Going on a dessert safari was the number one thing I wanted to do in Dubai. I wanted to race down the huge sand dunes and ride a camel and experience the feeling of being in an endless desert.
But when I started researching tours, I found myself sorely disappointed.
Let me first tell you what a typical desert safari is like. A car picks you up around 3 pm. You drive out to the desert and go dune bashing for maybe 20 minutes. Then you go to a camp with all the other tours. There are camels at the camp, but good luck getting to actually ride one because of the huge queue. And if you do get to, it’s only for a few minutes. There are ATVs available (but at an extra cost) and again, you’ll have to deal with queues. Then there’s a BBQ dinner, henna, shisha, pics in Bedouin costumes, and traditional performances.
I couldn’t care less about the BBQ, henna, or shisha. And even less about being at a camp with 100 other people. Maybe I’m antisocial (sometimes), but that sounds like…. just not fun.
I wanted a real desert experience. I want to ride a camel for longer than 5 minutes.
So when I found an Early Morning Safari by Desert Safari Tours, it sounded like my dream desert experience. This tour treats visitors to an early morning session of dune bashing, breakfast, an one-hour camel sunrise, 45 min of ATV, falcons, and sandboarding.
I didn’t even mind the 5:30 am pick up time (and if you know me, you KNOW I’m not a morning person. Freelancing has turned me into a lazy sleeper-in. :P) And I only slightly hesitated when they quoted the price… 460 AED (roughly US $125), 3x-4x the price of other typical afternoon safaris.
I confirmed my spot and one early Thursday morning, I found myself dragging out of bed at 5:00 am to get ready for my desert experience. Luckily, this trip was able to happen because I managed to find a buddy (Josh) to join me, since they wouldn’t take just a single person on the tour (story at the end).
By the time we got to the desert, the sky was just starting to transform into pinks and golds. Perfect timing! So we decided to start with the camel ride first (instead of dune bashing) so we can experience it during sunrise.
One-hour sunrise camel ride
In a few minutes, a camel was led out to us. It was told to kneel down on the ground and we climbed up. I started to get so excited!
Arabian camels all have one hump and the one we were riding is a 22 year old camel named Hassin. Camels are amazing creatures. They are truly ships of the desert. In the hot, hot summer, a camel can go 2 weeks without water – and up to 3 months during the winter!
I was most excited for the camel ride, so I was positively giddy now. The camel stood up and we began the slow saunter across the dessert. Annnnnd… within 5 minutes, I wanted off. Kidding, but seriously if you’ve never ridden a camel before, they are NOT comfortable. Soon enough, it got better, but most likely because your butt has gone numb.
And camel riding is also a very jerky activity. It was almost impossible to take good clear pics. 99% of my pictures are skewed and blurry. Like this:
This is better, though still blurry. :)
For one hour, our guide led us through the desert. We rode as the sky in the distance turned from dark to bright red to faded pink to finally a clear blue. It was incredible to be the only people out in the vast desert, with just birdsong as background music.
I privately chuckled at how this is actually the perfect romantic activity, but here I was doing it with someone I had only just met.
By the time we reached a little campsite (where breakfast was waiting), Josh and I both agreed that our butts have gone numb and our thighs were sore from squeezing the camel.
Hassin settled down again for a well deserved rest.
And this is him with our guide!
Breakfast was nothing to write home about. Orange juice, take-away burgers and fries, and bananas. It wasn’t very good, but we needed the energy for what was next:
Dune bashing on ATV’s!
This activity ended up being my favorite part of the tour! It was incredibly thrilling to ride up and down the sand dunes on a little machine. We followed another guide who led us all over the dunes. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. My face literally hurt from smiling so much with glee.
Because we were fully immersed in the ATV riding, I don’t have much pictures from this activity. The guide took some videos, but until I figure out how to edit videos, here are a couple of pics.
And then… we got the crest of the hill.
The guide went down easily and it was my turn. I stopped at the top of the crest and looked down at the very steep hill and the guide who now looked so small down below.
“I’m scared! ” I turned around and yelled to Josh. I didn’t trust my driving abilities nor did I like the fact that I had no belt.
“I don’t blame you,” he said peering down. “Want me to go first?” I nodded and off he went. Well, he didn’t topple over.
Now they were both at the bottom and urging me to come down. I shook my head and said I can’t do it. I considered asking the guide to walk back up and ride my ATV down for me. But that’s just too losery, so I took a deep breath, pushed the accelerator just a little, released, and down I went.
And it was INCREDIBLE. The biggest thrill ever.
We continued onwards and the guide led us to several more big hills. With each one, my confidence grew and I hesitated less and less. We zoomed up and down the dunes, conquering each hill.
