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Published: March 5th 2019
The beautiful Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucoryx)
After a very quiet year on the travelling front, I’ve finally got around to a bit of travelling having decided to give that annoying work thing a rest for a couple of months.
Having discovered a love for joining a scientific expedition a couple of years ago I signed myself up for a trip to the wilds of Arabia and a bit of winter sunshine. In a similar vein to the Mongolian adventure, I found a trip which would be monitoring wildlife and counting vegetation but this time in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR: https://www.ddcr.org/en/index.aspx
) which is about an hour’s drive from the modern city of Dubai.
Having been to Dubai many moons ago I was curious to see how it had changed but didn’t really want to spend too much time there, so this seemed a good way to have some science fun and catch up with the many changes that had taken place in Dubai over the years.
Heading out of a grey Heathrow I sat back, enjoyed the flight, arriving in Dubai airport at midnight I picked up a taxi to take me to the very glamorous Dubai Silicon Oasis area ready to meet
Welcome to five star luxury
Our base in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR).
up with the rest of the expedition. Obviously, this wasn’t a glamorous area of Dubai, more of an industrial estate, but conveniently located on the outskirts of Dubai to minimise the journey to the reserve. After checking in about 2am I had one free day before the expedition left on the Saturday morning, so I did the sensible thing and slept late and went to the pool for a rest.
We were told to report 9am on the Saturday morning in the hotel reception, now I’m starting to become a bit of an old hand at these trips the vague nature of the meeting arrangements no longer phased me, I was ready and waiting with the rest of the volunteers promptly in the morning. In total there were ten of us, mostly from the UK, a few from Germany and also a Local UAE resident who was fed up of going to the desert with his friends and have them all be on their phones while he goes and looks at the wildlife.
We were picked up by our expedition leader, one of the reserve scientists and the head park ranger which turned up in three rather nice
My home for the week
For peace of mind, don't look for scorpions outside your tent, you don't want to know.
and rather new Toyota Landcruisers loaned to us for the week by a local tourist company who runs trips in the reserve. I had noticed in the expedition notes that if you wanted to drive, bring your licence, I hadn’t given it much thought but was glad I packed mine as I was starting to think they looked lots of fun to drive.
We packed up and headed out to the DDCR, only about an hour’s drive east of Dubai, towards Oman. It wasn’t going to be quite so remote as the Mongolian trip but we were still going to be camping in the reserve, so I’d packed my new desert boots and was ready for a bit of wild Dubai.
The reserve was formed about 20 years ago and has focused on the reintroduction of Arabian Oryxes into the area and many indigenous plants and trees planted. In 2003 it was designated a national park to save one of the last pristine areas of the Dubai desert for research and future populations. It comprises of 225 square kilometres which is about 4.7% of Dubai’s land area. The Sheikh of Dubai has a keen interest in the reserve
We're going on a fox hunt
We leave the cars (don't forget to mark them on the GPS) and head out to find the fox holes for signs of habitation.
and visits regularly, taking an interest in the work going on. It’s a bit of a big laboratory really, they have successfully created a healthy population of Arabian Oryxes and are also introducing other species which are endangered, all in all a good place to be if you are an Oryx, in fact they are doing so well, they are considering introducing natural predators to balance out the numbers. We were there to help with the annual review of the animal and plant populations so they could see how things are going.
First stop was the office for the reserve staff for introductions, safety briefing and general overview of what we would be getting up to for the week. We were also asked who wanted to drive as those of us who did would also get a driving lesson that afternoon. I was a bit apprehensive as I don’t drive that often and hadn’t really driven off road much, but I thought it would be good to have an off road lesson if it was going, so I signed up.
We then had to drive to our camp, so I got my first go at driving and I
Looking like an active hole but it's not that easy to tell.
have to say I was very nervous, it was about 20 minutes’ drive to our base camp and I was a bit terrified as I don’t think I’d ever driven on soft sand before but we made it to camp alive and I was relieved.
Our camp was in a very pretty location to the east of the reserve, Ghaf trees giving some much needed shade and we all picked a spot and put up our very expensive tents ready for the week. The reserve also hosts a luxury five-star resort which each tent having its own pool, we were in more basic accommodation, however I think I preferred our location.
