Wandering Footsteps: Wandering the World One Step at a Time » Blog

Overlanding in the United Arab Emirates

Wikipedia defines overlanding as “self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal. Typically, but not exclusively, it is accomplished with mechanized off-road capable transport (from bicycles to trucks) where the principal form of lodging is camping, often lasting for extended lengths of time (months to years) and spanning international boundaries.”

There are people standing around our camper van as I emerge, with wet hair, from the washrooms. We’re parked at a petrol station, and I’ve washed my hair under the tap where women wash their feet before praying at the women-only petrol-station mosque. Our visitors are the South Asian petrol-station workers, and they’re curious about us.

It’s little wonder. We’ve already spent a night at this petrol station, and we’re back for another one. The parking lot had been surprisingly peaceful, we’d enjoyed a strangely picturesque view of oil stations on the horizon, and we’d dined at the petrol station fast food restaurant.

But really, we came back for the “showers”.

Friendly and curious visitors at our petrol station campsite.

Friendly and curious visitors at our petrol station campsite.

The oil rig and lit-up oil-city on the horizon.

The oil rig and lit-up oil-city on the horizon.

I’ve only ever lived in a camper van in Africa, a continent chalk-full of campsites in all but a handful of countries. I’ve spent the past few luxurious years showering in actual showers and sleeping in the peace and quiet of actual campgrounds.

In the Emirates, I wash my body with the bum-gun that Asians use instead of toilet paper. At least the toilets here don’t smell like they do in Africa.

Since leaving Port Sudan on a ferry boat to Saudi Arabia, our camper van life certainly has taken some getting used to. I’m still surprised by the addresses labeled onto every home and business, the sparkling clean towns, the glitzy malls, and the exorbitant prices. I haven’t yet begun to take for granted the smooth six-lane highways, the supermarkets overflowing with every food I could ever want, and, of course, the clean toilets.

But I am having trouble getting used to the fact that there are no campsites. Sure, there’s the desert and the coastline – indeed, most of the country is one giant, free campsite – but it’s been unseasonably cold since our arrival. That storm that followed us during our ferry on the Red Sea and turned into a giant sandstorm in Saudi Arabia has followed us to the U.A.E., too. The sky is hazy, the visibility is low, and the wind is blowing so cold that we are inside the camper van with the heater on most of the day. Or at a mall.

Trying to dry clothes inside the camper van.  You can

Trying to dry clothes inside the camper van. You can’t very well hang a line in a petrol station or in the desert dunes!

Our "campsite" in Abu Dhabi.

Our “campsite” in Abu Dhabi.

One day, it actually rained. We were leaving Abu Dhabi – where we’d spend a few nights camped in the parking lot of my friend Claire’s apartment complex – and had decided to visit the National Auto Museum, some 40km away. It houses the private collection of Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, over two hundred cars, including the biggest truck and the biggest caravan in the world. Bruno wanted to take a photo of the Totoyaya parked in front of the biggest 4×4 truck in the world, but the entry price had gone from free to pricey in the lifespan of our guidebook (what else is new in the U.A.E?). So we headed into the desert to camp next to some nearby rock formations.

We’d barely left the road when the recent rain mixed with dust trapped us in the sand. Before we knew it, we were side-sliding down the hill. Bruno, ever the quick-thinker, managed to angle the tail of the vehicle so that we could use the parking break without rolling over. We stepped out into sloppy clay and stood on the side of the road assessing the situation. There was no way we could get ourselves out – for the first time since Tanzania, we were utterly and totally stuck.

There was a town a few kilometers away, and I began walking toward it, assuming it would be the proactive way of dealing with our problem. I hadn’t walked 500 meters before a truck pulled over next to the stuck Toyota. They didn’t have any tools to get us out, but not a minute later, a bus pulled up and handed us a thick rope. We lassoed the Toyota to the truck, were out of the clay a minute later, and our rescue team were on their way a moment after that. Such efficient help, and they didn’t even ask for money after – we definitely weren’t in Africa anymore!

Oh crap!  We

Oh crap! We’re stuck in the clay!

Help is on the way!

Help is on the way!

We attached a thick rope to both vehicles and the other one pulled us out of the clay.

We attached a thick rope to both vehicles and the other one pulled us out of the clay.

And that’s the thing. At the end of the day, I guess I don’t really mind sleeping in petrol stations or washing my body with the bum gun, because the locals are so unobtrusive. We might get a curious individual or two from time to time – one French family in Dubai even invited us “adventurers” for a dinner at their home in Dubai! – but generally, we are ignored. This might sound undesirable, but when living in a camper van is your lifestyle rather than a short trip, this is a true blessing. A blessing that was never, ever, possible in Africa (I’m reminded of our flat tire in Ethiopia, where an entire village of bystanders had encircled our vehicle in three seconds flat). Here, we can pull over literally anywhere and camp, safe and undisturbed.

I wake up to the sound of waves lapping against the nearby beach. I gaze out the window, at a sphere of pale red sun shimmering on water and white sand. A jogger runs past our car on the new, state-of-the-art jogging track. Bruno and I emerge from our house-on-wheels onto Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach. To our left stands Burj al Arab in the shape of a giant sail. To our right, Burj Khalifa, the tallest manmade structure in the world, dominates the Dubai skyline.

