Al Bateen desert tour: camels, sand dunes, shisha, henna and starlight

Abu Dhabi Travel Blog

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Desert camel farm

The sand dunes intrigued me. 40 years ago, Abu Dhabi was mostly desert, and of course is now surrounded by desert. I'd seen photos of the desert and wanted to visit. I found it hard to imagine how people could live in the desert and was interested in how this might be possible. We decided to take a tour for half a day and chose Cyclone Tours www.cyclonetours.com  For around NZ $175 per person (UAE D 350) for the half day each, we would be picked up, taken into the desert, see a camel farm, go to a camp, ride in a 4wd in the dunes, ride camels, be henna painted, smoke a shisha pipe, and have a barbeque dinner out under the stars.

Up close and personal with camels
While this sounded touristy, it also sounded like fun and with a little bit of everything, so we booked.

Our indian driver picked us up at the appointed time. We were joined by a tunisian, a german, a south african and two australians. So far so good. We drove for about an hour and then off the highway to arrive at the camel farm. By this stage we had seen quite a few camels, so feeling confident I stood close by. They are strangely beautiful animals, with distinctive eyes and mouths giving each one its unique identity. As it had briefly rained in the past week, desert plants had sprung up so the camels were looking extremely healthy from their unexected feasts. With decorated carpet saddle blankets and settled in the sand, the camel looked friendly enough. I was keen to ride, and as the camel lurched up to its feet I managed to stay on.

Not sure who is more nervous at this point, me or my steed
The handler led two of us into the dunes, there, a dream coming true, riding a camel in the desert, just like that!

Returning to the camp, others were heading off in a 4wd. I was torn, I hated seeing tyre marks in the sand, and a chance in a life time to go 'dune bashing'. Our driver was iranian and wildly enthusiastic; we went up vertical dunes and down. The sun was setting, and one of us was feeling a little nervous, so we stopped and took photos of the silver and peach coloured dunes, with soft contours then huge dips, rippled wind patterns here and there, otherwise unblemished and stretching for miles and miles. A stunningly beautiful stark scene.

We re entered the compound at dark. I had my ankle henna painted by a young woman who had just arrived from Karachi in Pakistan.

Fantastic, a dream coming true
I then rejoined our group who were sitting in an enclosed low walled circle smoking shisha, which in our case was a dried fruit flavoured tobacco lit with a burning charcoal. Drawing on the pipe, makes a bubbling sound, and the sweet tobacco fills your mouth. It took a quite a while for me to get mine going, a small weak bubble appeared but not smoke. Oh dear. Our conversation slid around the walls of our enclosure as we shared our stories of travelling. Arabic coffee in tiny cups and lush fresh dates made for an authentic meeting with fellow travellors. Another in our group was from Iran. Orphaned during the invasion by Iraq, he had gone to Germany with his brother when he was 14, and fended for themselves. He had recently moved to France for work and while a highly competent professional, was feeling unwelcomed for his arabic heritage.
Our trek into the desert
I felt for him and the horrible effects of stereotypic labels. He was greatly enjoying being with his longtime friend, our dune driver, and wasn't looking forward to returning to France. The complexities of the global world, and the attraction of Abu Dhabi as a country for expats was more evident than usual that evening.

We moved to tables in the centre of the compound, sitting on carpeted low benches, we chose our dinner from the smorgasbord; bbq lamb, bbq chicken, byriani, babganoush, humous, pita breads, 'fatoosh' the local salad of lettuce, tomato, pickles and sweet peppers. Desert were tiny filo pastries filled with pistaccio nuts, custard and honey. All this was beautifully prepared and delicious, sitting out under the desert stars, with our bare feet in the now cool desert sands.

Arriving back at camp

Tips for travellors

Take plenty of 5 and 10 D notes ready when you go on these tours. While the tour costs quite a bit in themselves, many people are involved. People other than those from the Emerites (particularly those in service jobs from india, pakistan, and the philipines) depend on tips for survival and to send money back to their families in their country of origin. Some I was aware of on this trip were the driver from India, the camel herdsman, the camel guide, the henna painter, the guy who puts your charcoal in the shisha pipe. Unless you are used to tipping, and its not in our culture in New Zealand, its easy to feel overwhelmed and not do this, however it is a good idea to be aware of who you notice is making this trip an especially good one for you. Some of the restaurants now include a tip in their bill, so its worth being on the alert to what and who is already paid.

Vikram says:
I found your comment on tipping quite interesting. When I travel, I've never tipped in EU and NZ but tip in India, Asia and the US.
Posted on: Jun 02, 2009
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Desert camel farm
Desert camel farm
Up close and personal with camels
Up close and personal with camels
Not sure who is more nervous at th…
Not sure who is more nervous at t…
Fantastic, a dream coming true
Fantastic, a dream coming true
Our trek into the desert
Our trek into the desert
Arriving back at camp
Arriving back at camp
The fabulous Al Bateen dunes
The fabulous Al Bateen dunes
I join thousands of tourists with …
I join thousands of tourists with…
dunes in the setting sun
dunes in the setting sun
Abu Dhabi
photo by: JP-NED