By Jim Eagles

It’s an oasis in the desert, filled with massive and mind-bending wonderments, all easily accessible by train, air, ferry … or camel. Jim Eagles takes a look.

Palm Jumeirah
Palm Jumeirah

Dubai looks even more remarkable from the air than it does on the ground.

From around 800m up the glittering office towers and apartment buildings, the giant shopping malls and the extraordinary ski dome, the bright green golf courses and sparkling fountains, make a particularly startling contrast with the rolling waves of white sand and scrub that stretch away on all sides as far as the eye can see.

Better still, through the window of a Seawings amphibian aircraft you can marvel at the wonderful weirdness of all the amazing developments created here in the middle of nothing.

For instance, on my flight I was able to see that the Jumeira Palm, a giant reclamation bristling with luxury villas, really does look like a palm tree. Later I drove round it on the ground – or at least as much of it as the general public has access to – and it seemed just like a massive canal development with hundreds of homes each sitting on a piece of artificial waterfront.

But from the air you can clearly see the stylised shape of a giant palm, its fronds covered with little houses and apartments, for which the wealthy of the world have apparently paid vast sums.

On the other hand the latest development, the World, a collection of artificial sand islands also surrounded by a breakwater, didn’t look anything like a map of the world, probably because the global economic crisis has slowed things up a bit.

From the air, too, the Burj al Arab – which proclaims itself to be the world’s only seven-star hotel – seems even more like a giant windsailer poised to zoom off down the Persian Gulf.

And the Burj Khalifa, at 828m high the tallest structure in the world, looks like nothing more than a giant silver rocket ship poised to head into space. As a matter of a fact, when you go up 124 storeys to the observation deck at 10 metres a second in the tallest and fastest lift in the world, it does feel as though you’re going in a rocket ship.

But, a little unexpectedly, what also stands out from the air are the networks of canals, rail lines and motorways being created around the city as – something that strikes a chord with a visitor from Auckland – it moves to solve its traffic congestion problems.

By way of comparison, the country of Dubai (at 4110 sq km) is only a bit smaller than the new Auckland Council (4894 sq km) and its population (about 1.9 million) is a bit bigger (Auckland’s is 1.5 million, though Dubai’s numbers are boosted during the day by an estimated 1 million people who cross the border for work).

There, however, any similarities end. Unconstrained by the need to reach a political consensus, persuade ratepayers or taxpayers to fork out or get resource consents, Dubai has recently launched into what must be the most spectacular public transport development programme in the world.

The city has long had an extensive network of buses (it boasts 504 peak-hour buses on 62 routes) which not only have air-conditioned vehicles but air-conditioned bus stops.

I haven’t used the buses – though it would be interesting to compare with my Devonport bus service where most of the stops don’t even have shelters let alone air-conditioning – but I did take the opportunity to try out the first stage of the Dubai Metro system which opened a couple of years ago.

It’s fast, seemed very efficient, extremely high-tech, driverless – it’s a bit disconcerting when you see a train with an empty cab approaching the station – cheap (my journey cost about 60c), easy to use and already covers many of the places a tourist would be likely to go to. And the emirate plans to expand the network to five lines and more than 200km of track over the next few years.

But that’s not all. Dubai has long had an extensive ferry service, built around the traditional teak-planked abras which have long plied the waters of the Creek, the salt water inlet which runs through the middle of the city.

An abra ride is a terrific way to get feel for the old Dubai. Crammed into the boats as they chug across the busy waterway you’ll see the hotch-potch of nationalities that make up the emirate’s population. And you’ll also pass the trading dhows from as far away as Africa which – along with fishing and pearling – once formed the foundation of the city’s wealth. It’s also well worth while taking a stroll down the quays, bustling with international traders and seafarers, and piled high with goods from around the world.

However this place isn’t content to just rest on the oars of its 150 abras, even though they are reckoned to carry 16 million passengers a year, so the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) is now busy setting up a network of modern water taxis and ferries.

I went for a ride in a water taxi and, though not as colourful as an abra, it sure is comfortable, with air-conditioning, reclining leather seats and an LCD screen for every passenger. As we cruised up the Creek the RTA’s marine operations manager, Hussain Khansabeb, explained that the water service was still in its infancy with two ferry routes mainly serving tourist destinations, and water taxis operating from 22 stations.

But he said the network was being extended through the construction of more waterways. “Dubai has a marine master plan to be able to get anywhere in the city by sea. We have already built the first canals off the Creek and more will be done soon.”

Even that most traditional form of desert transport, the camel, is being modernised. At Dubai’s Camel Race Track, which attracts huge crowds every Thursday and Friday between October and April, mechanical jockeys have taken the place of human ones.

Apparently that is because cunning owners discovered that their beasts could run faster with smaller jockeys aboard, so they started using younger and younger riders, eventually reaching the point where there were safety concerns.

I didn’t get to see a camel race but at a shop beside the track a smiling salesman demonstrated one of the small mechanical figures which, he said, were strapped on to the camels, with radio controls used to set the whip swishing round to spur the mount to greater speed. Might we see that at Ellerslie one day?

Fortunately you can, if you wish, still go for a good old-fashioned camel ride. I went out into the desert on to one of Arabian Adventures’ Sundowner expeditions which included a 4WD ride around the sand dunes – my highlight was sighting a pair of Arabian oryx – a desert banquet, belly dancing (with a Russian dancer), henna tattooing, hubbly-bubbly smoking and, yes, the camel ride. I know it’s corny but I did it anyway. It seemed the right thing to do in this land of sand where, really, all the skyscrapers and driverless passenger trains and air-conditioned bus stops still seem out of place: like a mirage in the desert.


Getting there: Emirates flies three times daily from Auckland to Dubai and beyond via Australia.

Where to stay: Jumeirah Emirates Towers is a superb hotel in the heart of Dubai’s business district with great views of the Burj Khalifa.

What to do: Arabian Adventures offers a wide range of stopover activities, including safaris and city excursions in the UAE.

Seawings offers scenic flights around Dubai and the gulf.

Jim Eagles stopped over in Dubai with the assistance of Emirates Airline, Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing and Emirates Towers Hotel.