To be fair, the expedition briefing made it sound very basic but it wasn’t too bad, we had flushing toilets even if they had no roof and the showers were cold, but it was quite comfy and much better than expected. We were also promised vegetarian food all week but in the end we had our breakfast and lunch in the canteen for the hotel workers, so we did well on the food front, fried chicken night was particularly good.
Once we were unpacked the drivers
were taken out for a driving lesson, somehow I ended up in the first car in the convoy with the reserve boss giving me instruction in the passenger seat. We headed off out of camp, I was feeling a bit nervous but with a bit of expert tuition I was soon starting to feel a bit more confident and starting to enjoy the experience.
We were taken off down some narrow and windy roads and I was starting to get the hang of it, it’s all about momentum apparently, then I drove round a corner and saw a rather large sand dune where the road should have been. I was reliably informed that I and everyone else would need to drive up the large sand dune if we wanted to drive for the rest of the week. So I gritted my teeth, foot on the accelerator and pointed the car up the dune only to get part way up and then get stuck just before the top, still not to worry, just have another go. After reversing backwards down the hill, I had another go and managed to get the machine over the top much to my delight and
surprise. I then got to watch everyone else have a go, I wasn’t the only one who took more than one go, but in the end everyone succeeded, and we headed back to camp. I was starting to enjoy the driving quite a lot and offered to drive to dinner, it was a bit harder in the dark but I was getting more confident even if the car was so big that I had to haul myself into the driver’s seat using the handle by the door.
The next morning was a 6am start, Dubai was in a bit of a cold snap and so it had been a bit chilly overnight and getting up in the dark wasn’t that much fun but the sun soon came up and we headed to breakfast it was getting nice and warm.
Each day was going to follow the same format, breakfast, briefing in the office and then splitting up into three teams and heading out to explore different sectors of the reserve to record the flora and fauna. As it was the first day, we needed a bit of training into the methods we were going to use, as usual
One of the few plants in the reserve, it's biblical.
this included GPS training, setting of traps and how to record the data for the scientists. We also had a few checklists to run through before we headed out, one for the car equipment and one for the scientific equipment, all this was designed to keep us safe and I only slipped up once forgetting spare GPS batteries, but on the whole we all managed to follow instruction well and returned with the same number of people we left with each day.
Our aims for the week were to monitor the Arabian Oryx, Arabian and Sand Gazelles, Red Foxes, Gordon’s wildcat and assess the vegetation and any other wildlife we come across on our travels. First up was a bit of training on how to identify a fox den, how to do a 360° observation and setting the animal traps. We also had to set up camera traps around watering holes and that was to be our first job after the training. The scientists had split the reserve up into quadrants (over 50) and then north, central and southern sectors, for each quadrant there would have to be a circular observation, so we had a lot of ground to
For the first outing I and three others headed to the Southern sector of the reserve to set our camera traps and animal traps for that sector. We had been given a list of GPS waypoints to find and had to set up the cameras by some watering holes. Each car went off in a different direction with about two drivers per car, so we all got a good chance to cover some miles in the lovely machines. The southern sector of the park is the wildest of the three sectors and we had a lot of places to visit that afternoon as we all had to report back to base before 5pm and sun down.
As we drove around, we also had to note down any random observations of animals on the way, so as soon as anyone spotted an Oryx or gazelle then we had to stop the car (gently – you don’t slam on the brakes on sand!), note the animal seen and also the GPS location of the sighting. This slowed you down quite a bit as there were quite a lot of animals on the way to our locations but it is
always fun hunting down the animals, the thrill of the chase!
As you can imagine there isn’t a great deal of vegetation and a great deal of golden sand, it is a beautiful park and we would drive for hours not seeing anyone else, just the animals and birds to keep us company. By this point I was enjoying the driving more and more and getting quite competent at it as well. We weren’t allowed to drive off the tracks in case we ran over any animals or damaged some plants, but a lot of the places we had to reach were along some tracks that hadn’t been driven on for a while and it was so much fun to give it a go.
