Unexpected Dubai – market, mall and desert safari
In October, I travelled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as a guest of Emirates and the Government of Dubai, Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. This is the third post in my blog series on that trip.
Dubai fruit and vegetable market
At the fruit and vegetable market, the sellers are all men. My camera attracted more attention than me. I didn’t mind in the least.
“You are photographer?” they asked.
“Yes,” I said (I didn’t try to explain blogging).
“Where are you from?”
“Australia,” I said.
“Ah, Australia! Good, good,” Nods of approval.
“May I take your photo please?” I asked.
“Yes, yes!” They all wanted me to take their pictures. In fact, as sellers at nearby stalls saw me photographing their friends, they’d call me over and pose proudly with their produce. They were pleased when I showed them the pictures I had taken, on the camera’s LCD screen. I prefer candid, more natural shots that show people in action rather than posed portraits but I was chuffed to be made to feel so welcome. I had lots of fun taking pictures at the market that morning.
As I wandered through the market, I smiled and nodded to sellers and stopped and talked with with those who wanted a chat. I walked by a couple of fellows who were having their morning tea, who insisted I share their food and drink. They tore apart flatbread stuffed with meat and pressed a cup of cool yellow liquid into my hand.
“You eat, you drink,” they said, smiling.
The bread smelled pretty good but I wasn’t so sure about the mystery beverage.
“What is it?” I asked, peering into the cup, hoping my apprehension wouldn’t offend.
“No problem, no problem! Mountain Dew!” They held up a bottle and showed me the familiar label.
“Shukran, thank you,” I said. They grinned at me, pleased.
My parents taught me to never accept food or drinks from strangers but I couldn’t refuse this gesture of goodwill. I took a bite. The flatbread was warm and still crisp. I took a sip. It was Mountain Dew all right. Although I’d eaten breakfast at my hotel and wasn’t really hungry, my unexpected snack tasted great. I thanked the guys again and kept moving through the market, munching as I walked.
We had half an hour to explore the market and I was conscious of time creeping up on me as I walked around, eager to see and photograph as much as possible. I wasn’t unhappy about moving on to our next activity, but I could’ve easily stayed longer.
The Dubai Mall
Parked near The Dubai Mall, a couple of our group recognised this gleaming blue beauty as a Bugatti Veyron, the fastest street-legal car in the world (top speed of 350 km/h or 220 mph), a car for millionaires and James Bond.
The Dubai Mall is the world’s largest shopping mall, with 1200 retail outlets, two anchor department stores and over 160 food and drink outlets. I’m not interested in clothing labels, so I’m sure you will understand the food-heavy focus to my photos of the shops at The Dubai Mall.
I wandered around the food court in search of something for lunch.
I knew we’d be going dune bashing (riding a jeep up and down the desert sand dunes) and I didn’t want to eat too much or too late. I grabbed a quick meal at Texas Chicken. The crinkle-cut fries were fresh out of the fryer and although the burger wasn’t very big, the chicken fillet was crunchy and juicy. It did the trick.
There are many other fast food outlets, cafes and restaurants at The Dubai Mall; it would take more than just a few hours to see and photograph it all, let alone check out all the other shops. Next time, next time…
The Dubai Mall Aquarium features more than 33,000 aquatic creatures including tiger sharks, stingrays and many other kinds of fish. The queues are long, so if you can’t be bothered lining up to buy a ticket to gain entrance, you can enjoy the view from the outside.
The Dubai Mall also includes The Dubai Ice Rink is an Olympic-sized ice rink. You can hire skates for a two-hour skating session, book figure skating lessons or a night disco on ice session.
Arabian Adventures Sundowner Desert Safari
Late afternoon, on the way to the desert safari, our Arabian Adventures driver Waqar told us about camel racing.
“It must be bloody hard work riding a camel,” someone remarked.
“We have robot jockeys,” Waqar said.
Incredulous looks all around. “Nah, really?” “Are you serious?” “You’re kidding, right?” We all grinned and winked at one another.
“I prove it to you in five minutes.”
And approximately five minutes later, Waqar turned off the highway onto a dirt road to take us to an area where several dusty shops stood. I spotted it immediately – Fast Look Electronics.
There were a few robot jockeys on display outside the shop. Later, I realised these display robot jockeys had not been made in pastel colours; they were faded from long exposure to the sun.
Inside the shop were robot jockeys in brilliantly vivid colours.
“We’ll never doubt you again, Waqar!” we declared. He grinned cheekily.
We saw robot jockeys in action later during the trip when we went to the camel races (stay tuned for that in another post).
We got back in the car and back onto the highway. As we got closer to our destination, we saw camel crossing signs. We got out to stretch our legs while Waqar released air from our vehicle’s tyres in preparation for driving on the dunes.
First official stop on our desert safari: a falconry demonstration. Falcons have been trained and used for hunting in the Middle East for many centuries.
The trained falcon used in this demonstration wore a helmet that covered its eyes and ears to keep it relaxed before the demonstration. During ‘hunting time’, the falcon handler swung a rope to which he’d attached raw meat. The falcon, now released and helmet removed, circled and swooped, talons out to catch its prey. It was a very short demonstration, but for those interested, there was an opportunity to ask questions and get a closer look at the falcon afterwards.
