Pitching a tent in the desert to be close to nature while being kind to nature needs proper planning to be a success.
Camping on the low-carbon trail
There's sand in my shoes. No matter how often I unlace my trainers and pat the soles to empty out the contents, I end up with tiny dunes cushioning my toes. I usually wear sandals, but in the throes of a pre-camping panic the thought of getting up in the middle of the night to make a dash for the toilet and treading on a snake seemed a likely prospect. Only a few hours later, by the light of a small log fire, tent up and sleeping bags still rolled but ready, such fears seem ludicrous. Barring a few large, swollen-looking red ants running over the wind-blown ripples in the sand with uncanny speed, the environment around us appears benign. I'm tempted to say that it's all been too easy, but then this is a trial run and the aim simple: to uncover camping in the UAE the easy way.
Of course, easy is not the same as perfect. The camping spot that my husband and I find just 40km outside of Abu Dhabi on the E22 to Al Ain is hardly paradise. We turn off the motorway onto a truck road, which runs parallel, then turn off onto a small road running into the desert, looking for a break in the forested land, and a way into the sand dunes that peep out over swathes of contrasting green. On either side of the road there are fenced-off plantations guarding row after row of neatly planted ghaf, mishwak and sidr, garlanded with plastic bags and other rubbish blown by the wind. The Explorer book, UAE Off-road (Magrudy's, Dh125), lying open on my husband's lap offers much more attractive destinationsaround the emirates where dramatic scenery, wadis and historic remains are waiting to be discovered. But not here.
We turn onto an untarred road by a sign inauspiciously decorated with more waste - whole bags this time - tempted by the soft apricot-coloured sands behind. We're in luck: there's a flat piece of ground hedged by dunes and dotted with small mottled bushes of al harm, not far from the road. It's 3.30pm and with temperatures touching 40¿C, I am not keen to begin my tutelage as a Sherpa by trudging laden for miles. I reluctantly begin to unload the car, perspiration rising, and realise I'm not keen to begin camping, full stop. "I hate sand," I mutter to no one in particular.
I blame the 16 small bottles of expensively packaged shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and body lotion sitting in a line in my bathroom for my predicament. Each one is a guilt-edged souvenir from a weekend at a five-star luxury hotel, pilfered because I can't bear to think of them being thrown away half full. Unlike camping, luxury is a very easy way of life. In the past year I've enjoyed long hot showers under massive shower heads, clean sheets, whiter-than-white towels, fluffy bathrobes, countless buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and probably left the flatscreen TV on standby in every single room.
According to the carbon footprint calculator on the website of the WWF (http://footprint.wwf.org.uk), a worldwide conservation charity, I'm living as if the world has the resources of 4.38 planet Earths, with a carbon count of 25.10 tonnes last year. A significant 47 per cent of this is travel-related thanks to the number of long-haul flights I have taken. Each trip to London, for example, racks up 1.19 tonnes of carbon emissions, and more than double that if your ticket says business class, thanks to all that extra room to stretch out and relax.
It's impossible to accurately calculate the carbon-intensity of a flight because of the long list of variables, including the fuel efficiency of the aircraft, the amount of baggage on board, the number of empty seats, and even the weight of the crew. But one certainty remains: flying is not compatible with truly sustainable travel and here in the Middle East, with its lack of rail infrastructure to provide alternative ways to get across the region, that's bad news.
Travellers cannot and must not give up, according to Justin Francis, the managing director of Responsibletravel.com, a website that lists hundreds of sustainable holidays and promotes carbon reduction rather than offsetting. He argues that tourism is an important mechanism to promote cultural understanding worldwide, and that responsible tourism in particular provides much-needed resources to conserve local environments and heritage by putting money in the pockets of small communities, while also seeking to reduce CO2 emissions on the ground.
On the thorny issue of air travel, Francis is practical. He urges travellers to chose direct routes whenever possible, to avoid stopovers, and to take fewer, longer holidays to minimise carbon emissions en route. What you do when you land is just as important as how you get there, he says: "When the tourist does choose to fly, it's important that they choose a 'responsible holiday'.
