There's nowhere quite so silent, nowhere quite so peaceful, as the desert in the dead of night. There's not a sound out here, not a scratch, not a rustle, not a breath of wind or a single being for miles and miles around. Just silence.
It's spectacular. You get up in the middle of the night and you step outside your tent, you stare at the infinite galaxies spread out in the sky and you tune in to your surroundings, you strain your ears for just the faintest hint of something – and there's nothing there. Just silence. Just peace.
This is what a trip to the desert is all about. This is why you make the effort, why you pack up your 4WD with water and supplies and roll over endless sand dunes looking for that perfect camping spot, why you set up in the middle of nowhere with no facilities and no communications to enjoy a night in the wild. The silence. The peace.
It's such a marked contrast to anything you experience in normal life, where there's always noise, always something in the background. It's also a marked contrast to the experience we had earlier today of getting to this campsite, when a desert wind had been roaring across these endless dunes, continuing the infinite cycle of movement and creation, when our car engines had been revving, straining to drag us up another sandy mountain and plunging us into the valley below.
This is fun though, Abu Dhabi style. This is how locals and expats spend their down time in this Arab emirate. When people from the big city tire of the fancy hotel brunches and the cocktail bars, when they've had their fill of art galleries and beach clubs, they pack up their big cars and they head out into the wilderness – which, around here, looks very sandy.
And so we've decided to replicate this most local of leisure activities. Rather than jump in a taxi at Abu Dhabi International Airport and motor into the city, as most visitors do, we've instead hired a Toyota Prado, a serious 4WD, the kind of thing that could eat up a sandy landscape and still have room for dessert, and pointed it to the south-west.
We've ignored the signs for Abu Dhabi proper, instead hitting the highway and almost immediately entering the harsh desert, the apartment blocks and industrial areas giving way to sand dunes, the traffic thinning out and the wilderness enclosing.
It's only an hour down the road from Abu Dhabi Airport to Tarif, but this desert outpost feels like another universe, a scene from Star Wars, a lost world. There is, however, a friendly face awaiting us. His name is Marco, and he's a French expat who quit his job in the UAE's corporate world to teach tourists how to scuba dive, and to lead them on 4WD trips through the desert. He's waiting today next to a huge Ford ute, a rig that looks like it was made to tackle anything a desert could throw at it.
"OK," Marco grins as we pull in. "Let's go and have some fun."
This is how you have a desert dune-bashing adventure in Abu Dhabi when you don't know what you're doing. Even if you're new to 4WDs. Even if you don't have a tent. Even if you've never been to the Emirate before. You find a guide like Marco, you rent a car, and you follow along.
We trail Marco for another hour down the highway to Madinat Zayed, where we pick up supplies from a supermarket – croissants for tomorrow's breakfast, camel burgers for tonight's dinner – and then continue on the highway in two-car convoy, before Marco abruptly starts indicating right in the middle of nowhere, pulls off the tarmac onto the soft sand, and we're away.
It takes a while to get a feel for desert driving. You let air out of your tyres to increase grip in the soft sand; you flick the car into 4WD mode. But still, you're not sure what the car can handle, what you can get away with.
It turns out: a lot. With the help of a few tips from Marco, delivered via walkie talkie – "Go fast through here! Slow here!" – we're soon racing through untracked desert, powering up steep sand dunes, gentling rolling through natural banked corners, watching as any remnants of human habitation, of power lines or chimney stacks or any other signs of life, melt in the rear-view mirror.
You have to keep the revs up when you're driving on sand. You have to adjust to the steering, to the car not responding the way you're used to. We get bogged at one stage, stuck in soft sand as we try to climb a dune, but Marco talks us through it, helps us find a way out.
We drive all day. We stop to chat to camel herders camped out in the wilderness. We discover the rusting carcass of an old truck half buried in the sand, a stark reminder of how things can go wrong out here. We choose a sheltered spot to make camp, dig a hole in the sand to build a fire and then set up the tents. We roast camel-meat patties over an open fire and tell tall tales as the wind dies down and the sky erupts with sparkling stars.
And then we go to bed, and I wake in the dead of night and unzip the tent and step outside, to stare at the stars, to contemplate the universe that makes you feel so insignificant and yet so alive. I listen for a sound, for any sound, for anything that moves out here, and I fail to hear a thing. Just silence. Just peace.
Etihad Airways has twice-daily direct flights from both Sydney and Melbourne to Abu Dhabi. For bookings, see etihad.com
DRIVE + STAY
Desert Diva Adventures offers guided, self-drive 4WD tours of the Abu Dhabi area. A two-day, one-night trip to the Liwa North desert costs AED650 ($235), including tent and mattress hire. See thedesertdiva.com or the website above. Car hire can be done through Hertz from Abu Dhabi airport – see hertz.com
Ben Groundwater was a guest of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN THE DESERT
Seriously. You can surf in the desert, and you can do it in Abu Dhabi, in the nearby city of Al Ain. It's here you'll find Wadi Adventure, a waterpark that has a wake-boarding facility, a kayaking course, and a state-of-the-art wave pool. wadiadventure.ae
WATCH CAMEL RACING
This is one of the most bizarrely entertaining sports on the planet: throughout the UAE, camel-racing meets are held at huge tracks, where camels, often piloted by robot jockeys, gallop around, and no one drinks or places bets. visitabudhabi.ae
Sand dunes look like regular mountains, so why not treat them as such? In the Usaka Desert in Peru, it's possible to strap on a snow/sandboard and cruise down the dunes at pace. The only downside is the hot, sweaty hike back to the top. peru.travel
RIDE AN ATV
Quad-bikes can tackle a sand dune with ease, and they're a great way to explore the desert. In Namibia, Kuiseb Delta Adventures does quad-biking tours with a twist, combining the adrenalin rush with a scientific tour. kuisebonline.com
VISIT A BEDOUIN CAMP
Though there's plenty of enjoyment to be had in a desert bush camp, in Morocco you can kick things up a notch with a stay at Erg Chigaga, a luxurious Bedouin-style camp deep in the Sahara, south of Marrakech. desertcampmorocco.com