If you’ve read my Dubai Destination Guide or my advice for exploring Dubai On A Shoestring Budget then you’ll have noticed two things. Firstly, I’m not a massive fan of Dubai. For me, it’s lost 95% of its old-world Arabian charm and replaced it with nothing but high-rise metal, concrete, and a glaringly obvious penchant for ‘one-upmanship’. Secondly, experiencing Dubai is particularly challenging if you’re on a budget. Paying ridiculous prices (and, I mean TRULY ridiculous) for bang-average experiences that you could have in any other large city feels like a complete waste to me.
There was, however, one exception to this general disappointment. An experience that, while still pricey, I would gladly recommend to anyone visiting the United Arab Emirates again and again. The Dubai Desert Safari.
Typically taking place in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, a 225-sqaure-kilometer nature reserve about an hour’s drive outside of the city (close to the border with Oman), a Dubai Desert Safari provides a fantastic opportunity to escape the concrete jungle, spot some Emirati wildlife, and learn a little more about local culture – certainly more than you’ll learn in the elevator ride up the Burj Khalifa!
5 Top Tips for your Dubai Desert Safari
There are a variety of Dubai Desert Safari Options
At first glance there’s a bewildering amount of Dubai Desert Safari options. It’s true, choosing between them can prove dauting. However, your choice will likely boil down to what activities you want your safari to include. Here are some of the main activities available and some suggestions for which tour operator you could opt for:
Dune Bashing: Probably the activity most people opt for, dune bashing is essentially driving up and down dunes in a 4×4 at high speed – often resulting in the fear that the vehicle is going to roll (it never does!). Not all tour operators offer dune bashing on their itineraries and some claim, somewhat justifiably, that it doesn’t exactly fit the type of activity that should be taking place in a conservation zone. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun, extremely popular and hence a bunch of tour companies offer it. We used Travco for our tour, but you should also check out Arabian Adventures or Alpha.
Falconry: Practiced in Emirati Bedouin culture for over 4,000 years, falconry is seen as an important form of hunting and is today viewed as a traditional sporting activity. Although a number of tour operators offer falconry options as a part of broader packages (including Platinum Heritage and Arabian Adevntures) if you’re looking for something more specifically focused on falconry then look no further than Royal Shaheen.
Wildlife Spotting: In theory, once you enter the Conservation Reserve all Dubai Desert Safaris offer the opportunity to spot wildlife. However, the reality is that many of the tours whizz past the areas where you’d find most of the animals to get to the next activity. So, if you’re intent on wildlife spotting, conservation education, or photography then my advice is to stick with Platinum Heritage. If you’re an Instagram junkie then you’ll be pleased to know that they offer wildlife tours in vintage, and brightly painted, 1950’s Land Rovers.
Dinner and Evening Entertainment: Most Dubai Desert Safaris that start in the afternoon finish with dinner in a Bedouin camp or more luxurious private tented camp setting. Dinner is typically accompanied by live entertainment that ranges from whirling dervishes (as seen below) and belly dancers (which aren’t actually representative of Emirati culture) to more traditional cultural dancing and coffee-making. If you’re specifically looking for something more representative of Emirati culture, then I’d suggest looking at Platinum Heritage. Just be aware that they don’t offer dune bashing.
Camel Trekking: I once spent two days riding a camel into the Sahara. The fact that I struggled to walk for several days after means that I now typically steer clear of them. But that doesn’t mean that you should! If riding a camel into the desert is on your bucket list then check out the options available with Arabian Adventures or Platinum Heritage.
Sandboarding: if you’ve previously read about my sandboarding experience in Swakopmund, Namibia then you’ll know how challenging (and painful) it can be. But don’t let that put you off. Strap on your sandboard, buckle up your helmet and twin your Dubai desert safari with a classic desert adrenaline activity. If sandboarding sounds like your idea of a good time then I’d suggest looking at the options available with Arabian Adventures.
This is Not an African Safari
There is a temptation to hear the word ‘safari’ and conjure images of the Maasai Mara or Serengeti; vast African savannah settings teeming with wildlife. A Dubai desert safari does not offer that experience. Wildlife sightings, even on dedicated wildlife tours, are much less frequent than you would imagine.
That said, you stand a decent chance of spotting the Arabian Oryx, Arabian Gazelle (which we spotted) or Sand Gazelle. Much less likely, but theoretically feasible, sightings also include sand foxes, sand cats, caracals or the Gordon’s wildcat.
Keep your eyes peeled and your camera at the ready and you might just be lucky (obviously more difficult if you’re dune bashing at the time)!
Safaris are Available Without Dune Bashing
A few people I know have steered completely clear of Dubai desert safaris because they thought that all the tours included dune bashing. They had no desire to be thrown about in a vehicle or for living through the constant fear that the next dune will be the one on which the driver rolls the car over. As a result, they missed out on the whole experience.
As I said in the opening to this post, this is the one activity I would recommend to anyone visiting Dubai (or Abu Dhabi or Oman for that matter). I personally think you should move it right to the top of Dubai ‘must-do’ list.
If avoiding any form of exhilarating speed is your aim then your best bet is to stick with the more conservation, luxury and wildlife focused tours offered by Platinum Heritage.
Avoiding Guided Tours Altogether
Unfortunately, if you have your heart set on visiting the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve then a guided tour is your only option. However, if you have access to a car and you’re purely interested in wildlife spotting then you might wish to visit the nearby Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve. This new reserve only opened to the general public in 2018 but is home to much of the same wildlife as you’d see on an organized Dubai desert safari in addition to a large flock of flamingo that occupy a set of man-made lakes in the reserve. If this sounds like it might be of interest then check out this video to help whet your appetite.
And Finally, Do your own Dubai Desert Safari Research
It’s often tempting to arrive in a destination, especially when you’re staying at a decent hotel, and rely entirely on the hotel’s concierge to recommend the best tours for you. The same goes for booking your Dubai desert safari; particularly because the number of options can seem overwhelming.
But I’d avoid that slippery path if I were you! You’ll most likely end up on the tour that offers them the best commissions! Instead, my advice is to do the research yourself before you leave and either book it before you go or just have concierge book your chosen tour when you arrive.
Hopefully this post will help you with that research! Happy travels!