After a busy afternoon of setting up our traps, we managed to get back just before dark, being the last team to get back to camp, where we had to enter our observations into a lovely spreadsheet, I can’t even escape them in the middle of the desert, still it’s all in the name of science. It was quite an exhausting afternoon and I was ready for a good dinner and I wasn’t disappointed
Dayglo scorpions - They glow under UV light
Arabian Death Stalkers (Apithobuthus pterygocercus), keep your shoes on at night people.
as when we got to the canteen, they had fried rice on offer, the perfect end to an amazing day.
The next morning I signed up for the Central sector and also bagged car 31 again, my favourite of the three. Each day the teams would mix up slightly so it was fun to work with a different group of people each day. First up was checking the animal traps, this is the top priority as you don’t want to leave a poor rodent in a metal trap all morning, they might get a bit toasty.
Sadly our traps were empty so we headed off to our first circular observation point following a very small road which started off quite clear but after about 20 minutes we were starting to struggle to make out the road and so took the sensible option of parking up the car and then getting out to try and find the rest of the road. Clearly no one had been down the track for a while and those sands, they sure do shift, we couldn’t work out where the road was going so to be safe we decided to head off on foot
to our observation points.
Circular observation involves standing on the highest sand dune you can find near the GPS point and counting all the trees/bushes and animals you can see from that point for about a 1 km radius. Thankfully it doesn’t have to be 100% accurate which is good as sometimes you might have to count a few hundred bushes on one go. Fortunately most of the points in the reserve don’t have a great deal of vegetation but pity the poor team who had to do one close to the biggest lake, there were a lot of trees to count..
Once we completed our observations we found the end of the road we were trying to follow and tracked back to the car, so with a bit of reverse engineering we managed to join both ends of the road together and made our escape back to civilisation, all I can say is it takes a lot to upset one of those Landcruisers.
Heading back to camp we caught up with the rest of the teams and heard how the team who went to the north managed to get themselves stuck in the sand, the first
Fish or lizard?
The Common Sand Fish (Scincus mitranus) looks like a mackerel with legs when you get a close look, they move pretty quickly too.
team to do so that week. No real shame in that I guess but it was even more amusing to hear that they called out the head ranger to get them out, then he promptly got himself stuck and needed rescuing, good to know it even happens to the professionals.
I’d heard a lot about the ‘Mountain’ at the northern tip of the park and was very curious, so the next day I signed up to go to the northern sector and see what everyone was going on about, I couldn’t imagine a mountain as the whole place was pretty flat and sandy through the entire reserve. To get to the north there was a long drive along the reserve fence, there are no camels allowed in the reserve and so we only got to see them on the other side of the fence as we drove up north. On arrival it was a strange sight as out of nowhere there was a strange rocky outcrop in among the sands, this was known as ‘Nazwa Mountain’ even though it was more of a rocky hill. As we approached to check the rodent traps we disturbed an Eagle Owl who
My ship of the desert
Car 31 looking good, this was a fun road to drive down.
was peacefully roosting in a tree. As it took fright it then flew to a cave on the hillside and we slowly approached it, cameras in hand, hoping to get a good shot. Once it decided we’d got too close it flew off to the other side of the mountain and we got back to the job in hand and checked the animal traps. I was excited to find something in the first trap I checked but sadly the spiny mouse had expired over night and was an ex-mouse which was sad. Still, nothing goes to waste and we took the mouse back with us, I believe the mouse is now in the freezer ready for further contributions to scientific research.
After checking the traps, I also retrieved an owl pellet for the scientists (well they were excited about it) and the climbed up the rest of the mountain, it was odd as on the other side was a road and civilisation, I was starting to feel a bit like we were now residents of the reserve too, ready for tourists to come and view us. Heading back to camp we spotted a red fox from the car and
The Oryx get a bit defensive over their grub, this one is chasing off a greedy rival
stopped in our tracks to try and follow the fox to its lair. After a good 20 minutes of trying to find the fox we gave up and went back to camp, smug we were the first back and happy we were going to be able to do our data entry first. I volunteered to add the data and was just getting going when I realised I couldn’t find one of our observation sheets, which you might not think is a big deal but when you have spent all day filling in observations, it was a bit of a disaster as we would have lost a large amount of data, I was not happy.
