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The Terrifying Mountain

Whether you live in the UAE or are just visiting, an endless panorama of sand and sky awaits a within a few hours drive to the edge of the world’s largest continuous desert, whose unearthly landscape served as the backdrop to movies such as Dune and Star Wars VII, as well as the upcoming Tom Cruise-starrer, Mission Impossible 7.

Qasr Al Sarab Desert

A two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Abu Dhabi, through majestic sand dunes, lies Liwa Oasis. This ancient province is the ancestral home of the Bani Yas, one of the most influential tribes of Southern Arabia, the forebears of the ruling Al Nahyan and Al Maktoum families of the Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. According to legend, in 1761 clansmen followed a gazelle from Liwa to the shores of what was to become the gleaming city of Abu Dhabi, growing from a collection of barasti (palm-frond) huts, to a modern, technologically advanced city. 

However, until 1795, and for more than 400 years prior, Liwa served as headquarters of the Bani Yas, and remains a charming settlement today. A crescent of towns, forts, traditional Bedouin villages and date farms located deep in the desert, on the edge of the UAE-Saudi border, Liwa is a gateway to the infinite Rub Al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, of Arabia. The driest region in the world, lying virtually uninhabited, Rub Al Khali has tantalized kings and explorers with its otherworldly beauty, while standing unconquerable with its daunting, uninterrupted expanse of sand, the largest in the world.

Guarding its entrance is Tel Moreeb or “Terrifying Mountain,” one of the tallest sand dunes in the world. Accessing the dune is via a paved road, just a short 15-minute drive from Liwa, and doesn’t require a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The base of the dune is the permanent site of the annual Liwa Tal Moreeb Festival, the highlight of which is a race to the top of the dune. The festival brings together desert enthusiasts for a week of camping, 4WD and bike races, as well as fringe events including a drag race, motocross track challenge, camel race, horse race, classic cars competition, freestyle drifting and heritage events. On a regular day, dune buggies and sandboards abound, as do people attempting to drive up the dune in their 4WDs. 

The drive out to Tel Moreeb certainly provides a preview of the majestic desert scenery of Rub Al Khali. However, persistence pays, and should you manage to surmount its 300 meter height, climbing shifting sands at an intimidating 50 degree incline, this imposing dune offers spectacular views of the extraordinary desert it defends.

Nothing compares to the quietness you feel at sunrise in the desert.