With so many luxury hotels in the UAE, we're spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting somewhere to stay if we want a short break or change of scenery. Despite this, accommodation at the opposite end of the spectrum is more popular than ever (it's zero-star-rated and you even have to supply your own beds) and we're currently experiencing the ideal weather for it: camping.
If you've ever been tempted to try it for yourself, this country isn't short on supply when it comes to places to pitch a tent. Vast swathes of desert, mountains, wadis and remote beaches – the great outdoor beckons, and it's more varied in its terrain than you might have thought. Saying that, camping isn't something you can just do on a whim; it takes planning and the acquisition of a fair bit of kit, especially if you're considering doing it more than once. It's wise to talk to a seasoned camper to find out what you actually can't do without while getting down with nature in this part of the world.
Obviously, a tent will be first on the list, and the choice is almost frustratingly wide, although it's worth paying a bit more for sturdy equipment if you intend on being a regular in the desert. You can find a wide selection at Adventure HQ stores, sports outlets, supermarkets or online at sites such as Gulfcamping.com, and prices range from about Dh300 to Dh3,000, depending on how big you want it to be. It might also be worth checking what's for sale on sites like Dubizzle or the various Facebook pages where residents sell used goods.
That's the accommodation sorted, so what else do you need? Something to sleep on and in, so an air bed or some sort of cushioning mat and sleeping bags. The desert can get cold at night, so it's important to make sure you're warm and that means packing suitable clothing. You'll need to take plenty of drinking water, food, a means of cooking (barbecue, stove, something to light it with), a kettle, fuel for a fire, phone chargers, a torch, a shovel, some loo roll, refuse bags and a tow rope in case you get your car stuck in the sand. You should also never be without an insect repellent and a first aid kit. The likelihood of getting a bite from something nasty-looking might be low, but it's better to be safe than sorry, so make sure there are bandages, plasters, sting ointment and antiseptic in there.
Dubai residents Mike and Linda Cartwright have been avid campers for years, having been bitten by the bug when they lived in United Kingdom. "We used to explore the countryside whenever we could," recalls Mike. "Every summer we'd pack the car and tour France or Spain for a couple of weeks. We were a young family, and it was the only way we could afford to holiday abroad – the kids loved it and we think it taught them a lot about nature, wildlife, practicality – that sort of thing," he says.
When they moved here six years ago (Mike is a civil engineer), it "sort of slipped off the radar", admits Linda. "We viewed the desert as a bit harsh for camping and, to be honest, we underestimated the diversity of the nature. It was the kids who got us back into it, and even though they're now teenagers, they still love it. We've been all over the place – to Oman and all across the emirates, and the clarity of the air once you get out of the city is enough to make it all worthwhile. Seeing the night sky without any light pollution is very special – for us it's a brilliant way to decompress, especially for Mike, who can get really stressed with his job."
For the Cartwright family, there are two golden rules that they wish everyone would follow: first, take your litter home with you and, second, don’t set up camp anywhere near collections of tyre tracks in the sand. “We’ve ended up clearing up after others,” says Mike. “Too many people seem to view the desert as a great big dustbin, and it’s disgusting to see the mess left behind – it ruins the experience for others and is really selfish. People who leave their rubbish in black plastic bags are no better because animals come along and open them up, spilling the contents all over the dunes.”
Their second bit of advice is born from personal experience. “We pitched down at night a while back and didn’t notice all the tyre tracks. The following morning we had SUVs tearing all around us and it was really dangerous because drivers tend not to be on the lookout for tents when they’re jumping over the dunes in their Land Cruisers. We won’t be making that mistake again.”
Returning to the subject of litter, it’s something that continues to cause enormous problems. In fact, only this week, it was announced that camping and other activities (such as cooking and dog walking) have been banned at one of Dubai’s most popular spots: the lakes at Al Qudra. Anyone caught doing so will be handed a Dh500 fine, which will be doubled for repeat offences. This area is part of Al Marmoum Conservation Reserve and is home to many birds of prey, flamingos and other wildlife, yet it has been blighted by the destruction brought about by too many people descending upon it.
Lebanese expat Rami Shammas is a single, adventure-loving 30-year old and has one more piece of advice for anyone taking up the hobby. "Always tell a friend, colleague or neighbour where you're going," he advises. "Even if it's just a rough idea, and when you should be expected back. It's easy to get disoriented in the desert and lose your way, and a smartphone can help with navigation, but there are so few visual landmarks out there that it's common for beginners to panic, which is never good."
As for taking those first steps as a camper, there are plenty of online communities where enthusiasts are on hand to offer advice and recommendations about how to start, what to avoid and where to go. One such group is Fathers and Kids Camping Middle East, which is "a tight-knit group of dads that get together during the cooler months and go camping with their kids". Its aim is to introduce children to the wonders of the great outdoors and the group, which was set up in 2010, has organised more than 40 camping trips in the UAE and in Oman via Fakc.me
All you need to do now is plan your journey, and it's an excellent way to explore the hidden treasures of this region. Al Rafaah beach in Umm Al Quwain offers kayaking through mangroves, fishing and flamingo-spotting opportunities. In Ras Al Khaimah, a popular destination for camping families is Mizra'a, while Dibba is a charming little town where there are plenty of open areas suitable for setting up camp against a stunning mountainous backdrop. Camping is still permitted on some Fujairah beaches and, in Abu Dhabi, you'll discover the ultimate getaway in the Liwa Oasis – it's a long drive but the landscape is well worth the effort.
Wherever you end up, there might not be five stars on the door, but there'll be billions to see in the sky.