Above the tarmac, the wisps of sand dance in the wind. They move with the hypnotic rhythms of a belly dancer.
We’re not far out of Dubai. The city proper hugs the coastal strip, but it keeps coughing up seemingly unattached and unloved developments between the barren chunks of scrubby white sand.
Until you start heading inland, it’s easy to forget that the 21st century supercity of Dubai is built on top of a desert. Yet soon enough, the development disappears and the dunes begin. Left and right, the gentle golden hills roll off into the horizon, while the sand intrudes on the hard shoulder. There must be a daily sweeping mission to stop the road getting buried.
The world suddenly seems a rather empty place until a camel lumbers on by. Fences are put up to stop them ambling across the road, causing accidents.
The sandhills start getting larger and redder in colour. Thin rusty waves top the dunes, sliding down in isobar-like packs to create serpentine patterns. The desert has an entrancing majesty that acts as a siren call. The vast emptiness is overpowering.
We make a turn and arrive at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. A flotilla of 4×4 vehicles soon arrives, and streams of desert virgins wander on over for the brief falcon show. When it enters its swoop, the peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on earth. One soars and divebombs around us before its trainer puts a glove over the meaty bait. The falcon suddenly forgets dinner was ever there.
The most exciting swoops are to be had on the dunes, however. The Landcruisers form a vehicular conga and set off across the desert to the camp where we’ll have dinner. They lurch up and down the dunes, heavily revving to make the biggest climbs, then tottering along tiny ridges before sliding down the sides and kicking up mountains of sand into the air.
There doesn’t appear to be much of a circuit – it’s all just interchangeable dunes – but apparently we’re looping 15km through the desert. It’s tremendous fun, although there are plenty of casualties. As we pull in for a photo stop, the injury list is apparent. Six 4WDs are still sat on top of their respective dunes, with passengers stood by the side. The drivers have misjudged and tow rope-wielding help has arrived to pull them into a position where they can get moving again.
By now, the sun is a bright red circle, slowly descending. On its way into the black of night, it bathes the desert in other-worldly light. The softly windblown waves of red sand move like the scales on the back of an incomprehensibly huge beast; every grain of sand takes on its own colour and personality. Everyone around seems to disappear. I’ve got a weird tunnel vision. It’s just me, the drifting sand and, finally, darkness.