UAE: The Empty Quarter

It was the day of the annual Al Dhafra Festival and we were on our way – together with hundreds of other Arabic families, including various tribes and sheikhs who travel here from near and far, some for several weeks on camel caravans – to the festival grounds.

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The coolest caravan in town.

Billed as the world’s largest event celebrating Bedouin heritage and culture, Al Dhafra is set amongst the swirling sands of the UAE hinterlands. For about two weeks, Arabs from different countries are willing to put aside their differences and stand united in their love for one beast: the camel.

The main attraction at Al-Dhafra, you see, isn’t the all-male cooking contest or the saluki races – as cool as these were – but the Mayzana, a camel beauty contest.

Yes, you read right, a beauty contest.

For camels.

It is here that the camels are judged for their legs, humps and cheekbones the way Ms. Universe contestants are. But unlike Ms. Universe, camels that are found to be surgically enhanced – yes, there’s Botox for camels too – will be automatically disqualified.

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You’d better believe it.

The payoffs are massive: apart from winning cash prizes and scores of admirers, the winning camel’s value instantaneously skyrockets to millions of dollars.

Excited by the prospect of witnessing grown men fawning over a beast, and engaging in impulsive million-dollar animal purchases without the knowledge of their wives, I jumped out of the car the moment we arrived, only to be confronted by two unsmiling guards.

I gestured to the padlocked gates and silent grounds: “Not open?”

“Later,” answered one of the guards mysteriously, scowling at me like I was a clueless dimwit – which I was, but that was besides the point.

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Where is everyone?

The festival program has mentioned nothing about opening hours but it was already 3pm. Disappointed, I turned towards a pair of Korean tourists who seemed just as baffled, but they just shrugged their shoulders and replied, “They said later.”

Mind you, I haven’t been annoyed in days.

It was hard to be miffed when you’re in Rub al Khali. This was the famous Empty Quarter, a vast, deserted area of golden, undulating sand dunes that stretched as far as Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

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Image borrowed from wildfrontierstravel.com
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Be still, my heart.

But the planet’s largest sand desert is not just the most beautiful place on earth (at least in my opinion), it brought back fond memories of my own journey into the Sahara almost a decade ago without children. I had just gotten food poisoning from the Saharan pizza I ate hours ago, there was no toilet in sight and our devastatingly handsome driver had to step on the gas pedals before I made a mess of his jeep. #truestory

This time however, we weren’t heading to a small auberge run by young bedouin men who looked like they belong on the covers of GQ rather than in the middle of nowhere (#anothertruestory)…

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It’s raining (hot) men!

…but Anantara Qasr Al Sarab, an upscale, international resort chain staffed by sunkissed – and I imagine incredibly bored – hospitality workers from all over the world. The scenery – which was punctuated by the occasional factory and stubborn lone shrub – got increasingly desolate and surreal the further we drove. My boys have fallen oddly silent, as glimmering dunes the size of skyscrapers closed in around us.

“Now where is the blasted hotel?” I said, as unwelcome images of a broken-down car and tourists frothing at the mouth and crawling through the desert flashed through my mind. As if on cue, a magnificent sandstone palace appeared, slowly and then all at once, making my heart flutter.

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Well played, Anantara, well played.

After being welcomed with date milk and dates, we were whisked to our room in a battery-powered cart. Our accommodation was faultless, with a sitting area overlooking the stunning sandscape as well as a massive bed and a giant tub made for those steamy Arabian Nights.

Any fantasies I had of playing Scheherazade, however, is destroyed the moment our children mistook the furniture for their latest playthings and began fiddling with the buttons by the bed and taps in the bath.

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See if you can spot them in the bathroom.

The desert beckoned the next morning and, after a hearty breakfast of croissants and camel milk (which was great by the way)…

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Getting my power on.

…we found ourselves on the back of a dromedary, holding onto dear life – and our breakfast – and as it ambled past gigantic dunes. Our sense of adventure, however, is diminished by the large icy crates of drinks we were traveling with – I’m assuming neither William Thesiger nor Bertram Thomas had the luxury of Coke or mineral water imported from the Alps. I was tempted to dispose of these and yell, “But I am an explorer!” at the top of my lungs but I was sure that my travel companions – privileged tourists clad in Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton – would not approve.

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Goodbye civilization.

