Mission: accomplished

CAMEL TRAIN: A Biblical line of dromedaries lope through Dubai's city limits.
CAMEL TRAIN: A Biblical line of dromedaries lope through Dubai's city limits.

Tom Cruise has never made me dizzy, until now.

His latest Mission: Impossible outing causes me to hold my breath and feel so faint that since leaving the cinema, I only have to glimpse his face on the back of a bus to have another fit of the vapours.

It isn't his manly - if miniature - physique that has me reeling, nor his acting skills: it's his co-star in the movie's most spectacular and exciting action scenes, the Burj Khalifa.

The world's tallest building, it's a sensuous symphony in curvaceous stainless steel and glass, rising in spiral steps to 828 metres, and as Cruise climbs it with one dodgy gripper glove and then abseils back down on a too-short cable, the views beyond him of the ground so far below are literally breathtaking.

This makes it all the more embarrassing that when I'm in Dubai and go to look at the tower, I can't find it. Already somewhat bamboozled by negotiating the 1200 shops on four levels in the Dubai Mall, when I emerge onto the terrace beside a vast fountain complex surrounded by shiny new skyscrapers, I gaze around for several minutes wondering why I can't pick out the Burj. Short answer: I'm not looking high enough.

Entranced by the dancing water shooting 150m into the air to a musical accompaniment, it's only when I think to tilt my head back further, and then further still, that I see the silver tower opposite in all its sparkling, audacious, 160-storeyed glory. All around me, people with cameras are walking backwards, trying to fit it into their viewfinders, while others simply stand and stare, their mouths hanging open, and not just because their heads are tipped so far back.

Astonishment is a common reaction in Dubai, and for me it started before I even arrived. The double-decker Emirates A380, an airliner on steroids, dwarfed the ordinary aircraft parked alongside it at Auckland Airport.

"You won't notice it take off," I was promised, worryingly - I find it reassuring to notice that my aircraft has left the ground before reaching the end of the runway - but it was true. Because of its size, it accelerates with none of the rattle of the small fry, and gets airborne without drama.

The cocktail bar, the cunningly designed seat pods, the 2000 hours of viewing in the entertainment system: these were remarkable too, but nothing amazed me more than finding out from the airshow that Dubai is on the Arabian Gulf and not the Mediterranean, as I'd vaguely imagined. It may be true that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive, but to travel ignorantly is to be continually surprised.

Even people who know where they are going, however, are surprised by Dubai, finding in an ancient landscape a continuously self-reinventing city that combines the newest developments in architecture, technology and commerce with traditional cultural customs and beliefs.

Take camel-racing. In a place with sweeping five-lane motorways streaming with fancy new cars, the mere concept of racing camels seems absurd, but it's a serious business with big prizes, although gambling is forbidden.

When I see a Biblical line of dromedaries loping along, I'm directed to look beyond the flowing robes of the riders to the small boxes on the backs of the unridden animals. These are robot jockeys: radio- controlled, with a rotating whip arm. They are operated by trainers driving alongside the track, thus allowing the camels to run much faster than in the bad old days when they were ridden by young boys.

Omar fills in the background details as he drives me into what, elsewhere, would be country, but in Dubai is desert: miles and miles of empty sand dunes.

The environment is not as inhospitable as it seems, because we see dainty sand gazelles, and solitary oryx standing sentinel on hilltops, their 90-centimetre spiral horns making a graceful curve above their heads as the sun sets behind them.

We are on a Desert Safari into the ominously named Empty Quarter, and we have already had the demonstration of falconry, where a jingling peregrine swooped down to the lure at up to 360kmh.

Now, we are second in a line of a dozen or so four-wheel-drives barrelling over the dunes, lurching and slithering, the windscreen view alternately empty sky on the up and nothing but sand on the down.

It's exciting, despite Omar's choice of Lionel Ritchie for the soundtrack, and when we arrive at our dinner spot under an inky sky, I'm ready for a cup of Arabian coffee. It smells disconcertingly of tea and dates, but sets me up for an evening of lounging on cushions at a low table as I work happily through a set menu of local cuisine, while a scarily manic Russian belly-dancer cavorts on a Persian carpet.

It's all rather touristy, and I decline the photo op with robes and hookah, but I enjoy my ride on Sheila the camel, and the novelty of standing among moonlit sand dunes in what Omar considers a chilly 29C is unmissable.

In my short stopover, I poke around souqs bustling with handsome men in immaculate white robes and mysterious women in burqas, who haggle over fragrant spices, dried rosebuds, live fish, gold jewellery, dates both dried and crunchy, and kiwifruit from Iran.

I walk under tall gold-glass buildings lining the sparkling blue creek, where battered dhows piled high with goods are unloaded by bare-chested workers.

The skyline is a glorious mix of minarets, skyscrapers, cranes and traditional wind-towers. In the mall, small boys in robes totter across an ice-rink pushing plastic penguins, while downstairs, people stroll through a glass tunnel as sharks swim overhead. From top to bottom, Dubai is full of surprises.

The writer travelled courtesy of Emirates Airlines.

FACT FILE

Getting there: Emirates flies four times daily from New Zealand to its hub in Dubai, a convenient route to Europe and Britain, with direct connections onwards. Economy class return earlybird fares are now available to London from $2359.84, inclusive of all taxes: emirates.co.nz

Where to stay: In Dubai, Le Meridien is close to the airport, yet quiet, and there is a free shuttle: lemeridien-dubai.com

What to do: Arabian Adventures offers a range of guided tours, including the Desert Safari, arabian-adventures.com.

Even non-shoppers should visit the Dubai Mall for its many attractions, including the musical fountain. There is an observation deck on the Burj Khalifa's 124th floor; pre-booked admission is cheaper, burjkhalifa.ae.

The Dominion Post