Desert tour day trip from Abu Dhabi: Bleak and spectacular

It takes just 45 seconds for me to realise I could die out here. Easily.

The sun is beating down on me, the heat is beyond 40 degrees and there is no way to escape it. There are no trees, no buildings, no landmarks of any kind. And, most obviously, there is no water.

Just sand, as far as the eye can see, in every direction.

I've been in deserts before, in Australia, but I've never experienced a place like this. It's straight out of Lawrence of Arabia.

I'm in the United Arab Emirates, on a visit to Abu Dhabi, and have opted to take a day tour out to the surrounding desert with Arabian Adventures, whose four-wheel-drive trips offer a mix of on and off-road action.

It's surprising to think that on the outskirts of a modern, wealthy city (one that is increasing developing attractions to compete with neighbouring Dubai, such its upcoming Louvre and Guggenheim museums) lies this vast expanse of sand, broken only by the smooth highways that traverse it.

It's spectacular, bleak and unforgiving.

And yet, there is life out here.

We depart in the morning from my hotel and it's not long before we leave the highway behind and hit a compacted dirt track into the desert proper. Soon after, we find ourselves forced to stop. Not by any impasse due to the landscape, but rather by a huge herd of camels that is headed straight down the road.

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My guide for the day, Mohammad, encourages me to get out of the car and get my photo taken with the camels as they pass buy. It's slightly intimidating - there must be about 100 of them - and they stare at me with curiosity as they pass by.

Yet they are domesticated - these are camels from one of the nearby desert farms, being herded by a gnarled old man on a quadbike. Some herds, I discover, roam free during the day, but know exactly where home is and head there as the sun sets.

Despite the bleakness of the landscape, there is also diversity here. As we travel the sand eventually changes colour from white to red, we cross salt flats that split the dunes like a river and areas covered in rocks.

We stop for a picnic lunch under the tree. I call it 'the' tree because it is literally the only tree to be seen. In 360 degrees, as far as the eye can see, this is the only tree and the only patch of shade. It's still hot under its branches, but not unbearable. After lunch though, it is a welcome relief to get back into the air conditioned comfort of the car.

We take a detour from the road and out on the red sand, where Mohammad gives me a taste of dune-bashing (it's a fairly mild taste by the standards of the UAE, from what I've heard) before we stop on the soft sand a few hundred metres from the road.

We hop out on to the sand. The heat hits me like a punch in the face. We're in front of a huge dune and I ask my guide if it's OK for me to climb it. He tells me to go ahead.

In excitement, I jog over to the less steep side and head up at a quick pace. It takes about 45 seconds to get to the top, but it's this brief period, less than a minute, when it really hits home what a deadly place this desert can be. By the time I reach the top, I'm sweating, puffing and my face is flushed. The heat is unbelievable and from my vantage point here I can see just how desolate the surrounding area is.

I suddenly start running worst-case scenarios through my mind - if the car broke down, if Mohammad's phone battery was flat, if he forgot to pack extra water. Suddenly the deadly realities of the desert hit home.

Still, it's kind of fun to be up here. I decide to come down via the face of the dune, again setting a quick pace as I leap forward and my feet sink deep into the soft sand, preventing me from falling. But I probably should have thought this through a little more - the red sand is scorching hot and fills my shoes as my feet sink beneath its surface. By the time I reach the bottom I feel like I've just walked across hot coals.

I get back to the car and sit on the passenger-side seat with the door open as I empty the burning sand from my sneakers. It's a reminder that it's not just the sun that's of concern out here - even the ground is out to get you.

Arabian Adventures offers a range of desert tours including day trips, sunset and overnight experiences, with options from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and . The full-day Day in the Dunes tour starts from AED340 (about $A110) and includes hotel transfers and picnic lunch.

See www.arabian-adventures.com

The writer travelled to Abu Dhabi as a guest of Etihad Airways.

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