Rob Nicholas Building Sand Sherpa – Dubai’s Eco-Adventure Offering

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1. Rob Nicholas. You’ve lived in the UAE for 37 years, which is quite long for most UAE based expats. Talk to us a little about your first memories of the move?

I arrived on April 12, 1986, so am coming up now to 38 years of being here. I moved just a few days before my 11th birthday and have very distinct memories of first arriving here. We took a short walk up to Al Diyafah Street, which was close to our house in Satwa, opposite the Galadari family’s villa (a prominent local family). I can still picture the old man who used to make bread outside his shop on a side street and the smell and taste of enjoying my first fresh fruit cocktail and shawarma. Coming here was transformative for myself and my whole family and we have a very close relationship as we came together to interpret new experiences and occasional challenges.

My fascination with the desert was almost immediate. My family had a simple 4×4 – a Daihatsu Rocky – and we would explore the wilderness of the UAE, camping with friends and enjoying freedoms we never knew existed. A complete contrast to restrictive city life in Birmingham where I had moved from.

2. We love the name “Sand Sherpa” for your camp. Take us through how you settled on it as a name for the concept, and what inspired the concept behind the camping experience at Sand Sherpa?

I’ve always admired the Sherpas of the Himalayas who guide and assist adventurers in their quest to tackle the world’s toughest peaks. I borrowed their name as Sand Sherpa aims to also assist and guide, as well as encouraging a level of independence from our adventurers, which makes for a richer and more rewarding participation.

Sand Sherpa aims to put our adventurers in touch with nature and to feel part of it. As humans, this is our natural environment and by integrating with it, we feel more relaxed and connected with each other – our family, friends, and other adventurers.

We use our own conceived camping equipment and have built the camp ourselves. Very few accessories have been bought off the shelf. From our trailers to our tables and grills, they have been put together by ourselves as a team. Even our vehicles have been rebuilt for our own purposes.

Although we aim to provide a comfortable stay, we are keen to point out that we do not offer glamping, which is a popular trend across the world. This is actually the opposite of camping, where modern luxury comforts and separation from nature are hallmarks of its approach.

3. How did Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve become the ideal home for Sand Sherpa? What makes this location particularly compelling for the product and for your guests.

The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is one of Dubai’s greatest achievements, yet also the one that people know so little about. This area is testament to the importance that the emirate places on nature and the natural desert environment that spawned our city and its people.

Imagine a destination so small that has dedicated five percent of its total landmass to nature. A place that has contributed to bringing Arabian Oryx out of extinction in the wild (the only species recorded to have achieved this) and a land with very limited access to automobiles and the general public. This is Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). 

The desert in DDCR is unique. An abundance of vegetation, antelope and the lack of vehicular interference has created an amazing habitat of tree groves, dunes, and gravel plains that we are proud to show our adventurers. This is the real modern luxury – a true escape to nature that is untouched and unspoiled, yet accessible to us, just 45 minutes out of the city.

My business partner for the camp, Pete Bergh, has worked in this reserve for the whole of his career in Dubai (over 22 years), starting off as a field guide at Al Maha Desert Resort, before becoming a falconer and having his own business. Pete managed to facilitate our operation in this remarkable area.

4. During our stay, we enjoyed the unique experience of camping in one of your trailers. Can you unpack for our readers, the ingenuity behind their design? Take us through their features and why this is a unique concept for camping for families, couples, and solo adventurers?

The trailers are great because they have a minimal footprint (the base of two tyres) and provide a very comfortable and exciting stay in our custom-made rooftop tents. We have incorporated solar power, refrigeration, shower water and storage into these units which can run independently without charge for a whole season just capturing energy from the sun.

The trailers have received a second life as they were originally used by the army in the UK. As simple tubs with wheels there wasn’t much to them, but we built them up to be fully self-sustaining camping units. Our larger examples not only have the penthouse suite rooftop tents, but also accommodation underneath as a double bunk. They have become a signature of Sand Sherpa.

5. Can you describe the landscape in which the camp sits, and what sort of safari opportunities form the combined offering at Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve with a stay at Sand Sherpa?

