There’s an audible click as we push against our seatbelts. The car rocks slightly and we ease over the dune. A sudden drop comes into view. We all fall silent as the jeep judders downhill, churning through the soft sand, and I look to the driver who peers nervously over her sunglasses.
We have come to the Rub Al Khali, one of the world’s largest sand deserts, to find the peaceful ‘silence of the desert’. But what we discover is a terrified, elated quiet as we roll down yet another exceptionally steep dune, awed by the immaculate landscape. I think about the silence of the desert a lot. I imagine it as a meditative space, the surreal perfection of the dunes rolling off as far as the eye can see, the still, calm comfort of knowing that no one is around for miles. And seeking out this ‘silence’ has been high on my list of priorities since coming to the UAE. So what better place to seek it than the Rub Al Khali (‘The Empty Quarter’ in Arabic)? An untouched desert of peach coloured dunes that stretches from the UAE, dipping into Oman, Yemen and covering a good portion of Saudi Arabia; the Rub Al Khali is home to absolutely no one.
Explorer Tours has just begun running convoy missions into this inhospitable place. We’ve tagged along on their first trial run with six other beginners like us, guided by two marshal vehicles, to within only 3km of the border with Saudi Arabia. Unlike many tours into the desert, this is entirely self-drive and makes the expedition particularly intrepid. You need to come armed with a 4x4 and enough gall to tackle some intimidating dunes.
We meet near Jebel Ali and head in the direction of Liwa, a small settlement not far from Abu Dhabi that has an accessible entrance into the Rub Al Khali. Following a brief, surreal stop-off for tea at the car museum owned by the ‘Rainbow Sheikh’ (Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, member of the Abu Dhabi royal family), complete with the biggest truck in the world, we near the fringe of the desert and the signs of habitation start to recede. The sand changes from an industrial flecked grey to a rich yellow, then red. Out here, the wilds of the country materialise: solitary figures in dish- dashas wander across the horizon of the badlands, the pylons become fewer and we even, incredibly, have to dodge a full-sized plane that has found its way on to this lonely highway.
On a dusty track in the shadow of some ominously huge dunes, the group pulls up and we set about deflating our tires. We’re briefed about what to expect once we’re out there: ‘You will get stuck,’ says Saif Poovanchery, MD of Explorer Tours and our head guide on the expedition. ‘We have the means to get you out, but try and free yourself before we come and help.’ Saif explains that the route should be fairly easy for inexperienced drivers, with only a few deep pockets to look out for. ‘Nice and slowly on the approach to the dunes though,’ he warns. ‘You never know what’s going to be on the other side.’
Remember, this isn’t dune bashing – this is learning how to drive, by trial and error, through the desert. It’s fair to admit that, at first, I was expecting something a little rougher and couldn’t hold back my disappointment that we weren’t bouncing through the desert, teetering over on turns and rolling into sandy crevices every few minutes. But after that first significant drop or real bounce, the reality of driving on this terrain becomes clear. Wheels start spinning, cars slide off at angles and many, including us, need a quick tow to get free. With a convoy of seven beginners, this starts to become a bit too regular. Just as the group begins to pick up speed, someone needs pulling out again.
It’s hard to imagine this with 50 cars, as planned for future trips. Saif assures us that every 10 cars would have their own dedicated marshal, but even with only seven of us, we have to halt quite often as yet another car sinks into the soft sand.
After a stop for lunch, we continue deeper into the desert and civilisation couldn’t feel further away. We bounce over dunes, attempt gut-defying manoeuvres to escape from the depths of a 50m-deep bowl and, inevitably, get stuck a few times. With only a few hours of light left, we roll into the camp, pitch our tent and settle in front of the fire for a barbecue (sans belly dancer).
Camping here is really why you should come out this far. The silence of the desert is there and intact, though ours was broken occasionally by a bunch of Tunisian revellers blasting out Euro house music from their 4x4. But, as the sun sinks behind distant dunes, the sky is cast a brilliant sand-like colour, the still dunes sink into darkness and we’re left to marvel at the slowly fading perfection of this wind-chiselled landscape.
The following morning we break camp for another day of clambering in and over dunes, jumping out of the jeep to race to the top of the dunes and marvel, speechless and silent, at the immense scale of the desert.
We’re still a little concerned that 50 cars tearing up this landscape might detract from its majesty, but if you want a trip into the desert, the real desert, then this, for now, is it.
What you need
• Tent and sleeping bags
• Portable air compressor
• Tyre pressure gauge
• Hat, shades, sun cream
• Toilet roll, napkins
• Sand shoes or trainers
• Change of clothes (grab something warm)
• Mobile phone and in-car charger
• GPS (optional)
• First-aid box
• Check engine oil, transmission oil, power steering oil and brake oil
• Check all tyres and make sure they are in good condition
• Make sure there are no cracks on the fan belt
• Check radiator coolant and check for leaks
• Check the spare wheel is in good condition
• Jack and wheel spanner should be in place
Explorer Tours are running group convoys with camping, barbecue, breakfast and lunch at the Liwa Hotel for Dhs1,500 for four people (per car). Additional passengers are Dhs350 for adults and Dhs250 for children. February 20-21, March 20-21 and April 17-18. Call 04 286 1991 or see www.explorertours.ae