While in recent years the UAE has cultivated man-made tourist attractions that need to be introduced with superlatives - tallest, highest, biggest, most expensive etc - not to mention in-the-works cultural centres including the new Guggenheim and Louvre, thank goodness for one of the country's greatest treasures: the naturally stunning sand dunes in the Liwa Desert. Best of all, you don't owe anyone even a dirham for camping there.
When I spotted that a gaggle of people were planning on making an overnight trip on a group message board on the Couchsurfing website, I contacted the organiser and asked if I could tag along. Besides being a great way of distributing expenses among many people and making use of the ability of each person to chip in such aids as a cooker, a cooler and a Jeep with four-wheel drive, camping is generally more fun with company.
That said, there's no guarantee when you're travelling with a bunch of strangers that things will work out. Each traveller adds a new variable. And being stuck in the desert with lousy people and no possibility of escape poses a serious pitfall. Our plan was to meet in the car park of the Carrefour on Airport Road at noon on a Friday in January. Soon after I climbed in a taxi, I received a call saying that everyone else was running late. When I arrived I waited in the shade for a bit while all 15 people making the journey trickled in. Once Firas, the Couchsurfing leader for Abu Dhabi, showed up a contingent of us entered the supermarket and split up down the aisles in search of provisions. With US$120 (Dh440) in total, we bought enough water, lamb, sweet potatoes, fruit, soda, juice, cooking supplies and cutlery for everyone. That meant that each of us only paid $8 (Dh30): a small price for dinner and breakfast with the added ambience of being surrounded by one of the world's most beautiful sandscapes.
Shopping with Firas, a seasoned veteran of desert camping in the UAE, also paid dividends in a different way - when I went to the camping section I was about to buy what looked like a sturdy tent for more than $109 (Dh400) when he pointed out that the model that cost only $35 (Dh129) had lasted him for years. With our five vehicles now loaded with supplies, we filled up our petrol tanks and set off around 3pm. Several people had made this journey before so we didn't even get lost, which is exactly what I would have done five or six times if I had been driving alone. The advantage of the group's collective sum of knowledge was all too clear.
Soon, however, I witnessed one of the possible drawbacks. I was riding with Firas in the red Jeep he calls Nancy along with a young guy from the French navy who is stationed in Abu Dhabi. As we approached our destination, Firas seemed a little perturbed as the Frenchman climbed outside the Jeep's window as it was riding along at full speed and began taking photos of the surrounding nature while hanging on to the rollbar grips. On the other hand, I thought Firas took things pretty well when, while we were stopped to water the desert, the Frenchman decided to heave himself on top of the car's hood and then jump up and down. When we started the engine again steam wafted from the front grill - the Frenchman's enthusiasm had cracked one of the cooling system's pipes.
Apparently, one truly never knows what his or her neighbour is going to do next, and here I was with 15 people whose rational behaviour could not be counted on. It reminded me of when I was in Yemen, travelling with some westerners, and one of them couldn't keep his hands off of his girlfriend in public places. It has been times like these when I've wished that I was riding solo - maybe I would become lost eventually, but at least I wouldn't jump on the roof of my car and break it or draw the scorn of the locals.
Poor Nancy made it the rest of the way but we would have to leave earlier than planned the next day in case the Jeep succumbed to her injuries. One of the convoy had been employed as an English teacher in an area nearby for the past few months and she led us down a sandy track to a particularly pretty spot she'd camped at before. Firas drove the Jeep up to the top of a dune and we began unloading the vehicles. Yet again, I benefited from someone else's expertise when a friendly engineer from Korea helped me pitch my new tent in a quarter of the time that it would have taken me to figure it out for myself.
After sunset, the Frenchman redeemed himself by building a roaring fire and the rest of the group cut, marinated and skewered meat, cleaned and wrapped sweet potatoes in aluminium foil and made other preparations in an assembly line of activity. On my previous foray into the desert, dinner wasn't ready until midnight and the food I cooked was burnt and crunchy with sand. This time we were all enjoying a tasty meal in little time.
Afterwards, the mixed group of nationalities, which included a Palestinian, a Pole, an Australian, Americans, Indians and a Russian, sang their versions of campfire songs. It was interesting to me that these varied from Don McLean to what sounded like Soviet marching anthems. When someone started belting out the Bee Gees, I turned my attention elsewhere and struck up a conversation about religion with a practicing Zoroastrian - a group that numbers only about 80,000 in the world. And that's one of the great rewards of travelling with strangers. The endlessly entertaining novelty of meeting a variety of new people, in fact, is the premise upon which Couchsurfing - a website that connects travellers and hosts - was built.
When we woke up the following morning we disassembled our campsite as orderly as we had erected it and posed for a group shot of us all leaping off of a dune. We drove home without incident - the Frenchman had learnt his lesson - and when I checked my e-mail in Abu Dhabi that night someone had already uploaded their photos to Picasa, something that I would have never got around to doing. Because they were taken with a professional-quality camera by an aspiring photographer, they were also much better than your average holiday snapshots.
In all, because each one of us contributed resources - money, materials, labour and deftness ? the outing was much less expensive and easier than if I had done it on my own. True, there are risks that come with relying on the judgement and company of strangers, but in this case it turned out to be a pleasant bunch of interesting people - with one weirdo Frenchman, who was amusing in his own way - and so it was good, cheap fun.