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By Paolo Rossetti
Oct 30, 2010
The desert of the UAE is a magical place - giant dunes blown by the wind to mimic a sea of sand, taking on different hues as the sun moves across the sky. The silence is broken only by the wind and the occasional off-road vehicle blasting over the hills; it's a natural wonder that we're fortunate enough to be able to enjoy.
But it can be a daunting place for many of the same reasons - treacherously soft sand blown into sharp dunes, oppressive heat, a lack of landmarks and extreme remoteness - it's no wonder so many SUV owners in the UAE never make it off-road. Those who do have to pass through a period of heavy stress, both mental as well as mechanical, before they learn the skills required to enjoy driving off-road in the desert without damaging their vehicle or actually putting themselves and loved ones at risk.
The best way to learn these skills is to listen to those who have the experience; fortunately, finding those people is as easy as going on to the internet. Various groups in the UAE offer not just instruction on desert travel, but camaraderie and friendly company for camping and excursions.
One such group is the UAE Offroaders, a club of fun, desert-loving UAE residents, organised specifically to give newbies a safe and encouraging support network to get started, as well as running challenging trips for experienced drivers and a support network for 4x4-related issues.
I joined them on a beginner's trip this month; this is when the weather cools off and the off-roading and camping season really begins. Our trip leader is veteran Wasif Ahmed, who posted the trip on www.uaeoffroaders.com, labelling it a Junior Offroader trip in the Al Khatim area of Abu Dhabi, from 3pm to sunset.
Not knowing anyone personally, I felt a little out of place on the web forum at first. Everybody seemed to know one another, and they all go by strange nicknames, such as Skavenger, Tintin and Lionbar.
But they welcomed me as a long-lost friend, and over the bandwidth I sensed warmth and friendship growing. They are a very knowledgeable bunch and there's always someone online to answer my questions.
Membership with UAE Offroaders is free, and they boast more than 500 members. Lee Khalfan al Romaithi, aka Lionbar on the online forum, is one of the club founders. He explains that the goal of the club is to offer the chance for people in the UAE to experience and appreciate the various terrains and outstanding beauty of the country. The club also aims to show people that the desert is not desolate or lifeless; rather, it is teaming with wildlife, and that the desert deserves respect.
Al Romaithi, a 37-year-old Emirati working in the energy sector in Abu Dhabi, and his wife, daughter and two sons, all find "being in the desert with friends a great stress relief from the daily hustle and bustle of life in the city, work-related pressure, traffic and all of the things that are a trial to daily life. The desert, in contrast, is serene, mystic, has a rustic charm yet has to be shown respect."
He commented that, as a photography enthusiast, he initially bought a 4x4 as an extension to his camera bag - something to haul his gear around and take him a little off the asphalt. But realising that the beauty of the Emirates was not confined only to its glitzy cities and has a natural beauty of its own, he started to venture out a little further and became a bit more daring. More experienced friends taught him the skills of off-roading and al Romaithi has never looked back ("only in the rearview mirror," he adds cheekily).
And UAE Offroaders is much more than a hobby club. As a social network, the members trade advice and expertise; even jobs and company deals are found and made. As a community-oriented organisation, UAE Offroaders also organises events such as the Pink Drive, an off-road journey last weekend in support of breast cancer patients at Tawam Hospital - 60 cars plus marshals were involved, raising Dh9,105. A "Desert Clean-Up" drive is already scheduled for November 26 and there are other events almost every weekend.
And, of vital importance, UAE Offroaders are such a tight-knit group that if any member is stranded with any sort of trouble, just one call sets the network in motion. The combined energy of hundreds of desert-savvy members will find the solution to your problem, and if necessary, they will bring you support wherever you are, day or night.
Meanwhile, I show up at the arranged meeting point, heeding the advice of group member Tony Martin, an English-born, Welsh-raised, 25-year-old who goes by the online name of Tintin. As club marshal, he drives a 5.2L V8 Jeep Grand Cherokee with some minor engine and suspension mods.
