The people of the Arabian peninsula know it as ‘The Empty Quarter’. The Bedouin know it, more simply, as ‘The Sands’. Whatever name you give it, its unforgiving vastness comprises 650,000sq km of sand – the largest sand desert on the planet. At the height of summer, temperatures have been known to edge towards 55˚C, but as we enter the winter months, the late afternoons are cool and the evenings cold – ideal weather to hit the Al Hama’im Road and head towards the Saudi border.
On this page you’ll find your complete guide to exploring Abu Dhabi’s own portion of this great wilderness, including the hows, the wheres, the whos and, above all, the whys…
The cultural bit
Commonly described as ‘inhospitable’, ‘unforgiving’ and plain old ‘deadly’, humans have long attempted to conquer the Empty Quarter, with varying degrees of success.
Scorpions, spiders and a few pitiful rodents; the list of inhabitants was never likely to include human beings, regardless of their skin tone. However, Bedouin tribes have managed to make the desert their home for millennia, and a handful of European explorers managed to ink their names into its history, largely during the early part of the twentieth century. On the outskirts of the Liwa settlements a series of forts stand guard, defending local oases and date plantations, holding their own against the encroaching dunes that tumble in around them.
Ruins and ramparts
Follow the Al Hama’im Road to the west as it curves out of its inexorable descent south, and you’ll find a stretch of road that snakes along in front of a series of nine Emirati forts. Not just for history buffs, some of these are great examples of traditional architecture – ideal for anyone looking to win a local photography award. Our advice is to set aside a day if you’re determined to see them all – they may not be huge, but they’re particularly difficult to find, often located in back gardens without any obvious signposting. Here are three that we found easy to spot.
Al Jabbanah Fort
A three-towered, pristine structure with a small clutch of dusty shops in front of it, not far up the road from the turn off to the Qasr Al Sarab Hotel. It is usually locked up, but rev your engine loudly and a gatekeeper will come running. He doesn’t speak any English, but cross his palm with Dhs10 and you’ll soon be speaking each others’ language. Inside you’ll find a large courtyard with a well and a series of shady eaves, perfect for breaking the heat of the afternoon.
A gorgeous cubic structure found to the right of the road after the Liwa Hotel roundabout. Amazing examples of Arabesque window framing, and the kind of place we’d happily move into tomorrow. A must-see.
Very close to the centre of Mezaira Village, not far from the central roundabout (heading towards the Liwa Hotel), this is very similar in structure to Al Jabbanah Fort, though smaller and with the opportunity to climb a set of rickety ladders to the topmost turrets – not that we’d recommend it, though. Your life is in your own hands!
In their footsteps
Four foreigners who found fame in the furnace.
Pedro Páez 1564-1622
The first European known to have stumbled about in the EQ was a Jesuit missionary from Madrid. He found real fame converting Ethiopians to Christianity, but while en route he was imprisoned in Yemen for seven years. A resourceful fellow, he spent this time learning Arabic and wandering the sandy, bleak wilderness.
Bertram Thomas 1892-1950
This fellow’s biographical details read improbably: born in Bristol, went to work in the post office, crossed the Empty Quarter. Certainly not how Indiana Jones would’ve gone about it. Naturally, there’s a bit more to it than that, and Thomas is noted as the first westerner to have crossed the sands in their entirety, seemingly due to an interest in fauna. He wrote about it, of course, in the snappily titled The Arabs: The Epic Life Story of a People Who Have Left Their Deep Impress on the World.
Wilfred Thesiger 1910-2003
Known locally as Mubarak bin London, Sir Wilf is celebrated in this country for his love of Abu Dhabi and his friendship with the late, great Sheikh Zayed. He became the first westerner to traverse the Empty Quarter twice, writing the immortal Arabian Sands as a result. There are permanent exhibitions dedicated to him at Al Ain Museum and, bizarrely, Dubai’s Kinokuniya.
Ranulph Fiennes 1944-present
The much-loved British explorer led an expedition into the Omani portion of the Empty Quarter in 1992, in search of the lost city of Ubar, a place described by TE Lawrence as ‘the Arabian Atlantis’ (not to be confused with the Dubai Atlantis, of course). Fiennes has described the find as ‘lucky’, though he also sees it as his greatest career achievement.
