Image: Hiking in Jebel Hafeet
When most people think of Abu Dhabi, their minds flit to its more sedentary pursuits: glistening malls and five-star, air-conditioned lobbies welcoming them out of the hot sun. But beyond the capital’s high-end shopping centres and plush resorts lie some of wildest, most varied landscapes in the Gulf.
At a mighty 972 square kilometres, Abu Dhabi is larger than the rest of the UAE’s six emirates combined, making up 85% of the country. Its borders wrap desert dunes, lush mangroves and limestone mountains, as well as reefs, wrecks and islands. From the nomadic Bedouin to Victorian adventurers, its lonely sands have played host to explorers both great and unknown. And best of all, there are an ever-increasing number of ways to follow in their footsteps.
The Empty Quarter
A huge swathe of Abu Dhabi’s western region is taken up by the Rub al Khali, the largest uninterrupted desert on Earth. It is known as the Empty Quarter for good reason, and this vast sand sea stretches over 650 square kilometres, crossing into Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen. It was into this unforgiving landscape that the English explorer Wilfred Thesiger ventured for his 1959 travel classic Arabian Sands – his journey recounted by an excellent photo exhibition on permanent display at Al Ain’s Al Jahili Fort. Today, many visitors are also choosing to follow his lead.
While the Empty Quarter has lost none its bite, it has opened up well to adventure travel. Desert treks, either on foot or by camel, set out from the Liwa Oasis (once a haven for Bedouin caravans crossing these sands) and the luxury desert resort of Qasr al Sarab. Each rewards with unmatched views and that incredible feeling of being surrounded by nothing and everything at the same time.
Explore the 300-metre-high dune of Tel Moreeb, then camp at night deep in the desert’s arid soul in traditional Bedouin tents – a people who have thrived in this inhospitable region since records began. At night, as the campfire flickers ripple shadows across the canvas of your goat-hair tent and you pull your socks over the tops of your boots to stop scorpions and camels spiders from crawling in, it’s the perfect time to pause and breathe in the UAE at its wildest.
Hitting the heights
Neither Abu Dhabi nor the UAE in general is known for its mountain escapes, but the ‘Garden City’ of Al Ain is perhaps the exception. Jebel Hafeet is one of the Emirates’ tallest rises, with trails up its 1,240-metre-high peak affording some challenging hiking and magnificent views. Trekking poles are a necessity and the route is best avoided during the midday heat – sunrise and sunset treks are easier – but the views from the top are undoubtedly worth it.
The city is also a good gateway to the Hajar Mountain range, the foothills of which skirt Abu Dhabi’s borders. However, for wild trekking and camping, the wildlife reserve and island of Sir Bani Yas is easily the most scenic escape. Its free-roaming herds of oryx, gazelles and giraffes make walks and cycling trails across its scrub and bush a head-swivelling wonder. Hike up into its rocky hills or set up camp by its lush lagoon, surrounded by mangroves and strutting rose-red flamingos.
Adventure doesn’t have to stop at the coast. Abu Dhabi is surrounded by over 200 islands; many are off-limits, others simply deserted and some are even still being built. But from the shallows of Dolphin Bay to the coral reefs and lesser-spotted dugong in the waters off Al Bu Tinah, there’s plenty to explore. Catamaran and open-water sea kayaking trips can take you island-hopping across the Gulf, with overnight camping an option, as you bag a desert island escape without another soul for miles.
Closer to the coast, there’s still plenty of do. By day, excursions into Mangrove National Park see visitors galore winding its tangled roots. But at night it’s a different story. Quiet, eerie and almost like another world, after-dark kayaking trips with Noukhada Adventure Company (www.noukhada.ae) use LED lights fitted to the crafts to view darting marine life under the water, and it feels like nothing else in the UAE.
But for those eager to delve below the surface, the emirate has another treat in store. Wreck diving off Abu Dhabi’s coast might be the sole province of certified open-water divers, but it’s a great way to glimpse a whole other world. Sunken naval craft, such as the Zainab, lie close to the main island and reveal not just a rusted creaking hulk but incredible marine life, from scorpion fish to metre-long barracuda. Proof that it isn’t just the UAE’s deserts that can take your breath away.