My ride for the evening was a camel that sported a pink knitted face mask – the Bedouin who was leading our expedition deep into the desert told me it’s best to cover camels’ mouths to protect yourself from their drool. For the next hour or so, we rode Lawrence of Arabia-style from a desert oasis over trackless golden sand to the crest of a huge dune that seemed about as far from the cares of the world as you can get. There were no vehicles, no buildings and no sounds but the sighing of the wind.
We could have continued riding north for days without seeing anything but sand. But we stopped, and the guides set up a bar for a sunset cocktail party featuring sparkling wine and fresh strawberries, before heading back for dinner at the Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, a unique encampment in a national desert reserve on the edge of the vast “empty quarter” of the Arabian Desert.
Al Maha is in an incongruously green oasis that for centuries was a stopover for Bedouins trekking by camel, and traders on their way to the coast of Dubai. Today, only the resort staff and about 80 fortunate guests share the oasis with thriving herds of animal species that are endangered elsewhere in the world.
Each of the guest suites is the size of a home and separated from other accommodations by distance and tall hedges that offer complete privacy. Although they’re designed to resemble the humble Bedouin tents – with canvas ceilings and wall coverings stitched together with rope and supported by wooden poles – they’re solid, luxurious homes. The antique furnishings, marble floors and lavish appointments would be out of reach for even the most affluent Bedouin. Tabletops are made from antique doors trimmed in brass; the bed and ornate chaises longues are piled high with upholstered pillows worthy of a pasha.
Sliding screen doors open to a private infinity pool and a vast deck with a view of an oasis watering hole that is a favourite hangout of the reserve’s growing population of rare white oryx (known as maha in Arabic). These horse-size animals with their pairs of incongruously long spiral horns may very well may have been the inspiration for tales of unicorns.
I slept a profoundly deep sleep in the absolute silence of the starlit desert night and was awakened at dawn by a cacophony of cheeps, chirps and coos of birds singing in the new day.
I wanted to be up this early to see some of the resort’s most elite birds in action in the cool morning air. Falconry is a traditional sport of kings and this reserve has several of the prized hunters, including a falcon that was donated by Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum, the Emir of Dubai, and that I’m told would be worth, to a falcon aficionado, as much as a sports car.
Out of a Land Cruiser that brought the birds to a desert viewing area stepped tall, muscular Warren, looking like he was hired from central casting. He and the other wardens of Al Maha – Jacqui, Matthew and Murray – have extensive experience as guides at South African game reserves and dress the part in sand-coloured uniforms with cargo pants. They have all learned the art of flying falcons, once used for hunting but now flown strictly for show.
Genghis, a cross between a peregrine and gyrfalcon, was first up. Falcons are fickle birds that hunt only in the cool of morning or evening and don’t exert themselves after they’ve caught enough to eat, Warren explained. At lightning-fast speed, the four falcons and a hunting eagle swirled in big circles and dived at a pigeon breast Warren twirled in the air on a long rope. Finally he shouted an ancient Arabic command for the bird to pounce and claim its breakfast.
After the flights, it was time for our breakfast. But Warren had another idea: “Let’s go land-surfing over the dunes. Don’t eat breakfast, because it can be a white-knuckle adventure.”
We had a long drive out of the conservation area to the wilderness dunes beyond. To keep the Land Cruiser from bogging down, its tires are deliberately deflated to less than half their normal air pressure, thereby lowering the centre of gravity. That’s just what’s needed to allow the four-wheel-drive vehicle to ride the edges of dunes at 45-degree angles and even sail over their crests in manoeuvres that became more adrenalin-producing than a roller-coaster ride.
The rangers are pros at this and even when it seemed the vehicle was up to its doors in soft sand we surged ahead and finally stopped atop a dune for a breathtaking vista of profound emptiness; the sinuous sand dotted only by a camel and a herd of gazelles on the horizon.
It’s evident that this sand-kicking driving doesn’t do permanent harm to the desert environment. By the time we started back, the shifting sand had filled in our footprints and our tire tracks. Eco-friendliness is a foundation of Al Maha, which was set up as an ecotourism project to conserve a major land area, preserve the environment of the desert, and re-establish indigenous wildlife and flora. More than 6,000 indigenous trees have been planted to revitalize the oasis, and free-roaming herds of oryx and several other endangered species have been reintroduced. And, although the oasis is above the largest natural water reserve in Dubai, 94 per cent of water used in the resort is recycled. All waste water is purified in three treatment plants for use in irrigation.
Later that afternoon, we thought about driving around the reserve to see the animals, or visiting the full-service spa, aptly called Timeless. But we decided to while away the hours in our suite and its refreshing private pool. It’s cool in the morning in the desert, but by midday the heat often edges up near 40 degrees and even the oryx take an afternoon nap.
That evening, on the terrace of the resort dining room, huge torches illuminated our flavourful risotto and delicately seared ahi tuna. We indulged in a five-course dinner and watched the moon rise over the desert, relishing the almost unparalleled tranquillity and wishing we could stay.