“What is the most frightening thing you guys have encountered on your travels?”
That was quite an ominous question Ravi asked us around midnight, considering we were five adults and one toddler out in the middle of the desert with not a sign of civilisation all the way to the horizon whichever direction you looked. Little did we imagine while we were planning our brief visit to Dubai that we would be out here in the middle of nowhere spending a night in the desert.
The unplanned Dubai desert trip
A couple of weeks before we left, Andy and Leela casually asked us if we had any trip to the desert planned and if we’d like to do something like that. I’ve visited the desert in Rajasthan a couple of times while shooting films and Revati had a few memories from her childhood in the Middle East of the desert. So we obviously responded to their question with a resounding yes!
So Leela picked us up from the Intercontinental and we were to drive out to the fringes of the city and meet Andy, Ari (their little boy) and Ravi, who’d left a while earlier to prep for the trip. For us, the roads everywhere in Dubai were a maze and the ones taking you out of it seemed even more complicated, but pretty soon we were zooming away while the glass and chrome landscape slowly turned into a monotoned light brown. A few minutes later we pulled up alongside the boys’ 4x4s outside Desert Mountain Supermarket (we were to later learn that there are many similar named ones along this stretch). After quick introductions (we were meeting Ravi for the first time), Revati, Andy, Leela and Ari hopped into Andy’s Jeep, while I had the privilege of riding shotgun in Ravi’s Toyota FJ Cruiser/apocalypse survival machine.
We drove on for a little less than an hour, while I turned into a little excited child inside Ravi’s 4×4 constantly checking all the gear and gadgets he’d added into this machine. After getting off the main road and driving alongside the fence of the National Park, we pulled over and decided that Ravi would head off scouting for a great spot to set up camp while the rest would wait here. Wait here? Not a chance! I jumped right into his 4×4 before he could even ask if I wanted to ride along for the scouting.
Those 20-odd minutes of bashing through the dunes finding Ravi’s perfect camp spot ran too quickly. I was almost tempted to ask him to keep going on until I remembered we’d left the others back at the fence. So after a few roller-coaster ups and downs over the dunes to find the spot, he finally settled on one that seemed like a nice bit of flat sand, with no bushes hiding creepy crawlies. With that we began offloading some of the gear and Ravi left me behind while he went to get the others.
Those 20 minutes alone were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. A lot of cliches began making sense. Especially, one in particular – “It’s so quiet, you can hear yourself breathing.” Walking around the dunes alone, while keeping a watchful eye on our gear (in retrospect, I wonder why, considering there wasn’t anyone within sight all the way to the horizon), ridiculous questions began popping into my head. What if that compass/map hotwired in Ravi’s brain suddenly failed? What if I was left here all alone for a couple of days? Strangely, I kept smiling at the ridiculous answers to each of those questions.
Within minutes of everyone getting to camp, we got to work. Well, mostly Ravi worked and I think by the time Andy and I helped screw a table together, he’d set up the fireplace, the makeshift barbecue pit, the mats, the ice boxes with the drinks, the food…and there was more stuff that he kept pulling out of his 4×4. I peered curiously in, out, around and under his vehicle but it was like trying to figure where the rabbits were hidden in a magician’s top hat.
While he slaved on, the rest of us kicked off our shoes and started walking around, loving the cool sand under our feet. The fittest of the lot, Ari the toddler, had us huffing and puffing chasing him around as he seemed to defy gravity taking on the dunes. A little out of breath, we slowly began settling around the fire that was just perfect for the chill that was beginning to set in.
Through the night, in between sips of different kinds of fire-water and food, we sat talking. No phones, no television, no sounds of traffic, no laptops, no internet, no doorbells ringing…nothing. Just us. People. Talking. Laughing. Sitting in silence. Wondering how life got so complicated that we forgot the joys of simple things.
At some point, Ari needed to be put to sleep, although he didn’t seem one bit sleepy. Out came more gear, along with a tent and a mattress that popped out of, again, nowhere. And as the night grew longer and colder, all of us decided to call it a night (although it was closer to morning than night!). That was a cold night but things were cozy inside the tent Revati and I shared thanks to quilts and blankets the others had brought along. But for a couple of really cold pee breaks in the night, we were knocked out.
We jumped out seeing the light breaking through our tent window, only to find everyone else up already. Little Ari was doing his usual dune exploring with Andy and Leela chasing behind him, and Ravi had a pot of coffee already on the fire.
It was time to pack up and get back to the city. We’d disrupted everybody’s schedules enough already. And as if to top off an already great experience, we ran into a bunch of locals on the way back – a herd of Oryx.
Of course, we had to stop along the way once we got to the road to gobble down some spicy Kheema (minced mutton) and parota (a fluffy bread from a state in India, where many of the Indians working in the Middle East come from). It was time for goodbyes after breakfast. Ravi was heading back home, and we were heading back with the rest.
In a little over 12 hours, we’d experienced a little bit of magic.
And that brings me back to the question Ravi asked us the previous night and the answer I gave him. We haven’t really had anything frighten us during our travels. But there is one thing we’re really frightened of not having when we travel. The experiences with the people we meet. They’ve made all the difference on every trip. They’ve turned a good experience into a great one. They’ve taken the ordinary and turned it into something unforgettable for us. And they sometimes take a 3-day trip to Dubai and throw in a little over 12 hours of magic into it.
Thank you Andy, Leela, Ari and Ravi for the magic you gave us on our Dubai Desert trip.