I'VE NEVER EXPERIENCED more of a contrast. One day I'm enjoying the luxury that is Business Class on Emirates Airline, the next I'm crouched down on a big boulder trying to figure out how to fix my busted hiking boots. I was in the the middle of an unexpectedly amazing playground: the Al Hajar Mountains. This dramatic mountain range is only a short distance, but a figurative world away, from the glitz and glamour of Dubai. It was the ultimate welcome to adventure, United Arab Emirates style.
Behind Dubai's the bright lights
Rewind a few months and if you had told me one of my most memorable short adventures would be in and around Dubai, I would have asked you if you were feeling okay. Ignorance can be like that; you think you know where to find certain things (read: a cool adventure holiday) so you don't look too far -certainly not towards a city like Dubai that has a reputation as a world traveller's stopover.
Presented with the opportunity to spend three days here, I started doing a bit of research and was surprised to see that this desert oasis offers far more than an impressive retail experience. There is more than enough adventure to fill a week, using the city as a comfortable basecamp, and Dubai allows the perfect balance. Get out into the real wilderness of this region during the day, then return to the comfort and luxury of your hotel (and the brilliant restaurants) for the night.
Dubai's stone mountains
Paul Oliver, the Founder and CEO of Absolute Adventure, has lived in the UAE for most of his life, and set up his Dubai-based adventure outfitter company initially to cater for overseas (ex-Dubai) adventures, but soon saw the potential in the market for local adventure tours, with school adventure camps a large part of a broad client base. Interestingly, his biggest adult client group is European.
"With our adult groups we find Europeans make up the biggest demographic with North Americans followed by UAE nationals coming next," said Paul. "We get a decent number of Aussies and Kiwis approximately equaling the size of the communities here compared to the previously mentioned nationalities."
My first day with Absolute Adventure was with two of Paul's guides – Luke, an Englishman, and Mike, a Canadian – and I met them about an hour-and-a-half north of Dubai (via an Arabian Adventures transfer – more on this later), with the aim of a day hike in Ras Al Khaimah, where we'd follow a gnarly track along rocky rim edges through Wadi Shah and then deeper – and higher – into the immense Al Hajar Mountains, which translates to "stone mountains". This mountain range straddles northeast Oman and the eastern borders of the UAE and is the highest mountain range in the Arabian Peninsula's east.
The terrain we faced was incredibly rugged with sharp rocks and huge, razor-edge boulders seemingly tossed around at random. And being October, at the tail-end of summer, it was still quite warm (the best time of year to tackle outdoor activities here is November–March) but Luke and Mike had loaded up with plenty of water (as had I) and we'd started off into the haze-shrouded mountains early.
During the initial climb we passed by myriad deserted date palm farms and old huts, as well as far older village ruins. It was hard to believe we were walking through this amazing country, not more than two hours from one of the world's most bustling cities. The towering sheer cliffs that burst up from the sandy valley floor offered us plenty of shade, and the colours within the cliffs themselves – a mix of brown, ochre-red and a shade of blue – were amazing.
A short history of Dubai's locals
As we gradually climbed towards a mountain-top village, we found ourselves in more open space, but always with the mountains as company. The terrain here is incredibly rugged (the closest I could think to the sharp rocks underfoot would be some sections of the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory's West MacDonnell Ranges) but the continually expanding views as we moved higher up were more than worth the toil and frequent water stops. We were, after all, in no real rush – the vast landscape had a way of making you feel far more relaxed than you should. And I certainly wasn't complaining about that.
Throughout the first half of our walk, I had been amazed by the number of deserted huts and plantations; Luke said until oil was discovered in UAE, the huts, plantations and villages dotted throughout these mountains were where the local population had forged their lives for thousands of years. Bizarrely, it only took about 20-30 years – not much more than one generation – for a lot of this way of life to disappear once oil was discovered and villagers left to pursue liquid riches.
In some ways it was a sad story, so when Luke mentioned that Pakistani labourers had started moving back into these more remote areas and were, again, tending the small farms to grow dates and other produce, I was heartened to hear it. I was further impressed when we finally reached the top of our climb. I could see our main destination of the ancient village and its once-again tended farm. This sight was only matched – okay, it was superseded – by the incredibly warm welcome we received from the two young men who were tending the farm's groves. They'd spotted us earlier on in the day, as we'd wound our way around and up the mountain.
Neither party could understand the other very well – except for a couple of key words, of which the main one was "tea". When I heard that, I couldn't get my shoes off quick enough to dive inside the hut.
Much is said about the tradition of Arabic hospitality and, for me, the hour or so we spent with these two young workers was living proof. Sitting on the floor waiting for the tea to boil seemed only to take a few minutes. Even with the to-and-fro of questions, hand motions, many smiles and laughs, conversation came easily. And the tea, when it arrived, was nothing short of magic. And yeah, I definitely took up the gracious offer of more than one cup.
Footloose in the United Arab Emirates
It was hard to leave the hut – not to mention the great company – but we had to get back. After several farewells, and a few pointers to the track behind the farm, we donned our packs and started our descent.
I hadn't realised how far we'd climbed until we scrambled down the first part of the track and the close-set mountains' valleys loomed far below my feet. The track was even more rugged on this side with plenty of drop-offs from which to view more deserted huts and a few oasis (some manmade) that early farmers had constructed, cutting channels out of the mountains to direct precious water to small holding pools which helped nurture the date palms dotted up and down the mountainside. It must have been a harsh way of life; the land seemed so unforgiving of anything not as tough as itself – which, sadly, happened to include my beloved hiking boots.