If you’re pregnant or have a bad back, dune bashing is not recommended. If you’re prone to motion sickness, you may feel queasy from the bumpy ride. I took an anti-nausea pill before the session (I take them before flying). I’m not a fan of roller coasters or show rides and was secretly nervous about this part of the safari, but I was determined to give it a go. I wangled the front seat next to Waqar – the front seat is the best one to be in if you’re worried about motion sickness; the worst place to sit is at the back. As it turned out, half our group was worried about feeling sick and asked Waqar to take it easy on the dunes.
“Hold your camera tight,” Waqar warned. I held my camera (strap still around my shoulder), placing it on top of my bag, which was on my lap. This helped me keep the camera reasonably still as we rode the dunes. I took photos through the 4WD’s windscreen, which was impressively clean!
It was a thrilling ride. Waqar explained it’s actually more dangerous to drive too slowly through the dunes, as you’re more at risk of getting bogged. Still, he drove us through the dunes with expert ease. There was no avoiding some of the heart-stopping big drops – I swear the vehicle was almost perpendicular and nose-down at one point – and we squealed and shrieked and laughed, gripping on for dear life. A couple of our group did feel slightly queasy afterwards; I felt fine, maybe just a little hungry…
Desert photography tips
- A UV filter will protect your camera lens – it’s much cheaper to replace a filter than a damaged lens (I have a filter on normally anyway, not just out in the desert). A polarising filter will help with the intense glare when out in the desert in strong daylight, but make sure you remove it if you’ll be there at sunset. Polarising filters (I use Hoya brand) are expensive, however. I’m no expert on any of this – there’s plenty of expert advice if you do a Google search.
- Protect your camera from dust and sand. If you have an underwater housing, it will also protect a camera in the desert. I used a much cheaper option – a Glad bag with a hole cut in the corner for the lens to poke out. It didn’t keep the camera 100% sand-free but reduced its exposure to the elements, especially during the falconry demonstration when it was particularly windy.
- Carry your camera on its strap – don’t drop your camera in the sand!
- Don’t change lenses while out in the desert to avoid getting dust/sand inside your camera, especially the sensor. I used my 24-70mm lens for the most versatility.
- Avoid changing batteries while out in the desert. Go fully charged. Use a battery grip if you have one. Basically, minimise any need to expose the internal parts of the camera to sand.
- Clean your camera afterwards – back in my hotel room that night I used a Vanguard ultra lens cleaner which was very effective for getting rid of fine sand particles that had found their way onto the camera and lens. If you are concerned about the effect of the exposure on your camera/lens, it may be worth taking them in to your camera shop for a professional clean/service.
We soon arrived at a specially customised Bedouin camp where the rest of the evening’s activities would take place.
There was an appetising smell of charcoal and smoke as chefs cooked our dinner.
Waqar advised us to pick our seats before doing anything else so we could all sit together and choose exactly where we wanted to sit. We chose a spot right next to the centre stage.
Time to relax and get a drink – beer, wine, soft drinks and water were available at the bar.
Apart from dinner time, you are free to wander around the camp and take part in any of the activities on offer – camel riding, smoking apple-flavoured shisha (hookah or waterpipe), getting a henna tattoo, posing for a photograph with a falcon, or getting a personalised piece of sand art made to order.
“Don’t stand close to the camels,” warned a staff member. “They kick!”
The desert at dusk is stunningly beautiful, but there’s nothing romantic about riding a camel. They smell strongly of urine; the pungent odour is partly due to their habit of peeing on their legs to keep cool in the desert heat. Camels don’t really like people. They are known for kicking with surprising agility as well as for spitting. They’re very good at drowning out human conversations with hideous, powerfully loud guttural noises, like long-drawn ripe belches that have been brewing for an uncomfortably long time.
The bump and swagger of these grumpy beasts was a surprise to many of the riders as the camels grudgingly trudged in a line, pulled along by a handler. This was the closest I got to the camels and I was quite content – I had no desire to get on the back of one of these cantankerous, smelly creatures. I love animals but don’t necessarily wish to be in the company (or on the back) of some in particular.
And then it was dinner time, Middle Eastern buffet style. There was plenty to eat, with multiple buffet stations to ensure everyone was served quickly. There were three rounds: entree, main and dessert. The feast featured tasty little pastries filled with cheese, grilled meats, flatbreads, rice, falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, beans and other salads. Dessert was fresh fruit and sweet pastries made with pistachio and honey, very much like baklava.
After dinner, belly dancing – intensely energetic and physical, involving many parts of the body, not just the belly!
The desert safari covers all the Arabian clichés you can think of. But it’s a great experience and well worth doing if you visit Dubai.
I strongly recommend not eating a heavy meal before the safari. Even if you’re not prone to motion sickness, a full tummy’s not a great idea for riding up and down the sand dunes. We were fed very well at the camp and our driver took a different, less bumpy route for the return trip. There are toilets at the camp.
Dress is casual. Dress to be comfortable. The 4WD is air-conditioned but it’s hot in the desert before the sun sets. We brought light cardigans for the evening but found we didn’t need them. Most people wear sandals/thongs/flip-flops – it’s very hard to get sand out of sneakers…as I discovered for ages afterwards!
Arabian Adventures Sundowner Desert Safari
AED 360 (adult) or AED 300 (children under 12)
All activities and food and drink described in this post are included in the price. The only extras are photographs e.g. posing with a falcon, and the sand art, which are entirely your choice to purchase (or not).
TFP travelled to Dubai as a guest of Emirates and the Government of Dubai, Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. All images, words and opinions are my own.This is the third post in my blog series on that trip. See the list of Dubai posts so far. There’s more to come in this series.
Hope you had a merry Christmas. I’m working on the photographs from Christmas – blog post coming soon.