One of the best ways to experience the UAE and the beauty of the desert is to partake in one of the nation’s passions: horseriding. That is exactly what two of my friends and colleagues from the clinic and I did on Friday, with each of us keen to find ourselves back in the saddle after variable periods of time away from horses. For me, the last time I was in the saddle was last year when my parents visited and mum and I went out on a ‘desert’ ride out of the Arabian Ranches Polo club, an experience which although fast and fun was also a little disappointing in as much as the ‘desert’ we experienced was effectively a large building site, with the city in clear view. Claire had ridden extensively in the desert whilst growing up in Saudi Arabia and Adri has also ridden a lot back in South Africa. Which was a good thing as our chosen venue of Al Maha resort, an hour’s drive out of Dubai towards Al Ain, stipulated that riders needed to have at least 3 years worth of experience in the saddle.
The drive up, despite being early, was worth it as we arrived at the gates to the reserve – all a little bit Jurassic Park on first impressions – as the sun was just starting to rise, revealing the true raw beauty of the dunes, with their varying shades of yellow owing to the recent rain, and the intermittently dotted trees and bushes. Many assume that the desert is empty and boring, with nothing but sand to see, but the truth is anything but. From the moment we arrived we appreciated abundant wildlife from small antelope to birds, to the majestic Oryx, a large group of which we were able to get very close to, including their rather foal-like cute little babies.
The Al Maha resort itself is hidden away in the dunes about 9km from the main gate and just suddenly pops out of nowhere as you find yourself driving along the dirt road wondering whether in fact you have maybe made an incorrect turn. We drove past individual chalets skillfully hidden amongst the desert sands, up the pristine main drive to the reception lodge, with the tasteful vibes of a safari hunting lodge, except without the hunting trophies. The immediate impression of the place was one of calm and peace, and the view from the balcony was nothing short of breathtaking. Below us and extending as far as the eye could see was the desert, with a small oasis in the foreground and angular, undulating dunes meeting an expansive sky, with the sun casting the most fantastic shadows and creating a fascinating array of textures and subtle hues of light browns, yellows and greens as the Arabian desert was revealed to us.
We were met by our guide, a young English horseman by the name of Laurence, who had previously been employed as a guide in Namibia and who clearly had a passion for horses. Half-chaps donned it was into the resort 4WD we jumped for the short journey out to the stables, where we picked up hats before being introduced to our steeds. My horse was a lovely bay who was slow and steady on the walk but who clearly enjoyed competition when it came to the question of racing, as I discovered on more than one occasion.
Our ride took us in roughly a large loop, through desert paths and over dunes, and it wasn’t long before we were picking up speed for the first of our ‘extended canters.’ All of the horses we were riding had formerly been endurance athletes and were used to running at speed over the sand. My horse, as previously mentioned, was super competitive and when he quickly built up speed to nose in front of our guide’s stunning grey steed, you could almost feel the gear shift in both horses as an unspoken “right. You’re on!” was exchanged. It is not until you’re back in the saddle that you remember what incredibly exhilarating fun it is to move at speed powdered by literal horse power.
The second stretch of speed saw me, at one point, lose my right stirrup and it took some concentrated effort on my part to remain firmly saddled whilst attempting to place my foot back in, all whilst continuing to pick up speed. We eventually stopped near the top of a small hill and as Laurence arrived it became clear that they had been calling for me to stop earlier, a request that I had to confess I had not heard, explaining the stirrup issue. I was somewhat pleased, however, to be told that to external onlookers I had apparently appeared very much in control and it had been assumed that I was simply choosing to ignore the calls to stop on account of clearly enjoying things so much. How appearances can be deceiving!
We stopped – or rather attempted – to stop for a photo opportunity atop one of the dunes en route back to base and in spite of the horses clearly not being overly cool with the idea of standing still posing Laurence did manage to snap a half decent shot, all whilst being buffeted by his own horse.
Following our return to the stables and subsequently the main lodge, we availed ourselves of a fantastically relaxed breakfast out on the balcony, overlooking the desert, and reviewed the highlights of the ride. Although all of us agreed that we would have preferred for the trip to have lasted longer – an hour and a half felt too short – the stiff backs that we all experienced over the following days suggested that the time was, in fact, optimal!
Anyone looking for a fun, active way to really connect with the wildlife and true desert of the UAE, whilst still getting to enjoy a five star hospitality experience will certainly find a riding session at Al Maha right up their street. We all agreed that very morning that we wanted to return, perhaps even spending a whole day and taking advantage of the many other leisure activities on offer, including archery. Well recommended!
At the time of writing the 1.5 hour desert hack cost 200AED each, with all required equipment provided. Breakfast was 160AED, with the view being worth the price alone. More information can be found at Al Maha’s website.