Wednesday, 5 February 2014

A desert stopover in Abu Dhabi

After four weeks in Thailand, it was time to fly home again. But as I had a layover time of 20 hours in Abu Dhabi, I decided to actually leave the airport and have a look at this part of the UAE. The stopover visa was free, and I paid for the one night hotel stay with vouchers I had won in a photography competition (finally found a use for them). Instead of walking through the city, I decided to experiende the Arabian desert with an evening safari.

But first, a shower at the hotel. After a month of the occasional waterfall and otherwise very basic bathrooms - most of which sported lots of dirt and only cold water - this was bliss.
Our driver and guide Nayif picked me up at my hotel at 3pm (he was too early,  which completely confused me as by now I was used to adding at least an hour of so to any time mentioned - during travelling, it helped to ask if a meeting was to be at European or Thai time). After meeting two more participants (a couple from Denmark) of we drove into the desert. It took about an hour at very high speeds and with some very interesting if not legal driving maneuvers to reach the end of the tarred Road and the beginning of a sandy off road track. Before we drove into the actual desert, Nayif checked the tire pressure; we would soon find out why.
I had imagined to do the dune bashing in an open truck, but was very happy to sit in the large Toyota 4WD car once I saw the clouds of sand unleashed against the vehicle's windows. 

Dune bashing is the demanding at to drive up and down a dune's crest without crashing or toppling the car. Sometimes,  the car would lean to one side so much that we would begin to slide down the dune, sand beating against the windows, hands desperately gripping holds. It was great fun. 

Once we stopped near some camels, theywere really sweet and very used to tourists taking pictures in weird poses. One camel with particularly large front teeth gave me a souvenir in form of sticky camel dribble, adding to the elephant spit already imprinted in my tshirt. 
Nayif, our guide and driver

After a few more dunes,  the car's engine needed some time to cool down,  which meant time for taking desert pictures that didn't need a strong image stabilisator. The sun was already quite low and drenched the sandy landscape in orange and golden light. During the next bit of dune bashing one of the other two passengers got sick (I was very surprised that my inherited seasickness-prone stomach did not protest the violent movements), which was the signal to stop and drive to the desert camp. Most of the other cars we had seen during the ride there joined us soon after, later I was told that they thought there might be a sand storm coming. The fairly strong wind had changed some of the dunes' direction and stability,  which meant that the drivers no longer thought it safe to drive on them.
In the camp, we were welcomed with strong tea and dates, before being offered a variety of activities, all included in the price. I began with some sandboarding: sliding down a dune on a snowboard. It was great fun,  and somehow I managed to stay standing and not fall of the board.

 Afterwards, I relaxed a little while a woman painted my left hand with henna. Then it was time for watching the sunset, but due to the hazy conditions this was a little disappointing. Next on the agenda was camel riding. After riding bareback on an elephant,  this was easy and comfortable.
Once evening had set,  we were called to the centre of the camp are low tables and comfy pillows had been placed in a circle around a brightly lit carpet which became the stage for the  belly dancing show. I quite enjoyed this, it showed that a woman with a few extra pounds can still move gracefully.
To add to our own weight, the barbecue buffet opened just after the dancing, offering a range of delicious Arabic foods. There were shishas to smoke,  but I preferred leaning back and looking up at the stars.
Stuffed as we were, all three of us were grateful that on the way back to Abu Dhabi we no longer drove over dunes but instead stayed on the road.
After we had dropped off the Danish couple,  Nayif was kind enough to stop at the amazing white Sheiqh Zayed Mosque that I had seen from my hotel. Even at this time (by now it was 10pm) there were surprisingly many tourists taking pictures and tips of the building.

So in the end, I saw a bit of the city after all. A great way to spend 20 hours in Abu Dhabi. From now on I'm going to look for these longer stopovers when booking international flights. 

Hotel: Ibis Abu Dhabi Gate (I got there by taking the A1 bus from the airport to Zayed sports city and from there a taxi, total: 20 dirhams)
Safari: Desert Adventures, cost: 200 dirhams (after asking for a student discount)

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