Safari in the Deserts of Dubai
By Scott Dicken
Safari in the Deserts of Dubai
I’m not a massive fan of Dubai.
For me, it’s lost 95% of its old-world Arabian charm and replaced it with nothing but high-rise metal, concrete, and a glaringly obvious penchant for ‘one-upmanship’. Secondly, experiencing Dubai is particularly challenging if you’re on a budget. Paying outrageous prices for average experiences that you could have in any other large city feels like a complete waste.
There was, however, one exception to this general disappointment. An experience that, while still pricey, I would gladly recommend to anyone visiting the United Arab Emirates. The Dubai Desert Safari.
Typically taking place in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, a 225-sqaure-kilometer nature reserve about an hour’s drive outside of the city – close to the border with Oman – a Desert Safari provides a fantastic opportunity to escape the concrete jungle, spot some Emirati wildlife, and learn a little more about local culture – certainly more than you’ll learn in the pricey elevator ride up the Burj Khalifa!
5 Top Tips for your Dubai Desert Safari
At first glance there are a bewildering number of Desert Safari options. Choosing between them can prove dauting. However, your choice will likely amount to what activities you want your safari to include. Here are some of the main activities available and some suggestions for which tour operator you could opt for:
Dune Bashing: Probably the activity most people opt for, dune bashing is essentially driving up and down dunes in a 4×4 at high speed – often resulting in the fear that the vehicle is going to roll (it never does!). Not all tour operators offer dune bashing on their itineraries and some claim, somewhat justifiably, that it doesn’t exactly fit the type of activity that should be taking place in a conservation zone. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun and extremely popular. We used Travo Travel (travcotravel.ae) for our tour, but you should also check out Arabian Adventures (arabian-adventures.com) or Alpha (alphadestinationmanagement.com).
Dinner and Evening Entertainment: Most Dubai Desert Safaris that start in the afternoon finish with dinner in a Bedouin camp or more luxurious private tented camp. Dinner is typically accompanied by live entertainment that ranges from whirling dervishes and belly dancers (which aren’t representative of Emirati culture) to more traditional cultural dancing and coffee-making. If you’re specifically looking for something more representative of Emirati culture, then I’d suggest looking at Platinum Heritage (platinum-heritage.com).
Falconry: Practiced in Emirati Bedouin culture for over 4,000 years, falconry is seen as an important form of hunting and is viewed as a traditional sporting activity. Although several tour operators offer falconry as a part of broader packages (including Platinum Heritage and Arabian Adventures) if you’re looking for something specifically focused on falconry then look no further than Royal Shaheen (royalshaheen.ae).
Wildlife Viewing: In theory, once you enter the Conservation Reserve all Dubai Desert Safaris offer the opportunity to spot wildlife. However, the reality is that many of the tours whizz past the areas where you’d find most of the wildlife to get to the next activity. So, if you’re intent on wildlife spotting, conservation education, or photography then my advice is to opt for a tour with Platinum Heritage. If you’re an Instagram junkie then you’ll be pleased to know that they offer wildlife tours in vintage, and brightly painted, 1950’s Land Rovers.
Camel Trekking: I once spent three days riding a camel into the Sahara Desert. The fact that I struggled to walk for several days after means that I now typically steer clear of them. But that doesn’t mean that you should! If riding a camel into the desert is on your bucket list, check out the available options with Arabian Adventures or Platinum Heritage.
This is not an African Safari
There is a temptation to hear the word ‘safari’ and conjure images of the Maasai Mara or Serengeti; vast African savannah settings teeming with wildlife. A Dubai desert safari does not offer that experience. Wildlife sightings, even on dedicated wildlife tours, are much less frequent than you would imagine.
That said, you stand a decent chance of spotting the Arabian Oryx, Arabian Gazelle or Sand Gazelle. Much less likely sightings, but theoretically feasible, also include sand foxes, sand cats, caracals or the Gordon’s wildcat.
Keep your eyes peeled and your camera at the ready and you might just be lucky (obviously more difficult if you’re dune bashing at the time)!
Safaris are available without Dune Bashing
A few people I know have steered completely clear of desert safaris because they thought that all tours included dune bashing. They had no desire to be thrown about in a vehicle or for living through the constant fear that the next dune will be the one on which the driver rolls the car. As a result, they missed out on the whole experience.
As I said in the opening to this post, this is the one activity I would recommend to anyone visiting Dubai (or Abu Dhabi or Oman for that matter).
If avoiding any form of exhilarating speed is your aim then your best bet is to stick with the more conservation, luxury and wildlife focused tours offered by Platinum Heritage.
Avoiding Guided Tours Altogether
Unfortunately, if you have your heart set on visiting the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve then a guided tour is your only option. However, if you have access to a car and you’re purely interested in wildlife spotting then you might wish to visit the nearby Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve. This new reserve only opened to the general public in 2018 but is home to much of the same wildlife as you’d see on an organized safari; in addition to a large flock of flamingo that occupy a set of man-made lakes in the reserve.
It’s often tempting to arrive in a destination, especially when you’re staying at a high-quality hotel, and rely entirely on the hotel’s concierge to recommend the best tours for you. The same goes for booking your Dubai desert safari; particularly because the number of options can seem overwhelming.
But I’d avoid that slippery path if I were you. You’ll most likely end up on the tour that offers them the best commission! Instead, my advice is to do the research yourself before you leave and either book before you go or have concierge book your chosen tour when you arrive.
Hopefully this post will help you with that research!
Happy travels and make sure to check out takephotosleavefootprints.com for more.