Away from Dubai's dizzying architecture, malls and hotels, the traditions of the desert Bedouins remains unchanged
Uncle Hamad's fingers are long, brown and elegant. Clasped tightly around a cane, they don't look like the hands of a weather-beaten camel farmer. A concert pianist, perhaps, but not a Bedouin who has lived in the Dubai desert all his life.
Dubai might have changed, but Hamad, known as Ammi Hamad (Uncle in Arabic) continues to lives in the desert, though not in the goat-hair tent from his childhood, in a palatial villa built by the Dubai Government. He owns a herd of 25 camels; five are worth their weight in gold now that racing has taken off. And as for the age-old Bedouin tradition of storytelling? The legacy continues at his village majlis, where Hamad and his neighbours tell stories passed down through generations. Nowadays, Hamad also shares stories with tourists.
Several mornings each week, the 75-year-old grandfather climbs into his SUV and drives across the dunes to a remote desert camp, where he is the guest of honour at the Platinum Heritage Bedouin Breakfast. Seated regally on a chair, while tourists sit cross-legged on carpets festooned with cushions, it's a meet-the-local experience quite unlike anything offered in Dubai. Most desert tour companies titillate tourists by roaring along in four-wheel-drive convoys, surfing the dunes in a madcap practice known as dune-bashing. Afterwards, tourists are ferried to a desert camp for belly dance performances and a dinner of Western food. On a Platinum Heritage tour, there is no dune bashing, no spaghetti bolognese and no belly dancing. The heritage tours stay true to Emirati culture and are as authentic as possible, right down to the cars: a fleet of classic 1950s Land Rovers in earthy hues of brown and khaki.
It's a joy to be rumbling along in these vintage, open-top cars beneath a cloudless blue sky, admiring the sea of tawny-red dunes and feeling a gentle desert breeze on our skin. Wesam, our 39-year-old Palestinian guide, is clearly enjoying the ride too. A charismatic banker-turned-tour-guide who has lived in Dubai since he was a child, he fizzes with enthusiasm when he talks about the desert.
Despite Dubai's modernity, the sands are ingrained on the Emirati soul.
"I love it," he says, the sunlight reflected on his mirrored aviators. "I come here, stretch my legs, look at the stars. You can't have this when you work in an office."
While much of the desert on the city outskirts is marred by roads and power lines, the tour offers privileged access to one of the emirate's most pristine portions: the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Protected by royal decree since 2003, its virgin, wind-sculpted dunes stretch for 225 square kilometres until the great rocky crags of the Ha-jar Mountains. Aside from the luxurious Al Maha Resort & Spa and a few private residences belonging to Dubai's ruling Maktoum family, the reserve is fenced to protect an impressive amount of free-roaming wildlife. It's also surprisingly green; tamarisk and ghaf trees punctuating the horizon, along with shrubs like acacia, a favourite of timid sand gazelles, one of the various species found here. Only a few metres from our car, a herd of Arabian oryx, a white, horned antelope plucked from the brink of extinction, lumbers languorously. Other animals like the desert fox emerge at night, says Wesam, rattling off a terrifying list of nocturnal critters like camel spiders, sidewinders and horned vipers. I pray we don't see any that night at our desert camp.
We arrive at dusk, and explore the rustic retreat by the glow of lanterns. The entire camp was constructed using local materials: roughly-hewn tables made from ghaf, and walls packed with stones and barasti (palm) leaves; even the tents are made from goat hair, Wesam assuring us of their waterproof nature by emptying a bottle of water over the canopy.
As darkness falls, we snack on dates and drink gahwa (coffee), the scent of apple shisha perfuming the air. At dinner, we are not herded like cattle to a buffet, as is so often the case at other desert camps. Instead, Wesam asks us to gather around to watch traditional Emirati cuisine like raqaq, a type of wafer thin bread, being made; any remnants are scraped aside to feed the camp's herd of camels. The ouzi, a spiced, whole-roasted lamb buried in a charcoal pit for 24 hours until the meat falls from the bone, is so delicious, I carry my plate back for seconds, much to the delight of the cook.
The camp is solar powered, and with such green credentials comes power outages; during dinner and the traditional Khaleej dance performance, the camp is plunged into darkness, prompting a chorus of "Sorry, we didn't pay our bill!". But even in the desert, technology is never far away. I can pick up a 3G network, and as we chat over cardamom-scented tea, Wesam whips out his iPhone to show us a moon app he uses for night safaris.
Cocooned in thick blankets beneath a goat-hair tent, we go to sleep early and rise with the dawn, clambering atop a dune to watch the sun's early rays. We're midway though our Emirati breakfast – chebab pancakes slathered with date syrup and honey and balaleet, sweet vermicelli noodles with egg – when Hamad arrives. Clad in an immaculately ironed kandura and suede vest trimmed with fur, he begins the storytelling session, explaining in gravelly-toned Arabic what it was like to grow up in the desert, learning to read and write from the Koran and rear camels, just like his forefathers. A camel farmer "now, tomorrow and forever", he becomes equally animated when he talks about falconry, another tradition dear to his heart. He's too old to fly falcons now, but as a close friend of the Maktoums, he often accompanies the royal family on hunting trips to Uzbekistan.
Hamad answers all our questions, from the innocent "Have you ever seen snow?" asked by a young British boy (he has once, in Germany) to more serious queries about Dubai's supersonic transformation. Does he despise the change? He does not. "Everything has changed for the better," he says. "The cars, the communication, civilisation, the roads – everything is easier."
What about driving on Dubai's frightening multi-laned arterial, Sheikh Zayed Road? Hamad laughs, admitting that he rarely ventures into the city. He's been to Dubai Mall; he even went to the cinema once (he can't remember the film), but he prefers the silent, sun-parched solitude of the desert. "The desert is place of peace," he says, smiling inscrutably. "It teaches you to be patient. It teaches you lots of things."
Later that morning, I'm still thinking about the relationship between Bedouins and their beloved desert. Despite Dubai's modernity, the sands are ingrained on the Emirati soul – even on the royal family's youngest members.
As we reach the edge of the reserve, Wesam slows down to point at fresh horse tracks in the sand. "Her Highness Sheikha Maryam must be here," he says, referring to the 23-year-old daughter of the crown prince and ruler of Dubai. "She is always riding her horse in the desert."
I'm marvelling at the thought of an Arabian princess galloping on horseback through the dunes when we pass a troupe of gleaming white SUVs. Wesam raises his hand in greeting to one of the men in the car. "Who was that?" I ask, watching the cars disappear behind the sand. "That was His Highness Sheikh Butti – he's probably going to fly some falcons."
The Overnight Safari & Breakfast with a Bedouin costs $307 an adult and includes hotel transfers, wildlife safari, dinner, accommodation at the camp and breakfast. Tours operate Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday between October 2 and May 15. See Platinum-heritage.com
The writer was a guest of Platinum Heritage