Update: October 2020
Dubai has certainly cemented itself in the public imagination. Glittering skyscrapers, shopping malls the size of towns, shiny sports cars cruising down twelve-lane superhighways, vending machines that sell gold, and indoor skiing. (In the desert!)
Once you are tired of all the glitz and glamour, not to mention paying way too much for everything, why not head out of the city limits to see what else the country can offer? After spending eight months in this emirate, I can speak personally and honestly when I say that a trip to the UAE would not be complete without seeing the ‘other side.’ It’s cheaper, more authentic, and stunningly beautiful.
To use a cliché, the east-coast emirate of Fujairah is a hidden gem, overlooked by the millions of tourists that flock to Dubai in search of glitz, glamour, and shopping. Or of course by those who using Dubai as a stopover, and don’t think to venture further than the airport hotel during their extended layover.
Even the drive out there is fantastic especially if done in the early morning with the sunrise, or in the evening with the sunset; with the golden Arabian sun casting long shadows over the vastness of the desert.
So, let’s look at what you can expect…
The UAE forms part of the Arabian peninsula, famous for its vast desert known as the Rub-al-Khali, The Empty Quarter. While technically the ‘true’ Empty Quarter is much further inland, that doesn’t negate the fact that once outside of the city, the vastness of the Arabian desert stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. Some folks arguably consider deserts to be featureless and boring, I personally find them gorgeous and fascinating, the last frontiers on an overly-populated planet. Inhospitable to all but the most hardy, there is a soporific beauty in the these immense areas of harsh landscape.
Do as the locals do. Take a Toyota Landcruiser or Nissan Patrol (in white of course), tint the windows to a shade so dark you can barely see out them, fit it with a set of sand tyres, and go ‘Dune Bashing!‘ A hugely popular pastime, especially at weekends, it is a fine way to get out and see the desert – the road of 4×4 vehicles barrelling over the dunes of this vast sandy land.
For those seeking a more serene way to experience nature’s savage pull, why not try desert camping? Traditional nomadic-style canvas tents with rug floors make a very authentic escape from the hubbub of the Dubai. Take sweet mint tea while watching the sun go down, tell stories around the fire, and listen to the indignant snorts of the camels outside while you sleep. The lack of light pollution coupled with clear skies means a starry sky like you have never seen before!
Be aware: Desert camping is best done as a winter activity, as summer temperatures often hover around 30 – 35 degrees celcius, (86f – 95f) even at night! Winter nights can be exceptionally cold however so bring warm layers; the dry air, and clear skies of the desert mean nighttime temperatures can plummet, although the coastal regions tend to stay warmer at night thanks to higher humidity and the warming effect of the ocean.
Stretching 700 kilometres (430 miles) from the Straits of Hormuz in the north, to the eastern-most point of mainland Oman in the south, the Hajar Mountains are absolutely incredible! (In the northern Omani exclave of the Musandam peninsula, the mountains drop vertically straight into the ocean – makes for incredible SCUBA diving!)
The UAE section of this mountain range offers a wealth of outdoor activities for anyone adventurous enough to get out there to find and follow ancient and rustic goat trails, unmarked and unguided. These trails follow ridgelines, valleys, wadis, and gorges through the rugged terrain. Hiking these trails will reward travellers with unobstructed views across the deserts, oceans, and mountains of the eastern UAE.
Three: Wadis, Waterfalls and Oases
Spend enough time up in the mountains, or ask a knowledgeable local, and no doubt you will soon find yourself washing off the desert dust and grime in a refreshingly cool and lush swimming hole. These Oases are most often located along the tracks of the numerous wadis that crisscross the parched landscape of the eastern Arabian peninsula.
A ‘wadi’ is a dried-up riverbed, and as you can see from the above photo, the raging torrent of water that occurs during the incredibly rare rainfalls carve deep canyons into the loose sandy ground. For the other 99% of the time, these deep chasms make wonderful playgrounds for the wannabe Lawrence of Arabia types among us! The locals, as always, see it as an opportunity to rev their throaty and powerful V8 engines as they thread their way among these towering ravines.
At the various swimming holes and oases dotted about, locals and visitors alike can take joy in jumping from the surrounding rocky ledges into the invigoratingly crisp water, and wash their hair under the numerous waterfalls that run down the sandstone sides. The plants here are also lush and plentiful, having a reliable source of water to thrive off of. Don’t be surprised to see all sorts of wildlife too, attracted to this sources of life in an otherwise desolate landscape. Goats and Camels can be expected for sure, but perhaps you will be lucky enough to see a wild cat or an Arabian Oryx?
Four: Ocean, Beaches, and Watersports
Sure. Dubai has beaches, but for me nothing can compete with the serenity and solitude of the eastern beaches of the UAE. Not to mention that the snorkelling/diving is immeasurable better, with crystal clear, silt-free waters and abundant marine life that hasn’t been scared away by the manufacturing of huge palm-shaped islands.
My favourite thing when I needed some outside time was to take a tent and camp on one of the long stretches of quiet beach that lines this coastline. It can get a little warm at night, and perhaps a little sweaty, but nothing that a quick dip in the ocean mere footsteps away can’t fix!
Paddleboards, kayaks, and jet-skis can also also be rented from the various hotels than line the strip of beach just outside of Dibba-al-Fujairah. The small town of Dibba was my home, and a great base to explore the wider area. Why not take a kayak and some snorkelling gear, and head out to Dibba Rock? Widely believed to offer the best diving and snorkelling in whole country!
Five: Al Bidya Mosque
My final point is for anyone into their history – you cannot forget to stop by Al Bidya mosque, still in use today despite being built in 1446 out of mud and sand. It lacks the traditional minaret of modern mosques, but its towers can be accessed and climbed for views of the surrounding date plantations. Long believed to be the oldest surviving mosque in the UAE, it has now been surpassed by one that is over a 1000 years old in the Emirate of Al-Ain.
How to get to Dibba-al-Fujairah
The dusty, but somewhat charming town of Dibba-al-Fujairah is a great place to base yourself for some eastern adventures. The drive from Dubai airport takes a couple of hours, cars can be rented directly from all major rental companies from the airport. A 4×4 would certainly be useful for some of the off-road sections! If you want to get out for some more adventurous Dune or Wadi bashing, it maybe be better to organise a tour for safety reasons!
Just past the town of Dibba to the east, you will find the main strip of beachfront hotels. Some are independent, while you will also find a Radisson Blu and a Fairmont, while further south still you can find Le Méridien. Dibba rock for snorkelling and diving can be found directly offshore from The Royal Beach hotel.
I loved my time living here experiencing the desert life. I hope this article inspires you to get out of the big city and see the real country. Whether you are a Dubai resident, a visitor, or simply on an extended layover – there is something for everyone.
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Like this? Why not read about our road trip up to the fabled city of Khasab?