"That doesn't mean it doesn't have both positive and negative impacts, especially CO2, but it does mean they've done their best to increase the benefits of tourism and reduce the disbenefits."
All of which brings me back to making amends, also known as camping. Or does it? In the back of my car, itself a gas-guzzling Ford Explorer, there's a large tent, two blow-up mattresses, sleeping bags, and army chairs, most of which were made in China. We stopped at Carrefour to buy firewood, unsure of whether there would be any to find in the desert, and spent Dh30 on a large bag of logs from Namibia. Yes, Namibia, a country grappling with the effects of deforestation. Unforgivably, it was all there was on sale. What's worse? I actually bought it. I then stocked up on takeaway food wrapped in plastic, including six large bottles of water.
Standing in the check-out queue, it's obvious that I've failed in the second part of my mission: responsible tourism on the ground, and despite staying at home, the carbon emissions clocked up by my bag of firewood arguably falls foul of the "no flying" rule. The result is even more guilt, and all because of a lack of planning and preparation. As the mother of a one-year-old toddler who works full time, I did not allocate hours in the day to track down a sustainable source of firewood or to cook food and carry it in a Thermos.
I'm beginning to see why an eco-holiday sleeping in a semi-permanent, luxury yurt is an attractive option - someone else is paid to organise it and worry about the environment, you just turn up. At least I got one part of the trial run right: baby is safely at home with her nanny because it really is too hot to take a toddler camping - even in early April.
Luckily the tent takes only minutes to put up and we lie in the shade of its dome for half an hour before contemplating a fire. My husband expertly digs a shallow hole, lines it with rocks, adds twigs for kindling and small balls of newspaper and patiently teases flames into life. The logs are needed, unfortunately, but the chemical firelighters remain unwrapped as a small offering to nature. I also draw a rather weak line in the sand at a disposable barbecue. We sit watching the fire, which is needed for light rather than warmth, because the heat of the day does not diminish until well after sunset. The shadows formed by the dunes and the brush are somehow mesmerising, or perhaps the desert's trick is promising the very real luxury of being undisturbed, disconnected from technology, in a relatively unspoilt place. To our delight, a few bats make their chaotic way across the sky.
Lying in the tent later that night on an inflatable rubber mattress, the temperature is almost unbearable. I lie awake looking at huge stars twinkling dimly through the tent's flimsy canopy, listening to the very occasional roar of aircraft overhead and the hum of a generator nearby. Again, no paradise this. But even with the intermittent and intrusive sounds of modernity, the experience is still remarkably relaxing. By 2am, it's almost cold and I creep under a towel after a pit stop outside to go to the toilet. I have awful memories of camping in my childhood, of rain and midges, and lying awake for hours trying to avoid a midnight visit to the toilet block, but this is comparatively painless. I slip my husband's sandals on, laughing at the thought of creepy crawlies (though I check them for scorpions first). Safely back under canvas, I can hear scratching against the tent outside, but it's only a cool breeze rustling the frame.
The next morning, we wake early to see the sunrise coax the colour from the sand, and busily start erasing evidence of our stay. We pack the car, picking up our own rubbish as well as a bag of other people's, water bottles and other detritus thoughtlessly dumped. The Namibian firewood is carefully stowed for use another time. Finally, we take time to examine a plethora of animal tracks that make the sand around our tent look like a ring road at rush hour. Evidently, there were bugs out and about last night but I missed them, too busy looking up to admire the heavens. The tiniest tracks probably belong to a species of beetle but one print suggests something much larger, with hind legs and a tail.
So in one respect, as an exercise in responsible travel, this trip has been a great success: I have a new-found understanding of the richness of the local desert environment. On the drive home we reach the only possible conclusion: our next trip will have to be much better planned and our destination far more adventurous.
To mark Earth Week, The National directs its focus on the environment with Green Issues, highlighting the need for education and attention to the needs of our planet.