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Fast & furious in Abu Dhabi

Image: Getty

David Whitley heads to Abu Dhabi to sample its most exhilarating activities


Watching from the viewing platform is scary enough. While Formula Rossa’s parked, water is sprayed from underneath it to keep it cool. When it sets off again, it’s at such a ferocious speed the target may as well be a distant galaxy.

Formula Rossa is the fastest rollercoaster in the world, reaching speeds of up to 148.5mph, while inflicting forces of 4.8G on its riders. It’s the crown jewel of Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi’s indoor, genre-redefining theme park. And it’s even more terrifying when you’re strapped in. Once the ride shoots off, though, there’s barely enough time to see or comprehend what’s going on. The G-forces push against the face, making cheeks wobble and mouths involuntarily open. At the tops of the climbs, it feels like only the harness is keeping the thrillseekers in their seats. Pre-ride nerves give way to thumping heartbeats and a visceral feeling of aliveness. It acts like the strongest of caffeine hits and immediately dispels any notion that Abu Dhabi might be too sedate.

The majority of Ferrari World’s other rides and attractions fall more into the fun than thrilling category, but that’s essentially what Yas Island is all about. Abu Dhabi has deliberately developed and set aside Yas as the place where the fun stuff happens, in the same way that Saadiyat Island — which is opening up branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre — is being positioned as the haven for culture. Aside from Ferrari World, there’s also the Yas Waterworld water park and, perhaps more importantly, Abu Dhabi’s Formula One circuit.

What makes the latter so special is how it’s used when world champion Lewis Hamilton and co aren’t whizzing around it. Test drives take place there and fast car-driving experiences can be indulged in, but on Tuesday nights the cars are kicked off the circuit altogether.

From the early evening onwards, two wheels take over from four. The 3.5-mile circuit is given over to cyclists, some of whom take it as a fairly serious training exercise, pedalling furiously along racing lines, clad in lycra, thighs pumping up and down like pistons. Others are kitted out in the shorts and T-shirts they’d be wearing anyway, simply taking the opportunity for exercise with a novelty twist. Thousands of bikes — some expensive, some borrowed free of charge from operators out the front — are pedalled around the circuits at various speeds. The circuit floodlights and the lightshow from the LED panels on the Yas Viceroy hotel adds a sense
of spectacle.

Even for a relatively out-of-shape plodder like myself who hasn’t so much as looked at a bike for two years and has no intention of doing more than two laps, it’s a thoroughly memorable experience. There’s something incredibly heartwarming and public-spirited about it — a track constructed for a big money sport being used in such an everyman way. Of course, pretending you’re Sebastian Vettel while puffing and panting around doesn’t hurt, either. There’s a fantasy element in the whole charade that makes it irresistibly appealing.

Invention plays a strong part in another of Abu Dhabi’s cycling experiences — fat biking in the desert. The city may be a rapidly evolving global hub, where new architectural feats shoot up every few months, but you don’t have to drive too far out to see what it’s been reclaimed from. The sand dunes climb higher and higher, taking on more orange and red colours, and begin to take over the horizon. Then, after a couple of hours, a mirage appears. The Qasr Al Sarab feels like the product of a fever dream — a lavish, sprawling palace built on the dunes. It’s an audacious project pulled off with aplomb: a luxury hotel that feels like something very different from the herd. And part of the magic comes in the activities on offer.

Fat biking is one of these, and as it’s best attempted before the heat of the Arabian sun makes things too uncomfortable, that means an early start. Through bleary eyes, it’s easy to see the difference between fat bikes and normal bikes. The tyres are bigger, wider and more cartoon-like than a normal bike’s. Apparently, this spreading of surface area makes cycling on sand much less arduous.

It doesn’t, however, make it simple — as quickly becomes apparent when considerably fitter members of the party start struggling up the dunes. A leisurely pootle around it’s not, but that adds to the sense of adventure.

If going up the dunes is hard work, then coming back down them again is a mixture of great fun and terror. They’re steeper than they look when you’re going up them, and it’s a test of nerve to not go overboard on the brakes and then fly over the handlebars. Trust in momentum and gravity is the only way forward. Racing along the flat at the end of the descent is the ultimate reward.

Cycling isn’t the only way to get around these gargantuan dunes, though. Much less arduous — for the humans, at least — is getting round by camel. The evening camel rides from Qasr Al Sarab head out across the stretch of desert that’s very close to where the opening scenes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens were shot. The camels are less inclined towards death-defying action sequences; they’re quite happy to plod along, in a very specific order that maintains their dominance hierarchies, as the sun lowers itself on the skyline. Getting on them, however, is quite the experience — the camels lurch upwards as they get to their feet — but the ride is less bumpy and uncomfortable than you might imagine. The main thing to contend with is the camel behind you nuzzling curiously against your leg.

After the ride, it’s time to get down again. The jolt as the camel gets to its knees is just as lurching and ludicrous as the one where it gets to its feet. But awaiting the riders is an impromptu ‘café’, with tables full of drinks and rugs on the sand, at the top of a dune. As sunsets go, with the camels being led back to their farm in the background, it’s pretty exquisite.

Heading eastwards from the city brings something very different. An hour-and-a-half away, Al Ain is the ancestral home of the UAE’s ruling family, noted for both its majestic mountains and wild oases. It also plays host to Wadi Adventure, a testament to the can-do, nothing-is-impossible attitude of the emirate. Here, a big pool with a wave machine kicking up solid surf sits in the shadow of the rubbly, stark mountainsides. The style of waves can be manipulated, making it a perfect practice and training spot for surfers.

But the surf pool is nothing compared to the two whitewater courses, which are used by Olympian kayakers and top-level rafters for practice when conditions aren’t conducive in their home countries. Whitewater rafting in a desert country seems like a bizarre thing to do, but it doesn’t take long in Abu Dhabi to learn that the bizarre is eminently and regularly achievable. Conveyor belts lift the rafts to the top, and from then on it’s a battle against the raging, foamy water. Instructors sit at the front, barking orders to paddle hard and duck down where appropriate. The first course is baby steps stuff, but the second very much isn’t. The difference between this and a river is the high level of technicality. There’s no long, floating respite between rapids — it’s a constant battle against them. And that battle isn’t always won; all too often the raft is spun round and waterfall drops have to be negotiated backwards or sideways. Each time a rough section is safely navigated or blundered through, there’s a mixture of thrill and relief. But there’s little rest before the call comes again: “FORWARD AGAIN! FORWARD!” If ever there was an apt catchphrase for Abu Dhabi, that would be it…

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