We operate in a grove of Acacia Trees spread over three quarters of a square kilometre. We have just 12 camping spots and aim to provide privacy and a sense of escape for our adventurers, as well as a communal dining area and comfortable bathrooms.

Sand Sherpa camp is situated in the remotest corner of the reserve almost at a converging border between Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi. Apart from our presence, this is a wilderness area, that is exclusive to the natural flora and fauna of the reserve. We are the only operator permitted in this very special part of the reserve and our adventurers benefit from seeing an abundance of desert life here.

The journey to and from camp is as much a part of the experience as the stay. Our wildlife safari drive is complete with all the sights and sounds of our commentary as we aim to educate our participants on all they see around them and provide an insight into the timeless beauty of this very special environment.

6. You are described as “Dubai’s ultimate eco-camping adventure.” Can you take us through what makes the experience eco-conscious? What initiatives do you deploy that ensure sustainability and learning opportunities for your guests?

Education is at the heart of our experience. We don’t just talk the talk but go to great efforts to actually minimize our impact on the area where we operate and also to ensure that our adventurers follow our lead based on their learnings and experiences at Sand Sherpa.

By appreciating nature, we value it, protect it, and have a desire to preserve it. That is our most important deliverable at every camp – to make sure every adventurer leaves us with a greater understanding and appreciation of Dubai’s natural environment.

In terms of our own efforts, all power comes from solar. We don’t use fuel-based generators. We operate ex-military people movers so need less vehicles and fuel on our drives and safaris. We keep only to designated tracks and don’t veer off them to harm the natural landscape. We avoid plastics, use the minimum firewood (sourced and harvested locally from invasive species of trees) and ensure little food wastage. The list goes on, but these are among our key initiatives.

7. How long does the season run at Sand Sherpa, how accessible is the camp for international and local guests, and what sort of groups do you in camp?

I wish it was longer, but our season is just 6-7 months and that depends on the weather or as the Bedouin used to say the “hot-hot” (Mwasim al-Ged). We operate for as long as the weather supports us being able to camps and safaris. This differs a little from year to year.

We host all types of adventurers – solo, couples and families – but also schools (which we love), corporates and special interest groups.

We have recently developed a programme of activities based around Nomad Ways, so can organize three-stone fireplace cooking, treks and other activities which are ideal for teambuilding and events.

8. Let’s switch gears a little bit and bring it back to yourself and your vision for the camp. Where would you like to see the brand and concept evolve in the next 3-5 years?

Sand Sherpa is unique in Dubai as we have developed a business based on a passion rather than to address a gap or opportunity in the market – although we have found that we have filled one! We’d like to continue doing what we love and sharing that with residents and visitors.

I have special memories of the resident that was gifted our experience as a leaving resident. He left both happy and sad that after 12 years living here, it was his best weekend in Dubai, yet his first time going to the desert and camping. And of the children that visit us and participate in the commentary for other guests. It is always very special and a unique privilege to share the wonders of the desert with people discovering and enjoying it for the very first time.

In terms of expansion, we wouldn’t want to expand the current site as we would like to preserve both the nature and our experience. However, we have been looking for other sites that could support similar activities. Sadly, they are few and far between and DDCR is a special place to compare anywhere else to.

9. When is not in the desert taking on the serenity of its dunes or connecting with guests in camp, what does he like to do for fun?

Spending time with my family. It is the most rewarding aspect of life, and it doesn’t matter what we are doing. Discovering new things together through activities, travel and exploration is particularly fun.

10. Take us through your thoughts on how Sand Sherpa as a hospitality/adventure company, is helping shape conservation efforts in the UAE and why is this important?

I see Sand Sherpa not just as an adventure company but an education provider. We provide a unique brand of edutainment, that is immersive. It doesn’t feel like we are teaching, and the adventurer may not feel like they are learning, it happens naturally in nature.

As I said earlier, value comes from appreciation. Everyone that leaves Sand Sherpa does so with more open eyes of what’s around them and a better understanding of the place where they live. There is more to Dubai than its wonderful city and there is a natural environment just waiting to be explored and discovered – but in a sympathetic and considerate way.

To learn more about Sand Sherpa, visit



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