In a panic we searched the car, but could not find the missing sheet and we were all very annoyed, after some deliberation we figured as we still had some time we should retrace our steps just in case, but we didn’t hold out much hope and feared we would have to come clean to the rest of the team. We drove back to the last place we stopped and started looking but to no avail. We headed back to the car someone spotted something
Pharaoh Eagle owl (Bubo ascalaphus)
We disturbed and eagle owl roosting in a tree and then I followed it up to it's cave, where I found a couple of owl pellets, lovely.
which was white on the other side of the road, could it be? It was, our missing data sheet, we could not believe it, the sand Gods were smiling on us that day and we headed back to camp clutching it very tightly vowing not to tell anyone one else about it, even in the daily briefing confession section, they didn’t need to know..
Having covered each sector, I then rotated them again for the next few days, covering each sector twice. I was starting to get comfy in my tent and after a couple of nights of not great sleep I was now getting nice and comfy, although the sand seemed to get everywhere so a daily sweep of the tent was a necessity. Each morning was an early start however we were rewarded with the most amazing skies, the stars and planets were so bright just before dawn. As there are a few tourist concessions allowed access to some areas of the reserve, when we headed to breakfast we would see the hot air balloons fly out at dawn and the people setting up for the falcon demonstrations. There is also a very smart five star hotel
At the north end of the reserve is a random big pile of rocks called Nazwa Mountain, not quite a mountain but the highest point in a sea of sand.
in the central sector and sometimes our work would take us close by. Each ‘tent’ would have a couple of rooms, bathroom and own pool, we could observe the tourists taking their morning coffee outside their tents but I think we got to have a lot more fun than they did. We got to be out in the reserve all day and had the freedom to stop where we wanted to and walk around and of course drive those cars off road all day, so much fun.
The week went all too quickly, we spotted many different animals: Sand Gazelles, Arabian Gazelles, Oryx, red foxes, sand fish (lizards that look like a trout with legs), Lappet Faced vultures, Pharaoh’s Eagle owls, Macqueen’s Bustards, a few different rodents, the odd tourist and even some scorpions.
Thankfully I didn’t spot any camel spiders although there was a dead one in the office which made my skin crawl even though it was pretty much a shell, it was also the wrong season for snakes (not that I mind them) but they tend to hide away in the cooler months.
The only real worry were the scorpions, helpfully scorpions’ glow under
Sherman trap on the hill
I used these traps in Mongolia as well, I'm getting quite proficient. If you need to trap a small mammal, just let me know.
UV light and so we went on a hunt one evening around camp to see if we had any close by. We decided not to look too close to our tents but found a few close to where the cars were parked, they were only 1-2 inches long so wouldn’t kill you, but you would know if you stepped on one, so keep those boots on kids!
The final day came around far too quickly, I was now becoming quite attached to car 31 and was pondering if I should just drive through the fence and head off to Oman in it, I had developed a deep enjoyment of off road driving by this point, it is just so much fun.
We collected up the camera traps and reviewed the photos, some quite amusing ones to be found and some interesting wildlife picked up at the watering holes as well as some funny ones of the tourists by the hotel, strange creatures indeed. The team were very pleased with all our efforts and we had completed everything they needed to do so we were all happy although no one really wanted to leave our peaceful camp. We had
We caught a Spiny Mouse however it didn't survive the night in the traps, the greatest sacrifice for the advancement of science.
a little treat for our final night, the company who loaned us the cars had an ‘Arabian Experience’ camp in the northern sector where they took tourists from Dubai for an ‘authentic’ experience. As they wanted to keep the reserve managers on side we got to go for free to the camp for our evening’s entertainment. The tourists would be picked up from their hotels in Dubai, driven out to the reserve for sunset and then have dinner in the camp. The camp could hold about 400 people for the evening, so we weren’t alone. After not seeing many people all week and not really being too smart and skimping on the showers, we all looked a bit ‘rustic’ compared to the smart tourists in from the city. However, it was fun, I had a camel ride round the car park, had a go sandboarding, got my hands hennaed and enjoyed the belly dancing. I’m not sure how authentic it was but we had fun.
Our time in the reserve was over far too quickly and we had to head back to civilisation. We packed up and I had one final drive in my beloved car 31 and went
The mountain is conquered!
