Amongst the most enviable things about living in the UAE is having the opportunity to drive beyond the cityscapes and onto the endless dunes of our desert backyards. And by doing so, you can get a feel of the nomadic lives of the bedouin tribes that once roamed these lands.
Of course, opportunity does not necessarily translate to reality, with only a handful of weekend voyagers, with their well-oiled machines, traversing the sandy sheaths regularly. The rest of us find comfort in our air-conditioned spaces. But in these times of the pandemic, if you feel that the four walls of your home are becoming increasingly claustrophobic, then driving out into the desert may serve not just as a pastime but as the perfect antidote for your depressing socially distanced lives. Just a few minutes of driving from the traffic-stricken roads can get you to genuine off-road territory. And once there, you can test your driving skills on these slippery sand dunes, catch up with family and friends and may be find a moment to meditate — be in touch with oneself — in the tranquility in the wilderness.
Now, there are a few ways to get your boots dirty. The easy route is to do what tourists do. Go ‘Google’ the term ‘Dubai safari’ or the likes and it will churn out many a tour company that pack a lot into their itineraries. They usually round up a suitable sum of clients from rendezvous points such as hotels and other landmarks. And they employ seasoned off-road drivers who, in their dependable Toyota Land Cruisers (usually), crisscross the desert terrain at appreciable speeds while you hold on to things to avoid being thrown around in the cabin. That will certainly get your heart rate going. At the destination, you will have the chance to get into some novelty sports like sandboarding and camel rides. It will provide for several photo op moments important to us, the Instagram generation. And if you wish to get inked, you can do it the traditional way, via skilful artisans and pipe bags of henna stationed at the tents. These tours usually cap off with some live belly dancing and a BBQ dinner.
But this being the UAE, there is always a more opulent option for everything. Some tours offer luxurious Range Rover vehicles instead, with their plush air suspension to go about the route; or if you crave more authentic vibes, you can also opt for an open-top vintage Land Rover Defender. Just make sure you carry a sunscreen lotion with a decent SPF rating. Added extras often include driving through conservations that get into almost-untouched habitats of the native Arabian oryx and gazelles, while some others can get you an arm’s distance from predatory birds and the art of falconry. They also provide a fancy multi-course gourmet dining in an al fresco setting.
Get into the driver’s seat
But the authentic way to enter the sea of sand is to get behind the wheel yourself. First and foremost, you need to get your hands on an SUV with proper 4x4 credentials. You may have a crossover parked in your garage, but that won’t suffice. What you need is something robust and reliable, like a Jeep Wrangler, Toyota FJ Cruiser or Nissan Patrol Y61. Some other noteworthy options are the Suzuki Jimny, Toyota Fortuner and the Mitsubishi Pajero. In the right hands, these will speed through trails and climb any dune with ease.
These come with decent powertrains with commendable approach and departure angles, locking differentials, low ratio gearboxes and so on and so forth. But this is just half the story.
Preparation and tools
The other half is all about preparation. It is always best to go with a group of vehicles or at least one other vehicle must accompany yours, just in case you need to be towed out of a rut, for which you’d need a tow rope, preferably elastic. You also need a good set of tyres that can be deflated down to 15 psi or thereabouts, depending on the how loose the sand is; and an air compressor to fill them up before you get back on tarmac. As obvious as it may seem, it is also advisable to have a full tank of fuel, especially considering that consumption is a lot more while off-roading. And since your phone may not get all bars out there, it is recommended to carry a satellite GPS phone to help you follow the routes you should have chartered out prior to leaving “base camp”. It also helps to mount a flag on a tall antenna to improve visibility between dunes, mostly to avoid possible fender benders.
Also, remember to keep hydrated! Keep extra bottles of water and some ready-to-eat food as well. If you are prepared to spend the night, make sure you carry a tent and a portable or a disposable BBQ grille. Yes, as many of us may have experienced the near-awful barbecue food at the hands of occasional chefs that often come out raw, overcooked, under seasoned and even dusty. Even so, it always seems to hit the right spot especially after you’ve worked up an appetite. And try not to litter. It is inevitable that you will end up with some garbage in the form of food packaging, cans, etc, but make sure you dispose it in the designated bins. Fans of the movie Lawrence of Arabia may remember when Jackson Bentley asks T.E. Lawrence, “What is it, Major Lawrence that attracts you personally to the desert?”, he replies “It’s clean”. Let’s keep it that way, shall we!
It also helps to have a telescope. In the total darkness, away from the vivid advertising neon lamps and street lighting, you can actually catch a glimpse of the constellations talked about in our textbooks.
You are spoilt for choice when it comes to trails and hotspots. These include Liwa, the largest oasis in the UAE, which is located in the northern part of the Rub Al Khali or Empty Quarter. And about 20-something kilometres away, you will find the Moreeb Dune — also called Tal Moreeb — which is the tallest dune in the UAE. Big Red, locally known as Al Hamar, is also another favoured location. It is located along the Dubai-Hatta Road and makes for an easy day trip. Fossil Rock is also another fun camping destination, especially for kids who can explore the marine fossils on the rock’s slopes.