x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

What's red and scratched and rolls down a sand dune?

How many places in the world can you drive up to a sand dune and just roll down?

"OK. Get set? Run!" Up and up, we dug our bare feet into the scorching and endless sand dunes in the mourib (frightening) dunes near Liwa, more than 250 kilometres from Abu Dhabi. "Uff! This is hard, how did the Bedouin do this?" I thought to myself as I raced against a German, Dirk, and an Emirati, Ibrahim, up a reddish dune.

The challenge was to reach the top of the dunes first, and then "roll" back to the bottom. Actually, it was my idea. I wanted to try out what I think of as "lawrenceing" the desert - after that scene in Lawrence of Arabia where during a battle several of the tribesmen roll down a dune. I think some of them did it on purpose to reach the bottom fast. With a yell, I reached the crest of the dune first and looked down. Yikes. It was just as steep as my bursting lungs had been telling me on the way up.

I saw Ibrahim struggling to reach the top because of his kandura, and Dirk because of his tight jeans. OK, so this was the moment of truth: would I do a "Lawrence" or wouldn't I? Well, what was the worse that could happen? I could scrape off a layer or two of skin and just, maybe, break a couple of bones. I laid down on the sand, arms to the side and rolled myself over the edge. WAAAHHHHH, there was no way to stop the rolling, or if there was, my brain was revolving too rapidly to think of it. I couldn't see anything except sand until I reached the bottom, where I could finally hear the laughter of my friends somewhere high above me. The sand had got everywhere. Inside my clothes, in my eyes, in my ears, in my hair: a full body exfoliation for free.

My friends followed, and it was amazing to see how fast someone can roll - and how colourful it looks, especially if that someone is wearing a kandura. After the adrenalin rush started to wear off, the pain began to kick in. Bruises, sand burns, grazes - I had the lot, some of them all in the same place. But it was worth it, especially after the long drive down from Abu Dhabi. It had been a confusing journey, too, as there are no clear road signs for Liwa, the oasis actually being made up of three fertile villages. Green and tranquil, Liwa is perfect for a quiet weekend getaway from the hectic life in a city.

As we were brushing ourselves down after our first couple of rolls, a black 4x4 appeared seemingly from nowhere and stopped. "What are you guys doing?" the driver, a middle-aged American, asked. "We are sand rolling," I answered. "I guess that is really the only thing you can do here, in this second-class country," he said. I rarely lose my temper, but that statement sent my blood pressure into the danger zone. "There is everything here," I ranted. "Breath-taking nature, reliable housing, hospitality, stability, amazing malls, attractive men in dishdashas? and cute camels!

"And if you don't like it," I yelled, finally snapping completely, "why don't you just leave." With that, the American rolled up his window and zoomed off. My Emirati friend just smiled and said: "I guess now you know how we feel when we hear someone criticising and complaining about our country. A place is what you make of it," he added. I totally agreed. Every place has its good and bad points. Yes, it can get a little hot at times, and yes, it is definitely dangerous to drive here. My father checks up on me at the end of each day. "Drive carefully," he says to me each time. I have worked in war zones and rarely got so much as a text message from him.

But really, how many places in the world can you drive up to a sand dune and just roll down? After several more "lawrences", a pick up truck appeared (so much for this being the Empty Quarter, I thought), with a rather pretty goat tethered in the back, and also stopped alongside. "Salam, what are you people doing?" asked the Emirati driver with a heavy accent. He is one of the Bedouin, whispered my friend.

"We are rolling down the dunes," I answered. The pick up driver beamed and gave us a thumbs up. "Mashallah. It is great what you do, the sand dunes are the crowns of our deserts," he said. Wow, how poetic. What a contrast to the previous visit of the unappreciative American. The pick up driver introduced himself as Mohammed, released his goat from the back - and joined us rolling down the dunes. So there we were, a Bedouin, a German, an Emirati from Abu Dhabi, and me, rolling together in defiance of decorum and inhibition, all under the confused gaze of a small goat as the sun set on the distant horizon.

"What if the police see us?" I asked my Emirati friend. "They would probably join us," he said with a smile. rghazal@thenational.ae