On March 27 we arrived for an overnight stay in Dubai. This was a sleepy fishing village as recently as the 1970’s, with no paved roads & camels in the streets. But then came oil (discovered in 1966) & an ambitious, over-the-top construction program started around 2000. Today this is a glitzy city of impossibly tall buildings selling luxury at premium prices. As someone mentioned, Dubai is pronounced like “Do buy,” & that’s just what they want you to do.
Dubai is the largest of the United Arab Emirates, which was formed in 1971, although it is not the capital (which is Abu Dhabi). And it seems to be trying to garner the world record for everything, from largest shopping mall to tallest building. We were told that the construction program is still only about 30 % complete. Most of the people here are from elsewhere, but the 20 % or so that are native Dubaians want for nothing. The ruling Sheikh provides them with housing, health care, education & even money. Foreigners recently obtained the right to buy land here, but we were told that once a foreigner reaches age 65 he or she has to leave. No one not born a Dubaian can achieve citizenship. Pretty harsh.
When we arrived the air was quite hazy because, we were told, of a sand storm somewhere in the desert. There is no way to walk out of the security minded port (whose gate is more than a mile from the dock), so we took the shuttle provided by HAL to the Dubai Mall . . . yes, the largest shopping mall on the planet. It has more than 1200 stores within its 12 million square feet of space & 120 cafes & restaurants. Much of it is quite opulent.
This mall not only has stores, it has an ice skating rink, a waterfall & a huge aquarium with 33,000 fish. You can walk through a glass tunnel under the aquarium or ride a glass bottom boat across the top.
One atrium contained a huge dinosaur skeleton bathed in blue light. It is a Diplodocus Longus, discovered in Wyoming in 2008, undoubtedly one of the largest in the world (are you getting the theme here?).
Although western dress dominated we saw quite a few people in more traditional Arab attire, an interesting contrast to all the modern opulence. In the back of the mall was a bridge leading to a smaller mall called Souk Al Bahar. It had a more traditional ambience. We bought a couple of ordinary toothbrushes there for the nighttime shown out below which cost $10. There was a whimsical portrait of a camel in an art dealer’s shop in the Souk.
The bridge between these malls goes over a small man-made lake. This is the site of the Dubai Fountain, the world’s biggest (yes) dancing fountain. At night it has shows, with sound & light, during which the water jets “dance” to the music. We are told that it works periodically in the daytime, without the sound & light, but we didn’t see that.
On the other side of the fountain is the Burj Khalifa, the (you guessed it) tallest building in the world. Well over 800 yards tall (more than 300 yards taller than the next highest building in the world), Burj Khalifa has 160 floors. Opened in 2010, this was supposed to be called the Burj Dubai, but during the economic downturn the UAE gave them a $15 billion bailout to enable its completion so they changed the name to honor the president of the UAE. This makes the naming rights for American sports stadiums seem very cheap! This building certainly is very tall, but we didn’t think it was very attractive.
We were signed up for an overnight excursion into the desert so we decided to take the shuttle bus back to the ship & get ready for that. But there was no shuttle bus there & none came over the next half hour. Finally we managed to get seats on a smaller shuttle being run for crew members, which was packed not only with crew but with other passengers waiting for a ride back to the port. When we got back one of the regular shuttle buses was just sitting there with no one on board, the driver relaxing with nothing to do; we don’t know where the other shuttle buses might have been. Pretty irritating!
At about 4:00 we left on our small (12 people) excursion to the desert. We rode in three Toyota Land Cruisers for about an hour, passing the new Universal Studios being built here (only the gate was finished) & the camel racing stadium. This is a big sport in these parts. We were told that a good racing camel can cost more than $1 million & that the ruling Sheikh had lost $10,000,000 on the races the day before. We stopped at a camel farm for a close & personal introduction to camels. Most of the camels here are for milking, not racing, and there were a number of babies who were still nursing. We were told that there are no undomesticated camels left in the Middle East at all. You see a lot of unattended camels wandering around, but all of them are owned & most are branded.
Our driver/guide Mervyn drove us to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Mervyn (like almost everyone you meet here) is not a native of Dubai, but first came here as a child in the 1970’s from his native Sri Lanka. His father was in the British military (from where we presume the “Mervyn” came) & came here to help direct a new school. He vividly recalls that era when there were no cars or large buildings in Dubai, just sand and people living a Bedouin lifestyle. The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve was created in the early 2000’s & encompasses 225 kilometers, about 5% of all the land in Dubai. While there we saw some of their projects to enhance the desert environment for wildlife. Only a limited number of people can visit the reserve each day & only approved guides can lead parties in the reserve.
