©Photo: Bernie from Bernie & Bindi Photography
15th – 22nd November 2017
Abu Dhabi, Al Ain & the Rub’al Khali desert.
15th November 2017
The Etihad Dreamliner was a really comfortable ride. The airline focuses on food, entertainment system and modern technology which could make it better than SQ and Cathay. However, its service still leaves much to be desired. Personally, Kenny and I do not care much for smiling air stewardesses/stewards but most passengers would prefer friendlier service staff. Perhaps this is why Etihad is still trailing behind the 2 Asian super airlines. Our pilot sounded 100% Singaporean; probably poached from SQ. What caught my attention was the spaciousness of the entire plane. Despite being quite a full flight, it did not feel like a marketplace. Etihad managed to maintain their sleek and classy ambience in spite of group passengers.
Checked into the Premier Inn Airport Hotel for the night.
Kenny fell out of the bathtub due to the lack of grip between the bathroom mat and the floor; his head missing the toilet bowl by a pinkie. This could very well have been the end of our trip. Needless to say, the scariest hotel experience of our lives thus far.
16th November 2017
Had brunch at an airport cafe, La Brioche. Typical western breakfast. This time, the service intrigued us. A full expat crew of Filipinos, Indians and a couple of Middle Eastern / South Asian nationalities, which we could not identify, worked the cafe.
Halfway through taking our order, our Indian waiter excused himself to tend to something seemingly urgent in the back kitchen. Upon returning, he apologised profusely for having to leave us for what felt like under a minute and repeated his apology after completing our order and again, after we had paid our bill. Kenny and I had to calm him down and reassure him that it was no biggie. We realised his incessant remorse was out of fear. Never in our lives have we encountered someone so afraid of a customer’s complaint which, in his case, could spell the end of his job. If this was not enough to jolt us wide awake, a Filipino waitress, who kindly took this photo for us,
kept raining compliments: “Ma’am, you are so pretty.” We had to stop her after the umpteenth time, politely of course so as not to rattle any more anxiety chains. Her need to superficially please the customer is appalling. One can only imagine their working conditions. I am unable to opine further. You can infer the rest. Good morning, indeed.
Collected our rental car at the airport.
Absolutely ecstatic we got what we wanted, the Dodge Charger, after receiving several ass-covering emails from the rental company claiming they could not promise the car chosen. In 15 minutes, we were off to the desert or so we thought. The GPS was not updated with the latest changes in roads! Took us another 20 to get out of the airport area and onto the main highway due to several road closures and road works. In the days to come, we realised the fucking GPS was also not updated with accurate addresses of restaurants and even some landmarks! We had enough of that (paid) useless gadget. Drove around with my instincts and the Waze app instead.
120km/h in that American muscle dissipated all angst. Could not go any faster due to strict speeding laws. After a 1.5 – 2hr drive out of city into desert, we were greeted with a scene straight out of a 1950s movie set!
These 1948 Series 1 Land Rovers were first produced in the same year in England and brought to the UAE by the British. The vehicles helped the Bedouin travel across country especially in the desert, searching for oil. Eventually, the land rovers were gifted to the royal family, establishing the vehicle as an iconic car in the country. Restored with original parts and used by Platinum Heritage on their daily tours, these classic babies were the first of their kind in the entire world!
The vintage blue was our transport into the desert, specifically inside the compound of the royal family’s private land which sits right next to the DDCR, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve!
We booked a 2D1N Heritage Desert Safari with PH and boy, was it worth every penny. Along the way to PH’s private camp, we saw gazelles and sand fishes! From the car, we could clearly see the tracks made by the desert’s little critters. I have never seen Nature so undisturbed! And there was a good explanation for it – Dune bashing was not condoned by PH as the activity destroys the landscape. Also, the land rovers only travel on the same one path to and from their respective destinations. This is part of PH’s eco initiative in preserving the desert in its natural state as much as possible. ♥
Samir was our private guide throughout our stay. Originally from Algeria and settled in UAE, he was a walking wealth of knowledge on Middle Eastern politics and culture which worked out really well for us as we kept bombarding him with all sorts of questions, to which he patiently answered each and every one of them.