The fun bit…
There’s only so much standing around gawping at rolling dunes to be done before the novelty wears off. Here’s how to turn the desert into an adventure playground.
There are obvious comparisons to be made between a donkey ride on Brighton beach and an hour sailing a ‘ship of the desert’ in the UAE. Both have the potential to be an expensive tourist trap, and both come with the risk of becoming quite dull five minutes in. However, if you plan for an evening trek and leave your cynical self behind, the repetitive sway of their unusual gait (from which they get their nautical nickname) can be hypnotic and relaxing, and the crimson sands of the desert knock Brighton rock into a cocked hat. If it’s your first ride, be warned: the camel doesn’t stand up, so much as unfold beneath you. Our advice? Hold on tight and hope for the best. Starting from Dhs135; hotel guests take priority. Qasr Al Sarab, Liwa (02 886 2088). Also available from Liwa Hotel (02 882 2000)
Hitting the sand dunes in a 4×4 can be one of the best ways to relieve stress. But before you launch yourself headlong at a mound of sand, here are a few pointers. Firstly, your car must be up to the job. If it doesn’t have four wheel drive you’ll be stuck within seconds. Secondly, let down the tyre pressure to about 15psi, which will prevent the car sinking into the sand. Thirdly, never go desert driving alone, and always take a rope. Water (at least 15 litres) and ample food might be useful, just in case… Some of the most popular spots can be found on the road to Moreeb Hill. Follow directions for the Liwa Hotel and, instead of turning left to the hotel, carry on until you reach a roundabout. Turn left here. At the next roundabout bear right, and at the following roundabout turn left. This is the road to Moreeb. There are various tracks off this, but perhaps the easiest to find is on your right, after about 14km. Be aware, though, that to the side of this track are salt flats – very easy for cars to sink into. Arabian Adventures (02 691 1711) and Orient Tours (02 667 5607) are two of the most reputable tour operators, should you chose to play it safe.
One thing notably missing in Abu Dhabi is snow. Fortunately for adrenaline junkies, the desert is jam-packed with the next best thing – sand. Might not sound like the most exciting substance on the planet, and it won’t help you if snowman-building is what you have in mind, but for snowboarders and those partial to a spot of sledging it’ll do nicely. Sand boarding is pretty much the same as its cooler counterpart – involving strapping your feet to a board and hurling yourself down the nearest sand dune at a tooth-rattling pace while trying to keep your balance. For those of you who can’t stay upright, there’s the slightly less terrifying option of sand tobogganing. Just climb to the top of the nearest dune, lie down and off you go. You can even do it for free with a tea tray. Included with the desert safari for Dhs50. The Liwa Hotel, Liwa (02 882 2000).
The best thing about a mountain of sand is that it’s almost impossible to fall off. Don’t agree with us? Simply select a suitably tall dune, shimmy yourself to the top of it, and then…well, just let go. Allow yourself to run and leap from the summit as fast as gravity will allow you. Each moonlike step will be cushioned by the deep sand, and falling over is almost comfortable. One of the most exhilarating desert activities, and it won’t cost you a dirham. You’re welcome!
