By: Melissa Moubarak
Tel Moreeb is reachable by car, an hour and a half drive out of Abu Dhabi on highways.
The Liwa International Festival is held yearly between December 28th and January 3rd. For more information visit www.admc.ae
The Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort rates start at AED 1,470. www.qasralsarab.anantara.com
The desert spirits speak to Melissa Moubarak as she tackles the ascent of Tel Moreeb, the world’s tallest sand dune on the edges of the Empty Quarter desert.
It is here before I realize, unrolling like a Persian rug. Thin as air but poisonous as a snake. “Keep going, use your hands” one of the guys calls out to me. I’m not listening. The sand is magnetic, it pulls me down, further towards it, sinking every step I take up to my calves. I look up, the summit somehow seems further away, iridescent under the midday sun.
I don’t have time to think about my draining energy, another wave hits me. The desert’s lungs swell with mine but I cannot keep its rhythm. I rest for a second. It’s enough for the gust of sand to engulf me. I can’t keep this up for much longer. But just as I thought that I would tumble back down the dune and into the rabbit hole, I feel a strong arm grabbing mine and hoisting me up.
I had made it to the top of the Horrifying Hill, Tel Moreeb, the world’s tallest sand dune. The first few moments, I sit in stupor, alternatively swallowing gulps of air and water. When my oxygen levels regulate and my eyes focus, I take a look around. The horizon depletes in the distance, vanishing under rolling hills of sand. Multicolored khaki and orange peaks pouring under the wind like a caramel covered dessert.
The storm is below us now. Everything else is quiet. In that stillness, the wind whispers stories of the desert as swirls of sand bring it to life. Stories of dervishes with large twirling skirts and of armies storming the dunes on their Arabian mounts. The Empty Quarter submerges portions of Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates to create an arid territory that has resisted settlement for all but the most resourceful of humans. What is even more fascinating under the beating heat and parched landscape is that this desert was originally made up of water. Almost 5,000 years ago, cataclysmic rainfall lasting for years had formed lakes, home to a variety of flora and fauna as the fossils unearthed in recent expeditions show. Tarek, a local
Emirati friend sits on the edge of the dune as I let myself be calmed by the stillness of my surroundings. “You know you might have just under you some massive oil well”? Geologically, the Empty Quarter is the most oil-rich site in the world. Millennia of lush nature have decomposed into the thick fluid called Black Gold. “Well”, I joked, “why are we climbing up when we should be drilling down?”
My meditation is interrupted by the echoing sound of an engine, tearing the stillness with its offensive roar. I look over to find a buggy drifting along the dunes, spraying waves of sand as it bashes along the sides at dangerously tilted angles on this 50 degree incline. Stopping just below our vantage point, the man who introduces himself as Selim offers us a ride. He is practicing for the famous Liwa races. Held in December each year, the festival draws together the world’s boldest dune bashers eager to hit the sand with cars, buggies and bikes. The festival still celebrates each year traditional camel and falcon races along tracks he points out as we surfed through the sand, wind whipping across our face. I was grasping onto the twist of seatbelt, my last lifeline, as the buggy soared over errant dunes and crashed back to earth nose down. Absorbed with the effort of keeping myself inside the open sided buggy, I was shocked when I looked up to see, as in a mirage, an expansive Moorish castle, nestled between dunes and standing tall against the winds of the desert. “Am I delirious again?” “No, that’s the Qasr al Sarab hotel”. I now knew what nomads experienced when they unearthed an oasis. Salvation in the form of a luxury resort lay straight ahead and I started urging the buggy on. The hotel staff did not blink an eye as we stepped onto the marbled floor dripping in sand and sweat. They have come to expect the weary challengers of the desert. They responded by escorting us to the pool overlooking the dunes we just took on. We took a deep breath of satisfaction as the sun dipped into the sand, casting the long, dark shadows that are part and parcel of the desert’s spirit.