Dune Bashing Out, Eco Desert Adventure In!

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Dubai
Regardless if the views are outstanding or not, it’s always a unique, peaceful experience to float quietly above the earth’s landscapes.

Dubai offers plenty of adventures and Desert Adventures

By Donnie Sexton
Senior Writer

Gold-plated bathrooms, locals driving around in Lamborghinis and Ferraris, sometimes with a pet cheetah riding shotgun, and shopping malls selling only gold! These rumors swirling around Dubai got my attention.

When an opportunity to work as a photographer for a TV production in Dubai fell into my lap, I took two seconds to respond. Admittedly, I knew nothing about Dubai as it wasn’t on my bucket list. So I did my research and came across these wild tales of life in Dubai.

dunes at Dubai
A sand storm yielded hazy skies against the shifting sands as we floated across the desert in our hot air balloon.

Truth be told, I never saw a public restroom decked out in gold, and I saw only a handful of expensive sports cars, none with a cheetah passenger. Plenty of malls sold not only gold jewelry but clothing, spices, perfume, etc.

I did see an ocean of skyscrapers, many of which had been left unfinished. It seems the companies building them had run out of money, or at least, that’s what our guide said.  Nonetheless, Dubai is an ultramodern metropolis defined by Arabian luxury, especially with the hotels and resorts.

Dazzling Dubai

The United Arab Emirates, or UAE, is a federation of seven emirates located on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, with neighbors Saudi Arabia and Oman. Dubai is both a city and the capital of the emirate Dubai.

This glitzy city boasts the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa (2,717 ft). It’s also home to the Burg Al Arab, one of the most expensive hotels in the world.  Our hosts treated our crew to a tour of a suite that goes for $25,000 / night.

land rovers
The Platinum Heritage company uses colorful1950s vintage land rovers to explore the desert.

Dune Bashing in Dubai

Hugging the Persian Gulf, Dubai has no shortage of beach time and water activities, including sailing, yachting, and paddle boarding. The city is known for having one of the world’s largest waterparks and an artificial indoor ski hill, equivalent to a bunny slope, in my estimation.

The activity that caught my attention was dune bashing — it had my name written all over it.  This form of off-roading on sand dunes is done in 4×4 vehicles, such as Toyota Land Cruisers, and involves tearing through the dunes in a somewhat reckless manner that kicks up mountains of dust.

When I heard a desert adventure was in our schedule, I was thrilled, anticipating how best to capture images of the bashing experience.

Achmed
Achmed, our driver/escort during our desert adventure, discusses the nose cap worn by camels which prevents them from spitting on guests.

No Dune Bashing with Platinum Heritage

Our itinerary had us scheduled for a day of desert adventures with Platinum Heritage, the only ecotourism desert safari company in Dubai.  Our 3:30 am departure from the hotel was timed to shuttle us out to the desert for a sunrise launch in a hot air balloon.

On the drive, I asked our cheerful driver, Achmed, if we would be bashing through the dunes in shifting sands as part of our activities.  Achmed turned to me, giving me the evil eye, and said in a stern voice, “No, that is very hard on the environment and not the kind of experience we offer. But we will take a gentle ride through the desert.”

I was silent, but deep inside, I was emitting a string of expletives.  Achmed said our activities for the day would take place in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the UAE’s first national park.

camel ride
Part of our desert adventure with Platinum Heritage included a short camel ride.

Soaring Over the Desert

After the pilot introduction and safety lesson with Balloon Adventures Dubai (a partner with Platinum Heritage), we climbed into the 12-person basket and lifted off.

The skies were hazy due to sand storms, so there was no epic sunrise or beautiful light to photograph the landscape below us. But that’s the chance you take with hot air balloons.

After the flight, we were taken to a fleet of colorful 1950s vintage land rovers for a desert drive to a traditional Bedouin camp for breakfast. By now, the temps had reached into the uncomfortable nineties.

Due to the heat, the staff informed us we were the last group to use the camp before it closed for the summer. Many outdoor activities in the UAE shut down from May – September when temps can reach 110-120 F.

breakfast
A hearty Emirati breakfast includes a assortment of cheeses, cold cuts, fruit, veggies, eggs, juice, and coffee.

The Bedouin Camp

The Bedouin camp was lovely, consisting of a series of connected tents with low tables and cushions set up for breakfast.  Our delicious Emirati feast consisted of cold cuts, cheese, fresh fruit, shakshuka (eggs in a tomato sauce), omelets, juice, and coffee.

Majlis
Majlis, an Arabic term for sitting areas, was set up for our group to relax after breakfast. Within the Islamic culture, majlis serve as a place for locals to gather and discuss social, government, or religious matters.

The center of the camp was covered with carpets and cushions designed for relaxing and socializing. The Arabic word for these distinct sitting areas is majlis. Given our early morning start, taking a short snooze on the puffy pillows was tempting, but there was more to see and do.

falconer
Falcons and other birds of prey play an important role in the UAE culture, as explained by this falcon’s trainer.

A trainer with a falcon was available to talk and let us interact with his tethered bird of prey. Outside the camp were a group of five camel herders with their ungulates at rest, waiting to give us a short ride. Afterward, we headed out in our land rovers for a gentle drive through the shifting sands, taking in close-up views of the Arabian Oryx that live in the area.

oryx
Herds of Arabian oryx, members of the antelope family, are easy to spot in the Dubai Conservation Reserve.

Enlightenment

After the land rovers, we reconnected with our van and headed back to Atlantis, The Palm, our luxurious hotel in Dubai. The 3 am wake-up call had cut short a decent night’s sleep, so I desperately needed to close my eyes.

Hitting the bed in my comfy room, I was still lamenting the fact there had been no dune bashing, but then a moment of enlightenment struck me. What if someone came to my home state of Montana and went off-roading on an ATV, tearing through our pristine landscapes? What if they wantonly damaged the land and didn’t give a hoot? I would be mad as hell.

dune bashing
Dune bashing is not an option with Platinum Heritage. Instead, they provide a pleasant, sightseeing drive through the Dubai Conservation Reserve.

My respect for Platinum Heritage’s sustainable experiences increased tenfold in my moment of clarity.  Ours was an abbreviated visit, hitting the highlights of what this company offers in the way of unique and sustainable experiences.

Additional options in the desert include dancing, singing, falcon demonstrations, and even a six-course dining experience under the stars. I would welcome the opportunity to explore more of the Dubai culture with Platinum Heritage.

camel herders
These camel herders wear the traditional long, white tunic called dishdasha, which helps them stay cool against the desert’s heat.

A Cultural Melting Pot

What did impress me about this company’s staff, and with everyone I encountered in Dubai, was the exceptional kindness and graciousness shown to me. Whether it was a taxi driver, wait staff, or security guard at the hotel, all seemed genuinely honored to treat me like royalty.

In Dubai, only 10% of the population are native Arabs, known as Emiratis. With around 200 nationalities in the city, Dubai is a melting pot of diverse cultures. People are drawn to the city for the abundance of work available. It’s also a city with very little crime, as the penalties for breaking laws are harsh.

My day in the Dubai desert hadn’t given me the photos I anticipated.  But it did give me a taste of Bedouin life, which was a unique experience for me.

Let’s be honest. Travel can disappoint if it doesn’t meet one’s expectations. I need to remind myself to travel in the moment, accepting and appreciating the places, people, and experiences that cross my path.