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”.
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.
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!
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.