Dubai: Making tracks on a desert safari

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The Independent Travel

And then we're off - over the brow of the hill and straight into the desert, accelerating up towering dunes, pausing at the summit, and slip-sliding like giant crabs down the other side. There are sensible, sedate ways of steering a path between the cuts and curls of the dunes, but where's the fun in that?

Dune bashing, one of the most popular recreations in the UAE, is a cocktail of surging exhilaration and naked fear. My female companion is unusually quiet as our Lebanese driver, David, insouciantly removing one hand from the wheel to light a cigarette, powers the Landcruiser up another improbable slope before swooping downwards on the equivalent of a skiing black run, narrowly avoiding the scrubby tussocks of vegetation that somehow survive in the desert dryness.

Our knuckles may have turned white, but we needn't have worried. David explains that when he's not switch-backing tourists across the desert, he's a test driver for Toyota and other 4x4 manufacturers, and knows every inch of the terrain where new models are put through their paces. Small herds of camels, used to this daily disturbance of their lonely beat, pay no attention whatsoever.

As darkness falls, we reach our destination - a cluster of buildings and tents surrounding an open-air stage. We are to witness an "authentic Arab experience" beneath the stars. There's coffee and dates on arrival, a well-stocked bar for the sedentary and camel rides and sandboarding for the adventurous. Music plays, hookah pipes with apple-scented tobacco are fired up, and dinner is served - a barbecue of kebabs, fish, salad, rice and vegetable dishes. David reappears to help dish out the portions. Finally, out of the wings appears a belly-dancer, whose routines grow ever more energetic as the evening progresses.

Then the music stops, plates and glasses are tidied away, and the vehicle convoy - tyres pumped up again - speeds back to the city along a highway that turns out to have been less than a mile away. And there we were, lulled into thinking we were deep in the desert, with only the dunes and the camels for company.