Upon arrival, the second I laid eyes on the camp, it blew my mind. It was my kind of cozy digs.
Before I could get carried away, Bernie, the photographer for our shoot, hustled us to get changed before the light faded. Our room was surprisingly cooling, comfortable and spacious. For once, I did not feel warm getting dressed in my wedding gown. LOL. Travelling to the UAE in November was a great call with autumn/early winter temperatures to enjoy!
And, we were off!
(photos of the shoot are tagged #PostWeddingWhoa on Instagram)
During the shoot, we got up close and personal with UAE’s (national) symbol of pride, the peregrine falcon. An ancient tradition dating back 2000 years ago, falconry was an essential part of desert life. Falconers only had 6 months (winter) to capture, train & hunt with these birds of prey. Come summer, they would free the falcons as temperatures would be too hot for them to fly. Moreover, the families would not be able to feed them as food becomes increasingly scarce during the hot season.
Bedouin style of hunting employs both the falcon and the Persian greyhound, locally known as a Saluki, to capture their prey, specifically gazelles. We were also fortunate to get a chance to interact with their hunting dog the following morning! This deadly duo is the Bedouin’s main means of survival in the desert.
Took a quick break in between shots to quench our thirst with a sweet local juice. It tasted so good that I scoured for a bottle in local supermarkets but to no avail. UAE friends or anyone who is heading there, if you could kindly find this for me, I would be eternally grateful!
Nothing completes a desert discovery like riding the ‘ship of the desert’, the iconic camel.
I chose not to ride them though. They were such gentle giants with fur clean but coarse to the touch. The one pictured tried to snuggle his head closer to me. I feared it as much as I wanted to hug it. I didn’t, of course, but I inched close enough until our eyes were levelled, perhaps two hands apart.
The desert sunset created one of the most pristine-coloured skies I have ever seen. The post-sunset colours of orange-purple hues were beyond pretty; they were a sight to behold.
As night fell, we made our way back to camp for a taste of authentic Bedouin life. Samir introduced us to local tea, Karak Chai, and coffee, Gahwa, which became our holiday obsession for the next 7 days!
Naturally, we were curious about the historical process of making traditional Arabic coffee as well as the social customs in serving and drinking it. The one fact that took us by surprise was that Sheikhs and their staff receive and serve gahwa on the same level (i.e both seated or both standing or both kneeling). Social hierarchy had no physical place in the majlis. The only semblance of rank is exercised in serving the Sheikhs and/or important VIPs first.
Another interesting fact – Did you know the effects of the coffee beans were first discovered by an Ethiopian goat herd? He noticed his animals being unusually lively after grazing on them and he too felt a boost of energy after trying the beans himself. Gahwa was then created and now, it is usually accompanied by spices such as cardamom, saffron, cloves and cinnamon. The Arabic coffee has evolved into a significant aspect of Emirati hospitality where people are invited to sit together in the majlis, sipping gahwa and nibbling on dates. This social tradition has been attributed in keeping the Emiratis a close-knitted community.
Onto the next part of our immersive Bedouin experience – food!
They prepared everything within the camp using traditional methods such as an underground oven covered with sand to cook meat. It was especially satisfying for me because I have not had carbs in 2.5 months. That first bite of Arabian rice had me welling up tears of immense joy! Kenny tried camel meat, another local staple, and he absolutely loved it. I, on the other hand, was totally not up for that and blissfully contented with my Middle-Eastern basics of Shish Tauok, bread, samosas, lamb & rice. The food was too delicious to wait for photos to be taken. You just got to fly over and try them yourself.
