From the city we went inland a bit, still in the emirate of Dubai, to Al Maha, a Starwood property out in the middle of the desert. It’s the sort of thing that would be a big splurge except when it’s free, as in “used Starwood points to get this amazing property, including three meals a day, for free.” Definitely the price point I love the most.
There’s not a lot to do out in the desert, so the resort makes sure you’re smothered in comfort. The room was beautiful, with lots of space – when you’re in the desert there’s more room than in a big city – and, crucially, you’re own private pool. I could have spent all day just sitting at the pool looking out across the desert. Except, oh yeah, except for the flies. Early in the morning they weren’t at all bad and as the temperature dropped in the late afternoon they went away again. But during the hours when you would most enjoy sitting out reading and enjoying the view? Way too many flies.
Otherwise, though, it was a nearly perfect experience. The resort not only provides your meals in the price of the room, but they include a number of activities too. Our first evening there we went on their camel ride up into the dunes to watch the sunset with sparkling wine. Mark had been on a camel thirty-plus years earlier on an overnight excursion and had always talked about how sore he was after hours in the saddle. This one was easier: 20 minutes or so out into the desert, 20 minutes watching the sunset, and 20 minutes back. I was still sore from the ride, but the sort of sore that is gone after 90 seconds or so. A nice experience.
Early the next morning, before the heat of the day kicked in, we went on a little nature hike into the dunes. We were both a little curious: what’s there to see out here where there’s pretty much just sand? Well, a lot it turns out. Our guide – a sweet little South African woman – started showing us the various tracks through the desert, often tiny little markings from lizards and small rodents and even an ant. Yeah, I would notice tracks from camels or the many gazelles and oryx around but those tiny tracks I would never notice. Until you start seeing them and then you see them all over.
At one point we all had our heads down looking at these little tracks when we scared out a big old owl out of a tree near us who then flew to another tree a little further away. Our guide was impressed; she’d never seen an owl out here. We saw the tree he was in and walked pretty close to get a nice view of the owl until he decided he’d had enough of our gawking and flew away.
And then there was the morning with the falcons along with a special guest appearance from an eagle. Capturing and training falcons has been a big deal in the Arabian Desert for some 2,000 years and I’d always wondered how the heck you train something like that. Well, our guides explained it all and showed us how the falcons are trained. And then another guide came out with an eagle, not nearly as useful for hunting for a variety of reasons (they’re lazier and somewhat slower than the falcons) but still very trainable and prestigious in their own way.
Otherwise the animals that draw the most attention are the gazelles and Arabian oryx. The former are cute, small, and everywhere; they’re sufficiently acclimated to humans that they hang out just everywhere. But always cute. The African oryx is bigger, more exotic, and more interesting. By the early 1970s, in fact, they were extinct in the wild, the result of aggressive hunting by humans. Enough existed in captivity, though, that they were bred and reintroduced into the wild starting in the early 1980s. The oryx here, they explained, come from herds held in Arizona and have multiplied well since their reintroduction. In fact, the Arabian oryx is the first animal in the world to have been extinct in the wild to now being officially just “vulnerable.” A pretty impressive achievement.
Oh, one other cool thing about the oryx? They’re thought to be the origin of the mythological unicorn. Which didn’t make that much sense to me until I saw one from just the right angle, where it’s two horns seemed to be just one. Then it really did look like a unicorn. I should add, though, that because the Bible references unicorns on several occasions true believers would object to my reference to the unicorn as “mythological.” They say the unicorn really did exist since the Bible is never wrong but it went extinct and we just haven’t found the archeological evidence. I say they’re idiots.
And one other thing I learned out there. The colors in the sand dunes and the texture and contours are so interesting but how do they come about? Our South African guide showed us how the iron oxide sand particles are significantly redder, heavier, and coarser than the fine white silica particles. It’s the interaction between these two very different kinds of sand that create the colors and contours. How’s that for useful information?
And finally, a word about the changing desert. Dubai and the Al Maha resort are actively engaged in an environmental movement typically known as “greening the desert.” This is an extremely long-term strategy of introducing or re-introducing trees and other plant life into desert areas which, in tiny increments, cools the area, allowing other plant life to take root which at the very edge of the margins allows a little more rain to fall and, in theory at least, creates a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle: a little more green, a little cooler, a little more rain, a little more green, a little cooler, and on and on. I wasn’t familiar with the concept at all, but apparently it’s happening all over the world in arid and semi-arid areas. You have to give people credit for having the vision, the patience, and the innate optimism to take on a long-term project like that.
And that was our big desert adventure, a big success. From here it’s off to Abu Dhabi and then down to Oman.