Encounters with an Arabian Oryx

Continuing my challenge on nature photography inspired journey of the seven continents, we move from Africa to Asia. First stop: United Arab Emirates. 


“Are you sure I can walk anywhere?”

“Yeah, anywhere you want. Just wear closed shoes and keep the resort in view to find your way back,” my South African guide reassured gesturing toward 140 square miles of rolling sand protected by the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. “The dunes over there should be good for watching sunset,” he pointed west of the road as he steered our vehicle back toward the lodge after our evening wildlife drive.

Arabian Oryx along my intended pathway.

The sun was already sinking, so I rushed along the sidewalk past the free-standing villas toward the area my guide had indicated. When I reached a break in the vegetation where the next villa was a few dunes away, I stepped off the sidewalk and into the loose sand intending to make my break from the manicured resort area. A pair of gazelles ceased grazing and eyed me suspiciously. As I encroached further upon their domain, they scrambled around the bend and out of sight. I followed their pathway around a bush and stopped abruptly. An Arabian oryx stood roughly 20 feet away, munching leaves from a low-hanging branch. It lowered its head and peered at me from below the arching bough.

“What an opportunity!” I thought and lifted my camera.

The oryx took a step forward.

I took a picture.

The oryx took another step.

I took another picture.

The oryx closed 10 feet between us with a nonchalant gait, then abruptly quickened its pace and lowered its lance-like horns.

Note the impressive horns of the Arabian Oryx.

With clarity sparked by adrenaline, I whirled around and sprinted forward. The sharp spears thrust in my direction missed my backpack by inches. My heart pounded and I kept running, but this was just a warning. The Oryx stopped on the dune above me, standing tall in its victory and watching closely to ensure my continued retreat. It needn’t have bothered. I was ill-equipped to challenge and simply grateful to be puncture-free.

I returned to the sidewalk and chose a new route several dunes and many bushes below where I estimated the oryx might meander. Once clear of the villas, I turned back for an overview and was surprised to see my oryx emerge just one dune down from me. I arched up and over the next big dune, trying to put more space between us. The oryx once again appeared, just one dune away. I tried a lower dune this time, angling wide to skirt a few extra bushes. The oryx appeared again, one dune away. We continued to criss cross dunes for half a mile or so, me keeping a wary eye on his whereabouts while he seemed rather oblivious of my presence. I was relieved when he finally seemed distracted by a herd of oryx in the distance and I was able to put more than just a few dunes between us.

Finally, it was just me and the desert. I’d left the roads and buildings behind. I’d evaded the oryx. It was simply peach-colored sand punctuated by the occasional bush in every direction. I watched as the sun faded into the haze above the horizon. The heat dissipated quickly. I put my pack down by a large bush and ran up the face of one dune, then slid down the next. There was something freeing about being alone in this landscape. It was vast, yet felt intimate as I tucked into my own sand basin.

I was well settled in my solitude when I heard a beating sound behind me. Something large was coming hard and fast. Anxiously, I turned toward the sound. The same oryx I’d been encountering all evening pounded across my dune, sending up a cloud of sand as it headed directly for me.

Panicked, I looked around for somewhere to hide. There was nothing. I kept my eyes fixed on the charging oryx as I backed toward my pack. My muscles twitched at the ready as my brain calculated options – wield pack as shield, run, freeze, fight? The oryx was closing in and I had no plan. I stood still and stared. The oryx slowed. It took a few more steps toward me, then stopped. We were once again 20 feet apart and based on our first encounter, this was too close. I held my breath and waited, watching for an indication of what might come next and hoping it wouldn’t involve aiming those horns at me again.

The oryx gazed at me for what felt like hours, then turned and walked to a bush just beyond me. It charged its head into the foliage, ripping leaves and stems from the plant as it rubbed its horns through the branches. It turned toward me again, gave me another long gaze then trotted up the dune and into the next basin.

Arabian Oryx amongst the sand dunes.

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