How to keep a teenager occupied on a UAE summer holiday
Meet Ethan Lloyd Hackett. Sixteen years old, he recently had to increase the frequency of his shaving routine from weekly to every three days. He's 6ft 3in tall and towers above me. He's clumsy, he can sleep for days on end and he gets awkward talking about girls. He also thinks Apple's latest iPod Touch is the greatest invention of the modern age and he finds it impossible to look normal for a photograph.
I adore him. He's my only child and I would lay down my life for him without even thinking about it. It's what most of us parents feel; the unconditional love that, for the most part, goes unnoticed and unappreciated by the objects of this deep-seated, natural affection.
You might understand, then, just how much I've been looking forward to this lumbering teenager paying me a visit in the UAE. He lives with his mum in the UK, and I haven't seen him since April. Of all the sacrifices I had to make when accepting my job at the Middle East's finest newspaper, not getting to spend time with him every weekend was the toughest. It was almost a deal breaker but then he said to me: "It's not like it will be forever, is it, Dad?" He had a point.
He's proclaimed to all and sundry that he's really excited about coming out here, but I suppose my natural paranoia has kicked in and I've been wondering if he really has been keen to get on a plane on his own (for the first time) and make the trip.
There's a great deal riding on this - I want him to return, so I've been busy making plans to ensure he gets maximum enjoyment from his few days with the old man, with the objective that by the time he heads home he'll already be making arrangements for his next visit. Because I miss him more than he'll ever know.
I live in Dubai; a city that has no shortage of activities to keep every age group entertained 365 days a year. That's not why I moved there, but it has to be a help when planning a teenage boy's first visit, surely. And I happened to mention this to a certain Fraser Martin a couple of weeks ago. Martin has lived in the Middle East for more than 30 years and Dubai has been home for much of that time. "We'll sort something out," he offered with a knowing smile.
In the short time I have known Martin, it's been obvious to me that he knows what he's doing and can be trusted. He's been venturing into the desert for decades and is a respected expert in the art of off-roading. Also, among other things, he's a racing instructor and event organiser at the Dubai Autodrome. So when he said that "something" would be a day-long, off-road excursion followed by some hot laps at the Dubai Autodrome in a supercar, I knew Ethan would be in safe hands. I also knew he would be over the moon.
He landed on a Wednesday night and our desert expedition is arranged for the following morning, so I found myself disturbing Ethan's slumber with the promise that "it'll be worth it, son". We pick up a new LR4 from the good people at Land Rover and drive to Martin's Rashidiya home, where he's waiting for us in his rather tough-looking Jeep. Introductions over, we head along the Sharjah- Kalba Road for Wadi Shawka, turning off at Shawka Dam and onto some rough mountain tracks. The terrain is unforgiving and unlike anywhere else I've seen since living here.
The going is steady, for we don't want to be changing a punctured tyre under an incendiary midday sun, but the landscape is so fascinating that you really don't need to be travelling like a lunatic to have fun. The V8-engine LR4 is in its element here, negotiating steep inclines at impossible angles and generally taking every stupid thing we throw at it with complete composure. After an hour or so of slow rock-crawling and crazy suspension articulation, we stop under the only tree we can find and shut off our engines. Getting out, under a surreally fierce sun, the silence is deafening. It's utterly magical.
But there's progress to make and we're soon exiting this barren landscape towards Fili and heading along a stretch of tarmac through Wadi Meleiha. Martin pulls in near "Fool's Dune". "The locals call it this because there's a huge bowl in the middle at the top," he says as he lets copious amounts of air from our tyres. Ethan is, he assures me, having an "awesome" time. I get the feeling that the best is still ahead of us, though, with the orangey dunes around Jebel Meleiha (Fossil Rock) and Camel Rock looming in the distance. I was right; the next three hours blow both our minds.
We up the pace to about 40kph, which seems like 100 on this shimmying surface, with Martin's Jeep staying about four car lengths ahead. We climb, we crawl, we thunder through deep crevasses. Ethan occasionally stabs at an imaginary brake pedal and once utters a "yeee-ha!" as we slip and slide on the dunes. We're both grinning like village idiots - if this turns out to be the highlight of the trip we both agree it will have been worth it. We next tackle Kharn Murrah and carry on down to cross the tarmac at Mahafez Village before continuing through the desert to Awir, where we reinflate the tyres and finally head our separate ways. It's been a truly fantastic start to the holiday but, tomorrow, there's a supercar experience to be had.
As the son of an auto journalist, Ethan has grown up surrounded by the world's most exciting cars. He once moaned to me about us having "another Aston" when he was just 13 years old, but I've never had the opportunity to show him just what these cars are capable of. Today he'll find out, in an Audi R8 V10 at the 2.45km Club Circuit at Dubai's Autodrome - it's something anyone can do; the circuit rents out a variety of sports and race cars and you get to drive the track under the tutelage of instructors like Martin.
In the pit lane, Ethan straps on his helmet, unaware of just what he's in for, as I make my way to a gantry above the track so I can watch. Within minutes I can hear the shrieking of sliding tyres and I smile to myself, telling the photographer, Jeff Topping, that when Ethan climbs out of the car his legs will be shaking.
Sure enough, after six flat-out laps, the R8 pulls into the pit lane and Ethan struggles to stand straight, his gangly legs ready to give way. The broad smile on his face says it all, though: he's had an absolute blast. For sheer speed, however, tomorrow will take some beating.
Yes, Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World is simply a gigantic advert for the Prancing Horse - one that I have mixed feelings about. But there's one feature Ethan is keen to experience: Formula Rossa, the world's fastest roller-coaster.
If you can stomach the Dh225 basic entry price and stumping up Dh16 for a single shot of espresso in one of the cafes, Formula Rossa will be worth it. It's brutally, shockingly fast. Terminal velocity (240kph) is reached in less than five seconds and the 2.2km track is so undulating that all you can do is scream like a little girl while saliva uncontrollably escapes the corners of your mouth. You have to wear goggles for wind protection, but there's no facility for changing your underwear afterwards.
The ride is over almost as soon as it begins, but we're both in agreement: it needs to be experienced again. And after trundling around the rest of the massive theme park, we head back to Formula Rossa and scream our heads off again. Twice. And take it from me, it's worth queuing up a bit longer to experience it from the very front.
As we travel back to my flat, I ask my son for his honest opinion: just how have his first three days in the UAE been? He thinks for a couple of seconds before saying that, as thrilling as the R8 was, and as shocking as Formula Rossa undoubtedly is, these things could be experienced anywhere in the world. The desert adventure, however, had shown him how vast and varied this constantly changing country really is. This young man, a signed-up member of the Playstation Generation, had chosen nature as his biggest thrill. And that makes me a rather proud dad.
He's already started talking about his next visit, and that's before he finds out I'm taking him to Jordan, where he'll float on the Dead Sea, explore Karak and Petra and ride camels with the Bedouin through Wadi Rum before returning to the UAE to go snorkelling in the clear waters of Fujairah.
The holiday of a lifetime? Perhaps. But one of the benefits of living in the UAE is that you can do all of these things at such short notice. I know he'll be back in no time, but I also know we can do all this again, and more, the next time. Now, if you'll excuse me, we have a plane to catch.
Published: August 13, 2011 04:00 AM