The roiling Rub’ al-Khali desert stretches into the distant heat haze like an animated orange sea. It climbs and dives – all Arabesque curves and belly dancer sways – as impulsive and changing as the elements that shape it. Translated as the Empty Quarter, the Rub’ al-Khali is the largest sand desert in the world. Its sculpted dunes and arid plains gobble up the Arabian Peninsula and form a nebulous border between Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
If happenstance finds you wandering the Rub’ al-Khali in the midday sun do this: first sack your travel agent, then wee on your shirt, wrap it tightly around your head and stagger ever westwards with steely determination. If the Bear Grylls Desert Cleanse doesn’t appeal, best to ride out the heat of the day in an opulent oasis like the Qasr Al Sarab Resort, nestled in the dunes two hours from Abu Dhabi. The resort will have you experiencing the best of the desert action without risking life and limb. Well, almost…
Dawn and dusk are the only times to appreciate the Rub’ al-Khali up close. And so we rise in the half-light and assemble bleary-eyed in the resort library. We’re assigned drivers and vehicles and charge off down a road that quickly becomes a track and then a sand-flat. Soon we’re travelling fast and rolling with the undulations of the dunes, clinging on for dear life in the back of a 4WD. Sheets of orange sand spray over the vehicle like rusty snow as we’re expertly guided over a yawning precipice. We lean sideways into a controlled drift – engine roaring, hearts pumping – and charge down its vertiginous decline. It’s still early but I am very much awake.
Dune bashing captures the flipside of the UAE experience. It is modern, fast-paced and flirts with western decadence. Among many other things, Abu Dhabi is famous for Formula One and for having the fastest rollercoaster in the world. Our Pakistani driver seems a fan of both as he floors it through the dunes.
An action-packed hour later we stop on a ridge for tea and dates as the sun peeks over the horizon in nearby Saudi Arabia. My bearings, rarely in mint condition, have abandoned me. I hazard a guess that we must be close to nowhere. “Welcome to the Empty Quarter. And now you walk back,” jokes our guide.