Sand Sherpa Special Reserve is a genuine camping experience with a warm welcome on chilly desert nights
Just beyond Dubai’s winter fog and dust-covered skyscrapers, a herd of Arabian oryx feeds on desert grasses. Among the orange-tinged sea of sand dunes, their pristine white coats are easily identified by onlookers in a 4WD convoy.
Along with gazelles and countless other native species, the oryx is part of the success story of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) – a spectacular restored natural environment, which has welcomed many a curious visitor. But for the first time in its 20-year history, visitors can drive their own vehicles through the unique area, under the expert guidance of the Sand Sherpa team. Abandoning the destructive mentality of carving up sand dunes, the guides help drivers minimise environmental damage, while still enjoying the rugged adventure that is synonymous with this region.
Following a briefing in the shade of a palm tree oasis, Sand Sherpa leads the group along a private track. Voices issue noteworthy facts via handheld radios, as kids stare wide-eyed through open windows in a race to spot the first animal. It doesn’t take long. Thanks to government efforts to exclude camels and remove weeds, wildlife has thrived here. Vegetation is abundant and species, like the majestic oryx, have been brought back from the brink of local extinction.
The picturesque location of Sand Sherpa’s exclusive overnight campsite contrasts with the open exposure of the desert landscape. Sand is still between your toes but ancient ghaf trees surround and tower up to 20 metres above your head. Each group has its own private camping trailer with everything you need, from chairs to cooking pots and even the kitchen sink (well, a tub with washing liquid, because after all, this is camping). Custom-designed with a ‘go anywhere’ attitude, the converted military trailers can also be arranged together to cater for larger groups. They’re a tough piece of kit, but they’re stylish, with spacious rooftop tents, fridges and built-in showers for those who prefer privacy to the onsite facilities.
While kids climb steep dunes and explore, you can cook your favourite food on your personal grill or throw something on the bespoke asado grill that glows among the ambient lanterns. Like every good campsite, there are good campfires. Here, they don’t touch the sand, fitting with the ‘leave no trace’ policy. Each unit has an upcycled washing machine fire, or you can grab a couch and gather around the cosy firepit that forms the hub of the camp community.
After a comfy sleep under the stars, you have the option of lying in or rising with the sun, which is highly recommended. When you emerge on top of this expansive world in the serene, cool morning, you can really feel the dust settle and the city far behind you. Plus, you don’t want to miss the indisputable highlight: the hawk walk.
In the hands of one of Royal Shaheen’s knowledgeable falcon-trainers and Sally the hawk, this is where the desert comes alive. Tracks galore reveal the multitude of wildlife that visited overnight and the reasons why this place is worth conserving. Sally steals the show, putting on a captivating interactive aerial display, with a side serving of environmental education.
As the sun rises along with the temperature, the bitterness of having to leave is sweetened by the fact that you don’t need to repack and unpack the camping gear. Instead, you’ll be home in a flash and relaxing just a little more.