AFRICA TRIP - Part One: Dubai
Travel forces me to live in the "now" - in the moment, taking everything in. It brings out all the thoughtful, imaginative and passionate parts of myself and recharges my mind. Feeling like an explorer ignites something in me - a thirst to do and see more. And doing it solo feels empowering.
Visiting a new country is so exciting to me. I love the feeling of the unknown, learning so much, experiencing, observing, smelling, tasting, watching... It makes me feel like the world is so big and so diverse. I want to experience and learn about as much of it as possible - capture the beauty and the story.
So, let's start with Dubai. I packed a lot into my 4.5 day stop-over! I arrived at 2pm on a Monday and although I was tired from the 18 hours of travel, after checking into my hotel and changing, I made my way to the Burj Khalifa in time for golden hour. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest structure in the world and it did feel surreal gazing down at the concrete jungle that is Dubai with its arid desert on one side and Persian Gulf on the other. Obviously it is a popular tourist attraction but I took my time and waited for a free window on the outside deck to sit, take photos and admire the view just as the sky started to change colour.
I had booked an Abu Dhabi tour for the next day and woke up at 3am in anticipation (this would become a habit). I was mainly interested in seeing the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and thought the tour would be a convenient way to get me there from my hotel (it is roughly a 1.5 hour drive from Dubai). Unfortunately for most of the day our large tour group visited things that didn't interest me in Abu Dhabi like a shopping mall (for over 2 hours)! And then when we did finally visit the Grand Mosque it was towards the end of the day and we only had 45 minutes there which was not enough time as it is huge and there are so many photo opportunities. I could have spent hours wandering around inside and outside of the mosque admiring its beauty.
There is something about Arabian architecture that I just find fascinating and beautiful. The long sleeves and headwear required to enter meant that it was smouldering hot but the sun shining against the glimmering white domes had me mesmerised and I was last to be herded back onto the bus. Next time I might consider hiring a car and driving there myself so that I'd have the freedom to stay as long as I want at each point of interest, however the tour guide did provide interesting information about Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the UAE that I would have not otherwise learned.
On day three I used the same tour company to do a walking tour of old Dubai which I enjoyed as it was a very small group and I would have gotten lost in the souks (markets) by myself! We visited a small but exquisite mosque first then walked the charming streets of Al Fahidi District (which happened to be right opposite my hotel). There we stopped in at the coffee museum for a cup of traditional (delicious) coffee and then headed to the textile, spice and gold souks. The souks are separated by Dubai Creek which can be crossed by traditional Abra boats. The vendors are persistent with tourists and love to bargain. The souks are bustling and full of liveliness, colour and noise. After the tour I felt comfortable that I knew the area well enough to return by myself in the evening to see the souks by night.
I returned at sunset to take photos but dressed as a local, covering my hair which seemed to make me blend in enough to not be hustled to buy stuff like the other tourists were. My camera and tripod did kind of give it away though and people were interested to know what I was doing!
The following day I had free until the afternoon when I would be picked up for the popular/ touristy "desert safari and dinner". I wanted to see the Arabian desert at sunset which is why I chose to book this tour. I was a little nervous about going alone and having dinner with a large group of strangers but a French couple who were on the previous tour recognised me and invited me to sit with them.
The desert safari started when I was picked up at my hotel at 4pm by the four wheel drive and we picked up a few other tourists along the way. When we reached the desert dunes not far outside Dubai, our driver let the tires down and we had a crazy dune bashing drive which felt like a ride in a theme park! (I took travel sickness tablets beforehand thankfully). We stopped to take photos with a camel (who ate my hand) and to watch a falconry display but funnily enough the handler lost the falcon as it just flew away. He joked nervously "well there goes a hundred grand". I think the falcon finally returned to his handler as we left to make our way to the desert camp. On the way though we stopped in the dunes for sunset photos which again, I felt we didn't have enough time! I like to take my time when taking pictures and not be rushed! But then most people didn't have a tripod and remotes to set up etc.