With a hearty meal in our bellies, the lively communal dinner party was treated to a traditional Bedouin drum performance and afterward, everyone chilled out in the open majlis over shisha, (non-alcoholic) drinks and a campfire.
Bernie had to drive back to Dubai. Took a group photo before he left. Originally from New Zealand, he and his wife settled in UAE and own a wedding photography business. His photos are nice, aren’t they? Be sure to hit him up if you are looking to shoot in UAE – Bernie & Bindi Photography
The tour group left shortly after as well, leaving us, a senior couple and a family to continue our stay overnight in the desert. Samir invited us for a night walk out of camp.
We found a spot on top of a dune and sat on the cold, soft sand. Above us, the sky was sparkling with hundreds of stars. Samir offered his phone and told us to view them with the SkyView app. If I recalled correctly, we spotted at least 5 constellations!
Did not take any photos as I was too enraptured by the crystal clear night sky & the dead quiet of the desert. While warming myself by the fire, it dawned on me that I was never a beach person nor a forest nor an ocean nor a mountain one. An unknown part of my soul had sparked to life with each footstep sinking into the silky sands of the Rub’al Khali. Her English name – the Empty Quarter. In nature’s hollow vault, I am full ❤️ badawī, my heart.
17th November 2017
Woke up at 0500 to watch the desert sun rise. The 12degree air was completely still. Not a single sound to be heard. Kenny & I quietly made our way out of camp towards a nearby dune in hopes of a good vantage point. Before we could even take a step out of the entrance, this greeted us:
As if an invitation to her morning ritual, the Rub’al Khali drew us into her doziness while the morning rays kissed her sands awake & lulled her night critters to sleep.
In the video, you can see the royal family’s house a couple of clicks in front of our camp. If you tried maximising your volume control, you still would not hear anything except for soft gusts of wind. Breathtaking doesn’t even cut it. This must be how a peace of mind feels like.
As for the view behind me, you can see our camp and Kenny ticking off his ‘Run The World’s Terrains’ bucket list:
I have never woken up for a sunrise. Not even when I was on Mount Rinjani. The desert, however, deserved all of my efforts:
We had the opportunity of spending some time with Dhabi, their 16month old Saluki. With a top speed of 75km/h and weighing at 27kg, the Emiratis start training their hunting dogs at 1 year old. In just 4 months, Dhabi has already killed a gazelle.
In spite of his purpose, Dhabi is gentle and sociable; at least towards us. I was showering him with belly rubs and head pats. Samir told us that it takes 3 men to run Dhabi daily in order to quell his excessive energy!
Kenny decided to pitch in and run the dog too:
Rather, Dhabi was running him! LOL.
Back in camp, I went straight for my dose of karak chai. Met another PH staff, Peter, a conservationist for 11 years who used to work in Africa. Wished we could have spoken more at length but Kenny had to pull me to breakfast as the only other 2 guests wanted to wait for both of us to start eating.
Breakfast was another surprise treat. Over karak chai / gahwa, cheese, bread and eggs, we made acquaintances out of the senior American couple, Rocky & Barbara, who were ending their long vacation with the Arabian desert just as we were starting ours. Despite the vast age difference, we connected instantly in our exchange of travel experiences, world politics and shedding light on Asian cultural practices. An hour flew by in what seemed like 15 minutes. Samir informed us that a big group was on their way to the camp for breakfast. That hustled us out of there real quick!
As our vintage blue made its way out of the desert, I felt increasingly unburdened. In her windy whispers, the Rub’al Khali had surreptitiously imprinted a piece of her calm onto me. Her sheer quietude engulfed and snuffed out some of my fury. If only my grandmother could see me now:
“In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance.”
Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands
The desert is my soul.
Drove about an hour (1.5 max) to Al Ain, UAE’s Garden City and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Met up with our friend, Nicholas, at our hotel, Al Ain Rotana. He had decided to spend his weekend with us, exploring one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited settlements!
Stay tuned for the next post, which will be entirely about Al Ain!