A desert road trip just south of Abu Dhabi will transport you far from the city’s skyscrapers and malls and add a cinematic, sensory dimension to your UAE adventure. Here you’ll find vast open spaces lidded by cornflower skies, waves of sandy dunes shimmering in shades from silver to cinnamon, lonesome camels by the roadside and lush date palm groves. Impressions seem to get more magical with every mile of tarmac.
For an in-depth experience of this part of the world, take a 500km loop around to Liwa, an oasis on the edge of the Rub Al Khali – the ‘Empty Quarter’. The Empty Quarter is the world’s largest uninterrupted sand desert, and it’s draped over an area roughly three times the size of the UK. British explorer Bertram Thomas was the first Westerner to cross this giant sandbox in 1931, and Wilfred Thesiger made the region famous in his travelogue Arabian Sands.
Reflect upon these epic journeys, done entirely on foot and by camel under the blistering sun, as you tool around on modern wheels in air-conditioned comfort.
From Abu Dhabi follow Hwy E11 west and, just before Tarif, point your wheels south on Hwy E45 towards Madinat Zayed. This small town is the administrative centre of the Al Dhafra region, which makes up about two-thirds of Abu Dhabi emirate. It’s usually little more than a pit stop for visitors, but people arrive here in droves come December for the hugely popular Al Dhafra Festival. Over 11 days, this event celebrates Emirati customs and traditions with camel races, a camel beauty pageant and other competitions involving falcons, classic cars, Arabian horses and salukis (Arabian dogs) along with heritage activities and a traditional souq and food.
With an eye towards a post-oil future and a new commitment to shrink its carbon footprint, the oil-rich emirate has made huge strides on renewable energy. Just south of Madinat Zayed, you’ll pass by Shams 1 (‘Sun’ 1), a 100-megawatt concentrated solar power plant spread across 2.5 sq km. It has harnessed rays since 2013 and now generates enough energy for 20,000 households, moving toward Abu Dhabi’s goal of creating 7% of its power via renewable energy by 2020. If you have time for a side trip, follow your GPS to the Tiwal Liwa Hotel, a fort-like luxe pile sitting in splendid isolation on a rise some 11km east of Hwy E45. Even if you’re not spending the night, it’s a nice spot for lunch or a cold juice.
From the hotel it’s about 60km to Mezairaa, the commercial gateway to the Liwa Oasis. This is the ancestral homeland of the Bani Yas, the Bedouin tribe that engendered the ruling families of both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Some 300 years ago, their forebears began cultivating dates and trading with other tribes in this crescent-shaped oasis with dozens of nearby villages. This network stretches along Hwy E90 over 100km between Umm Hisin in the west and Hamim in the east. A fun time to visit is during the Liwa Date Festival in July, which elevates the humble fruit to cult status (don’t sweat; events are held inside air-conditioned tents).
From Mezairaa, drive about 30km south to the shapely 300m high and 1.6km long Tel Moreeb, one of the tallest sand dunes in the world. Consider stopping at Dhafeer Fort on the way there – it’s one of several restored centuries-old defensive forts tucked among the dunes. Although Tel Moreeb translates as ‘scary hill’, the massive sand pile actually looks quite peaceful, despite its steep slope. Locals like to drive up to the top in their 4x4s, but it’s also possible to climb – just pack plenty of sunscreen, water and a hat. Those who brave the trek will be rewarded with a sublime panorama that extends across the unmarked border into Saudi Arabia. Just plop down and savour the mystical views and interplay of shadow and light, ideally at sunset.
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort
Aside from a star-lidded night in a desert camp, the most beautiful place to hang your hat in the Empty Quarter is Qasr Al Sarab, a dune-cradled luxury resort that’ll move you even when standing still. A nearby desert locale doubled as the desert backdrop for much of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). The resort too, whose towers and turrets mimic the grandeur of a desert fortress, exudes an otherworldly feel. Luxury is taken very seriously here: think villas with private plunge pool, four restaurants and a fine spa. There’s also a long menu of activities and excursions, including sunset walks, sand boarding, camel treks and trips to ancient forts.
Emirates National Auto Museum
Tearing yourself away from Qasr Al Sarab is hard, especially considering the sparse 150km of road facing you on your way to the next stop. It’s worth it though – the kooky Emirates National Auto Museum is a giant roadside pyramid that shelters around 200 cars from the eclectic private collection of Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan. This collection includes racing cars, prototypes, military vehicles and off-road classics.
Among the highlights: the seven Mercedes Benz 500 SELs, custom-painted in the colours of the rainbow, which garnered their eccentric collector the nickname ‘Rainbow Sheikh’. But his ‘biggest’ obsession seems to be with monster trucks. Parked outside is his pride and joy: a replica 1950s Dodge Power Wagon scaled up eight times the size of the original (housing a four-bedroom apartment).
From the museum, it’s only another 40km before Abu Dhabi’s skyline comes back into view. The 500km route could theoretically be done in a very long day, but for a more memorable experience, plan to spend the night. If you don’t venture off road, the trip can be managed in a regular passenger car and also be followed clockwise. Petrol stations are surprisingly scarce, so make sure you’re not ‘runnin’ on empty’ in the Empty Quarter!