x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The Practical Traveller: a road trip through the UAE

Eschewing package tours despite being in an unfamiliar country, Chris Guillebeau decided to see the seven emirates solo in a rental car.

Sheikh Zayed Road, with the Burj Khalifa in the background. AP Photo
Sheikh Zayed Road, with the Burj Khalifa in the background. AP Photo

Riding to Dubai airport after a brief stopover recently, I remembered the first time I was there. When I returned to the US after four years in West Africa, I was just beginning to travel independently. The time I had spent in Africa was good, but most of the travel experiences were in groups. Having greatly enjoyed a few initial independent trips, I longed to see the world alone, and I decided to begin this new phase of travelling with a week in Jordan, followed by a week in the Emirates.

In the space of a few days, I acclimatised to a region I had never known before. I had heard a few things about Dubai before my trip but, as I was just beginning to explore the world, I decided to go all out: instead of spending my time in the malls or on the beach, I'd visit all seven emirates.

At the airport I looked for the rental car agency I had reserved with online, but no luck: it was nowhere to be seen, and queries from airport staff proved unhelpful. Happily, this wasn't a problem, since there were plenty of cars available from other agencies.

When I picked up the keys and walked to the lot, I was nervous. I'd never been in this part of the world and it was close to midnight. Would I find my way? It wouldn't be an auspicious beginning to start my visit in a new region by ramming a taxi, but thankfully all went well. As I pulled away from the airport, I felt a sense of freedom and independence. "I'm in Dubai," I said out loud to no one. "I can go anywhere!"

You can find courage in small things. That night, I successfully located my small Indian hotel in Deira, parking my car on the street. When it hadn't been towed the next morning, I counted this fact as an additional victory. I had breakfast and wandered over to the nearby souq, then to a mall as the afternoon sun climbed higher in the sky.

I knew I'd be back in Dubai before the end of my trip, so I made plans to move on. In the late afternoon, I set off - next stop, Abu Dhabi. As I drove down the long, single highway that separates the two cities, I felt another surge of confidence. I was on my own in an unfamiliar country, driving a rental car through the Arabian desert, thrilled to be alive.

I took a rest stop in Abu Dhabi and visited a popular cultural attraction known colloquially as "Carrefour". The next morning I set off again, heading across the country to Al Ain and then on the long road toward Fujairah. It was a long drive, and I wound up in Fujairah several hours later than expected.

I had hoped to get in as the sun was going down, but instead it was late at night. Before the trip, I had made some notes about possible hotels, and I knew there was a Méridien in Fujairah.

I didn't have a room booked and wasn't sure how much it would cost. As my trip delay grew longer, thanks to heavy traffic and a couple of wrong turns, the amount I decided I'd be willing to pay increased in my head several times.

I finally made it to the hotel, prepared to pay a king's ransom for a good night's sleep, but it didn't matter: it was fully booked. I was initially dejected but had to keep going. A few kilometres later, I found another property that was used mostly by Filipino sailors on assignment in the region. The room cost a fraction of what the Méridien would have cost, the restaurant was adequate and I slept through the night.

My journey continued through the Omani enclave of Madha, a place where I was supposed to receive a permit before passing through. I had no permit and braced when a soldier pulled me over at a checkpoint, but I had nothing to fear. "Where are you going?" he asked. I told him I was going to Dubai, the long way around. I'm sure this puzzled him, but the stop was routine and he waved me on with a smile and some quick instructions.

One note on my vehicle: as with taxis, it seems that most cars in the UAE are equipped with a warning system that beeps incessantly whenever the driver exceeds the speed limit. Since there were a lot of long highway stretches with little traffic, I learned to live with the beeping. For three days, I listened to my iPod, the car radio whenever I was within range of a good station, and the non-stop beep, beep, beep of the car. You get used to it over time.

I finally swung round the corner at Ras Al Khaimah and headed down through Umm Al Qaiwain, Ajman, and Sharjah - three emirates that were a lot easier to get to than Fujairah. When I arrived back in Dubai, I felt tired but triumphant. I stayed at another Indian hotel, this one a bit nicer, and headed to the mall for a minor celebration dinner. I had made it! It was a small trip, to be sure, but it gave me courage for going farther into the world and being willing to take more risks.

After I left the Emirates, I went home to the US and, being enrolled in a university course, didn't travel again for several months. During that long stretch without any adventures, I often found myself thinking of those long drives through the UAE countryside, getting lost and finding my way as I checked off the seven emirates. It all started with renting that car and saying to myself, "I wonder what it's like to fly to the other side of the world and explore on my own."

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity, published by Penguin. He is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world, and is currently on number 178. Next week: in Somaliland, the "safer version" of Somalia.???