Summer Desert Driving in the UAE (And Oman!)

Many moons ago, when we first started driving off-road in the UAE, many people told us that Liwa is a no-no for off-roaders during the summer. They said that the extreme heat of 50C+ coupled with soft sand made the area too dangerous for anything other than winter trips. “Don’t do it, you’ll die,” some said before we embarked on our Ramadan trip back in August 2012. But we didn’t – and we have driven in Liwa EVERY summer since.  Picture below was taken on our first summer trip in the Liwa area, at 7am, hence the lovely light.

tanker00004

 

Having said that, we do not approach these trips lightly; desert driving is potentially dangerous at any time of year, but particularly so in the hottest months of the summer. If you are heading into remote desert between June and September, here are some steps I recommend taking to ensure your safe return.

  • Prepare your cars and off-road equipment – they should be in tip-top condition:
    • Make sure your tyres are in good condition, including the spare
    • Top your radiator up  – the cooling system could be tested to the max
    • Ensure your recovery points, both front and rear, are firmly attached
    • Check your recovery equipment is complete; it is very easy to lose a shovel and not notice until you need it again
    • Take at least two compressors per convoy as you may well need one and even the most expensive ones can fail without warning
  • Pack your cars carefully. If we are going out for 6 hours we take enough water and food for at least 12 hours, just in case.
    • Take at least one box (24 x 0.5 litre) of water per person
    • It is good to have some rehydration sachets with you and packs of salty/sugary snacks are good to take too
    • You might even consider taking a small stove and the means to cook pasta, just in case you are stuck overnight
    • A small backpack can be useful if you have to climb to the top of a dune to get a mobile phone signal. Take a couple of bottles of water with you even if you are only going 500 metres from the car

expect very soft sand - photo by manhar dalal

  • Communications matter
    • Charge your mobile phone before you go and if it is pay as you go, ensure you have adequate – I suggest at least 50aed – credit on it
    • Check and double check that you have the numbers of your potential rescue team saved on both your sim and your phone.
    • Use an Etisalat sim card if you are in Liwa – Du coverage is patchy there
    • Take a sat phone if you have one
  • In the event of a breakdown or getting impossibly stuck, then always stay with your car until help arrives:
    • Your car will provide some shade for you – if you take a small tarpaulin you can create even more
    • If you need to be rescued by the UAE Authorities (more about that later) then a car is so much easier to spot from the air than one or two people walking
    • You can draw from your water and food store to keep you hydrated throughout the day
    • If your car is not running – i.e. no a/c – use your shovel to burrow under your car and move the hottest layer of sand away thus creating a slightly cooler shaded area – check for beasties before you crawl in though!

Liwa crescent in august by Manhar Dalal

  • Make sure everyone in the convoy is in good health – we would never undertake a summer off-road trip if we, or any of our passengers, were ill:
    • The summer heat of the desert puts immense strain on a healthy body, so only go out if you are in good health, and keep hydrated
    • We try to avoid taking people suffering from chronic illnesses on our summer trips
    • We also avoid taking rookies – drivers or passengers – out with us on Liwa summer trips, as if things go wrong we will need to work as a team to get out. Experience counts at these times!
  • Advance planning is key; I rarely go out on the sand without a rough plan regardless of the time of year, but especially in summer. An hour or two’s research could mean the difference between life and death. We never just take off into the desert over unknown territory, but instead prefer to use a known route
    • Use an existing route – one either you or your friends has done in the last 6 months – so that you know the journey is possible and there are no fences or other obstacles to spoil your trip or cause long delays
    • Spend a few hours at your computer pre-trip searching for exit routes on google earth and plot these
    • We always download birds eye imagery for our Garmin Montana, although these days, google maps/earth will suffice in places you receive a phone signal
    • Work out a trip plan and have some friends on standby to mount a rescue mission or alert authorities, just in case
    • Consider your convoy size carefully. We often drive with just two cars but appreciate that this carries a risk. We recommend a minimum of three cars with a maximum of five – the more cars you have the more people will get stuck, and you will spend more time out of your car in the searing heat.

oasis offroad august 14

  • Consider your trip timing
    • The hottest time of the day is always between noon and 3pm, so I would recommend starting early and aim to be back to the pool by 11am. When we off-road in July or August, you will always find us at the deflation point, half an hour before sunrise, eating our breakfast and waiting for the sun to appear above the horizon
    • Another option is to hit the sand late in the afternoon, around 3 hours before sunset, although if you are delayed you could end up driving off the desert in the dark.
    • Do not underestimate the importance of shadows; it is very hard to navigate on light coloured sand when the sun is overhead and this is another reason to plan being by the pool at the height of the day
    • The desert, Liwa in particular, is wonderful in the summer. So few people are there that you will often see more wildlife than in the winter; but I would never suggest a long 6-8 hour trip when the temps are 40-55C.  The long overlands, I believe, are best kept for the winter, with summer trips lasting 3-5 hours at the most.

 

Having been brought up in the highlands of Scotland, I was well used to hearing reports of mountaineering tragedies in the news on winter Sundays. Despite the almost polar opposites of the weather conditions, the message for hillwalkers and climbers there is much the same as for summer off-roaders in the Emirates.

  • Prepare
  • Be properly equipped
  • Make sure someone knows where you are going and when you are due back

We try to minimise any chance of requiring rescue by the UAE Police, as we feel that every such rescue could be another step nearer to legislation restricting off-roading in the Emirates. That being said, if you are in a life threatening situation, they are the ones to call!

late afternoon sun throwing shadows - photo by Donald Matheson

This article was originally published in OutdoorUAE Magazine in July 2016.

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