Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Al Maha Desert Conservation Centre - Dubai

The Al Maha Desert Conservation Centre is some 60 kms out of Dubai. Before I write any more and burden you with some reading, all I can say is that I wholeheartedly recommend you go and spend 1 if not more nights there. The Centre is fabulous.

A bit of a back story as to why we are here. In December 2006 we and some friends had gone to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The idea was to camp in the desert at Jaisalmer. To cut a long story short, Jaisalmer was absolutely horrible. Without doubt the worst place I have been to in my life. The night in the desert had to be abandoned as it rained. Result was we cancelled all our bookings, lost money and stormed back to Mumbai. At that time I had promised HRH the Queen that I would give her a desert experience fit for a Queen rather than the low life Lonely Planet third class rubbish on offer at Jaisalmer. So here we are,

The Centre is managed by the Starwood Hotel & Resorts and is located in a 50,000 acre conservation reserve. Yes 50,000 acres. The property is owned by Emirates which means by the Sheik of Dubai. The story goes that it is set up on an old Bedouin campsite. That may well be true but this `Bedouin’ campsite has several rooms and suites as well as a spa pool and all the accouterments necessary for a rich stressed out high flying businessman of today. All air-conditioned, room serviced and with a bar of course. Point is that this is a make believe Bedouin camp for us.

Once you get here you can do a variety of things, supervised naturally by the friendly South African Field Guide. You could experience Falconry, go on nature walks, horse riding, Wild Life Drives, Camel Treks or drives on the dunes and shoot some arrows i.e. archery.

The Centre has no rooms, just individual villas of various sizes and levels of comfort. The Bedouin Villa which is what we took was extremely comfortable and large. It had a small pool in which you cold frolic. While the pool was only some 20 feet long at most, and, 3 feet deep at the deepest, a Baywatch style flotation device was kept on hand to prevent anyone drowning!! Either the Americans at J W Marriott are totally stark raving mad or the flotation device is some sort of sex toy. I could think of no other reason for it to be there. I kid you not. You get a few bottles of water, a box of excellent dates, a bar of chocolate and some soft drinks free with your room. I am not in the least suggesting that you book here to get these freebies!

The pool and the desert beyond

Birds having a drink from the pool

The package we were on included any 2 activities of our choice and 3 meals. Booze was extra. We chose to take the Falconry as well as the dune bashing.

We decided to start our package with lunch on the day of arrival. We had a choice; we could have started with dinner and had lunch on our day of departure. Let me tell you the food was top class. This is what you should get when you pay top dollar. The absolutely pathetic food dished out at our resorts whether the third class Taj Aguada/Exotica at Goa or the Fishermans Cove at Chennai or the unreal Oberoi Vilas properties in Rajasthan is shameful. The properties may be very pretty but that is where it ends. And the overpriced booze, let me not say anything about that. We had non ethnic food as it seemed that this place was more suited to producing it rather than the Arabic food. Mind you the Arabic food on offer seemed very good. We had indulged in quite a lot of Arabic food so we took a 2 meal break.

On the first day we kept to ourselves and took a walk on the sand dunes and watched the sunset. Walking on the dunes was hard work, the sand is soft, you sink and your calves get a real workout. Desert sand is quite different from beach sand. It is totally dry and there is no salt [no I did not taste it] so the result is very powdery and non sticky sand. Took a few photos of sunset over the dunes. Very pretty.

An oasis - dimly lit

Day 2 started early. We were up at 5.30 for a 6.15 reporting time. Falconry was on the agenda. 3 falcons and a desert owl were on display. The handlers explained some of the aspects of falconry, its origins and the reasons for it. Bedouins needed to eat meat while travelling. They normally subsisted on dates and camel milk. So they trained falcons to hunt birds which would be the source of meat. Trained falcons, we were told, have no affection for their master. It’s only because a person offers them food that they have any sense of loyalty. Falcons are not in any way domesticated, they do not recognise words, like their names. They are simply trained by giving them easy access to food. The falcon does fly very fast and seeing it swooping is quite something. Next up an Eagle Owl was on display. Big bird, quite lazy though and much better looking than the falcon. All this was rather interesting. We also got to hold a falcon. Nice.


A falcon

The Owl Eagle

Note the sharp and long talons

Looks almost like a cat here.

