By Robert Davis
It sounded like an easy trip, a drive into the desert sponsored by Gulf Adventure Tours. But a surprise is one of the thrills of desert travel. Of course, I should have suspected something when my tour guide, Hassan, took control. He was more than just confident.
“He is one of our most popular drivers,” the tour operator said. The other operators grinned at each other and gave me a sympathetic look.
Our trip took us across the Arabian Desert to the Inland Sea (known locally as Khor Al Adaid), where the Bedouin tribes once roamed. Our vehicle was a sturdy 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser with oversize tires. Just before we entered the desert, Hassan reduced the pressure in the tires, 16-inch-wide giants built specially to withstand the rigors of desert terrain.
“Kindly fasten your seat belt,” Hassan said mildly as he slid behind the wheel, switching the transmission to 4-by-4-mode.
No sooner had I buckled up than our Toyota Land Cruiser bolted from the paved road onto the sand. Instantly, we were roaring across the desert like Lawrence of Arabia — without the camels (although we did see some).
At high speeds, Hassan wove his way among sand dunes and banks. With the windows down and the cool desert air whipping through the Toyota, it felt like we were skimming the surface of the sand.
At first, the sand was packed hard and we continued to gain speed. Then we crossed over into soft sand that lay smooth and untouched and I could feel the tires dig deep for traction.
Suddenly, we were heading straight for a cliff. Still, we didn’t slow down. An extreme rush of adrenaline shot through me as Hassan stepped on the accelerator.
I could see the blue of the sea just past the ledge. As the Land Cruiser raced within feet of the cliff I expected Hassan to skid to a stop. Instead, he accelerated and the moment we hit the ledge he pushed in the clutch and downshifted, revving the engine high as we went shooting over the ledge, diving nose-first.
We didn’t plunge into the sea as I expected but landed at a near-vertical angle on the downward slope. Aggressively, Hassan worked the steering wheel and I could see the white of my knuckles as I gripped the dashboard.
At our position, I could feel my seatbelt strain hard to keep me from falling through the windshield. I now understood why Hassan was so popular.
Before I could catch my breath we were racing up and down steep hills, oftentimes going airborne and broadside, creating a storm of powder-white sand all around us. Barreling across crescent banks, Hassan called out names like “half-pike” and “tube roll” indicating the maneuvers he was performing.
I could not help thinking, “I asked for this.”
Later, when we stopped by the sea so I could take pictures of a herd of camels bathing, Hassan confessed to me that his dream is to be Rally race car driver. I told him that mine was to make it back to the hotel alive. But there was more to our adventure in the desert before I would see the modern world again.
Back in the Land Cruiser, Hassan drove along the edge of the sea until we reached a small inlet marsh. A herd of camels rested on folded knees.
I traded the comfort of the Land Cruiser’s leather seat for a carpet saddle mounted high atop a camel. Hassan explained that in the desert the sand is constantly shifting and the terrain changing. The route we traveled to our camp was littered with sinkholes and other dangers and was not safe this time of year for driving.
Porters dressed in robes with their heads wrapped in scarves collected our bags and packed them on the camels. Hassan walked over to the dunes motioning for me to join him. More surprises?
He knelt down in the sand and pointed to animal tracks. He said the tracks were of a mouse and the thin line alongside was a snake in pursuit.
We walked slowly studying the sand and soon the tiny tracks of the mouse were no more. Hassan grinned as the thrashing lines of the battle between the two animals interrupted the smooth sand.
We continued walking slowly along the trail of the snake. Then, a few feet ahead, we discovered the paw prints of a desert fox as it followed the trail of the snake.
Dinner in the Desert
The porters called out that he camels were ready and it was time to continue on our journey. Now I really felt like I had stepped back in time. Hassan gave me a checkered red and white scarf to wrap around my head and cover my face from the constant pounding of wind and sand.
My camel knelt in the sand munching on a clump of alfalfa that the porters carried in a bale. He twisted his long neck showing the strangely shaped head and stared in my direction as I tried to decide the best way to mount him.
My saddle was made of wood and carpet, and though I was assured that the saddle was secured tight, I rocked from side to side for the three-hour trip.
Suddenly, our camels began to trot. Only harsh shouts and the sting of the whip from Hassan could keep them from breaking away. What was it? Then I saw it — an oasis.
The green branches of date trees surrounded what the camels must have known was water.
High above in the saddle, I could see the tops of tents stretched taut with the wind beating down on the flaps. It was almost sunset and torches were already lit around the camp.
I sat on a bundle of carpets drinking a squash of pressed almonds as the porters went to work. Cakes of camel dung were used as fuel for the fire to cook our evening meal.
A lamb was slaughtered and the meat put on a spit over a roaring fire. We sat near to keep warm and over the crackling of the fire I could hear the strange sounds of the camels hissing and spitting as they rested downwind for the night.
When the cook indicated the meal was ready we each tore into the lamb greedily. In the West, we are taught to eat without using our hands. But in the Middle East, you only eat with your hands. Well, your right hand to be exact.
After our meal, finger bowls were passed around and the porters brought out trays of sweet fruits, almonds, and pastries filled with honey and dates. Our coffee was served piping hot from a large pot that looked like Aladdin’s lamp.
One of the greatest pleasures in the desert is the sparkling of the stars at night. Here they seemed as if they are close enough to touch. I felt sure that I would not sleep. It was my first night in the desert and I didn’t want it to end.
This story was first published by International Living, a 27-year-old business that publishes several free e-letters, a monthly print newsletter, and a growing line of books and reports, all detailing the best places in the world for Americans to live, travel, and invest.