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Smug & smugger: David Whitley

Travelling as a couple can be a wondrous thing — but the longer it goes on, the more likely you are to succumb to ‘I told you so’ syndrome

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My wife’s look should have told me all I needed to know. It was a perfect mix of schoolmistressy condescension and eye-rolling contempt. I didn’t need to ask, “Do you fancy going fatbiking at 5am?” a second time.

She tends to have remarkably good judgement about my infrequent dalliances with adventurism. I should realise by now that if I get that look I’ve probably suggested a really bad idea. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. And on this occasion, I’d be getting up at stupid o’clock to ride a bike with extra-large tyres across Abu Dhabi’s sand dunes while she stayed in bed and had a nice lie-in.

In my head, this was to be a gentle pootle across a relatively flat bit of desert, made magically easy by having comedy clown tyres. One look at the other participants told me otherwise. They were the sorts that bring specialist cycling gear on holiday with them, and I weighed about as much as the other four put together.

I then looked at the route. It wasn’t the flat bit we were going to pedal along — we were going right up the massive dunes on the other side. And when the really fit Lycra-clad Dutch couple struggles to do this, there’s absolutely no chance that I’m going to be able to.

If going up the dunes is bad — after all, walking in sand is hard enough work without having to push a bike too — going down is much worse. They’re very steep, and despite my best efforts, I keep falling off like a poorly coordinated kid who’d had his stabilisers taken away.

This pratfalling comes to a crescendo on one particularly steep dune, when I clutch the brakes too hard and go straight over the handlebars into the sand. There’s only one option left available to me — a howling great strop.

“That’s it,” I announce to the group after finally catching them up. “I’ve had enough. This is no longer enjoyable. But I don’t want to spoil your fun, so you carry on, and I’ll walk my bike back to the base.”

The guide makes admirable concerned noises, then leaves me to carry out my forlorn sulk. As soon as he’s out of vision, I pat my shirt pocket and realise my camera isn’t there. I’m not only going to have to walk the bike back — I’m going to have to retrace my steps in the optimistic hope my camera isn’t ruined beyond repair by the dunes.

I find it in the spot where I last fell, and dig it out of the me-shaped indentation in the dune. It’s absolutely borked. As, it so happens, is my mouth. The tooth that has been loose for months suddenly chooses this moment to break free, and falls gently into my hand. The only appropriate reaction is pitiful, wretch-like weeping, alone in the desert where no one can see.

I’m back in the room for half an hour, attempting to wash the mountains of sand out of my clothing, before my wife wakes up.

“How did it go,” she asks sleepily. The only response I can muster is a pathetic, blubbering: “Not very well. Not very well at all.”

An unspoken ‘I told you so’ hangs over the next few days, until it’s time for some R&R time in the sun.

It’s only when it comes to relaxing that my position on being needlessly adventurous is reversed. I see absolutely no point in going in the sea when there’s a perfectly good pool. This is a longstanding and entirely factually correct belief, and I’m prepared to fight anyone who disagrees. But my wife will not have any of this, and she generally wins such fights. So she marches us both to the sea, casually ignoring the signs studding the beach.

It takes approximately three minutes of wading in murky saltwater before she lets out a yelp, and starts running for the shore with hitherto undiscovered athleticism.

That would be one of the jellyfish that the signs were warning about, then.

As I rub the vinegar onto the rash on her stomach, I finally get the chance to reverse those withering looks and days of ‘I told you so’s. And if there’s one thing worse than being told you were wrong about swimming in the sea, it’s having that fact mercilessly drummed into you by a man who looks like a gap-toothed simpleton who lives in a barn and has sexual relations with his cousins.

Published in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)