The first sign that something was afoot (excuse the dreadful pun) was when I kept feeling myself slip. I have always been very surefooted, but I was stumbling around like an uncoordinated circus acrobat until I happened to glance down and see that my boot's sole had half-separated from the upper. I had been planning on retiring these boots after this trip, but it looked like the Al Hajar mountains had jumped the gun on me. It was only thanks to Luke and Mike's seemingly endless supply of gaffa-tape that I managed to hobble off-balance the rest of the way down the mountain to our vehicle.
It was an odd finish to a brilliant day – a day that seemed more surreal when, only a couple of hours later, I was back at the Park Regis Kris Kin enjoying dinner at its awesome Kris with a View restaurant and honouring my boots' impressive hiking career with a cold beer, while the bright lights of Dubai shone below.
Arabian adventure by two wheels
The next morning started off like groundhog day: an Arabian Adventures vehicle picked me up for a 1.5-hour drive to meet Luke and Mike at Al Manar Mall, in Ras Al Khaimah.
Today, however, I'd jump on board a mountain bike and ride from Tawyeen to Wadi Yakel Alas. It was another warm one, but I was even more spoilt this time; Mike would be in a support vehicle, following Luke and I as we rode firstly on some bitumen before hitting a dirt road and moving deeper into Wadi Yakel Alas and then on to Wadi Sidr.
The terrain was ideal for mountain biking, and Luke explained how there was a huge variety of singletrack and 4WD trails to ride, with more cropping up at a fast rate. Paul Oliver also confirmed the fast growth of MTB in the UAE.
"Locally, the new trails at Hatta [115km east of Dubai] is the best place to enjoy mountain biking," said Paul. "Clearly marked and with many options to suit all ability levels, the trails continue to expand to satisfy demand."
As Luke and I made our way slowly along the dirt road winding between steep cliffs, we were passed regularly by locals who, thanks to the big smiles and gracious slowing down so as not to cover us in dust, reconfirmed my impression of the UAE as a very friendly place.
Most of the drivers were coming from farms in the area, but there was also a sprinkling of larger dwellings. These are used as holiday homes, as well as refuges from the hot and (in coastal areas) often humid summers. With most of these dwellings commanding awesome views of the surrounding mountains, I could think of worse places to while away the day.
All too soon the riding was over. I was pretty beat, but I also had one last adventure to squeeze in before I jetted off back to old Sydney town: an afternoon and evening of four-wheel drive touring with Arabian Adventures through the immense desert surrounding Dubai.
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
When I had first viewed my Dubai itinerary, my eyes had been drawn to the chance to explore the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, an area of 225 square kilometres outside the city. This experience turned out to be far more exciting than I'd anticipated; if I was told I would have a cracking good time in the company of, oh, at least 60 LandCruisers, all packed to the gunwales with tourists, I would have said you were stark raving mad. But, I did.
It is the quintessential Dubai experience: dune-bashing in a four-wheel drive through the desert. Add in a falconry display, a barbecue dinner in a replica desert camp and a spectacular desert sunset, and you have the Arabian Adventures experience in a nutshell.
I usually avoid these types of experiences like the plague but it was huge fun. From the moment it dawned on me that I would be part of a massive convoy of vehicles snaking its way around and over massive sand dunes, piloted by some very skilled drivers, through to watching the impressive hunting techniques employed by man and falcon, I was entranced. The falconry display in particular was brilliant; the host and his avian off-sider put on a great show and this ancient art was explained in minute detail.
While the sunset across the dune sea was not something I'll soon forget, the highlight of this adventure came as we were leaving in the dead of night. Initially looking like ghostly apparitions in the LandCruisers' headlights, we soon identified the conservation reserve's resident herd of Arabian oryx. This is one of the reserve's great success stories (Arabian Adventures donates a percentage of each visitor's fee to the reserve) and our chance encounter was a brilliant way to sign off from this land of more than what it seems.
It's still Dubai's wilderness that most inspires
The route from the hotel to the airport the next morning took me through the city and, even after three days soaking in the adventure and cultural experiences of this place, I was struggling to reconcile the high-rise surrounds and generalised view of Dubai. But as Paul Oliver so succinctly explained, Dubai is so much more.
"I've always loved the region and its people," said Paul. "The progress of the cities is amazing but it's still the wilderness areas that most inspire. Whether the vast deserts, rugged mountains or wild coastline, this region has an enormous amount to offer the adventure seeker."
Yep, Dubai really brings an adventurous tinge to the creed "Seek and you will find".
Dubai: The Essentials
- Getting there: Emirates operates 84 flights/week to Dubai from Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, including five daily A380 flights. The inflight entertainment, food and wine are great, and luggage allowances are generous (30kg Economy; 40kg Business). See more.
- Staying there: The 5-star Park Regis Kris Kin in Dubai is at Sheikh Khalifah Bin Zayed Street. Its Kris with a View restaurant is awesome. Email: email@example.com or Ph: +971 4377 1111
- The adventure: Absolute Adventure offers a variety of adventures, from day hikes and MTB to kayaking. See more. Arabian Adventures offers many excellent tours from Dubai. See more.
- When to go: November-March.
- More information: Dubai has a wide variety of activities for visitors. See more.