If you love cycling but don’t feel safe on the road, go for a ride in the sand dunes. Sarah Riches has the skinny on fat biking.
Fat biking – nope, it’s not a cycle support group for overweight people, but a type of bike with three inch wide tyres, which makes it suitable for cycling on sand.
So what better place to try it than in Rub’ al Khali, otherwise known as the Empty Quarter? At 583,000sq km, the desert is bigger than the whole of France and the largest expanse of sand in the world. It stretches across the UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort, a five-star hotel built to resemble a traditional fort, is nestled between two dunes deep within the Empty Quarter. It overlooks a valley dotted with shrubs – a former wadi, or dry riverbed.
The resort runs guided bike tours of the dunes for hotel guests and day trippers. For safety reasons, the bikes can’t be hired without a guide, but if you buy a fat bike from Adventure HQ (from Dhs10,995) and want to go without one, then take plenty of water and snacks, tell someone the route you plan to take and what time you expect to be back, and don’t go alone. Getting lost or suffering from a flat tyre kilometres from civilisation is no fun, it’s dangerous.
We tag along on a tour led by Amro Ahmad Abu Affar, one of the resort’s adventure guides. He says, ‘Throughout September and October, as midday is still too hot for cycling, we run two tours a day – one at 6am, just as dawn is breaking, and the other at 5.30pm, at sunset.’
We join the sunrise one, along with four others. Once we are kitted out with helmets and water, we set off.
There is little explanation on what to expect, but when we ask questions we discover the 5km tour will take between 90 minutes and two hours, depending on the group’s fitness levels – and how many times we stop to take photos.
Do you need any special skills? ‘You need a medium to good level of fitness,’ says Amro, who’s from Jordan. ‘You have to like adventure, of course, but I wouldn’t say it is scary. It is fun more than anything.’
But if you’re the nervous type, you might beg to differ. At the start of our route, we have to whizz down two steep dunes – both the height of a two-storey villa. Only one member of our five-strong group is comfortable with this; one cycles around it while two turn back in a support vehicle. The other member opts to walk down it – no easy task, as the sand swallows your feet up to the middle of your calves. It’s for this reason the tours are suitable for children over 14.
However, once we have mastered the steep dunes, we cross the wadi, which is made up of compact sand. While it’s bumpy, there are no hills, and even though we have to put in effort to pedal across it as our tyres drag through the sand, it’s a fun challenge.
Soon we’re speeding across the wadi, only stopping for a breather when we round a corner and arrive at an enclosure of oryx – a breed of antelope once hunted to near extinction in the wild. We count 13.
‘Keep an eye out for lizards, rabbits, desert mice and sand gazelles, too,’ says Amro.
After taking some selfies, we back track by ourselves, this time cycling around the steep dunes near the hotel.
‘We can vary routes for repeat guests,’ says Amro. ‘Although the tracks we take depend on the group’s fitness level.’
We’ve worked up an appetite by the time we arrive back and overindulge at the buffet breakfast. So that’s how fat biking really got its name...
Dhs180. Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort, 1 Qasr Al Sarab Road, Empty Quarter, www.qasralsarab.anantara.com (02 656 1399). Adventure HQ, Dalma Mall, Mussafah (02 445 6995).