Doychin, my chatty Bulgarian guide and driver, looks me up and down, as if he’s assessing whether I’d be up to a spell of off-road desert driving. Politely, he tells me it won’t be possible. Driving on the dunes can be tricky, apparently, especially if you haven’t had training.
He says it’ll take us about 90 minutes to reach our goal, the desert near Al Wathba, which lies off the highway to the heritage-rich city of Al Ain.
“Two generations ago, camels crossed the water here at low tide,” says Doychin as we zip over the Sheikh Zayed Bridge, the newest of three bridges spanning the Khor Al Maqtaa, the waterway separating the city from the mainland. The emirate, I’m learning, has been transformed since oil was first commercially exported, back in 1962.
Even on the edge of the city we’re seeing bold architectural designs and pass an impressive, contemporary building that momentarily makes me think of a skyscraper wilting under the Arabian sun. “That’s the Capital Gate. It leans 18 degrees, more than four times the incline of the Leaning Tower of Pisa; enough to make the Guinness Book of Records,” explains my driver.
Soon we’re passing date palm plantations and Doychin asks if I like sports. I nod and we head down a slip road, onto a dusty circuit where groups of racing camels are being trained. Doll-sized robots wielding tiny whips sit perched on the humps of some; on race days they’re operated via remote control.
Doychin reduces the tyre pressure, so he’ll have better control of our vehicle out on the soft sand, and we motor on towards a remote camel farm.
“Buckle up,” he says and we head into the rolling, golden wilderness, kicking up a cloud as we go.
“These are my tracks from yesterday,” says Doychin as we head up a ripple-surfaced dune.
“Are you ready?” he asks as we approach the top. “I have a surprise for you here,” he adds as we reach the ridge. Bursting over the top we flop down onto the steep slope on the far side and then power up the adjacent dune. I can’t help but release a cry of exhilaration.
After an undulating but surprisingly smooth session of dune bashing we park up, next to other off-road vehicles, to watch the sun setting over the desert.
“Those are ghaf trees, Abu Dhabi’s national tree,” says Doychin, pointing at the trees dotted through the desert. I learn that if we get stuck here I’ll be able to dig and find water below them.
That, though, doesn’t prove necessary. After seeing the sun sink and the sky turn from golden to a cold, empty blue we set off in the direction of the United Arab Emirates’ capital city and modern, urban life.