Few men have set out to conquer this stark, arid landscape but those who did have learned that despite its evocative name, the Rub al Khali is not to be romanticized. There were no sigs of life for miles around but, as I discovered in my recent visit to the Arabian Wildlife Centre, plenty of poisonous creatures lurk beneath the pink-gold sand. As such, I bounded off the camel’s back and onto the jeep the moment my feet hit the sand, garnering disbelieving stares from other tourists.

We spent the rest of the day holed up within the confines of our hotel, which was, effectively, a self-contained little village. When the kids were not engaged with various supervised activities in the kids club or monkeying around in the playground…

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Cupcake decorating.

…they were splashing around in the pool – or pool-sized tub.

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Cramping my style.

Meals were had in one of the hotel’s many overpriced restaurant since the only other option was to hunt for your own food in the desert. It didn’t take long to feel like we had turned into hostages, albeit ones who were suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

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My favorite part of the day.

As the sun began its slow descent into the horizon, we rented a polished, wooden board from the activity centre so we could take turns sliding down the dunes. Sandboarding was not as simple as we had envisioned it to be, given that trying to ascend a mountain made up of fine, powdery sand was like wading uphill through mud.

The ride downhill was fun but lasted all of three seconds. The husband and I decided that a few seconds of excitement wasn’t enough to make up for the fifteen minutes of struggle – and a lifetime of chiropractor visits – it will take each time we heaved the board to the top.

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The kids, however, were wonderfully entertained. We were in the mother of all sandpits, and they whiled away the hours rolling around, and getting sand in every crevice imaginable.

Finally, we all plopped down on the sand together to make sand angels and watch the sun set.

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#perfect.

We were sad when it was time to depart. But the Al-Dhafra was on and I had to see what the fuss was all about.

Before I could regret ditching our hotel for a pair of hostile guards at an empty festival site, the grounds (FINALLY!) opened without much fanfare. We didn’t spot any beautiful 10-million dirham camels, but we managed to walk around the market where women quietly traded behind full-face veils, while their male counterparts engaged in a bit of merrymaking outside.

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Bonding.

After exploring a bit, we came upon a group of men chatting over a cooking stove. A lady was kind enough to offer us some freshly made lugaimat, or Middle Eastern donut balls dunked in syrup, and poured us some tea as we looked on.

“There’s a cooking competition at 5pm,” mentioned one of the spectators, when I asked him.

I checked the English-language notice board to be doubly sure. Cooking competition – 5pm, it said. But 5pm came and went without so much as a peep from the organizers. The men were still wrapped up in their conversation, and not a single ingredient has been brought out of storage.

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Oh Arabia.

 

I could feel myself getting incredibly annoyed again, but the feeling dissipated as quickly as it came. If being here has taught me anything, it’s this: sometimes you just need to go with the flow and enjoy your damn donut. I know I did.

STAY

Anatara Qasr Al-Sarab Desert Resort Embedded in the middle of the desert, this massive but architecturally stunning hotel fuses both the traditional and modern. Service is surprisingly top-notch despite its size, and there’s no a bad room to be had in the entire place (some even come with their own private pools). Its got everything you need for a fabulous weekend away, including private balconies that offer uninterrupted views of the desert, massive tub and swimming pool, a supervised kid’s club and several restaurants. $$$$

TIPS

  • The Empty Quarter encompasses an area larger than France but the most accessible point is a two-hour drive from the centre of Abu Dhabi. Stay a night or two to fully experience the desert.
  • Anantara is the only hotel in the area. Prices can be high in middle and peak season, but usually worth every penny. Budget travelers can choose to stay at the Tilal Liwa Hotel, which occupies a less spectacular setting closer to Abu Dhabi, and make the drive out themselves. Just be sure not to get lost!
  • There is a well-paved road leading to the hotel so a regular car is fine. There are several self-drive desert trails you can do from the hotel too, but a 4WD is required.
  • We were easily occupied for 2 nights, and could’ve happily stayed longer. Excursions like camel trekking and the animal experience are chargeable but available spaces fill up quickly in the high season.
  • The Al Dhafra festival lasts for about two weeks from mid-December to January 1, and will be held close to the Tilal Liwa Hotel. A schedule of activities is available online (http://turathuna.ae/en/event/al-dhafra-festival) but plans can and will change at any time. Stay overnight and be flexible if you’re serious about catching anything.
  • Visitors to Al Dhafra are advised to observe the traditions and customs of the area, including dressing modestly.

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