The afterhours bit…
From a humble tent to one of the world’s great hotels, there isn’t a lot of R&R choice on the edge of the Empty Quarter, but it’s a real case of quality rather than quantity…
Camping is the obvious budget choice, being that it’s free. ‘The perfect camping spot for me,’ says Mark Miller, of Desert Rangers, a UAE tour operator, ‘is down in Liwa, around 50km from Al Hama’im village, with 200m sand dunes as a backdrop, no light or noise pollution and no tyre tracks… it is absolutely idyllic. Head towards Liwa and Al Hama’im village – it will take about 90 minutes to get there. A few kilometres after Al Hama’im, you will see a petrol station on the left. A couple of kilometres further on you will spot a wide track. Stay on the track for as long as you want and turn into the desert at any point – just wherever you like the look of, and then pitch up!’ Mark Miller can be contacted on 04 340 2408, http://www.desertrangers.com
The brand new Tilal Liwa Hotel is effectively a more humble take on the Qasr Al Sarab, with less opulence, smaller sand dunes and a friendlier price. The infinity pool that appears to drop into the desert is effective, and the proximity to Madinat Zayed’s camel racing track makes it a great spot if you’re interested in the UAE’s most popular indigenous sport. With only one restaurant and a tiny shop, don’t go expecting a stimulating resort, but if you want proximity to the desert dunes at a reasonable price, it’s worth booking in for a night. Prices start from Dhs499. Tilal Liwa Hotel (02 894 6111)
Quite simply, a trip to Qasr Al Sarab is a once in a lifetime experience. Emerging from the dunes, the first glimpses of the resort will be enough to get your pulses racing, especially if you spent your childhood immersed in Arabian Nights. Like a turreted fortress on the outside, the inside is furnished with antiques found across the former Trucial States. The library, in particular, is a delightful recess of books and curios, flecked with shadows of a colonial past. As the evening falls, the heat drops away dramatically, and the possibility of a walk in the desert valley becomes a comfortable option. Needless to say, the stars come out with real vigour. Make a post-dinner date with the lounger in the garden to fully appreciate the celestial light show. Prices start from Dhs1400. Qasr Al Sarab (02 886 2088)
The Spa at Qasr Al Sarab If you’re really only here for R&R, Qasr Al Sarab’s spa, with its Thai motif and largely Thai staff, overlooking a desolate, uninterrupted valley, is your only real option. The price list is available on request, but we particularly recommend the aromatherapy treatments, which sent us into such a state of relaxation we were barely capable of speech. Book on 02 886 2088
If you’re planning on eating at one of the hotels, the Tilal Liwa has a reasonably good buffet serving breakfast, lunch and dinner in a suitably Arabian setting. It’s the only option in the hotel and, while the food is fairly plain by most UAE hotel standards, it certainly fills a hole satisfactorily. Qasr Al Sarab’s equivalent is bank-breakingly extravagant (a buffet lunch here cost us the same amount as our whole stay at the Tilal, three meals included). That said, the quality is exemplary. There aren’t many restaurants in Abu Dhabi that serve up seared tuna and cod roe on a slice of watermelon as a starter, let alone as a buffet afterthought. Stunning views, too. Go on… splash out! Surely you’ve earned it.
Originating from the Al Gharbia (Western) region of Abu Dhabi, Masoud Al Mazrouei is an expert in Arabian desert tradition. Time Out met him, along with Noora Al Kalbani of Al Ain, to discover what the desert means to the people of the UAE.
Can you tell us a little about the forts that exist in Liwa?
Masoud: I think Muzeria Fort is the biggest in Liwa, but we have many in the different areas of the town. They are more than 300 years old. The Bedouin used them to defend themselves from different tribes, so they lived inside them and protected themselves and their children and women. These were Liwa people, but we call them Bedouin. People can visit the forts now, and it’s free.
How does the desert feature in Emirati tradition?
Noora: I’m not from Al Gharbia region, but I can tell you – coming from the city – it’s really amazing. The desert dunes take a crescent shape. Maybe Mr Masoud is used to this, but really – when I go there, even though I’m from Al Ain where there is also a lot of desert – it’s really different. Can you imagine seeing thousands of moons lying next to each other? It looks exactly like this. It’s really very mysterious and amazing. The colour is beige, to a bit of brown, to yellow. It’s beautiful, and very unusual.
What stories are told in the oral tradition of the sands?
M: There was one story we used to tell the kids during the dark. There are two colours to the desert – one is reddish and the other, beige. We used to say to the kids, don’t walk on the beige sand because it’s going to take you down [quicksand]. This was just to make them afraid not to go too far away from their homes and houses.
Does the desert feature a lot in Emirati poetry?
N: Oh, of course! You cannot even count it! In olden times they had nothing else to talk about. For the people who lived next to the beach, they would talk about the beach, and their idioms came from the beach. The people who lived in the desert included it in their poetry and idioms and slogans… it’s too much to name.
Are the Bedouin still living in the UAE as travelling nomads?
M: Yes, still. They travel from season to season and settle in different places. They look for the grass for their camels. But we aren’t really sure how many there are of them.
Can we meet them easily?
M: Any time! And they are very kind and very welcoming. But you should take someone who knows the Bedouin. The language is the same, but the accent sometimes varies from one tribe to another.
How do they feel about the development of the area?
M: The people in the cities, of course, are very happy with the big plan – you know, the infrastructure, the health… but there are still some tribes who are really far away in the desert, and they don’t feel it that much. They still maintain the same, traditional lifestyle.
Originally published in Time Out Abu Dhabi