“I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand. I felt in harmony with the past, travelling as men had travelled for untold generations across the deserts, dependent for their survival on the endurance of their camels and their own inherited skills”.
OK, I’ll come clean, these are not my words, but those of one of Arabia’s most intrepid desert explorer, Wilfred Thesiger. However, standing at the pinnacle of a 60-metre high dune with the rising sun casting a red hue across the sea of sculpted sand, I could at least empathize with his sentiments.
Admittedly my empathy is somewhat tenuous seeing as a waiting air-conditioned four-by-four was stationed just a few hundred metres away. The thought of wandering aimlessly across the waves of dunes, getting lost beneath the beating sun and craving for a drink from a visionary oasis as Thesiger did on his explorations of the Empty Quarter back in the 1940s made me feel as inadequate as this legendary Etonian was great. Just seven km away was the Saudi border and this ocean of sand – the largest stretch of uninterrupted desert in the world - flows through Oman, Saudi Arabia, the Yemen and the UAE. Between 1945 and 1949, Thesiger crossed this Empty Quarter mapping the oasis of Liwa and the quicksands of Umm As-Sammim. He crossed the desert twice with Bedu companions, and his trek across the western sands from the Hadhramaut to Abu Dhabi was the last and greatest expedition of Arabian travel.
My small expedition would last just one hour and instead of a Bedu tribe, my guide was Jana, a young naturalist from Slovakia. As we traversed the dunes Jana pointed out the imprints of a scuttling gerba, the trail of a slithering sand snake, the droppings of a lumbering camel. And in the serene silence as I watched a soaring eagle circle above us in the crisp morning air, it was obvious that this desolate place is as breathtakingly beautiful as it is horribly hostile and Thesiger’s love affair with the desert was as understandable as it was bizarre.
Unlike the great explorer, my experience had nothing to do with endurance, more like indulgence.
The Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara was my shelter for the night. It’s the first hotel to be built on the edge of the Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter. Surrounded by towering golden dunes, the desolate location of this Arabian fort-like palace is what makes this property so bewildering.
Having driven for some 150 kilometres along a deserted desert highway with nothing but sand dunes either side, two tall statuesque urns flank the entrance onto a rough track on the left. The road meanders and undulates between the dunes for a further 12 kilometres and skirting the edge tall flagpoles proudly display billowing UAE flags and the face of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates. It’s a clear signal that this property has the royal stamp of approval. Indeed, it was the forefathers of today’s ruling family of the UAE that once wandered this desert and called it home.
For this reason, some three years ago the governmental authourities set about building a replica of an Arabian fort as a means of demonstrating to the world ancient Emirati culture within its true homeland.
Based on the architecture of the nearby Al Ain fort one would think this resort had been there for centuries. Hundreds of genuine artifacts are one display behind locked glass cabinets, including heavily-embossed daggers, obscenely chunky metal bracelets and necklaces, clay pots, Arabic journals. A five metre-long rug that hangs on the library wall, it is claimed, is one of just three in the world. Made of camel hair and bamboo this ancient Bedouin carpet was discovered in South Africa. Some 21 leather saddle bags are perched on top of a book case – Al Ain museum has just three similar bags. The library shelves are full of books about the region, including of course those written by Thesiger recalling his legendary travels in impeccable prose and peerless black-and-white photography.
As if to physically incorporate the desert into the very soul of the property, the design of the desert rose is seen in the frescos, the tiles, the woodcarvings and lavish drapes. Huge windows not only allow light to stream into the hotel but also allow guests to see out on to the golden desert dunes – even from the comfort of the massage tables in the Anantara spa.
The property has 154 rooms, 42 villas and 10 royal villas – none of which can avoid desert views. Hand-crafted furniture, rich fabrics and Arabic lanterns decorate the rooms and Elemis is the product of choice in the bathrooms – although the bath is so humongously enormous my environmental conscience just wouldn’t allow me to try it.
There are two main restaurants. The buffet option serves international and Middle Eastern dishes from live cooking stations. I tried Ouzi – a traditional Bedouin dish of rice and lamb. In the evening I dined at Suhail and the food was divine – most notably the ‘chef’s welcome’ courses and the selection of squid ink bread rolls.
On leaving the main Emirates Road to Abu Dhabi, it’s a case of putting your foot to the floor for 150km along a straight empty road through the desert. Initially the dunes look grey and dismal, but the further you motor the bigger and more gold they become. On reaching the village of Hameem with its petrol station – not doubt a huge factor when deciding on the location of the property – there’s an entrance on the left adorned with massive urns. This rough track takes you within the dunes for a further 12 kilometres. The huge cement factory that scars the scenery is rather disappointing but I’ve been assured it was built for the construction of the hotel and will be removed.
A 50 kilometre fence is rather unromantically being constructed to enclose not only the hotel but primarily to protect free-roaming and rare Arabian Oryx which are being introduced from sister property on Bani Yas Island. At the time of visiting a Discovery Centre was being built from where the proverbial desert activities will take place such as falconry, camel treks and nature walks (adrenaline-fuelled dune bashing is the preserve of its brasher neighbour Dubai).
Qsar Al Sarab, 1 Qsar Al Sarab Road, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (+971 2 886 2088, www.anantara.com)
About this blog...
I set up this blog to reveal what real life is like here in the UAE - the good and the bad. I'll chat about what I've been up to, Dubai news and developments, my thoughts about expat life here (and in general) and reports about my holidays and adventures in the region (travel is my bag after all).