x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Reconnecting with nature on the sandy dunes

With easy access to beautiful nature, it is unfortunate the outdoor heritage for many Emiratis has disappeared. Camels, sand dunes and beaches are now replaced by cars, villas and pools.

Living in Southern California spoils you for nature. With beautiful beaches, picturesque mountains and serene deserts all within an hour's drive, you could ski, surf and hike all in the same ambitious day. This variety of landscapes is packaged in near-perfect year-round weather to boot. Having lived in the region most of my life, it was little wonder I developed a deep appreciation of and strong connection with the outdoors.

Upon my reverse migration to the UAE, the Empty Quarter's climate left me environmentally wanting. As I had settled on the outskirts of the city, the first natural challenge was adjusting to the lack of greenery. Although the American south-west is nowhere near the lushest region in the world, getting used to the absence of vegetation in the even more arid Emirates was still challenging. Walking through the greener cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai provided some relief, but it was nature that was tamed and misplaced and did not satisfy my more rugged and native craving. Sand-filled skies, unfathomably high temperatures and humidity levels, and prolonged air-conditioned indoor living all contributed to my growing disinterest in the local terrain.

But what the cities' high rises and cured lawns masked, as they do from many Emiratis, was the abundance of natural beauty in the country and the diverse terrains in which you can find them.

The unveiling of this natural side of the UAE was not a planned one. My first frolic into Emirati wilderness came about when a visiting friend insisted on a desert safari tour. Never being one who enjoyed journeys organised by companies or tour operators, my interest was tepid at best. Grudgingly succumbing to my guest's will, I was finally dragged off the city streets and thrown on to the desert's dunes. Landing on the soft sand, I felt at home once again. The colour of a rich sunset warmed the eyes, the cool, smooth sand pleased the skin and the serene desert silence relaxed the soul. My thirst for nature had been quenched in the driest of climates and the craving to see more of the region's natural wonders had been planted.

More excursions followed, with trips to the Dubai desert, Hajar mountains, Fujairah beaches, Umm Al Qaiwain coast, Al Buraimi rocks and Omani wadis; all of them providing uniquely satisfying adventures. My appreciation for the local landscapes bloomed with every journey.

I quickly discovered the call to the wild can be easily answered in the region. Infrastructure is relatively well developed in even the most remote regions, providing clear paths, if not clear signage, to most destinations. A sense of disconnection can be attained without the use of an SUV, as many locations provide isolation a short distance from the road. And crowds are rarely an issue beyond the cities' outskirts, as the majority of tourists, as well as locals, stick to the familiar concrete and lights.

Another outdoor advantage in the Quarter is the option of being able to set up camp almost anywhere. Having observed numerous local families barbecuing alongside desert roads and campers pitching tents wherever the view was best, finding a campsite seems as easy as locating an open public space. This apparent accessibility to nature must stem from the Bedouin roots of the region's culture, where the desert was home and the connection to the natural surroundings was strong.

With such easy access to the country's natural environment, it is unfortunate this outdoor heritage for many Emiratis has disappeared. Camels, sand dunes, mountains and beaches are now replaced by cars, villas, buildings and swimming pools, all of which have trapped many within the city limits. The wealth of the nation brought about abundant comfort for many citizens. Although this development alleviated much suffering, such as enduring an Emirati summer without AC, it created new issues such as stress, depression, obesity, diabetes and vitamin D deficiency. These and many more modern ailments could be lessened with a more active outdoor life and a closer connection to the natural environment. Many locals also have to rely on expatriate-written guide books and guides to discover the natural beauty of their own country. Surely it is they who should be writing about and presenting their country through an Emirati perspective to their foreign guests.

Having discovered just the tip of the iceberg (or sand dune) of what the country's natural environment has to offer, I intend to continue my journey into the wilds of the UAE. Weather permitting, I hope to tear myself away from the city confines many more times to see what treasures the Emirati outdoors hold. I hope many more of my fellow citizens join me in venturing outside, and in doing this, I hope they find, just as I have, a deeper appreciation for and stronger connection to their country.


Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter for The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US