Abu Dhabi, UAE: Wadi Adventure is a world-class water park where you can learn to surf in the desert

Part of this feels familiar: the swell of the wave as it builds behind me; the mad whir of arms and legs as I try to power my board to catch it; the lurch forward as the water grips me; the brief flash of exhilaration as I stand; and the inevitable slap as I hit the water and disappear into the washing machine of the wave's surge.

This part, I understand. This, to me, is surfing. It's everything else here that's strange.

The water I'm currently tumbling through isn't salty and opaque, but fresh and clear. Below the water there's no sand, just neat tiles and concrete. And on the surface, out to the horizon on every side – in front of me, behind me, to my left and to my right – lie red rocks and sand. Red rocks and sand. And on into the endless desert.

This is the beginning of the Rub' al Khali, otherwise known as the Empty Quarter, a 650,000-square-kilometre stretch of desolation, a nothingness that dominates the Arabian Peninsula. And it's here, in one of the world's most formidably dry environments, that I'm learning to surf.

It's crazy, really. This is Wadi Adventure, a water park near the city of Al Ain, a desert outpost on the UAE-Oman border about a two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi. The entire city is a bit nuts, with its tree-lined boulevards, its parks and oases surrounded by nothingness.

Al Ain means "the spring", which goes some way to explaining the greenery in this part of the world. Still, you don't expect a water park. You don't expect a place where you can go wakeboarding, and kayaking, and learn to surf on a world-class break.

There's a pool here that can generate a 3.3-metre wave every 90 seconds. Those waves can break to the left or the right, depending on your preference. The pool can also churn out smaller, rolling waves for beginners. They're called A-frames and break from the middle, to allow two people to ride at the same time. Kelly Slater has surfed here. Gabriel Medina, too. Sally Fitzgibbons has shown the locals how it's done.

And I have fallen over a lot of times. The big mistake was going wakeboarding first. There's a cable-ski pool here, too, where you can strap on a wakeboard and be towed along 350 metres of cable at up to 45 kilometres an hour, jumping and grinding on two floating "features", if you're so inclined.

I like wakeboarding. I'm fairly good at wakeboarding. So I spend an hour in the pool having my arms gently wrenched from their sockets as I try to twist and turn and leap and grind, the desert providing its red-tinged backdrop, the cable operator pretty much the only other person in this joint.

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The other mistake is going kayaking, hitting the Olympic-quality white-water course, paddling through 1.2 kilometres of rapids, loving life and further fatiguing my out-of-shape arms.

By the time I hit the wave pool, I'm already worn out. And then I have to paddle, I have to stroke and kick and force my torso up off the board and try to balance as what seems like a fairly large wave forces me ever forwards, and down. I wipe out a lot. I inhale my fair share of that cool, clean water.

I also have time, between crashes, to ponder the relative insanity of learning to surf in one of the world's largest deserts. It's not really so crazy, I decide. It actually fits nicely within the UAE. There are all sorts of amazing things around here – man-made islands, record-breaking buildings, a new iteration of the Louvre – and a world-class water park in the middle of a desert actually makes sense.

Bold and yet successful. Familiar and yet deeply strange. Shame I'm not better at it.

TRIP NOTES

Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi.

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visitabudhabi.ae

traveller.com.au/abu-dhabi

FLY

Etihad Airways flies multiple times daily from all major Australian ports direct to Abu Dhabi. Call 1300 532 215 or see etihad.com

SURF

Wadi Adventure is located in the city of Al Ain, a two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi. An Unlimited Adventure package, with access to all facilities for a day, costs AED195 ($74). See wadiadventure.ae

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