By hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar burst from the shadows of nearby Dubai and Abu Dhabi onto the global map. Soccer fans caught glimpses of the coastal capital city of Doha during commercial breaks, with its high-end malls and souks, its vivid art amid a futuristic array of skyscrapers. But offscreen, less than an hour away toward the Inland Sea, a different kind of adventure drew my attention: a four-wheel-drive desert safari.
Several outfitters offer desert safaris. My trip was organized by Qatar Tourism last October. Before heading into the sand dunes, our fleet of all-white Lexus and Toyota SUVs stopped at a camel farm to deflate its tires—reducing pressure helps with traction against the ever-shifting sand. My driver, Abdullah, the leader of the fleet, saw my big camera and offered me the front seat.
Vehicles fitted up, we rolled into the sand dunes of the Mesaieed Desert under the late afternoon sun. Abdullah immediately stomped on the gas pedal and we hurtled up a sandy ridge. I was caught off-guard in the passenger’s seat with camera in hand, bouncing hard for a seatbelt-testing adventure of what’s known as “dune bashing.” Drivers navigate up and down the dunes, but as the terrain isn’t stable—at some points, our car slid sideways across the sand as if it were ice. To navigate the angles that allow a car to scale or descend a dune without tipping over requires skill. Abdullah drove with one hand on the wheel, as if he could have done it with his eyes closed.
Tire marks crisscrossed the lunar-like landscape. “How do you know where you’re going?” I jokingly asked. GPS wouldn’t be very useful here. He laughed, telling me that this is where he comes to picnic with his family on the weekends, after having worked 60+ hours during the week doing tours all over Qatar.
Flags were set up in some parts of the desert. “There’s a big dune buggy race this weekend,” Abdullah explained. I wished I was still in town to see it.
By now, the light on the dunes had begun to change, with the shadows on the wavy lines of sand becoming more and more defined. An hour ago the landscape appeared gray and barren, overwashed with the sun. Now everything felt softer with oranges and yellows appearing on the sand to compliment magenta streaks in the sky. It was a “magic hour” in the making.
We stopped a few times for me to shoot photos, Abdullah urging me along so that we could make it to the coastline for sunset. Qatar is one of the rare places in the world where the desert cascades directly into the sea.
As we approached the deep blue edge of the sea, I saw several large SUVs parked alongside the shore. “Teenagers like to come here to have some privacy,” Abdullah said, laughing again. Whether in Dubai or the suburbs of Los Angeles, it’s the same anywhere in the world.
We rolled down one final dune onto the shores of the Khor Al Adaid Beach. With an azure sea to the left and yellow dunes to our right, we drove across the beach with the waves lapping at the tires. A spectacular blood-red sun appeared directly ahead of us. I watched a tourist pull off her shirt and run into the water in her swimsuit. We switched off the air-conditioning and opened the windows to let the warm breeze in and watched as the sun slowly disappeared into the hazy Arabian sky.