Susie Boswell takes a ride in a ‘ ship’ in the desert, in Dubai, head-spinning centre of the United Arab Emirates.
True sea sickness is not when you think you’re going to die, but when you want to die. And so in Dubai I am experiencing a major case of mal de mer, yet I’m a good hour inland from the Arabian Gulf.
We’re dune bashing in the desert, with mountainous sand hills the only sight in all directions, seated in front of a hefty Land Cruiser and plunging at speed from the peaks of huge red dunes vertically down steep, seeming 90-degree slopes. My Arab driver adds to the spinning in my head by screaming out Yee-hah! sounds as he throttles the 4WD into a fast descent, flicks it sharply to starboard and port down the face of the dunes, sashaying to a shuddering halt … and then gunning it up the next slope for yet another heart-in-mouth dive, and another, and another. But despite the nausea, I’m enjoying the ride: the adrenalin’s pumping, the momentum’s exhilarating; it’s a thrill that beats any roller-coaster ride.
The dune safari is typical of the assaults on the senses many westerners encounter in this Middle Eastern Disneyland, surprising at every turn. Dubai has branded itself a destination like no other, a man-made conundrum in fact. Most first-time visitors are keen to see the opulent Burj al-Arab hotel, among other futuristic structures here in the Emirates commercial hub. Its soaring sail-like shape grabs the imagination, mimicking Sydney Opera House after a fashion. And we’ve heard about the indoor ski resort, offering manufactured snow and freezing temperatures, contrasting with the 50degree heat outside. And the legendary shopping!
For me, Dubai was confusing. Glorious, lavish mosques are breathtaking to encounter, while the frantic pace of modern construction – cranes everywhere! – seems a case of building purely for the sake of building. I wasn’t interested in skiing: better Switzerland for that. I found the gold souk seedy and crammed with avaricious vendors. And frankly, the range of goods and prices in the shops seemed no better than at home, hardly the exotic experience I’d expected. Dubai Museum was interesting, but a fairly basic exposition. Getting around is best done by taxi in the searing temperatures so it’s impossible to meander on foot, making chance discoveries. And I found it wasn’t permitted to even visit Burj al-Arab without booking an expensive meal.
My mistake: Dubai is not a place for a budget holiday. My mid-range hotel room was damp and smelled mouldy from the constant, necessary air-conditioning. When I was still tossing and turning at 2am from a penetrating disco thump from the floors above, reception happily advised that the nightclub would close at 3am – not much longer to wait to go to sleep! The tour desk was disinterested, and often abandoned.
I did enjoy my first-time flights with Emirates. But unless you’ve bags of riches to spend, Dubai is perhaps best enjoyed as a short stopover en route to European destinations.