"Ensure the rig is in tip-top condition and you have more than enough water for the day," he says. "If you think three litres is enough, take six. You can never be too careful out there. Then, depending on the trip, maybe bring some food to share, prepare something to BBQ, or make some sandwiches for the trip. Also ensure you have enough fuel, sun cream, and the required recovery and safety equipment for the day to ensure optimum safety at all times. Oh, and of course a camera and a big smile."
The group is organised into positions according to level of ability, and, it seems, this is also directly proportional to the impressiveness of their vehicles - the newbies are easily recognised by the absence of winches, enormous tyres, antennas, on-board video cameras and a cacophony of must-have accessories. Yet th veterans are kind to the newcomers and quickly make friends.
"The main strength of the club is that we all have a respect for the great outdoors, whatever the environment - whether it be mountains, wadis, dunes or mudflats," explains al Romaithi, dressed comfortably in military fatigues. "The club founders and marshals are all experienced drivers with a combined passion for training and coaching people to drive safely in all the terrains. We all take pride in bringing people out from the creature comforts of home and introducing them to the rugged beauty of nature."
Ahmed is a 39-year-old Indian working in publishing. Since earning the position of marshal at UAE Offroaders, he has organised many trips for the club. Today, he herds us to the tyre deflation point and delivers a safety briefing, which covers convoy etiquette and answers the many questions a first-timer would have before we depart.
"I have been involved in various forms of off-roading, classic cars and motor sports with my wife and two sons," says Ahmed. "But we especially enjoy associating with like-minded individuals from various cultures and nationalities and now have a large circle of friends who enjoy going out and having fun together."
The desert is spectacular as the sun glances down on the many angles the dunes form, and the track chosen is well within the comfort zone of the inexperienced off-roader, but inevitably, someone gets stuck. A young father and his two sons don't quite make it up a bowl in between dunes, and settle heavily in the soft sand at the bottom.
The recovery is labourious, and the driver anxiously hopes all will turn out okay. After all, it is difficult to gauge the severity of a stuck vehicle or the difficulty of a passage when one has never done it before. The marshals work as a team, and the new member drives himself out of a tough situation, following the given instructions. Everybody applauds his effort, his tense brow relaxes and a giant smile takes over, while his sons cheer wildly.
The new hero is Jeff Evans, a 39-year-old Welsh educator. "We decided to join UAE Offroaders to experience the great rolling sandy expanses around Al Ain and Abu Dhabi and really take advantage of being in this country. It makes a welcome change from malls and hotels.
"We knew a few friends who drive and camp off-road and we wanted to learn a new skill and meet new friends. Our first trip was as passengers with one of the marshals, who made it look very easy in his modified Jeep with huge fat tyres. My kids and I had an amazing trip once we got used to the ups and downs and being parked right at the top of a steep bowl, while our guide helped the newcomers manage the drive."
Al Romaithi puts it into perspective: "There is nothing more rewarding than helping someone navigate a dune's slipface and then seeing the look of achievement on their face at the bottom. It's a great feeling."
The drive continues along spectacular dunes, and I notice the track is chosen carefully to avoid any difficult spots. A marshal is placed as a sweeper at the rear of the convoy to make sure all vehicles are accounted for, and radio contact is maintained with the leader. The sun starts to making it a great way to experience the desert for the first time.
Hennie Ferreira, a 40-year-old South African assistant director of human resources at UAE University, adds: "We joined because we always wanted to go out to the desert but did not have the knowledge, skills nor confidence to try it. We always worried of what would happen if something went wrong, as we have our kids in the vehicle. The club equipped us with the skills and confidence, and we are still learning every time we go out.
"We can't get enough of the desert and we have been out every weekend since we started in July. Now, we only have to agree on who will be driving."
As the evening wraps itself up at destination - a giant dune - I see the newbies patting themselves on the back and promising to catch up soon with new friends on the club web forum, eagerly looking forward to the next trip.
"In the UAE, many people stay a few years then head off out; this is a fact of life and it is completely normal," says al Romaithi. "But to leave having not experienced the country's nature in its glory, whether it be the star-covered sky or seeking shade under a ghaf tree for a cool drink, is a real shame."