Surprises of the Desert – Al Ain and Liwa Desert Camping

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What are you looking at?

Al Ain is a small town in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, located on the border of Oman. Tourism is growing here, perhaps due to Dubai’s popularity, but there are still many tourists who have never heard of it. There are many expats in the Gulf Region who have never heard of it! I first read about Al Ain over ten years ago in an in-flight magazine while on my way to Kuwait. I’ve been curious to visit it ever since. This weekend, I finally created that opportunity. My friend rented an SUV, so we also planned to camp in the Liwa Desert.

I didn’t know what to expect from Al Ain, but my expectations were pretty high. I had heard it was beautifully green with many gardens, and that it had retained its traditional architecture, but truthfully I hadn’t seen a lot of pictures other than the resort-style hotels, which I had no interest in. After spending a day there, I can tell you, my expectations were, well, not met. My friend and I started referring to Al Ain as “overrated” and “a product of good marketing.”

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Al Ain Oasis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

I also didn’t know what to expect from the Liwa Desert, except a lot of sand.  I wasn’t really clear on how the whole desert camping thing worked. Could we just drive across the dunes and pick a spot? The answer to that is yes. Is it worth it, you’re wondering? The answer is still YES! In some ways, camping in the Liwa Desert exceeded my expectations.

I arrived in Abu Dhabi late at night and my friend picked me up at the airport. Late night plus a cold I had acquired left me just wanting to go to bed so I would be ready for our adventures, or lack of, in Al Ain the next day.

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A fort near Al Ain, but you can’t go inside, even though it is “well-marketed” and you’ll be led to believe you can

Visiting Al Ain

From Abu Dhabi, Ail Ain is about a two hour drive. I was hoping to see traditional architecture, meaning mud brick homes and winding lanes of the old souk (bazaar). What awaited us was what looked like many other Gulf cities I’ve visited. Strip malls, small eateries, and a disheveled appearance that left me thinking Al Ain could use a good once-over with a giant broom. After a bit of searching, we found the gated entrance to the Al Ain Oasis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was comprised of small plots of land farmed for dates mostly, and divided by mud brick walls, with wide lanes for pedestrians, golf cart type shuttles, and a car or two apparently. We walked around, took a few pictures, and realized this was the first of many “well-marketed” attractions in Abu Dhabi.

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Al Ain Oasis has plenty of date trees and ancient irrigation that still works
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Al Ain’s souk wasn’t what I expected. Maybe I wasn’t at the “old souk” after all, but I think this was pretty much it

The old souk was near the Al Ain Oasis, and I had high hopes for some good pictures in the souk. Feeling disappointed by the Oasis, we perked up at the thought of an old bazaar with winding lanes and beautiful displays of fruits and household items. Ha! The souk is basically a concrete floor with a high, metal roof, and rows of fruits and veggies that did actually look good. The smell of dried fish permeated everything. There was nothing unique or old or traditional about this. The souk in Kuwait is much more authentic. So, feeling mislead once again by advertising, we left the souk and had a lunch of biriani and salad and way more food than we could ever hope to consume since it was over 40C outside.

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Al Ain Souk for the home

At lunch we gave up on the city of Al Ain and headed outside the city to see Jebel Hafeet, the tallest mountain in the UAE, and the Hafit Tombs that lie at the base of it. Finally! We were not disappointed or mislead! These tombs are between 3000 and 5000 years old, and several have been reconstructed. They are beehive like structures, each with a small opening where 5-6 bodies were buried with their valuables. Archaeologists have removed the trinkets and pottery, which are now in a museum, and reconstructed several of the tombs at the base of the mountain. These tombs have been found all over the region, but these are the only ones that have been reconstructed.

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Hafit Tombs – Finally, we weren’t disappointed!
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Hafit Tombs at the base of Jebel Hafeet Mountain

To get to the Hafit Tombs, you just turn off the road on to a dirt path and basically drive past a camel farm. There’s no sign on the road, but there is a small one at the tombs themselves. They are unguarded, but luckily there wasn’t much garbage there, although we saw evidence of a camp fire right next to two of the tombs. My friend speaks Arabic, so he chatted a bit with the young camel farmer who came out to ask us if we were visiting the tombs. We were taking pictures of his camels who were not fenced. I didn’t notice at the time that they had a rope tying their front legs so they would not wander off.

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Camels are so cool. These were near the Hafit Tombs.
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View from Jebel Hafit Mountain before the dust storm moved in

We were happy that the tombs were worth seeing, and left to drive up to the top of Jebel Hafeet for the sunset. There were a lot of cars on their way up the mountain. The views on the way up? Well, a bit disappointing. Once we reached the top, a dust storm moved in making watching the sunset impossible, so we decided it was time to head back to Abu Dhabi for a shower and a few drinks. We walked over to the Jumeirah Hotel, which is quite luxurious, and headed to Ray’s Bar on the top floor. I can tell you, the views from here and the spiced apple martinis are NOT a disappointment.

 Liwa Desert Camping

I was surprised by Liwa and even more surprised at how much I loved it. I’ve done a lot of camping in my lifetime, but none like this. With the right vehicle, which we had, you can explore the dunes and find a perfect place to spend the night under the stars.

