Dune Bashing in Abu Dhabi

By Bonnie Baker Cowan

Arabic music wafts through the four-wheel drive vehicle as our driver maneuvers it to the crest of the sand dune. He pauses briefly at the top and then steps on the gas and flies at a 45-degree angle down the other side, spraying sand up the sides of the vehicle. We grit our teeth and grip the arm rests. “This is a mild drive,” he says, as our stomachs lurch into our throats and our knuckles turn white, watching him make a sharp turn at the bottom and roar up the next 300-metre dune. I detect a smirk behind his large sunglasses.

We repeat these turns up and down the dunes for an interminable length of time, which turns out to be only 30 minutes, but feels like days. We decide it feels like downhill skiing in sand, except that with downhill skiing, there’s some control, even if it’s the option of falling down. Actually, with no control, it’s more like riding a roller coaster through thick white sand—a roller coaster that feels as if it will roll over on its back at any moment.

We’re in the Al Khatim Desert, a few kilometers from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The sky is a smooth umbrella of stunningly clear blue and these are the highest sand dunes in the world. Our driver has deflated the tires for better traction before entering the constantly shifting dunes and the ride is exhilarating and, at times, heart-stopping.

Our guide tells us that camping overnight in the desert is a popular attraction too and another of the land tours offered by our cruise host, Silversea Cruises. Apparently, they don’t worry about bears getting into their camp food, but they do have camels rummaging in their garbage at night.We can imagine the gorgeous sunsets, sizzling red over the horizon of endless sand dunes, followed by a moonlit sky freckled with a million stars, bathing the desert. It’s an image we’re content to leave to the experience of others who are more risqué.

Finally, we stop at the top of dune and the solitude is tranquil and beautiful . A young couple takes a snowboard out of a vehicle’s hatch and proceeds to sand-board down the dune. The rest of us are content to drink in the endless landscape of undulating dunes, pocked by the occasional acacia tree and massage our trembling knees.

On our way out of the desert, we stop at a corral where camels lumber across the sand to munch contentedly on mounds of hay. Our caravan of vehicles makes its way to a Bedouin camp of colorful striped tents where we have lunch. Our driver unloads boxes of cold grilled chicken, fatir (flatbread), rice, hummus and tabbouleh.

While we enjoy our feast inside the tents, the drivers inflate the tires for our trip back to Abu Dhabi, the Manhattan of the Gulf, with its ultra-modern skyscrapers, gleaming white mosques and lavish hotels. It’s been a day of sharp contrasts between this rich, cosmopolitan capital of the UAE and the barren but beautiful sand-scape of the desert.

Sailing the world in style

Silversea Cruises, a luxury cruise line, offers all the amenities of a large ship with the intimate atmosphere of its five, all-suite vessels: Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper and Silver Spirit. Along with the new expedition ship, Prince Albert 11, itineraries include all seven continents to 400 destinations, including both polar regions.

Among its many awards, Silversea has been voted “world’s best” by readers of Conde Nast Traveler nine times and Travel + Leisure seven times.

For more information, visit silversea.com.