On a family camping trip to the desert, Clare Dight finds that sand is both an inconvenience and a useful distraction.
Travelling with kids: grit and bear it in the UAE desert
With hindsight, I realise I hadn't given the sand enough thought. In rather scant preparation for our first camping trip in the desert with our family in tow, my husband had the foresight to throw a dustpan and brush into the back of our Ford Explorer along with two excited toddlers, a wary grandmother, a couple of tents, three adult-sized camping chairs as well as two tiny ones, an inadequate number of inflatable mattresses and sleeping bags, a travel cot, water in a cool box, beach mats, firewood and battery-powered lamps.
And last, but not least, another tired Mum and Dad with their two little ones in charge of a much larger Range Rover packed with everything else.
Our friends had the experience of driving off-road, a first-aid kit and a barbecue. I brought low expectations and an easy-to-execute Plan B: if it all goes wrong, I thought, we'll just have to make the hour-and-a-half drive back to Abu Dhabi from our campsite just off the road towards Al Ain.
As the Range Rover floundered in the sand, unable to make the last few metres to our chosen camping ground - a suitably flat space bordered by gently sloping dunes - I mentally invoked Plan C and decided to let the men worry about that tomorrow. Minutes later, as my 2-year old cut her foot on a desiccated plant lurking in the sand, I almost regretted our glorious isolation, but a Dora the Explorer plaster saved the day.
The sand proved both a challenge and a distraction as we set up camp for the night. The children couldn't believe their luck as a series of Wendy houses popped up and, better than any game, had to be swept for sand with the dustpan and brush.
Dining in semi-darkness was more problematic as the youngest children were inevitably lured by the fire - not to mention the barbecue and the flares. But most troublesome of all was the lack of a table high enough for little fingers not to be able to reach. The paper plates and plastic glasses sitting on top of the cool box tumbled into the sand with monotonous regularity. Everyone's drinks quickly became laced with grit.
Putting the children to bed promised to be entertaining. Exhausted by the thrill of the new, my youngest snuggled up in her cot (checked for creepy crawlies) without a struggle. My 2-year-old required more persuasion, despite being excited by her new Winnie the Pooh sleeping bag. In the end, she nodded off close to 9pm, marooned on a queen-sized inflatable mattress under a ceiling of bright stars, brilliantly visible through the tent's mesh.
I followed soon after but it was almost impossible to sleep as the four children conspired to take turns to cry out. The parental shushing was equally noisy. The wobbly air mattresses and colder-than-expected temperatures put paid to the last hope of any shut-eye.
The next morning, after a golden sunrise, the children trekked into the dunes to play while the men dug out the car with the help of a shovel and a priceless Dh12 beach mat, great for grip on that pesky sand. As we drove away, tired but victorious, a little voice piped up: "Can I sleep in a tent tonight, too?"
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