On a visit to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, it is not until I go off into the desert that I really meet any actual local people.
My driver reveals a love of his Nissan Patrol that matches the legendary Arab regard for his camel and a short drive out of the city brings me to rolling sand dunes stretching to the horizon. Longer routes explore remote wadis (dry riverbeds) and desert oases that seem unchanged for centuries.
In Dubai, dune bashing, driving off a high sand dune at high speed, is a thrill to match anything in a theme park ride, while a night under the desert stars is equally memorable. With no light pollution, and no cloud cover, the stars shine brilliantly. Stare long enough and you can feel yourself falling into them. Over a flickering fire and strong coffee – “Bedouin whisky” – the romance of the desert comes alive in stories of past adventures and a battle of wits over riddles (one I lose as I am unarmed), before a night in a traditional tent.
In the light of day, parts of the desert are less romantic, covered in burst tires, discarded water bottles and other rubbish, the loss of contact with the environment in some ways a metaphor for Dubai itself. Then a gust of wind sends sand to soften the outlines of the man-made objects as it starts to bury them and make all clean again.
In the distance, a camel train pads towards the horizon, its bearded herders walking alongside in long robes, silent and timeless.
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