Visiting a desert was one of the highlights of our Dubai holiday. I have grown up surrounded by greens of trees, forests, parks and deep blues of lakes, rivers, so plains without an ending of yellow and red sand dunes with the bright sun in the sky seem mysterious and something like out of this world. Desert is stunning! Stunning but at the same time you know it is deadly. Does this combination make it more exciting? I also recently read a book where action took place in a desert, so it made me even more curious.
Not only me find deserts fascinating but there are many tourists visiting Dubai or Abu Dhabi making safari trips to the dessert. There are loads of desert tour providers. How do you choose one for your trip?!
Selecting Safari Tour
Firstly, you need to decide on how much you want to spend. The price range is wide from under 100AED to over 2,000AED. The average price for a half-day evening desert safari tour with barbecue is around 250-300AED. Being budget travellers, we decided not to pay more than 200AED per person. (Note:10AED is approximately £2)
Secondly, what do you want from the safari tour? Most companies offer the same programme but you can choose to book a morning, evening, or overnight desert safari. The overnight safari was more expensive as you would expect so we opted for the half-day safari. The so-called ‘half-day’ safari still lasts for 7-8hours! In order to get even a better price, we decided to use GROUPON. However, it did not make easier to choose as there were 60+ different companies offering desert trips from Dubai. Not wanting to end up with a terrible experience I read reviews about each company on the TripAdvisor. Yes, it took me some time! Slight note on reading reviews: some people have unrealistic expectations and thus have bad experiences (e.g. pay cheap but expect 5* service). I always put the comment in the context to get the full picture. After reading comments I ended up with much a smaller list of seven companies.
The third aspect that was important to us was the pick up/drop off place. We wanted to be picked up from our hotel. When you buy a GROUPON voucher, make sure you read all terms and conditions, so you are aware what is included and not. So the descriptions, which were not explicit about pick up/drop off place, were out.
All left companies described the same programme, which included: dune dashing, complimentary Arabic tea and coffee on arrival at the campsite, camel riding, henna painting, Arabic costumes for photos, international barbecue, evening entertainment, soft drinks and water. We booked our desert trip with Cooper Tourism for 235AED for two people. Well within our budget! The booking of the trip was very easy via email, which I did before leaving the UK. You can also book it by calling them or via Whatsup.
We were picked by 4x4 SUV and there were six of us plus a driver. It took around 45minutes to get from Dubai to the desert. On the way to the desert we stopped for 30minutes at the site where, for an additional cost, you could ride a quad bike, buy souvenirs or soft drinks. Personally, it was an unnecessary stop. After that, the desert! We had 10minutes of dune dashing, stop for a break in the desert and then 20 more minutes of dune dashing. It was a great fun! Scary at some points but fun. Also, dune dashing was the main part of the whole trip.
By the time we reached the campsite, the sun started setting down. There are 35 campsites at the Lahbab desert. Several different safari tour providers share same campsites. Our campsite was shared by five different companies, so all people that booked tours with these five companies would get exactly the same tour but probably not for the same price.
At the campsite as promised you get complementary Arabic coffee, tea or water. After refreshments we went for the camel ride, which was included in the itinerary. They say ‘camel riding’ but what they mean is 2 minutes circular camel walk! It was very short. Unfortunately, most of companies offering lower price tours (<300AED) are offering the same. If you don’t want to get disappointed, find out how long is the advertised camel ride. Of course there is an option to pay extra at the campsite for a longer ride but it isn't mentioned in the itinerary. Also, they took photos of you on camels and wanted you to buy them but we used our phone cameras.
The campsite was a good size with plenty of seats around the circular central stage. After the sunset you could see stars in the sky, as it was open-air campsite. After the very short camel ride I went to get henna. Henna painting was included in the itinerary but… Only tiny henna was for free for anything more substantial you needed to pay extra. I haven’t had henna done before so I have chosen this lovely design for 20AED. The lady painting henna was doing them for 17years! I have heard from friends that black henna is not good for you skin and traditional one is done with brown henna. I was very pleased that the lady used natural brown henna prepared from the Lawsonia inermis plant also known as henna tree or Egyptian privet. It took about 30-60minutes to dry out and after the trip I washed the top layer with water and was left with a lovely brown ornament on the skin. It should last around 10 days and I have already had people commenting on it; once in a gin bar!
If you have sensitive skin, be careful. One girl from our tour had an allergic reaction to henna, she experienced burning sensation after the application and needed to wash it straight away.
We did not try the traditional Arabic clothing because you are expected to pay for the photos. Instead we walked around the campsite and headed for the food.
While we were having food, which was okay but not really international, the evening performance started. There were three performers: a fire show, belly dancing and tanoura dance. The tanoura dance is actually an Egyptian-folk dance where man with weighted colourful skirts turn around to create a dynamic centrifugal effect. It was my favourite performance of all three. The only downside in these tours is that you don't really get the true arabic experience. It is a mixture of some arabic touches with what people want to see like colourful lights, loud music, alcohol.