After this it was time for some dune bashing. Most of the field guides are South African, presumably they have a lot of experience on the game reserves in South Africa. We got into Toyota Land Cruisers switched on the air conditioning, fastened our seat belts and we were off. Anyway, I asked our guide why they used Japanese cars instead of the supposedly sturdy British [think Land Rover] or German [think Mercedes and Audi]. His answer, those cars are good but these are better, more reliable and far cheaper. He claimed that he had driven other off road vehicles in his past jobs, but this was the vehicle of choice by most game reserves. To put things in perspective, these cars are driven over sand dunes every day for 90 minutes. They are used for 3 years and changed. The car we were in had done 72,000 kms and was in perfect condition. This was 90 minutes of great fun. 3 cars got stuck in the sand and had to be helped out. I cannot tell you how hostile an environment the desert is. Walking in the sand is extremely hard work, you sink, you need strength to pull your foot out, going uphill is tough and the unrelenting sun. Your calves start aching in 5 minutes. These guys always travel in convoy carrying water, 2 walkie talkies and a SATNAV phone. No mobile network in the desert. The distance we travelled from the main Conservation Centre building would have been maybe 10 kms maximum. There was no way I would have been able to walk that distance even with all the water in the world. My feet would have killed me.

Footprints and tyre tracks

Miles and miles of desert. Georgous blue sky.

After seeing the Land Cruisers performing in the desert which is what they are made for, I cannot understand why anyone buys them to drive to Pune on a highway, or more often than not have the driver go buy Kothmir and limbu in them or the yummy mummy going to meet her pals for lunch at Yauatcha way across the Mahim Creek in distant BKC!!. Such an absolute waste of money. Great sales pitches it must be said getting these so called smart guys to spend money on something that is simply not put to use as intended.

There is not much wildlife in the desert. A few Gazelles, the local antelope - the Arabian Oryx, camels, a variety of birds and a selection of snakes, lizards and rodents. Got a few photos. We had gone to the Middle East not Africa so chances of my showing you lions and rhinos are nil. You will have to make do with what I saw.

A pair of Gazelles off to work at sunrise

An Oryx off to work

A quick snack at midmorning

A breakfast after the morning’s exertions, showers and check out. Too short. We both want to come back here. Totally relaxing place and different from the usual beach and mountain getaways. And the biggest bonus in this Conservation Centre – No children allowed. That itself knocks out all Indians! Thank God. No Raj Travels, SOTC coming here.

So folks, if you are going to visit Dubai, do yourself a favour and spend at least one night at the Al Maha Desert Conservation Centre. You will not regret it.

Lastly, have a look at the food. The Pork Madalion dish was a total dud, but the rest was really good. 

3 Tomato Salad

Tuna Salad

Grilled Hammour with Lemon Butter Sauce

Wagyu Sandwich with real bacon

Beef Carpaccio with a Parmesan Tuile and Salad

Saffron Risotto in a Chorizo Ring

Pork Medalions with an absolutely horrible Ginger Marshmallow  [the white cube] and Gnocci like pebbles!

Wagyu Saltimbocca with a Mushroom Risotto

Arabic Bread and Butter Pudding

Yogurt with Honey and Nuts


  1. Beautiful pictures!! Love the one with the falcon! Great shot!
    Enjoyed the blog on Al Maha Desert. Hope we can go there sometime:). The pictures are breathtaking!!
    Also, made muhammara. Turned out good. What was your tri colored tomato salad filled with?

    1. Thank you. Glad the Muhammara turned out well. We cant wait to get back to home and make it ourselves.

      Whoever you are, you have asked an intellegent question.

      Green tomato hollowed out and filled with tomato slices dressed with pesto.
      Yellow tomato hollowed out and filled with tomato slices dressed with curry dressing.
      Red tomato hollowed out and filled with tomato slices dressed with tomato vinigarette.

      Clever bit by the Chef and you.

      Keep reading.

  2. Beautiful photographs of the sunset and the desert, particularly the sequence on the setting sun.
    Keep posting.

    1. Thank you Ravi. The quality of light was fantastic. Hence the great photos and the lovely blue sky.

  3. Great blog entry and stunning pictures! see you again soon at Al Maha!