In the middle, we stopped by another camp and the guide disappeared inside for a bit. When he came back out, he was carrying a falcon!
Meeting a falcon
Falcons are the national bird of the UAE, symbolizing strength, courage, and pride. And falconry is one of the oldest traditions of the Bedouins.
We both got to take pictures with the beautiful bird and then pet it. It had the softest features. Except when I petted it, it started crying so the guide took him back.
Closer look! He’s a beautiful bird.
After some more time of bashing the dunes, we stopped once again at the top of another hill. The guide disappeared again for a bit, and when he came back, he had boards for –
I’ve never snowboarded before, so I was terrified at the thought of going down the very steep hill standing on a small piece of metal.
Seriously, this hill is steep!
No way was I doing this, especially after seeing Josh go down first and falling. So I did the little baby hill while he conquered the big one.
The guide told me it was my turn to do the big one. “No way” I said. So he said I can go down sitting on the board.
How hard can that be right? But I even messed that up! As I zoomed down the hill, My board headed straight for a cluster of branches sticking up above the sandy surface (the branches you see to the right in the photo above). It smashed into the branches and I launched off the board, rolling down rest of the way (yes, I have this on video).
But you know what was the HARDEST part? Dragging that damn board back up the hill. Those boards were *heavy* and the sand was soft. I couldn’t gain any purchase. One step up, and 2 slides down. The guide helped lug the board back up, but I was still huffing and puffing from getting just myself back up.
At least the 2nd go was a success!
Dune Bashing in a 4×4
After sandboarding, we got back into the Toyota Land Cruiser for the standard dune bashing part of the tour. I had been looking forward to this too because so many people say it’s fun and thrilling and “not for the faint of heart”.
But honestly, you know what? It was completely anticlimactic after all the exhilarating things we just did. I don’t know if it was the driver that wasn’t good or just didn’t care or what. But there was no level of excitement at all. Or maybe it’s after bashing the dunes on an ATV, a car just can’t compare. I think if we had started with this, it could have been exciting, but Josh and I both agreed that the only thing it did was give us headaches.
When he finally drove out of the desert, I was happy to be on the way back to Dubai.
Desert Safari Tours Review
I paid for this myself so I can be completely honest. And I really did think this tour was excellent and worth every penny of the steep price. The tour guides were excellent (except for the dune bashing part, but I was already satisfied by then). The sunrise hour long camel ride was just as magical as I expected (albeit a bit uncomfortable :P). And the ATV was one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever done. The falcon and sandboarding felt like awesome perks. I left incredibly happy that I had gotten the desert experience I’d hoped for.
Even Josh (whom I basically coerced into doing this with me) was extremely happy he had decided to come along. He also felt like it was worth his money.
If it weren’t for Josh, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. When I first contacted them, they told me that they couldn’t take just me as a solo person, unless I pay for 2 people. I wasn’t about to pay double, so I spent a long time looking for other morning safaris. But they also either couldn’t take just me, or their packages weren’t what I want. I guess not too many people want to go in the morning (and it’s true as we didn’t see one single other person), so they can’t operate a tour for just 1 person.
I was just about to resign to joining a standard evening tour, when another traveler moved into my Airbnb apartment. I figured “why not try” and asked him if he’d like to go on this awesome but expensive morning safari tour with me. To my surprise, he thought it was a great idea!
As soon as I had gotten another person on board, Desert Safari Tours was able to very quickly organize the tour. All communication was done through Whatsapp, and they’re relatively quick to reply. On the morning of pickup, the driver arrived at our location at the exact time he said he’d be there. So it all went very smoothly.
Only complaint: during the tour, the driver had taken professional pictures with his DSLR, and they looked GREAT. He said all the images will be emailed to us. And well, it’s been over a month now and still no pictures to be seen. So I give up and just went ahead and wrote up this post without the nice photos. If I ever miraculously get them, I’ll update this.
- Company: Desert Safari Tours | website
- What: They offer several different tours, but the one that caught my eye was the Early Morning Desert Safari because of the activities and I also wanted to experience sunrise in the desert.
- What’s included: Pickup/drop off, 1-hour sunrise camel ride, 45-minutes ATV, 20-ish minutes dune bashing in car, pictures with falcon, sandboarding, breakfast
- Price: 460 AED (about $125 US)
- Time: Around 5:30 to 9:30 am
Final note: I know there are many debates about whether it’s ethical to participate is any kind of animal activities for tourism. While I’d never participate in elephant rides, I felt no qualms about this as camels are built for this. They’ve been carrying their nomadic Bedouin owners across desserts for millenniums.
Have you been on a desert safari or ridden a camel or ATV? If not, would you want to do this?