Row upon row of pristine 4x4 vehicles in a shopping mall car park is a sight to sink any adventurer’s heart. It’s like having a prize fighter holding the towel on the side of the ring rather than unleashing ferocious power on an opponent. But the fact is that for many 4x4 owners, the closest they get to off-roading is going over the speed bumps at the drive-through.
The UAE has a vast desert to explore and many wadis that offer challenging driving conditions, impressive scenery and thrilling adventure. From the roller coaster thrills of high-speed dune driving to the pulse-quickening views of a mountain pass, there is a lot to see if you take your 4x4 off the beaten path.
The best way to start is with an official tour company who will give you a taste of off-road driving. If the bug bites, you can contact one of the city’s many informal off-roading clubs. Most are organised by welcoming and friendly residents who want nothing more than to make new friends. Membership and frequency of visits change regularly, but it is important to learn the basics of desert driving first – it is not as easy as the tour guides make it look – and you should always drive in convoy with other vehicles and let other people know where you will be driving in case you get stuck or lost. Contact the Emirates Offroaders (www.emiratesoffroaders.com), Almost 4x4 (www.almost4x4.com) or search for ‘off road’ on Meet Up (www.meetup.com) to get an introduction to the communities and find a group that suits you.
Where to learn
Before taking your prized 4x4 off-road, it is advisable to take a desert driving course and learn the basics and essentials. The Emirates Driving Institute (www.edi-uae.com, 04 340 0449) teaches drivers about the mechanics, topography and techniques of driving in the desert. Tour company Arabian Tours (www.arabiantours.com) also has a course that combines theory and practical sessions.
Sand or stone?
Once you’ve come this far, it is time to take your off-roading to the next level and get behind the wheel and experience your own expeditions. The main choices here are whether you are going to drive the desert dunes or wadis. Both hold their own attractions in terms of scenery. Desert driving offers vast reddish dunes that rise and fall for miles around, while venturing into wadis will involve gritty mountain climbs resulting in stunning mountain scenery. The challenges vary, too, with sand notoriously difficult to predict, and wadis constantly changing as you progress along the various surfaces.
Beginner desert drive
Name: Fossil Rock
GPS location: 25.142560, 55.833801
Road location: Fossil Rock is to the right hand side of the Sharjah-Kalba Road and close to the settlement of Al Malaiha.
Detail: Fossil Rock is one of the best known spots for off-roaders in the UAE and is reachable by a sandy dirt track for beginner drivers, while the more experienced can go off piste and truly explore. The dunes are among the more beautiful near Dubai – a striking terracotta red with rock formations.
Advanced desert drive
Name: Liwa Oasis
GPS location: 22.972298, 53.788225
Road location: The E90 has a number of fringe communities on the outskirts of the vast Liwa Desert and has amazing dune views in
Detail: So remote and off track is the Liwa Oasis in the ‘empty quarter’, that when Google wanted to map the region for its Street View project it did so by camel rather than on four wheels. There are very basic roads here, the type of which are more likely to host camels than 4x4s. But it’s worth the effort to see what is often labelled the UAE’s finest dune – Tal Mireb. Extreme caution is required and safety is paramount on this route. Brown signs on the unnamed road direct you to Tal Mireb and you can pull over and scale the enormous dunes for an exceptional driving experience.
Intermediate mountain drive
Name: Jebel Yabir
GPS location: 25.647246, 56.129738
Road location: The E18 and E87 roads from Ras Al Khaimah to Dibba Al Fujairah bend around the Hajar Mountains. Tricky dirt tracks branch off into the mountains.
Detail: Jebel Yabir is officially the UAE’s tallest peak, and although measurements vary, it’s most commonly said to be 1,527m high. A military checkpoint prevents access to some parts of the mountain, but there are rugged trails that lead to breath-taking vantage points. With steep drops on one side, the drive down can be very hairy, but experienced drivers will be rewarded with an amazing experience.
More desert driving
4x4 vehicles are not the only way to explore the desert by land. Dune buggies are stripped down vehicles custom-made for dunes. Shorn of everyday essentials – no doors, roof or windows – they are little more than a roll cage, bucket seat and a safety harness. Oh, and a 750cc engine and extra bouncy suspension for charging up and down dunes at high speeds. Try a desert safari with Dune Buggy Dubai. (www.dunebuggydubai.com, 052 904 2725). Alternatively quad bikes are an enduringly popular activity, particularly with youngsters not old enough to have a driver’s licence. Dadhabai Travel (www.dadabhaitravel.ae, 04 220 9393) has morning and full-day quad bike safaris on tough dunes as steep as 45 degrees for adventure junkies looking for a way of seeing the desert up close.
Essential kit for off-roaders
• A fully-serviced vehicle
• GPS and map
• Tool kit
• Mobile phone
• First aid kit
• Spare tyre
• Tyre pressure gauge
• Extra petrol can
• Tow rope and shackles
• Jump leads
• Foot pump
• Drinking water
Quad biking spots
Drive along the E44 Dubai-Hatta Road towards the border, and after around 45 minutes you’ll come across a hive of activity. Several quad bike and buggy rental companies have set up shop on either side of the road. They are pretty touristy (they sell belly dancing outfits and other tat, plus you can ride camels in small enclosures), and get very busy with tour groups in the afternoons. But you can pick up fresh coconuts here, which is an increasing rarity in Dubai. Prices vary slightly from one to the other, but expect to pay around Dhs300 to rent a quad bike for one hour, and around the Dhs500 mark for buggies.