Well, the teenage package which arrived by our bedside on Thursday 6th January 2012 was hard to grumble at. The peanut-sized Italian baby has blossomed into a beautiful young girl with flaxen hair, pale skin, clear blue eyes and a sweet soul. Indeed, she had done a huge amount of growing since we left the UK six weeks before (frequently complaining of 'growing pains' in her legs) - in preparation, clearly, for her arrival into teenage-hood.
We had planned a special day to celebrate The Big Event at the end of The Big Adventure, so there was no time to hang around opening presents. We grabbed a quick breakfast and had a taxi waiting to whisk us off into the desert at 8.30am. With Dubai so greatly expanded, this took longer than you might imagine. Our white-robed chauffeur, Halim, was charming and friendly. We had explained outside the hotel that it was E's 13th birthday and with that he invited her into the front seat. Guest of honour.
Finally we cleared the city and the tarmac now stretched endlessly into the pale, flat, dusty horizon. It was hard to see where we would be doing the promised dune-bashing. After nearly an hour of driving we pulled off into a dodgy looking place with carefully placed camels and a donkey and an equally carefully-placed 'gift shop'. Before we knew it we were being swathed in chequered head cloths for reasons which we didn't quite understand and no-one seemed able to explain until it all became clear: photo of silly tourists in local dress, big fat donation of Dubai dirhams please! Nice Halim was standing by smiling (visualising his cut of the profits no doubt!) so we felt obliged to cough up equally nicely and in a smiley sort of way despite feeling a tad ripped-off. The next hurdle to overcome was the 'extra' cost for the dune buggies - a part of the day which we had not anticipated. The reluctant accountant was eventually persuaded to part with more dosh on the basis of not wanting to spoil E's special day so that we could each climb astride a dune buggy and drive it around a prescribed area of dunes. This apparently innocent little exercise proved alarmingly more difficult than you might think and both N and I (competent motorbike riders) found ourselves teetering at alarming angles on steep sides of shifting sand and having to be rescued. Lessons learnt, confidence gained, and by the end of the session we'd started to get the hang of it.
So what next? Frankly we weren't sure. It was all becoming a bit of a magical mystery tour. But the next thing I knew was that N was hassling me out of the loo telling me that 'the others' had already gone - what others? Gone where? I was bustled into the Land Cruiser, which Halim had now put into full Adventure in the Desert mode (took air out of the tyres and flipped into full four-wheel drive ratios), and the next thing we knew we were hurtling off up the nearest large sand dune behind the buggy park and plopping over the edge into an entirely different landscape, trying to catch up with the vehicle which had left shortly before us (clearly without a loo break).
The dunes here were large, orangey coloured and fantastic for sliding up and down in a Land Cruiser. Just to add to the atmosphere, Halim treated us to an atomospheric soundtrack of Arabian music as we whooped with every sideways slide down an impossibly steep sandy slope before skids and then accelerating back up onto the ridge before another daredevil descent down the other side. It was exhilirating, it really was, and as I looked at the back of E's blonde head in the front seat, getting the full impact of the stunts, I thought 'Yes, she'll remember her 13th birthday!'. At a certain point we caught up with our companion vehicle and we both stopped for a quick drink out of the cool box. Dear Halim took a stick and went to elaborate lengths to write Happy 13th Birthday in the sand for E while L did cartwheels all around. He then insisted we take a photograph. It was very sweet.
And so the dune bashing adventure came to a close, after a few more sweeps and slides and ups and downs, and we found ourselves alone in an Arabian Nights permanent campsite. It was here we did sand-boarding (don't bother) and had a ride on a camel of about 1 minute's duration. The camel looked as bored as its minder. It was a feast day and we were clearly as welcome as a hole in the head by the lone person left to hold the fort. Still, we took photos and had a laugh, and then imbibed more cold drinks while having a look at one of the birds of prey which resided in the camp (where just the night before hundreds of wide-eyed tourists were watching belly dancers under the stars). I did not get the feeling we had missed much. But maybe I'm wrong.
Now, though, it was time to return to Dubai and we instructed Halim to take us to our sister hotel on the coast which we had inspected the previous evening. We arrived by late morning and happily took up residence on the sand (all the loungers being alreadly taken anyway), with books and towels to hand, while admiring the turquoise waters. Swims were duly had, E in seventh heaven, before we retired to the beach bar area to order a late lunch. There was certainly a buzz about the place and The Birthday Girl was glowing with it all. We opened cards and presents while waiting for our food - some of which were brought from England all those weeks ago, others hastily grabbed in the shopping mall the day before. Memories of Dubai.
After an agreeable lunch, N and I felt the draw of a post-prandial snooze while the girls frolicked in the sea and the swimming pool. By 6pm the sun was dipping distincly towards the horizon, and half an hour or so later we were joined by an ex-work colleage of N's and her family who had moved out here to work a few years ago. They clearly love it and our previous get-together in a restaurant in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, seemed a lifetime ago. We had aperitifs at the beach bar and a quick tour of their home before getting in the car and heading to the Dubai Mall again for a birthday meal (complete with musicians singing Happy Birthday) and the wonders of the dancing fountains. Special ice-creams followed before an exhausted set of children (not to say adults) were dropped back at the Hilton Dubai Creek for the final night's sleep on The Big Adventure before boarding the plane back to Blighty. It was a very sad thought, but at least we went out with a bang - quite literally, as the skies lit up around the Creek with multi-coloured fireworks exploding in a magnificent show in celebration of the Dubai Shopping Event which was taking place over the next few days. Does that tell a story, I ask myself? I think it does. Nevertheless I took a photo or two, for good measure, and then sunk, exhausted but happy, into cool hotel sheets for our last night of family freedom before the shackles of home and work life took hold once again.
The Big Adventure was over. But it had been good. Very good. We went out on a high with a fun-filled yet interesting, eye-opening and exotic stop-over in one of the world's most popular destinations. I had been slightly dreading it after the naturalness of New Zealand. All in Dubai is artifice. But it was fun and friendly and led us gently back into the idea that before long we would be back treading the tiles in the Trafford Centre, The Dubai Mall of England's northwest, getting new school shoes and other necessary items - but without the sunshine, the palm trees, the turquoise seas and the sand, of course. Another year had just begun.
Our desert adventure
|Opening presents at lunch|
|Father and First Born|
|One to remember|
|Is it really all over?|
|And this is the birthday girl 13 years ago, 3rd from right!|