To get to Liwa from Abu Dhabi, there are a couple of roads you can take, but I recommend taking the fastest route and then when you actually reach the town of Liwa, you can head to the section of dunes you want to explore. We took E45 to Liwa. It was 40C on this day, so we didn’t want to spend midday in the dunes. We had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, did our shopping at Carrefour in the Marina Mall, and then around noon we headed towards Liwa.

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First glimpse of the sand dunes of the Liwa Desert

The drive to Liwa takes about two hours. Just so you know, the Adnoc gas stations have a Starbucks machine that makes a variety of lattes, cappuccinos, etc. I had never seen anything like this. Now that I know, I would definitely stop here and get coffee that I could reheat the next morning. I think all of the Adnoc stations have this machine. We didn’t know this, so we suffered through instant coffee the next morning until we got back to Liwa and discovered these miraculous machines.

When we arrived in Liwa, it was still too hot to camp, so we drove the well-signposted and paved road to the Moreeb Dunes, which are the tallest dunes in the Liwa Desert. They are noticeably taller, and could be remarkable if not for the pollution. In the valley between the Moreeb Dunes, there is a camel racetrack and lots of lights, and lots of garbage. It’s clear people camp here, and drink here, and that cleanup after the races is possibly not as effective as it could be. This is a real shame that the beauty of these dunes is marred by garbage.

Full Disclosure – New camera + Lots of dunes = lots of pictures

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Camels in the Liwa Desert
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Just a small section of the Moreeb Dune
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Moreeb Dune – unedited

We drove back the way we came and started searching for a camping spot. On the road that leads to the Moreeb Dunes, we turned off when there was an opening in the barrier We let some air out of the tires, and headed across the dunes. This was a first for me, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable. I was worried about getting stuck. But my friend was a skilled driver and has done this many times. When we reached a certain point where the dunes dipped a lot (you don’t want to go into a depression in the dunes), he sensed I was a little uncomfortable, so we stopped to camp for the night. I thought it was a beautiful spot, and with no trace of previous campers.

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More dunes on the way to our campsite
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Perspective
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Dunes at our campsite in the Liwa Desert

We set up camp and plopped down in our camp chairs to watch the sunset and eat our sandwiches in front of the campfire. Once the sun went down, temperatures dropped to about 30C. It was a warm night, definitely, but not unbearable. By 10:00PM it was very comfortable. I think we were the only ones camping this weekend because of the heat, but that worked to our advantage. We didn’t have to share this gorgeous desert with anyone.

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Sunset in the Liwa Desert
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Liwa Desert sunset and desert camping. Now I get it.

The next morning, as I said, started off with some pretty bad instant coffee. I wondered if this meant we were doomed to have another disappointing day in the UAE. It did indeed get worse from there. We hadn’t moved 30 meters from our camping spot before getting stuck. My friend went down a steep incline that was just tall enough to land our front end in the sand. He said, “That is the worst thing that could happen to us.” In my mind I said, “Well shit.” Our two front tires were not touching the ground and our back end was resting on the incline.

What to do? My friend said, “We must move the dune.” We started digging. Moving sand with my two hands felt like trying to move the water in the ocean. My friend had to crawl under the truck. Sand covered him from head to toe. Luckily, we were in the shade for the most part as temperatures were already rising. After digging, letting more air out of the tires, and me pushing from behind, we were free after about 30 minutes.

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I tried not to let my relief show too much. I didn’t want him to know how freaked out I was when we got stuck. My friend had clearly done this before, so I had faith he would get us out of the desert without getting stuck again.

After that, it was smooth sailing. We drove a bit further across the dunes and the salt flats to take some more pictures. We encountered more camels, and then we headed back the way we came to get to the road. I saw a huge lizard running at lightening speed across the dunes. Okay, well, maybe not huge, but about two feet long. That thing was moving! I couldn’t get a picture, but it was so awesome to see.

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I love the graceful curve of her lower lip

Once we were back on the road, we got on E65 to drive back a different way than we had come. This is when we discovered the Adnoc station with the Starbucks machine! Yes! Things were looking up! We wanted to see some fossil dunes/rocks about two hours away, but very close to Abu Dhabi. We drove for about two hours, and then missed the turnoff to E30 Truckroad, thanks to me. After a cheeseburger at Hardee’s, we backtracked and finally found the fossil dunes.

On the way there, my friend said, “I think these fossils are going to disappoint.” Well, he cursed us. He was right. The photos of these in the book he had were amazing. But when we arrived, there was garbage everywhere and, and, wait for it —- at least 30 skeletons of, wait, wait — camels! And one of them hadn’t even been there that long. I could see where the hump had fallen! The desert has a way of both decaying and preserving a dead animal. It had certainly worked its magic on these poor camels.

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Fossil rocks near Abu Dhabi
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Fossil rocks near Abu Dhabi were a big disappointment, but more photogenic than I thought they would be

After taking a few photos while avoiding the bones, it was time to head to the airport. This weekend was full of ups and downs, but I’m glad I experienced it with my friend. I’m also glad he has big hands for digging and a strong stomach to handle camel carcasses.

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One last look at the dunes

 

 

 

Mary Lyons
I have had incredible travel opportunities since moving overseas eleven years ago. I created this blog to share my experiences, what I've learned, and my mistakes and frustrations, in hopes of entertaining readers and helping people to create and plan their own travel opportunities.

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