The sun is just dipping below the horizon as a steady line of four-wheel-drives, and a few plucky little sedans, pour into the Al Qudra oasis on the outskirts of Dubai.
The sky is tinged red, the sun a scorching orange, setting the vast lakes that interrupt the desert ablaze with color.
It's these vast expanses of water in the middle of the dunes that the visitors have come for. They're setting up picnic blankets and camp chairs and posing for group photos.
The man-made desert oasis of Al Qudra is home to myriad artificial lakes, surrounded by towering sand dunes and local fauna, making it a top recreation spot for residents of Dubai. But in 2018, the local tourist attraction got a bump in popularity when a mysterious new lake appeared.
Seemingly overnight, two water-filled lagoons in the shape of intertwined hearts appeared, atop an arrangement of vegetation that spelled out the word "love." And so, the Love Lake was born, and the people flocked to its shores for its Instagram-ready backdrops, its wildlife and its seclusion.
By royal appointment
In fact, on this night, the lake is a destination quite literally fit for royalty: As we pull up, a Mercedes-Benz G-Class passes by with the license plate "1" - the car famously driven by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.
It's perhaps not entirely surprising: Sheikh Mohammed is frequently photographed around Al Qudra, and it was his son who unveiled the Love Lake to the world in the first place.
Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, revealed the new tourist attraction, fittingly, in a surprise Instagram post in November 2018. The aerial view of the interlinking love hearts made headlines across the UAE -- given the fact that they'd seemingly appeared overnight, and no one had known construction on new lakes was underway.
But this was all part of the plan. A spokesperson from Sheikh Mohammed's engineering office says the project, which started construction on March 11, 2018, was shrouded in secrecy from its inception.
"The project was managed discreetly with minimum involvement from anyone outside the project team. The idea was to announce and unveil this beautiful project to the world as a surprise."
City of superlatives
Dubai is no stranger to man-made marvels. It is, after all, home to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, the world's highest outdoor infinity pool, at Address Beach Resort, and a few attractions with more tenuous claims to fame -- such as Ski Dubai, the largest indoor ski slope in a mall, and the Dubai Frame, the world's largest picture frame.
The spokesperson says the Love Lake project came with a simple design brief from Sheikh Mohammed himself, of creating "a symbol of love in the desert," while also providing a unique new tourist destination for couples and families.
And in a city where Instagram reigns supreme, the Love Lake leaned in to the social media craze and came complete with a plethora of heart motifs and signage identifying the best selfie points. Over 16,000 trees and thousands of flowering plants, specially selected for the desert climate, were planted at the site. It's even supposedly visible from space.
A specialized workforce were brought in to work on the site "around the clock" to meet the targeted completion time of 20 months (while Sheikh Hamdan unveiled the site in November 2018, work continued for another full year to complete the project). And every detail of the site had the environment in mind.
The construction plan was careful to ensure "the natural tranquility of the area wasn't disturbed," and sustainability was a focus early on. The seating facilities at the site were all made using eco-friendly materials. It has unique bamboo water sinks with traditional-style taps, as well as shaded areas and fire pits.
There's even a dedicated running track around the site -- if you fancy a quick jog through the desert under the beating sun.
And the team has made sure the wildlife will be taken care of, too. The Love Lake is home to more than 150 species of birds including eagles, ducks, swans, falcons and flamingos. Desert wildlife such as gazelles and oryx can also be spotted, if you're lucky.
These days, the Love Lake can attract between 1,000 to 4,000 people per day. It's kept in immaculate condition with dedicated maintenance and operation teams assigned specifically for that purpose. The lake is even equipped with two filling lines, with water level sensors, to ensure that even in the hotter months, the water stays topped up.
"There is considerable expertise spanning several disciplines that goes into the upkeep of a lake such as this," the spokesperson says.
New Moon Lake this April
But Dubai wasn't done announcing new surprise desert lakes.
Earlier this year, near to the Love Lake, a crescent-shaped lake appeared among the dunes, just in time for Ramadan. Moon Lake was announced via a local photographer's Instagram page with a drone video capturing the site in its entirety. It was, again, wholly unexpected, but celebrated excitedly.
It's why, on a Friday afternoon, swarms of people are gathering lakeside, in the middle of the desert. The mighty skyline of Dubai isn't visible here, and wiling away the days birdwatching or camping in the undulating dunes is a welcome moment of respite from the chaos of the city.
Just, be warned: don't attempt the drive out to the Love Lake, or Moon Lake, in a two-wheel-drive, no matter how plucky it may be. You might, speaking from experience, get stuck and require the help of a friendly family out for a picnic to free yourself.
Luckily, out here, there's no shortage of friendly families out for a picnic. That's part of the experience.