And our reward was a view of the road outside the reserve, a reminder of the world outside.
for our final debrief after breakfast. It had been a fun trip, being able to spend so much time in the desert was incredible and we had a lot of fun along the way. As with all these types of trips everyone is happy and interested to be there and are good company, slightly geeky types I grant you, but everyone has a good time.
I had decided to tag on a couple of extra days to my trip in Dubai and was dropped off at my nice, modern, clean hotel in the marina area of Dubai. I looked a bit out of place when I went to check in and was a bit early for my room, so I thought I’d explore a bit of the local area while waiting and headed to the beach for a bit. It was quite a shock after the reserve, the tall, shiny building, clean looking people and air conditioned malls, I was a bit dazed for a while. I finally found the beach and walked along from one end to the other. I must have missed the signed showing the start of the private beaches as when I tried to find
Between the lines
The reserve sits between the tarmac road on the right and the sand road on the left, stay between the paths!
an exit to the road there wasn’t one. I thought I could cut through a hotel but I clearly didn’t look smart enough as the security man quickly ushered me back the way I came, time for a shower clearly. Finally my room was ready and I checked in for a good clean and rest, only venturing out for food later in the evening.
After a good night’s sleep, the following morning I met up with another person from my trip who was also staying on in Dubai for a bit. We headed out on the very clean metro system to the central part of Dubai and the Burj Khalifa tower. Everything is so big and it took about 20 minutes just to walk form the metro station to the shopping centre where the tower is. The view from the top was pretty impressive although it was a bit hazy, still it is always good to add to your tall buildings tick list. We were also impressed with the many books on sale of the Sheikh's poetry and musings, he is much revered in Dubai and probably rightly so as even if it’s not your cup of tea, he
The sand highway
The mountains in the distance are in Oman
certainly has looked after the local Dubai population well. You could see how huge Dubai had become, the old town to the north and the marina area to the south. The districts are very distinct, and it feels very sprawling.
After the tower we headed to old town Dubai for a walk through the Gold Souk (although pashminas seem to be more popular to sell) and then took a trip on a boat down Dubai Creek to the old town on the other side of the creek. It was nice to get away from the shiny new malls and tall buildings for a bit, there was a bit of character left there. We headed back on the metro and to the marina for some dinner. I think if you were an ex-pat it would be a good area to live, it even has a Waitrose folks!
The next day I headed to do a bit of skiing, well it was winter. Of course, the Dubai ski centre is bigger than any other indoor ski place I’ve been to. Everything is bigger there. There are two decent size runs and even a chair lift. I had the pistes to
Meanwhile on the other side of the fence
The camels aren't allowed in the DDCR (well apart from the tourist camels) so we had to make do with looking at them through the fence.
myself mostly and enjoyed a couple of hours of snowy fun, had to say I was impressed although a bit cold as I hadn’t really thought it through and didn’t wear warm enough clothes for under the ski suit.
The following day I had booked on a trip to take a cruise through the ‘Fjords of Oman’, the Musandam area of Oman. We were picked up early and driven up through the different Emirates to the Omani border. Driving through Sharjah we were informed that it was quite a strict Emirate, no drinking, smoking etc. which is quite a contrast to Dubai. We drove to the port of Dibba on the coast and boarded a traditional Dhow for a cruise along the coast. It was interesting to see the more rocky landscape of Oman compared to the sands of Dubai and we cruised along the coast to find some snorkelling spots for a welcome swim and rest.
I had one day left which I decided to take very easily, a nice breakfast (my hotel had ‘Breakfast lasagna’ on offer, interesting..), a walk around the marina and a trip to the pool, well I had to make the most
See if you can spot the bird, some kind of bird of prey but I've forgotten which one.
of the sun before returning to winter. I’m not really sure what I think about Dubai, I don’t think it’s my type of place for more than a few days. I loved being in the desert and the experience of working in the reserve, that was amazing so a few days in the city after that was very enjoyable and welcome. I think for a few days stop over it is worth a trip and if you want a nice hotel and beach holiday, then I think it would suit. I’d certainly recommend a visit to the DDCR, it is a beautiful place to visit and if you can afford it, the hotel looks rather nice, and as for the driving….
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