“Midnight at the oasis, send your camel to bed …”
Yes, it’s night-time here in the heart of the world’s largest uninterrupted sand desert, and I can’t get Maria Muldaur’s seductive 1970s hit out of my head.
Yet one camel is very much awake.
He is standing next to a white-robed Bedu (as the Bedouin are called in these parts), exquisitely illuminated on the summit of the nearest towering sand dune.
The camel and handler have been placed there to add to the already impossibly romantic ambience of this most sublime of desert settings.
Is there any oasis, anywhere, more beautiful, more evocative or more luxurious than Qasr Al Sarab? Even if it is man-made?
Traditional Persian-style carpets are strewn across the sand, and our group is comfortably seated on low-backed couches under the night sky.
With glasses of wine in hand (yes, alcohol is allowed in hotels in the United Arab Emirates), we’re tucking into a mezze of hummus, baba ghanoush, labna and olives while the scent of coal-flamed meats and lobster perfume the warm night air.
Meanwhile, a young female musician is playing a qanun, the traditional zither-like triangular string instrument, sending haunting melodies across the desert sands.
Just one thing is missing – the canopy of stars you would normally expect to find in “The Empty Quarter”.
That is because, tonight, the full moon is the nearest it has been to the Earth since 1948 and so luminous no stars can compete.
By sheer coincidence, we have arrived at Qasr Al Sarab – the fantasy-like five-star desert resort that cost Abu Dhabi’s government US$5 billion ($6.7 billion) to build – on the night of the “supermoon”.
The next time the moon will orbit this close – and appear so large – will be in 2034.
How lucky are we? Just yesterday we had taken a guided tour around Abu Dhabi’s spectacular Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and learned how integral the moon and its phases are to Arabian life. So tonight it seems particularly fitting to be celebrating the supermoon in such a perfect setting so far from city distractions.
Getting to Qasr Al Sarab had involved a 2½ -hour drive from the coastal city of Abu Dhabi towards the Saudi Arabian border. We had passed through part of Rub’ al Khali – “The Empty Quarter”, which takes up a quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, including portions of Saudi, Oman and Yemen as well as the UAE.
It has been called “the world’s largest sand sea” with dunes rising up to 250 metres. The Sahara may be 15 times larger, but it holds only twice as much sand as the uninhabitable Empty Quarter. And if some of those massive dunes seem familiar, they doubled as the planet Jakku in the 2015 movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Even the legendary Lawrence of Arabia thought Rub’ al Khali untamable, incapable of being mapped on camelback. “Nothing but an airship can do it,” he advised Britain’s Air Marshal in 1929.
But eventually the Empty Quarter was mapped – by a camel-riding English explorer and travel writer even more eccentric than Lawrence.
I had spotted a copy of Arabian Sands by Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger that afternoon in the resort’s library. Thesiger spent two years in the late 1940s criss-crossing the Empty Quarter by camel with a handful of trusted Bedu.
His 1959 account of their two expeditions remains a classic of travel literature – not least for his photographs of what Rub’ al Khali and the Bedu were like before oil changed everything.
One paragraph in Arabian Sands seemed particularly ironic as I supped my resort welcome drink (“camel milk and honey”).
“When I was with the Arabs I wished only to live as they lived,” Thesiger wrote. “I would gladly think nothing in their lives was altered by my coming. Regretfully, however, I realised that the maps I made helped others, with more material aims, to visit and corrupt a people whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame.”
With all due respect to Thesiger, I’m glad we’re visiting the Empty Quarter now. Oil revenue has its advantages, and we’re staying in one of them.
Operated by Anantara, the Thai-based group renowned for its luxury spa resorts, Qasr Al Sarab appears out of the sand dunes like a real-life mirage. It’s a gold-coloured fortress confection that seems to have been inspired by One Thousand and One Nights: all turrets, mud-brick terraces, sparkling fountains, shaded courtyards and date palms.
Nestled on a huge crescent-shaped dune, it took 5000 workers three years to build (the need to build power and water lines all the way to Abu Dhabi added to the cost). No private company would have got permission to place such a resort this far into the Empty Quarter, or could have afforded to build it.
Of course, it helped that Abu Dhabi’s royal family were behind the venture, which is why it is palatial in every sense. Close to the main hotel, there is a group of larger villas each with a private pool and butler service that were once reserved exclusively for royal use. And, naturally, there is parking for 15 helicopters at a time.
Anyone coming from Australia would want to spend at least three days here to make use of the desert-related activities: archery, falconry, horse riding (in the cooler months), sandboarding and dune-cycling (on fat bikes). Then there’s that spa, three tennis courts and the huge, palm-fringed swimming pool.
Most of our group opted for a gentle hour-long camel ride, but a couple of us signed up for dune bashing – hurtling along in a convoy of Toyota Landcruisers at speeds of up to 95km/h in a series of crazy stomach-churning twists and turns.
I wish there had been more time to wallow in the sheer majesty of Qasr Al Sarab’s architecture; to indulge in the Middle Eastern treats available at its three restaurants (Al Waha all-day dining, Ghadeer poolside diner and the rooftop Suhail); to spend an afternoon relaxing on the ample shaded balcony of my tastefully decorated room (with none of the garishness of many Middle Eastern hotels). But those dunes beckon.
I had been told that it would be unforgivable not to watch the sunset from the top of one of the largest sand mountains. It took me 20 minutes to climb it, sometimes slipping when the unstable slope grew steeper. But the sense of tranquility when I arrived at the peak was enough reward…
Until five minutes before the sun actually set.
That was when a party of about 30 Argentinian guests arrived, some of the women stripping down to their bikinis and posing for selfies in every available viewing spot.
So much for serenity. Thesiger must be turning in his grave.
Etihad Airways flies to Abu Dhabi from New Zealand. Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara is a 2½-hour drive from the city of Abu Dhabi.
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara has a wide variety of rooms and villas, from NZ$673 a room a night. See www.qasralsarab.anantara.com
Dune bashing, camel trekking. Other activities on the website.
Steve Meacham was a guest of Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, Etihad Airways and Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.