27th May 2001

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Desert drama

By Faraza Farook

Lying in the blue waters of the Southern Gulf, the emirate of Abu Dhabi is an ideal leisure destination. Some 40 years ago, Abu Dhabi, which means 'Father of the Deer', was a small fishing village. Today, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), it is one of the richest cities in the world with revenue flowing in from its oil industry.

A distinctive blend of modern city and boundless desert, the island of Abu Dhabi, at first glance, is an artificial city of concrete buildings with its innovative architecture reflected in the skyscrapers. Lush green parks, colourful flowers, and tree-lined boulevards adorn the desert landscape despite the Imagepoor rainfall.

Just like its multi-cultural society comprising 62 different nationalities, Abu Dhabi offers visitors a wide choice in everything from shopping in the modern malls to haggling in the famous souq (market), travelling in a limousine to riding a camel, from dining in five-star luxury to enjoying Bedouin hospitality.

On a Gulf Air sponsored familiarisation tour, with seven other journalists, we enjoyed it all.

Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven emirates in U.A.E. and has a coastline of more than 400 kilometres. The bright blue sea with its pool-like appearance with no waves and crystal clear water is hard to resist. The garden city of the Middle East, Abu Dhabi, has year round sunshine. The climate is coolest between November and April but temperatures can reach up to 40 degrees Celsius at other times. Taxis are the main mode of transport and are found aplenty. If taking a taxi, it's best to confirm the fare with the driver before the journey.

Though Dubai is known as a shopping paradise, goods are cheaper in Abu Dhabi, especially in the souq where there are bargains galore. It is considered one of the world's best gold trading centres. Places where bargaining is encouraged include Kalifa Street, which is the main shopping street, Al Nasr Street, for jewellery and antiques, and Hamden Street, for jeans and T-shirts.

Shopping is best done at night, or after 4.30 in the evening, as shops close from 12 noon and not all shops are open in the morning.

Meals are often taken outdoors and the cuisine is varied and inexpensive. Try a typical Arabian feast or for that matter a Lebanese, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan or Chinese meal.

Abu Dhabi also offers its visitors a variety of sports and leisure activities including water sports, golf, squash, tennis, horse and camel riding, cycling, archery and more. For those wanting adventure, a choice of reasonably priced tours on offer can be mixed, matched and tailored to suit one's requirements covering the city, shopping, desert, mountains, neighbouring emirates and coast.

No visit is complete without a trip to the desert! A half-day desert safari costs 245 dirhams, (about Rs. 6000,) inclusive of food, drinks and entertainment. The five-hour safari will enable you to experience the timeless beauty of the desert from daylight through dusk and is ideal for those with an enthusiasm for raw nature and adventure.

We set out on our 65 km road journey around 2 p.m. Then the 4-wheel drive jeeps stop to inflate the tyres for a stunt-filled ride in the desert. Now don't forget to wear your seat belts or else you will have to suffer the consequences. The 'up and down' ride on the dunes is the most adventurous part of the safari. For the experienced drivers making nosedives, going down the dunes is no sweat.

Then it's a stop at a camel farm to watch, touch and feed the herd. After posing for photographs with the camels, you proceed to the campsite for the rest of the evening.

Here, you are welcomed with traditional Bedouin hospitality - a tiny cup of cardamom-flavoured Arabic coffee poured from the traditional metal pot into little cups. To indicate that one has had enough, guests must wiggle the cup from side to side. None of us knew this and every time the cups were placed on the table or just held in our hands, they were refilled.

In the middle of the campsite is a large platform, about two feet high with carpets spread across and pillows lining the rim. About four Bedouin tents had been set up, fully carpeted with plenty of pillows and sheets for those enjoying a night in the desert. Two clean toilets, with good water facilities are also available.

Canned soft drinks and bottled water are also on offer. Until dinner is served you can enjoy a camel ride, sand skiing and dune riding. Comfortably seated on the camel with a colleague, we waited with bated breath. And rise it did; first straightening its forelegs, (which almost had me sliding off) and then the hind legs (which put me back in place). Then it was smooth sailing on the 'Ship of the Desert'.

Sand boarding was free of charge. You had to climb the 50 m high dunes and slide down. The climb was tiring, as it became steeper and steeper, but the view of the vast desert stretching all around was truly spectacular. After a few minutes, I made my sliding trip down, climbing up again to view the sunset and coming down, coated with sand just in time for dinner.

The traditional Arab barbecue is followed by belly dancing if the guests so request. The desert safari ends on a romantic note. Lights are switched off at 7.30 p.m. to view the clear skies and stars over Abu Dhabi.

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