We prepare our breakfast beachside, the breeze slightly warmer than the day before. Joggers – some dressed in black abayas with only Nike sneakers peeking out, others wearing little more than spankies and sports bras – provide the best people-watching I’ve experienced since New York’s Central Park. Nearby, other couples and families emerge from their camper vans. We’ve spent months without seeing a single camping car, and here we are seven! It’s almost like the U.A.E. has an actual campsite!

I sit back with my freshly squeezed orange juice and take in the site. Sure, the toilets might be far – and I might need to resort to the bum gun for my shower – but our campsite is free, and it has the best view in all of Dubai. I guess I’ve come to terms with camping in the United Arab Emirates.

The unofficial "campsite" at Dubai

The unofficial “campsite” at Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach. Not bad, eh?

Our campsite view - Burj al Arab and the jogging track.

Our campsite view – Burj al Arab and the jogging track.

Walking around our "campsite".

Walking around our “campsite”.

  • Jamie - Hi! Really enjoyed your story, thanks and well done. May i ask how you arranged a temporary permission for your vehicle while passing through the UAE please? Did you need to register or test the camper? Can you remember the costs?
    Thanks a lot

    • Brittany - Hi Jamie! Thanks for the question. In fact, we had a “carnet de passage en douane,” which, in case you’ve never heard of it, is like a vehicle passport that serves as a temporary importation. Because you have to pay for the carnet with your country’s Automobile Club, it serves as a guarantee to the country that you won’t be importing it.

      As a matter of fact, however, we entered and re-entered the U.A.E. 4 times and were never once asked for this document at the border. The only time we were asked for it was when we organized our ferry out of the country to Iran. We didn’t have any entrance stamps, but after a bit of discussion they let us book our passage out of the country, anyway.

      If you’re still unsure, my recommendation is to ask the family, “Iran is Great” if they have any additional documents as they are in the U.A.E right now. Cheers!ReplyCancel

  • Amanda - Enjoy Oman! Chris says ICON 4×4 in Al quoz has them.
    we will definitely make a plan! I’ll have Chris leave the coordinates for you guys.ReplyCancel

  • Amanda - It was really nice to meet you guys. Would you like to come for some dinner tomorrow night at our house ? Will sort out food and drinks just bring yourselvesReplyCancel

    • Brittany - Hi Amanda!

      It was nice getting to chat with you guys as well! Thank you so much for the dinner/drinks offer, but I’m afraid we actually already have plans this evening – with a lovely Moroccan lady who also ran into us on the beach! We’re heading out to Oman after that, but perhaps we can either meet up on that beach you mentioned, or have a drink and a chat when we get back to Dubai?

      Bruno has one question – do either of you know where to buy a solar panel in Dubai? One of ours is dead or dying… :)

      Cheers, and speak soon!ReplyCancel

  • Amanda - If you will be around tomorrow and don’t have any plans in the evening we would love to take you for a beer and have a chatReplyCancel

  • Amanda - Wow!! What an incredible journey. We saw your campsite today and have been reading through your blogs all night. Amazing. How long will you be in Dubai ? My boyfriend and I are planning a road trip from here bck to his family in Durban. Would love to hear about your journey.ReplyCancel

    • Brittany - Hi Amanda! Great to hear from you – you should have stopped by to say hello! :) We will be in Dubai a few more days, then heading to Oman for a month or so before returning to Dubai and onwards to Iran. You should DEFINITELY do a road trip from UAE to South Africa! That’s basically what we’ve done over the past three years, though it can be done in less time as well. If you ever need tips or advice, you know where to look and who to ask! :)ReplyCancel

  • Sally - My Custard Pie - Good luck with your journey and nice to speak to you the other day (I was the dog-walker). I’m in awe that your whole life is in such a small van. Intrigued to hear of all the other camper vans. Umm Suqeim Park at the back of the beach used to have quite good toilet facilities (haven’t been there for a while)!!

    • Brittany - Thanks for stopping by to say hello and to take a peak at our blog! We are currently at the public beach just north of the Palm Jumeirah, and will head back to Umm Suqueim Park to look for those toilets! :) Thanks for the tip, and hope to see you (and your dog) again!ReplyCancel

  • rcs - Maybe you and Bruno should buy ‘clay’ tires…we use snow tires here. It helps keep us on the road. LOL.
    You seem so adaptable and always see the positive side…well-done.ReplyCancel

    • Brittany - I definitely have “frustrated” moments, but writing this blog actually helps me make sense of my experience and see the positive side of challenges. Guess my blog is therapy!

      Thanks for the tires advice, but Bruno is pretty partial to his Michelin all-terrain tires! Guess it’s a guy thing…. :)ReplyCancel

  • Elizabeth Sears - Not sure about the bum-gun showers but the locals do sound helpful and respectful. Glad you have so far been enjoying your time in the Emirates.ReplyCancel

    • Brittany - Thankfully, as a result of our yoga pass, we’ve been able to take advantage of hot showers each evening. Tomorrow, however, it’s back to the bum gun! Hope Oman has a few regular showers for us… :)ReplyCancel

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