Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dubai - Day 1

It has been brought to my attention that I have been slow in posting as of late.  Yes, that's entirely true.  It's been a bit busy around here, and preparing for PCS is exhausting.  Add in a nice bout of intestinal flu, and I just haven't had the time or energy to write.  That said, I have plenty to write about, not least of which my wonderful visit to Dubai a few weekends back!

I took a long weekend to visit Dubai, my first time to a Gulf country other than Saudi Arabia.  I have heard many, many things about Dubai, both good and bad, and I went into it with few expectations other than an enjoyable adventure.  All things said, I really loved Dubai and had a wonderful time.  It was an expensive city but a great change for a few days.

Wednesday morning I flew to Dubai on Emirates' new low-cost carrier, flyDubai.  It was a perfectly pleasant if no-frills flight, marred only by the effects of the wind on landing.  At one point while turning on approach, we dropped a few hundred feet in a sudden wind gust, sending things flying and everyone gripping their seats.  We landed without further incident, and I sped through immigration and baggage claim.  One of the things I absolutely loved about Dubai was the orderliness of the taxis - all the cars are clean and smoke-free, and they use meters and have fair and transparent fares with no haggling.  I found all the drivers I used to be consummate professionals.  Plus, they all used seat belts, which wins big points in my book!

I stayed at the Crowne Plaza at Festival City, a bit away from the downtown areas but still close enough.  I love the CP brand and have never been disappointed by one of their hotels.  Bonus - it was attached to the Intercontinental with a great spa as well as the mall at Festival City.  I had an awesome room, perfectly appointed and with a predictably comfortable bed and functional bathroom.  One of the other reasons I chose this hotel was the Belgian Beer Cafe in the lobby - I adore me some mussels.  So I had a nice lunch of mussels and wild mushrooms and Belgian frites before a quick rest.

Then I headed out for my desert sundowner adventure!  I have spent a lot of time in deserts and adore the dunes, the wildlife, and the Bedouin hospitality.  So while this crowded adventure was a bit too touristy for my liking, I enjoyed the unique aspects of the experience.  We set out in a plush LandCruiser, five Australians and me, as we drove out of Dubai, affording me some of my first glimpses of the skyline.

After about 45 minutes of driving we entered the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR), a large tract of land set aside for conservation efforts.  Only a few tour companies are allowed to enter the reserve.  We stopped at the entrance to deflate the tires to better assist with dune driving.  We drove a bit farther in, glimpsing our first gazelles and an Arabian oryx.  Our first stop was what I was most interested in - a falconry demonstration.  I was not disappointed.

We trekked about a few hundred yards through soft sand to a comfortable ampitheater.  It was punishingly hot in the afternoon sun, and Thunder the falcon was especially affected.  The falconer, a South African, told us about Thunder, a year-old peregrine falcon, and pointed out some important features of the trade - his heavy protective glove, her hood, and her electronic tracker, among others.  Then it was time for a short flight. 

Thunder was reluctant to fly in the afternoon heat, and it took a while to get her to finally take off from a small stake in the ground.  Then, using a dead bird at the end of a long rope, the falconer demonstrated how he could get Thunder to   make several passes to try and catch the bird, now swinging around the falconer's head.  After three or four passes, he deemed it too hot for any more and let her catch and eat the bird.  We had the opportunity to come in closer for photos of Thunder, who was now doing her own version of panting with her open beak.  She was gorgeous.

We loaded back into the vehicles for a session of dune bashing.  Now this practice is likely not environmentally friendly, but it was a lot of fun and probably the most harrowing dune driving I've done, beating Wadi Rum by a lot on the excitement factor.  We saw numerous more gazelles, a number of Arabian oryx (soooo gorgeous!), and a desert hare.  We stopped and climbed a dune for a sunset view - not one of the better sunsets I've seen, I must say.  Too crowded and too small a dune.  All photos were obscured by the mass of humanity. 

The entire experience reminded me of a well-intentioned but wholly misguided trip to the Namib desert I took back in college with a few friends.  I've probably mentioned it before, but that 4,000 km, five-day adventure in a rented Nissan sedan and essentially a wing and a prayer was such a horrible, horrible idea.  We're so lucky nothing went wrong.  It was so amazingly fun and awesome, and we still laugh and reminisce about it today, but we were so unprepared I actually use this as a what not to do cautionary tale for students studying abroad... Anyway.

This was a much more populated sojourn which, frankly, stressed me out a bit.  We drove a short distance from our sunset spot to the camp, a decently constructed Bedouin camp with majlis-type seating areas and numerous activities.  I had planned to go for a camel ride, but there was a massive line, and I was just not feeling it.  I did get another henna tattoo on my forearm.  Much less intricate than my last one, it was fun nonetheless.  Two weeks later, it has almost completely faded.  I also had the chance to try on a falcon glove and hold a falcon - quite a cool experience!  I even got to pet her :-). 

We had a so-so buffet dinner and then were treated to a belly-dancing show, also so-so.  The last hurrah was a few minutes in total darkness looking at the night sky, and then we loaded back into the vehicles and headed back to the city.  All in all it was a decidedly so-so experience, but I am still glad I did it if only for the falconry exhibit, the wildlife, and desert driving.  I think the thing that turned me off the most was the size of the outing - 47 vehicles with six passengers each.  And this was a slow day - sometimes they have more than 200 vehicles.  What I love about the desert is the solitude, so this just killed that illusion entirely.  But, I know better for next time. 

Entering DDCR

Obligatory camel photo... first one I've seen with a muzzle.


Falconer & Thunder (still hooded)

Thunder, set to fly

One of her passes

And eating her well-earned prey

Not really aggressive right now, just hot

See her tracking device?

Driving a well-driven track, one of 47 vehicles (*sigh*)

Straight out of a car commercial, right?


THIS is why this was not the greatest desert adventure...

I love tracks in the desert, even the human ones

This was from quite a distance so is a little blurry, but the white spot is a glorious Arabian oryx!