Enjoy a stunning stargazing experience at Mleiha
Stargazing in the desert had been on my bucket list for a long time. Finally, I got a chance to realise this cherished wish through my much-loved destination, Mleiha, Sharjah. One of the many activities that Mleiha’s archaeological centre offers is an overnight stargazing camp in the desert. It’s not glamping, but it doesn’t come cheap either. It’s Dh250 per person approximately and add about Dh65 per person for dinner (optional). So, all told, it came to about Dh1,500 for a night for a family of five. Was it worth it?
We were to report to the Mleiha centre at around 7 pm. A guide met us outside the centre’s gate and asked us to follow his car. He guided us to the campsite, which was about a 15-minute drive on a bumpy road. We drove right up to the campsite, which looked scintillating, thanks to its LED lights amid a bonfire.
Though I was disappointed that it was too close to a road (I’d have preferred to go right into sand dunes), I was relieved that we didn’t have to trek to reach the site. I like trekking, but not on sand, and certainly not in the dark. It scored a perfect 10 for complying with social distancing norms and other precautionary measures that were enforced because of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Around four-five clusters were spread out, each made up of a tent (for sleeping), a carpet with cushions for lying down and lounging, and another carpet with a table for dinner. So, you could be quite self-contained in this cluster and might not even run into other groups at the campsite. A bonfire was lit at the centre and folding chairs were arranged around it.
From this campsite, which was exclusively for overnight campers, you could see a couple of other similar set-ups nearby. These were for the non-overnight guests, and those who had opted for the four-hour sunset lounge experience. We were told that dinner would be served in a while, till then we could help ourselves to beverages and that they would inform us about the stargazing shortly.
It was not too cold, and the kids immediately ran to the target shooting spot near the bonfire, where some bows and arrows were kept for entertainment. That, as it turned out, was the only entertainment for the evening. We were summoned to stargazing nearby, where there were two Celestron telescopes stationed. Unfortunately, this bit was over in less than five minutes. The guide just pointed out the constellation Orion (the hunter in the sky), which was very bright and could be seen through naked eye, and another constellation, the M-shaped Cassiopeia. We could see a nebular region (which looked like a cloud) and some constellation in between through a telescope. And that was that. I was hoping that they would explain more about the Big dipper, Little dipper, North star, some planets, but they pointed those out only when asked. This part could have been executed much more engagingly.
Soon, the kids ran back to the target shooting, which turned out to be a star attraction. Then dinner was served on the table near our tent in boxes. The food was delicious and plentiful. We refrained from opening many of the boxes, so that the staff could help themselves to it later. There were chicken drumsticks, chicken kebabs, a Thai curry, rice, Arabic bread, hummus, muhammara, and Umm Ali and sweet samosas for dessert.
We hung around the bonfire for some time, though it wasn’t that cold. But there’s something relaxing about looking into a crackling bonfire outdoors on a dark night. I amused myself by comparing the setting to Game of Thrones, because there were three lit oval-shaped lamps on the ground, like three dragon eggs, with a bonfire among them.
The tent was a tight fit for five of us, but we did squeeze in. There were inflatable mattresses, on top of which we would sleep, bundled up in sleeping bags. The kids immediately started jumping on the top of the mattress, saying that it was like being on a trampoline. The sleeping bags kept us warm through the night.
Late at night, I could hear ATV riders zooming into the dunes nearby. Who were these adventurers, I wondered. And why would they want to ride at 2 in the morning? This is one of the reasons the location did not feel secluded, being so close to the road, and also because of other campsites. Next morning, we saw a movie set for a Telugu film being constructed.
Around 6 am, we were woken up by the staff, who had come to get us for the sunrise viewing. First, they drove us to Fossil Rock, where they did the usual pouring of water to make the fossils stand out. Then, there was a short trek to the sunrise viewing point on a small elevation, from where we could see the sun rising from behind the mountains. Again, this wasn’t ideal because we could see a settlement below. A small dune bashing ride brought us back to the campsite, where breakfast was waiting to be served. We helped ourselves to croissants, cheese, jam, granola. Kadak chai was sorely missed.
After breakfast, we gathered our belongings and left. While the experience was certainly interesting, it also piqued my interest in the Dubai Astronomy Club for stargazing.