“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” Dr Seuss
A unique Abu Dhabi experience shared by Shea Wittig
Few experiences can compare with joining thousands of people in the golden sand dunes of Abu Dhabi and, led by a live brass band, singing Christmas Carols under the stars.
Christmas isn’t a season you naturally associate with a Muslim country and Religion certainly means many different things to this transient group of Expats. However, out there, surrounded by a vast and exotic natural desert environment, people of all nationalities and beliefs join together in celebration, connected by the simple tradition of a joyous Festive Season.
There is no confusing theme once you arrive, as the stark contrast of the bold red and white colour of Christmas pops brilliantly against the golden tones of the surrounding sands. Practiced Carolers are there in full force so dust off the Santa hats, shake out the jackets, and add a sparkle of fairy lights where you can and you will fit in straight away.
What to expect attending Carols in the Desert
Carols in the Desert is organised by volunteers from St Andrews Church, Abu Dhabi.
Since this article was first published in 2018 and COVID hit, and unfortuantely the key event organisers have left the UAE so the annual event has been paused until further notice.
Thousands of people are known to descend upon the area and the suggestion to arrive in the late afternoon rather than the early evening is definitely something to keep in mind to ensure you secure a prime position.
There is an unmistakable lure of the desert which runs deep in the veins of the people who live in the Middle East and not even the challenging climb up the rising towers of sand will hold adventurers back.
The chosen setting for the carols is appropriately nestled within a natural amphitheatre. Golden dunes surround the flats and the excited squeal of children and adults alike, wild and free, echo out into the air as they take advantage of the desert playground while waiting for the sun to set. That is when a new type of atmosphere blankets the area …
Make no mistake, the setting is raw and rugged. The sand dunes are surrounded by yet more, you guessed it, sand dunes and there are no signs of civilisation to be seen. This means when the sun goes down, you will be enveloped by darkness. No street lights and no glow from nearby communities, just the twinkle generated from thousands of little fairy lights and bright torches packed especially for the occasion – and the result is nothing short of magical.
As the sun begins to set and the children start to show signs of fatigue from hours spent tackling the mountains of sand, it might just be the perfect signal to send them over to the complimentary hot chocolate stand.
Organisers have warmed their pots in anticipation of being inundated by those ready for a well-earnt boost of energy. Then it is just about time to settle in and sing.
The organisers of Carols In The Desert have literally thought of everything and it is during the lead-up to sunset where you begin to settle in, sit back and take notice.
Tents have been put up as campers prepare for both a spectacular desert sunset and have no intention of moving from their prime position until they enjoy the moment when it rises again in the morning.
Budding chefs (or just plain desperate Parents), gather around the provided cooking stations and the smell of coal-fired BBQ’s pleasantly fills the air.
As the gathering crowds begin to slowly settle and the incoming stream of arrivals begin to slow down, picnic rugs decorated with all types of food delicacies, become the new ‘ground cover’.
Make sure you literally pack everything you will need as there are no shops on site, or even near-by, for last-minute supplies. Camp chairs are welcome and so is the kitchen sink? But remember, everything you bring has to be carried up the dunes and then carried back down again at the end of the night.
Well maintained and adequately lit portable toilets are located on site for all visitor’s convenience. This is an event for people of all ages and, as long as you are capable of initially walking up a small dune, you will be fine.
My husband made it up there only a few weeks after a knee operation, while he was still on crutches. It was a slow walk granted, accompanied by the supporting arm of a generous event volunteer, but he made it all the same.
Event Location – How to find Carols in the Desert
The adventure of Carols in the Desert begins during your journey there. If finding an exact location in the desert isn’t where your deductive strengths lie, then your best bet is to head to one of the assigned meeting places in town – just make sure you arrive on time.
Here you will meet an event volunteer, they will give you a car sticker then, all you simply need to do is join the ‘train’ like a procession and, following the car in front, head out to the Carols In The Desert together.
GPS coordinates are available for those who are keen to make the trip independently.
You can join the conversation on the event Facebook Page closer to the event.
A 4WD capable of climbing the sand dunes is not needed in order to participate, however, keep in mind you do leave the highway and finish the last leg on a dirt road.
What to pack for Carols in the desert
Think camping in the desert, picnic in the dunes and frolicking in the sand and you will have everything covered. However, here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Picnic rug, camp chairs, beanbags
- Fairy lights, torches and headlights
- Warm clothing for when the sun goes down
- Mosquito repellent
- Family canines are more than welcome
- Fully stocked picnic baskets and cooler boxes
- A scarf or other practical face protection in case of a windy day
- Camping gear and warm bedding for those staying the night
- Consider rain gear – that’s right we had rain the year we attended
What is provided at Carols in the Desert
- Public Toilets
- Fire pits and BBQ’s
- Safety Bands with parent’s phone numbers added for children
- Full Brass Band
- Hot Chocolate
- Song Sheet
Common Etiquette and Eco Ethics
Organisers vigorously demand you leave the area just as you found it – or alternatively even better! The committee volunteers have dedicated hours of their time preparing this night for everyone to enjoy so show some respect, gratitude, and just common decency by cleaning your own area before you leave.
A truly unique experience in the UAE
I believe collecting experiences is one of the many rare gifts life can give to you. Snuggled up with my family, on a humble picnic rug on the desert sands, underneath millions of stars, singing Christmas Carols with people from all over the world, is definitely one spectacular entry in my book of memories.
There are few opportunities that allow you to leave behind the structure of everyday life and submerge yourself in a unique, unpredictable, and relatively untouched environment. The added bonus, in this case, is being submerged in the powerful vibe created by the gathering of people of all ages and backgrounds, who have come together to celebrate this joyous Festive Season.
If your experience is anything like ours then I confidently predict you will be moved by the energy and join me in consciously locking-in this moment in your book of Middle Eastern memories.