There’s something wrong here, I think, as I peer over the edge of the sand dune for the first time. On either side of me, two friends look confident. One is holding a can of wax spray, already applied to the underside of the board strapped to my feet. The other, more vocal, warns me to push off hard.
My first worry is the heat: It’s around 28 deg C at about 6pm. The sky above is brilliant blue, almost bleached skeleton-white with sun. It’s too hot to be out, let alone sweating in an exposed, arid environment.
Next, I sense the emptiness: The Arabian Desert is far more magnificent and vast than it is played up to be, stretching beyond the horizon from Jordan to the Gulf of Oman, belittling anything my imagination expected.
And then there is the fear: I’m wired, alarmingly so, finely balanced as though on a see-saw tipping on the verge of a 100m-high sand dune. Why, in other words, did I think sandboarding would be so straightforward?
My wind-whipped legs on the 30-minute walk up the dune should have reminded me that years ago, I tried the sport and failed. Back then, I cartwheeled like a blind goose on roller skates, tail-whipped into the air, a crick in my neck for the entire following week. My sandboarding ambitions snuffed out.
But I have come to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to embrace the Arabian Desert, and in Dubai – a place where artifice is part of the fun of the escape – the natural setting of the scarlet-red desert dunes at sunset feels far more like a fantasy. Plus, my friends have talked me into it.
I flip out on the first turn, coaxed into a fast take-off. That momentary act of glory is erased from memory by a crushing wipeout seconds later, followed by a sandy head-plant worthy of an ostrich.
After shaking the sand out of my ears and eyes, and regaining my balance, I point towards the bottom for the second time, sidestepping and twisting my way down the desert piste, a burnishing, fading sun at my back.
It isn’t pretty, but it feels like an almighty triumph. The real shame, with my friends in the shadows atop the dune behind me, is there is no one there to see it.
Off the beaten track
The Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, and Brad Pitt’s War Machine were both shot in Abu Dhabi, making location spotting in the desert a must-do in the UAE.
For first-timers, dune bashing in a four-wheel drive is the ultimate desert thrill. Drive up a 100m-high wall of sand at speed and bounce to safety down the other side – harder than it sounds.
Art of falconry
Emiratis adore birds of prey. Try your hand at falconry in a desert-based course during the cooler winter months or sign up for a private lesson at Banyan Tree Al Wadi.
– TEXT BY MIKE MACEACHERAN
PHOTO GARCIA JULIEN (CORBIS)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.