Everyone says that the beauty and allure of the desert eventually ensnares you and it is perfectly natural to arrive in the Middle East for the first time and imagine that the desert, with it’s seemingly endless, barren landscape of sand dunes and not much else, is completely devoid of any beauty or charm. Spend sufficient time out here, however, and this opinion gradually shifts as you start to notice the features that make the desert such a beguiling environment.
I had heard talk of Liwa, with it’s huge sand dunes, from friends here in Dubai and knew that it was meant to be a particularly stunning part of the Arabian Peninsula, nestled on the edge of the vast area of wilderness that constitutes the Empty Quarter, straddling the border between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. I had imagined a solitary hotel appearing from the sands like a mirage and surrounded by towering dunes – a far cry from the towering glass and concrete that has fast come to define the main cityscapes of this part of the world. A trip to Liwa is simpler than one initially imagines it might be, with this desert oasis town easily reachable by a well serviced highway directly from Abu Dhabi.
Wanting to make the most of one of my post-night shift weeks off I opted to finally head to Liwa in order to see if my imaginings of the place matched the reality and so set about doing some basic research. Liwa is actually an oasis town sitting along the edge of the Rub al’Khali desert, with many farms growing crops including dates, for which it is famous, and is the historical birthplace of the ruling families of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It is easy to get to from Dubai via a 3 hour drive down the E11 highway, sticking with the same road as it passes Abu Dhabi and heads towards the Saudi border. The only issues one has to contend with during the latter part of this drive include the fact that the road from Abu Dhabi to the turn off towards Liwa is chock-full of lorries, meaning the journey ends up feeling like a high-speeds, high-stakes game of hopscotch as you’re forced to swiftly hop between trucks, narrowly avoiding the constant stream of wannabe Dominic Torettos as they hurtle along the fast lane as though they’re racing the Earth itself, flashing their lights like deranged watchmen. Survive that gauntlet and it is onto the main E45 highway inland towards the town of Madinat Zayed, the last main population centre before Liwa, a further hour away. It is vital to ensure that you have sufficient fuel before moving away from Abu Dhabi, with no fuel stations between the capital and Madinat Zayed.
I opted to stay at the Tilal Liwa Hotel, approximately twenty minutes outside of Madinat Zayed and a short drive inland from the main road, past the camel track and in the same section of desert as the royal desert camp, which I could see clearly in the distance from the hotel itself. A beautiful four-star hotel, it had pretty much everything a weekend desert warrior might need, with an inviting infinity pool overlooking the desert and views of camels and dunes, a fitness centre, a couple of well stocked and pricey bars, and a decent dining options. The list of available activities was also plentiful, from dune bashing and boarding, to camel rides and a desert horse trek. The only activities I really had in mind for the two days I was around were to visit the huge dunes outside Liwa and get some desert running in, both of which I ticked off during the stay.
Early Rise for an Epic Climb
Determined to make the most of my visit I had heard that a trip to the huge dune at Tal Mireb, otherwise known as Moreeb dune, was best at either dusk or dawn, when the light was at it’s most magical. As such I set the alarm for ridiculously early the next morning and headed out in the thick fog towards Liwa. The road from Liwa to the dunes snaked its way through and into the desert, at times forcing me to literally crawl along on account of there being so much thick fog. Eventually I arrived, just as the light was starting to illuminate the sky and the towering presence of Tal Mireb revealed itself. The Liwa festival, during which scores of four-wheel drives power up and down the dune racing one another, had finished just the week before and so there was still plenty of evidence of the event having been staged including, sadly, trash on the sand. With nobody else around I felt like I had the entire area to myself and set off on the lengthy trek to the top of the steep and lofty dune. The effort was certainly worth it, with panoramic views across the surrounding desert the reward and a stunning sunrise to welcome me. Were I someone who could actually sit stationary for five minutes I would have found the experience almost meditative. Once I had drunk in the incredible atmosphere and realising that if I left soon then I could still make it back to the hotel in time for breakfast, I ran down the dune, feeling like a cosmonaut bouncing across the surface of a giant marshmallow, and made the breathtakingly beautiful drive back out the way I came, stopping at several points to immortalise the view with my iPhone.
It is at this point that I reckon images definitely speak louder than words, so feel free to check out the short video I made at the dune.
TOP TIPS for a visit to Liwa & Tal Mireb:
1. Fill up with fuel before leaving Abu Dhabi – the next petrol station is about 160km (1hr 45mins) away in Madinat Zayed with very little other than sand dunes along the way.
2. Book early – there are three main hotels to choose from in the Liwa area: 1. Liwa Hotel, in Liwa itself, which is a three star establishment; 2. Tilal Liwa Hotel, just outside Madinat Zayed; and the Qasr al Sarab desert resort, a five star paradise about 90km, or an hour, outside of Liwa. If a hotel is not your thing and you have the necessary kit then camping in the desert is another option.
3. Visit Tal Mireb at either dusk or dawn – the light as the sun is rising and setting over this vast swathe of desert is breathtaking and well worth the effort it takes to get there. Scaling the dune, which rises over 100m from base to peak, is energy sapping and hot work so giving yourself the helping hand of doing so during the cooler parts of the day is recommended. I found the main advantage of a morning visit was the distinct absence of other people, making it feel as though I had the entire desert to myself.