The Bedouin-style desert camp was stunning. Again, I loved the Arabian feel (magic carpets everywhere, candles, music) and we had the option to go dune-boarding, camel riding, have henna painted or just relax with the shisha until dinner (or all of the above). Although it's a very heavily marketed tourist activity, I enjoyed myself more than I expected. The food, the wine and the atmosphere was amazing and during dinner we had a belly dancer show. There were many people there but the camp was large enough to not feel crowded and I could sit in my little corner enjoying a drink and shisha. It went quite fast though and shortly after dessert we were directed back into our 4x4 and dropped back at our hotels by 10.30pm.
Earlier that day I decided to visit the Dubai Museum as it was conveniently located directly opposite my hotel. This is worth a visit as there is a lot of interesting information about the Emirates and history. Learning about the Emirati people and the way of life in the desert in times before, exported me into another world. The life-like wax statues were pretty creepy though!
On my last day I did an east coast tour in order to see the countryside and smaller villages along the other coast of the UAE. It was a smaller group and the tour guide was very informative. After walking through some roadside markets and driving through the alien rocky landscape, we stopped for lunch at a coastal resort were we were able to take a dip in the shimmering blue Indian Ocean. It was so hot that I burnt my feet walking on the scalding sand down to the water. On our return we visited the oldest known mosque in the UAE which now resembles ancient ruins of a fort but where people still come to pray.
In between these tours I found time to go to the Jumeirah public beach to swim in the Arabian Sea (very warm and blue).
I also ventured across the street at 5am to get shots in the beautiful Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood with no one else around. This atmospheric area in Bur Dubai is one of the oldest (restored) heritage sites in the city, with a neighbourhood that dates back to the early 1900s. The labyrinth of winding alleyways offers an enchanting glimpse into the Dubai of a bygone era including traditional wind towers and bustling courtyards lined with museums, craft shops, cultural exhibits, courtyard cafes, art galleries and two boutique hotels.
The hotel I stayed at was perfectly situated for me away from the busy city centre full of shopping malls and skyscrapers and in the older more traditional part of Dubai (Bur Dubai). Note: I booked through Booking.com - If you use this link to book any hotel, you can get a $20 credit! The area felt a bit like "Little India" as many Indians live in Bur Dubai - There were also lots of nice Indian food joints if you knew where to look. The hotel is situated near a mosque and I began to enjoy the early morning sounds of the call to prayer. There was something hauntingly beautiful about that singing when you’re half asleep. The hotel staff went out of their way to assist and make me feel comfortable, the buffet breakfast was great and the rooms were lovely with a charming "Aladdin" feel to it.
Here are my "captains log" notes I jotted down from Dubai:
01/05/17 - Traffic in Dubai kinda sucks.
01/05/17 - People-watching alone on the Burj Khalifa waiting for sunset (tourist peak hour) - stayed about 3 hours. Result: many people asked me to take their photo for them.
01/05/17 - Burj Khalifa: No one actually looking at the view - just their phone screen/selfie stick. Surprised at the amount of tourists wearing butt-cheek short shorts and crop tops in a conservative country.
02/05/17 - I can't yet tell what traditional food is like here as every restaurant I've gone past is pizza, burgers, subway, KFC etc.
02/05/17 - Crap visibility was explained by tour guide as not being smog, instead a mixture of sand from the desert and salt from the sea.
03/05/17 - The salesmen at the souks called me "Shakira" - my tour guide explained it meant they thought I looked like the pop star (?!)
03/05/17 - Saw camel milk gelato but didn't get to try it.
03/05/17 - Splurged on a massage but the masseuse had the flu and kept coughing on me.
04/05/17 - Got henna.
05/05/17 - Drove through a sand storm.
05/05/17 - Things seem to be about the same price as in Australia, if not more (except taxis).
As my jam packed 4 days in the UAE came to an end I felt I experienced as much as I could and was ready for my next adventure in Uganda!