The reserve is a very beautiful ocean of sand, right out of Lawrence of Arabia. There are sand dunes aplenty, with ripples created by repeated gusts of windblown sand.
After we got a little way into the Reserve the real fun began. The drivers went up & over & down the dunes at speed, exciting if you have a strong stomach (one woman in another of our cars came close to losing it). It appears that there is a track for the cars to do this, since they all took the same route, including a lot more that came after us. But the route is marked only by the faint tire tracks in the sand, so the drivers must be required to know the route. We were told that the vehicle of choice is a Toyota because most cars are not built to withstand the desert environment.
All three of our cars stopped for pictures on top of a dune.
Interestingly, the sand is not all one color. Most is the usual buff color, but some is red (from iron ore) & some is black (from volcanic rock).
A little while later we approached a ridge on which were some men with about a half dozen camels lying in the sand. We were to ride these camels a short distance into our campsite. The camels wore knitted face masks to ensure they wouldn’t bite. They had double saddles on their backs, each with a sturdy metal bar for riders to hold onto & well cushioned to protect the camel.
So with the assistance of the handlers, who held the camels down on the ground for us, we climbed on board our camel. It was like climbing onto a bicycle except that the camel’s hump was higher & getting your foot over the top was much harder. Once we were aboard they told us to hold on tight to the metal bars & the camel stood up, back end first. It felt like sitting on a catapult & being launched forward suddenly with a lot of force. But we held on & set out on our caravan to the camp site. Rick was sitting in back, & the camel behind us kept trying to put his or her head into his lap!
At the camp the handlers got the camels to lie down, one at a time, and then helped us dismount. But one camel decided to lie down on its own out of turn. There was no handler there yet, but the rider apparently decided it was time for her to dismount anyway. She fell backward while pulling her leg over the camel’s hump & fell on her tailbone. She was in enough pain (she could hardly walk) that they took her to a hospital right away & Tom, our Cruise Specialists host, went with her. We didn’t see or hear from them again for the remainder of the excursion, so now our group was down to 10. In the group picture earlier, she is the second from the right. (We have since seen this woman back on the ship, so she is OK, although still in a lot of pain.)
Our campsite had 8 tents on wooden platforms with lanterns & chairs outside & a double bed inside. There was a large dining tent where you would sit on a pillow on the ground to eat & a sitting area with couches also made of pillows on the ground. Huge hookahs were at the sitting area along with a fire pit. We ate a wonderful dinner prepared on site, including marinated lamb chops, fish, skewered chicken, marinated prawns, pita bread, hummus, and sweet cakes for dessert. There was to be some additional time in the sitting area after dinner including smoking the water pipes, but we were bushed & had no interest in smoking so we went to bed. Unfortunately, in the middle of the night Mary woke up with chills & a fever, apparently having contracted some exotic desert disease. Over the next few days it repeatedly got better & then worse, and this continued for several weeks.
In the morning we were awakened by an amazing racket put out by the birds (& maybe animals) in our little grove of trees just before the sun rose. Rick got up & took some pictures of the sunrise & of some of the noisy culprits. In the distance just at sunrise we could see a mountain range, which disappeared again once the sun was fully up. Mervyn told us that these mountains were in Oman.
As the guides made us breakfast Rick took some more pictures of the camp site, less romantic but much easier to see in the daylight.
After breakfast we reboarded the Toyotas & headed out into a different part of the desert, golden in the morning light.
We were able to see several of the wildlife species in the reserve, the Arabic Gazelle & the Arabic Oryx. These are native animals that are being carefully cultivated by the Reserve, which provides them with water & irrigates plants for their food & has even set up a salt lick. The Oryx is an interesting story. Native to this area, they had died out before the Reserve was established. So Dubai purchased 70 of them from institutions in the United States to repopulate the reserve & today there are some 300 of them living here.
Mervyn explained quite a lot about the desert ecology before we left the Reserve to return to Dubai. For example, he said that the bushes you see clumped here & there can take up to 100 years to grow to full size. For flower lovers, the only thing we have from this arid port is an Acacia tree, which was sporting yellow flowers as well as seed pods.
We got back to the ship about 10:00 AM. Our plan had been to spend the rest of this day at Dubai Creek, not too far from the dock, which is the old part of Dubai that dates back to its Bedouin period. But Mary was sick & we were both tired so we stayed on the ship instead to recuperate. Maybe next time. But the trip to the desert alone made this a most memorable stop.