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Here's a thrilling tale of my dune-bashing adventure in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

A dune with a view
Careening down a 25-metre-high sand dune, the Land Cruiser tilted precariously, its left-hand wheels spraying sand and the rest spinning in the air. I clung to the armrest and leaned to the right, hoping — no, praying — that my weight would prevent a rollover. My travel mates in the back seats shrieked, while I imagined our vehicle tumbling over the Arabian desert and being buried forever in sand.
But our driver, Sofara, deftly navigated to an upright position, and set the vehicle on a more placid course. It suddenly felt like we were on a magic carpet, sailing over the undulating mounds of sand like a yacht skimming over waves. My fear turned to exhilaration as the desert terrain whizzed by, the peaked shapes of distant dunes morphing from gold into ochre as we passed.
With tourism in the United Arab Emirates booming, it's easy to get caught up in the deluxe diversions of this oil-rich state: Horse racing at the Nad Al Sheba Club in Dubai (one of the world's top thoroughbred racetracks), golfing at one of the championship courses in Abu Dhabi, or sailing on a mega-yacht in the Persian Gulf (to name just a few).
Then there's shopping at the Mall of the Emirates, which features the chairlifts and luge run of the indoor Ski Dubai.
But for adventures beyond the urban sprawl, visitors can now head into the desert for an SUV tour and Bedouin-style overnight camping experience offered by Sunshine Tours, which also leads sand-boarding and sand-skiing expeditions from Abu Dhabi and the other United Arab Emirates states.
Ascending a dune that provided panoramic views of the desert, Sofara described our surroundings. “We call this the Empty Quarter — it is the Rub Al-Khali, the largest sand sea on Earth,” he said. “It stretches from Abu Dhabi and the UAE across Saudi Arabia and Oman to Yemen, for hundreds of thousands of square kilometres.”
To punctuate the vast expanse of this barren landscape, he waved an arm from side to side just as the hood of the vehicle nosed up another dune. “Please, please use both hands on the steering wheel,” I cried.
Sofara laughed, “Ah, do not worry. Inshaalah — God willing — we will ride safely. I know the way of the dunes: which is the right side of the dune to traverse, which side to avoid so we don't sink into the soft sand. In 17 years, I was only stuck once.”
“Better knock on wood,” I thought, as the vehicle approached an almost vertical position. All we could see through the windshield was the peaked crest of the dune against blue sky.
We rounded the peak, and everyone gasped as the hood of the vehicle suddenly nosed down another slope. And so it went on a two-hour roller coaster-esque ride that was more thrilling than any in a theme park.
High on a dune, Sofara braked and we hopped out, aiming our cameras at a palm-shrouded oasis in the valley below that has served as a Bedouin camel farm for centuries. A spindly-legged baby camel nuzzled against its mother's fat belly, while others grazed on desert scrub and gorse. The serenity was palpable, the silence, deafening. No wonder, I thought, that Bedouin tribes find inspiration in the saying “God is my companion.”
This vantage point provided views of other adventurers in the distance, some plying hills in dune buggies, curls of dust billowing behind them; others riding on brightly blanketed camels, trekking nose-to-tail on safari, the sun casting long, romantic shadows in the sand.
Back in our vehicle, we were treated to more thrills just as the sun began slipping behind a faraway mountain. Darkness was falling as we rolled onto flat turf at the “Bedouin Heritage Camp” where we had started our day.
Kazzim Suleiman-Khafaja, the manager of Sunshine Tours, greeted us with “ Ahlan wa salam — a warm welcome!” and waved to a barbecue pit where chefs were preparing dinner. Nearby, a string of Bedouin tents were strewn with colourful carpets and pillows.
Immediately, just about everyone in our party felt the urge to visit a bathroom. “No problem,” said Sofara, pointing to a wooden structure with two flush toilets.
“Flush toilets in the desert? In the middle of nowhere?” I asked.
Sofara laughed. “We have plenty of fresh water from two wells, 120 feet deep.”
It is an oasis, after all.
Our plates laden with Arabian specialties — hummus, pitas, spicy vegetable salads, sizzling chicken, lamb and beef kebobs — we sank into plump pillows and reminisced about the day's dune-bashing.
No traditional Arabian feast is complete without the social ritual of the sheesha, tobacco pipe attached to a glass orb filled with water that locals fondly call the “hubbly bubbly.”
And sure enough, Sofara appeared with a cache of the tall smoking instruments. Fragrant smoke wafted through the air when Sofara extinguished all the camp lights, suddenly immersing us in the pitch blackness of the desert night.
Far from the haze of Abu Dhabi, the constellations sparkled — a serene finale to an eclectic day.

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