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Treasures of the Rub’ al Khali

Al Dhafra Festival Saluki Race

If it happens that a visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not possible (it is indeed not easy to go there) and you are curious to explore Rub’ al Khali — the largest contiguous sand desert in the world — then fear no more. Instead, just venture to Al Gharbia, a.k.a. the Western Region of the UAE. This area is part of the Rub’ al Khali desert region (a.k.a the Empty Quarter) but with the benefit of being located within the UAE.

The transport infrastructure of the UAE is superb. Roads a are wide and well-paved, and the network covers most areas of the country, including access to the Empty Quarter region in Al Gharbia. From the comfort of modern highways visitors can marvel at the sight of dunes and the ubiquitous camels. And of course there are also (friendly) locals who call the Empty Quarter their home. Knowledge of Arabic is definitely a plus in this isolated region of the UAE.

While in the area it is worth checking out the green city of Al Ain, with its lush oases, historical forts and archaeological sites. Abu Dhabi’s “second city” is also famous as a source of bottled water and is home to Jebel Hafeet (1,249 m). The peak — accessible by car — offers a spectacular views of of the urban development (built on reclaimed desert lands) and the Hajar mountain range.

On the way from the city of Abu Dhabi to the Liwa Desert, where sand dunes reach 300 meters, you can navigate through the green town of Madinat Zayed, home to an annual camel beauty contest. Yes, a camel beauty contest — and the spectacle in itself is worth a trip. Tens of thousands of camels from the Arabian Peninsula gather at this event to compete for lucrative prizes that can see millions of dollars bestowed to some camels. If festivals are not your thing, you can always play treasure hunter and search for the lost city of Ubar (other names include Wabar and Iram), which is often referred to as the “Atlantis of the Sands”. Legend has it that Ubar is buried somewhere in Greater Arabia and disappeared some 2,000 years ago. (And given the vast expanse of desert and sand — good luck finding it (if it really does exist)!)

And finally, for those more attracted to fame and fortune, the Empty Quarter also served as the backdrop for scenes from Star Wars, Episode VII. The emirate of Abu Dhabi will no doubt gain some popularity from fans of the sci-fi title interested in tracing the steps of their favourite characters/actors.

  • Black dromedary and his master -- Al Dhafra Festival
  • Saluki Race -- Al Dhafra Festival
  • Young dromedary -- Al Dhafra Festival
  • Camel Race - Al Marmoum Race Track
  • 300 meters tall sand dunes of the Rub' al Khali -- Empty Quarter Desert

Annual events:

Camel leg crossing -- a rare occurrence spotted at the Al Dhafra Festival.

Camel leg crossing — a rare occurrence spotted at the Al Dhafra Festival.

How to explore and what to pack for the desert adventure:

© Natural Born Vagabond, January 2016

 

 

 

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