real life

Dubai: So much more than sand and shopping

Wendy with a camel


The guide had to be joking. Then again, we were in Dubai, a place where the extraordinary is commonplace.

Since arriving in the modern desert oasis, I had been shopping in the Mall of the Emirates, which just so happens to have its own ski field. Not bad, considering temperatures outside often rock the high 40s.

Not to be outdone, a visit to the largest mall on earth, Dubai Mall, saw me scooting past an enormous aquarium and Olympic-size ice-skating rink on the way to stock up on Marks & Spencer knickers and macaroons at Galleries Lafayette.

I had seen the world’s tallest building, the sublime Burj Khalifa, an elegant monolith that looked like God had dropped her Art Deco earring, only for it to land wrong side up in the sand.

The aquarium in the shopping centre

I had swum at Jumeirah Beach looking up at the unforgettable uber luxury hotel, Burj Al Arab, rubbing my eyes in disbelief its 321m-high sail is not really Neptune’s yacht about to take off in a strong wind.

I had dune-bashed at high speeds, the driver turning the golden sand into a spray behind us like a wave about to dunk our Jeep. I had smoked a shisha pipe under a full moon in the desert, ridden a camel, had my arm tattooed in filigree henna and waited beside burqa-wearing women at air-conditioned bus stops.

I had poured water on a rock in the middle of the desert to reveal thousands of shell fossils, fantastic reminders the dry plains were once an ocean.

I’d hailed pink roofed taxi cabs (indicating female drivers) and scooted past a flamingo sanctuary smack bang in the middle of town. And in an effort to make it from the spice souks (sellers) in Deira to the gold traders across the creek in the old part of town, Bastakiya, I had jumped a wooden water taxi.

Talk of scorpions as big as your hand and camel spiders that look like small aliens and bite like bitches in the dessert had terrified and intrigues me in equal measure, me and I couldn’t believe my jaded city eyes when the pomegranate juice I ordered came out in a pint size beer stein (and cost around a dollar!).

I had slid down water slides at theme parks to rival Disneyland, and tried to fit in a trip to Ferrari World in nearby Abu Dhabi and a chance to dive for pearls but run out of time.

Burj Khalifa

But my guide, Waquir, had to be pulling my chain this time. I couldn’t believe there was such a thing as a robot camel jockey – even in Dubai.

“They are very light in weight, much better than human jockeys,” he said, straight-faced which, for the affable local, meant a big white-toothed grin.

“The sheiks who own the camels follow them around the track in their cars while they race, using the remote control to make the jockey whip harder.”

Now, I wasn’t alone in thinking “yeah, pal and I’m following them on my magic carpet” but lo and behold, Waquir pulled the car off the highway and down a dirt road to a local store. And there, before me, was a robot camel jockey that reached up to my knee, resplendent in coloured silks, peaked riding cap, whip and all.


“See, robot jockey!” Waquir said proudly, no doubt aware that had we put a wager on his claim, he would be a much richer Arabian Adventures guide at that moment.

After taking photos of the little jockeys lined up inside the shop it was decided that a trip to the camel races to see this little blighters in action was an absolute must.

And, in what turned out to be one of the most fun things I have ever done in my travelling life, the next morning bright and early I found myself trackside at the camel races.

Mingling with the trainers as they harnessed their little robots to their prized female camels (male camels are the lesser species in the camel world, only good for breeding and eating) we followed them to the gates and “they’re off” (which, I will not even attempt to translate in Arabic).

Just like our guide had described, along side the camels at full stride were their owners in their big white Jeeps, eagerly pressing the faster buttons on their robot camel jockey controls.

The robot jockeys

At the finishing line, the sound of the frenetic slap, slap, slap on camel hide could be heard as the lumbering beasts topped with their weird robot riders awkwardly galloped home. Hilarious.

I thoroughly recommend seeing this incredible sport on a trip to Dubai – and taking the kids with you. The city is like a Las Vegas minus the gambling and sin, with so much to do and so much modern grandeur both elegant and unintentionally kitsch to enjoy.

And then there is the upmarket side of the place, the dining, accommodation, eating and shopping that is available in a place where the rich beyond comprehension go to play.

But that will have to be another trip. And something tells me as grand as it all no doubt must be, unless a robot jockey is doing the serving, it won’t hold a candle to the chaos and colour of the camel races for me.


Think of Dubai as a microcosm of the world’s best dining experiences.

For a start, the local food is not only delicious and nutritious it is also ridiculously cheap. Two of my favourite meals of the trip involved sitting street side and making my way through platters of barbeques meats (the flame roasted chicken being something I will never forget), and piles of tabouli, dips, olives and dates. I heartily suggest Al Mallah for the best shawarmas you will ever eat (plus THAT chicken) and Ravis for Pakistani food you will dream about (I still do, regularly).

A skating rink in the shopping centre.

For a more upmarket experience that will blow your socks off, try any of the restaurants at the Shangri La Hotel. Amwaj is the go for fish and seafood, however its gold chocolate egg desert should be cracked and eaten to be believed. Marrakech is the place for traditional Moroccan cuisine and Hoi An comes Highly Recommended, by Time Out Dubai for modern Vietnamese for good reason. Even the Chinese food at Shang Palace is world class.


If you get a chance, also visit the Park Hyatt hotel. Book in for brunch on Friday – the day all Dubai comes out to play – at its superb French restaurant, Traiteur.


Mamamia stayed at the Jumeriah Creekside Hotel, a modern edifice close to the airport. Not only is the hotel itself a piece of living art, its pools are unforgettable – especially the glass rooftop pool that juts out in to the foyer. We were also lucky enough to stay at the Shangri-la, mind-blowing for service and luxury and within walking distance to most of Dubai’s attractions. Again, if you cant afford a stay, at least go for a visit. You won’t regret it.


Arabian Adventures are the people to tour with. Most of the desert is national park however, Arabian Adventures are the only company allowed to use the area for expeditions as they strictly operate within environmental boundaries. Check out their website for the range of tours however do not miss the Arabian safari – it has it all from Falcons to dune bashing, camel rides, belly dancing and more.



Emirates flies to Europe via Dubai making it the ideal airline for a stopover on the way however, the place deserves to be a destination of its own. The airline is especially kid friendly with an integrated entertainment system and, as it recently merged with Qantas, its frequent flyer program Skymiles can be used with Qantas’ scheme and vice versa.


Forget what you have heard about Dubai – it is a very friendly and accommodating city and is most respectful to women. The locals do not expect you to be covered up from head to toe but merely to exhibit some modesty ie: no mini skirts, singlets and other revealing garments. To find out more about this incredible culture, book in for lunch and an open discussion with locals at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in the old area of Bur Dubai. It will certainly be an eye opened and dispel any misconceptions you may have.

There is a zero alcohol driving regulation in Dubai however taxicabs are frequents and cheap. Alcohol is allowed to be consumed in restaurants and bars however, not on the street.

Read about more of Wendy’s incredible travel experiences to places like The Great Barrier Reef, France & Italy.

Wendy Squires has been a journalist for more than 20 years, starting work at News Ltd as a cadet journalist before moving to New York to work as a freelance writer. She has edited Cleo and Australian Style magazines as well as holding senior positions on Elle, Mode, Who Weekly, Madison and the Australian Women’s Weekly, where she is currently associate editor. She is the author of a novel titled The Boys’ Club, based on her brief experience as a television publicist and is currently working on her second to be published by Random House in the new year.

 Have you ever been to Dubai? What was your experience?