 310 miles measured across. The sand ranges from nearly white – marine sand, blown in from the coast a millennia or more ago – to deep red, iron oxide. Every day the colour pattern changes, depending on the strength of the wind, which 90 percent of the time comes from the north. The shape of the dunes also changes daily, also wind-dependent. They are less steep today, says Nish, but even so some of the slopes that we helter-skelter up and down are nearly 300 feet high: in all we rise 750 feet up from the resort.
The vehicles have roll cages but, says Nish, in nine years he has never gone over. Someone, me of course, screams OMG as we seem to switch through 180 degrees as we go up the first slope to its sharp peak, and then immediately over and down again. Thank someone for seat belts. Regularly, we stop to watch the other two vehicles in our convoy follow our tracks. The second driver seems deliberately to slide, as if asked so to do by his passengers, who include three young men. This is a fabulous holiday activity for teenagers (what with camel-riding, horse-back riding, mountain biking and so much more, this is the ideal teenage resort).
Wadi means dry river-bed and we hear that in fact in between the dunes there is water beneath the surface, and Bedouin living and farming in the Liwa villages not far from this part of the desert have wells, pumps, pipes, and desalination plants. Only about 25 different plant species live here naturally. We come across two-foot high green bushes, Syrian bean capers (Zygophyllum fabago), leafless but with berries looking like, not surprisingly, dayglo-green capers. Nish picks a branch, shows us how plucking one of the berries expels a salty liquid. Any little thing helps desert animals stay alive.
We started at 5.30pm, and after 90 minutes the light is failing. Wait for it, we are coming to Starbuck’s in the desert, says Nish. We come up to a temporary camp, with some camels sitting looking rather fed up. This is not really surprising since every day they have to support tourists says Ooh and Aah as they slowly make their way from the luxury hotel to this spot. The camel-riders and the wadi-bashers meet at the same point, but unlike Starbuck’s, here the coffee is Arabic, sweet and served in tiny handleless cups (rattle’em if you do not want any more), and there are filled rolls and biscuits and…