For the first time since the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve was established more than 20 years ago, visitors will be able to drive their own cars into the park, as part of the new Sand Sherpa Special Reserve experience.
Sand Sherpa, an operator of camping events and off-road driving courses, was founded in 2019 by Rob Nicholas. He has lived in Dubai for 35 years – “when the desert used to be on our doorstep” – and has always spent time exploring the UAE's unique natural landscapes. But realising that an increasing number of the emirate’s residents were not doing the same, he decided to turn his passion into a business and help people experience “the best of the desert” in a safe, sustainable and responsible way.
The Sherpa Special Reserve experience allows participants to enter the 225-square-kilometre protected reserve in their own vehicles and camp overnight, accompanied by the Sand Sherpa team.
The excursion is limited to five vehicles at a time, with up to two adults and three children per vehicle. The trips are available for general booking on the weekends and bespoke bookings during the week. Each experience begins at 2.30pm on day one, with departure from the camp at 10.30am on day two. Packages start from Dh1,950 ($530) per couple.
The overnight trips begin with a briefing on driving etiquette within the reserve, with information on the skills required for visitors to safely navigate their own 4x4 vehicles through the desert while leaving a minimal imprint on the natural environment.
This is not your standard dune bashing expedition, Nicholas is quick to point out – it is more akin to a traditional safari. During a scenic drive to the campsite, participants will be able to take in the UAE’s indigenous flora and fauna, which includes Arabian oryx, gazelles, foxes and lizards, as well as a host of migratory birds between November and April.
The campsite itself is located deep in the desert, amid an ancient ghaf forest. It's far enough away from civilisation to enjoy some quality stargazing and truly immerse yourself in your surroundings. At the same time, the site has communal bathroom and shower facilities, while each vehicle will get its own camping trailer, equipped with a Sand Sherpa Rooftop Tent, fridge-freezer and an environmentally friendly low-emissions Lotus Grill with charcoal, utensils and camping accessories.
Tables, chairs, lights, sleeping facilities and drinking water are all provided, so participants are only required to bring their own food, drinks and bedding.
Sustainability is at the core of the Sand Sherpa ethos, even down to the dedicated fire pits, which ensure that there is no burning on open ground, which can be hazardous to camels and other mammals that may traipse over hot coals and injure themselves.
The next morning, visitors can join the camp leader in a hawk walk through a ghaf forest, identifying tracks that have appeared overnight and gaining a greater understanding of the topography, while watching the bird of prey flit from tree to tree.
“A lot of people think the desert is uninhabited,” says Nicholas. “But there are so many different microcosms to explore.” This is followed by a demonstration by the falconers from Royal Shaheen, which ends with visitors walking and flying the trained birds of prey themselves.
The whole experience is designed to teach participants about the desert and help them become more familiar with considerate camping practices.
“We want to educate people and show them the best experience they can have in the desert. We want to open them up to a new lifestyle option that they can then enjoy themselves and can maintain for the rest of their time in the UAE," says Nicholas.