The “Liwa Season” is approaching – only 9 weeks or so from now and the weather will be considerably less hot and for those going offroad, the sand will hopefully have firmed up a bit. Whether it be the beauty of the majestic dunes, the clear starry skies, or the challenge of some of the highest and most scary sand climbs in the area, there will be something there that captures your heart and makes you misty eyed as you view your photos. Warning: Liwa is addictive, once you visit there, it will have a hold on you and keep calling you back again and again.Liwa is an agricultural oasis in the shape of a crescent, and is the most southerly inhabited area of the UAE. A dual carriageway runs the length of this oasis, making it easy to get from one end to the other; most people come here for the dunes or to say they have visited the romantically named “Rub Al Khali” or “Empty Quarter”. The ruling family of Abu Dhabi, the Al Nahyan Tribe, have their roots here, though they moved their main base to Abu Dhabi over 200 years ago.
The British explorer Wilfred Thesiger passed through here on his travels in the 1940s, and I often find myself re-reading part of his book “Arabian Sands” to set the mood before a visit. I’m glad I make the journey in my air conditioned Nissan Patrol, and not via camel, albeit his companions and their knowledge of the sand and tribes would have made the miles pass quickly.
To quote from his introduction “I went to southern Arabia only just in time. Others will go there to study geology and archaeology, the birds and plants and animals, even to study the Arabs themselves, but they will move about in cars and will keep in touch with the outside world by wireless. They will bring back results far more interesting than mine, but they will never know the spirit of the land nor the greatness of the Arabs.”
Sometimes if I walk across the sands very quietly, early in the morning before anyone else is awake, I can hear him spinning in his grave!
Today the Emiratis actively want people to visit by car, and they tell the world of their great country by wireless and now TV and the internet.
The Al Gharabia Tourist Authority runs the popular and interesting Liwa Date Festival (July) – did you know there are over 50 varieties of dates? Go there and you can taste test as many as you like!
They also host the Al Dhafra Camel Festival (December) annually, and we can observe the importance given to the ships of the desert – the only mode of transport capable of crossing the sands in the mid-twentieth century. A huge “bedu encampment” springs up, as camel owners from all over the GCC come and enter their camels in beauty contests and races. A lot of trading is done, and Million Street, which is the main thoroughfare around the complex, gives you a clue as to the price of many of these camels.
When I speak of offroading in the “Liwa Area” then it can mean driving anywhere between the western UAE/Saudi fence and the Himeem Road, and from a latitude of 23 degrees north down to the southern UAE/Saudi fence. It’s a vast area with various levels of driving, however many areas are extremely remote so offroading here is not for the novice driver.
I’m often asked the best way to Liwa from Al Ain, here are four options; two blacktop and two including some gatch tracks.
Route 1: The road route to Himeem (easternmost end of the crescent)
As per track – two way traffic after you turnoff to Himeem. Beware of the speed cameras – they observe both directions! If you wish to visit the Rainbow Sheikh’s car museum then this will take you past it (see my earlier blog) *Please note that the museum is now closed (Spring 2017)
Route 2 : The road route to Mezairah’ (largest city in the area, in the centre of the crescent)
Dual Carriageway all the way, passing through Madinat Zayed City, this is the easiest way to get to the Liwa Crescent.
Route 3: Part Road, part gatch, reasonably direct route (4×4 required)
If you have a 4×4, this is an interesting and quieter alternative to the road routes 1 and 2. Head towards Al Wagan, where you can fuel up, then about 8kms North of Al Qua’a, take a right along a two way blacktop to Razeen. Turn right when it ends, then turn left and enter a rough gatch. Follow the track past farms, turn left, take a right at a “crossroads”, and you will soon find yourself at the back of the White Sands Restaurant on the Himeem road. Distance and time wise it is much the same as the road route. There is a new ADNOC gas station just 2kms south of here, complete with Coffee Planet machine!
Route 4: Part road, part gatch, detour along the south of the UAE (4×4 and some offroad driving experience a must)
Leaving Al Ain via Al Wagan, follow the road all the way down to Umm Al Zamool, running parallel with the Oman border fence. The road curves round to the right, and you will eventually end up on a gatch, with some great camping spots just off the road. Don’t be tempted to turn left and drive on the road parallel to the border fence – you may have to explain what you are doing there; instead just stay on the gatch as per the track.After Al Qua’a, there are no gas stations or shops, so make sure your car and your coolbox are very well stocked up.
Warning: on the 25km section before Qsar Al Sarab, there are 4 points where the gatch track climbs high among the dunes, at the high points there will be some dunes covering the road. Take at least two cars if you are going to attempt this route, with recovery kit and compressor – be prepared to deflate. We have driven this road five times, and we have never seen all 4 dune crossings cleared of sand! It is also absolutely essential to have GPS and either my track or some key waypoints gleaned from google earth.
Note: in Liwa, gates and fences get built all over the place at any time, so you must have enough petrol to backtrack/take an alternative route in case this happens. The last time we drove this was in November 2011 and we made the journey with no problems/diversions.
This journey feels like a real expedition – even though you get 3G mobile coverage almost all the way – and depending on how often you stop, it can take between 4 and 8 hours to get from AA to Himeem.
Qsar Al Sarab
Located near Himeem, a true 5 star hotel, very luxurious but quite costly.
Although the rooms are a bit dated, this lovely 3 star hotel situated in Mezairah has a great pool, good food and is reasonably priced. My favourite hotel in the area, you can walk into here covered in sand with your army boots on and not feel intimidated. It has lovely grounds with bbq areas, tennis courts and gardens.
Liwa Rest House
Budget option situated in Mezairah
No website – you will just have to call them – 02 882 2075
4 star, situated about 25kms outside Madinat Zayed. Lovely rooms, great infinity pool. Bit out of the way, we use it when we are offroading between MZ and Arada – they don’t bat an eye at smelly sandy desert drivers either!
And the best accommodation option of all?
Camping with friends of course! Most comfortable mid-October to early April, it gets a bit hot outwith those months. You can camp almost anywhere, but keep clear of cultivated/populated areas and also well away from oilfield operations.
Places to See
Situated 25kms south of Mezairah, there is a good blacktop road to the Tal Moreeb/Mireb/Mireeb dune area.
The road winds through the most picturesque of dunes; the gorgeous Richard Hammond and the BBC Top Gear
crew were here in 2009 testing the Lamborghini Murcielago. If you come here early in January you will witness the Tal Moreeb Challenge, one of the most popular UAE motorsport events.
A race to the top of one of the area’s highest dunes, much steeper than it looks in this photo, all is over in 10 seconds or (much) less for most cars, although the fireworks are very spectacular. Even though I am a petrolhead I enjoyed crowd watching as much as the motor action!
Rainbow Sheikh Museum
(.gdb file)- which will open with Garmin Mapsource. If you don’t have access to that, then enter the co-ordinates into Google Earth and you will see where the routes take you.
I haven’t given any offroad routes here; Liwa can be dangerous in inexperienced hands. The best way to see it if you have a 4×4 is to join an offroad club such as Oasis Offroad. There are other clubs out there but I am slightly biased since I am a marshal with them. Sign up as soon as you can so you can get some dune bashing practise on easier dunes near Abu Dhabi, Al Ain or Dubai though – neither I or any of the other marshals will take rookies or those with just 2 or 3 trips under their belt onto the sand in Liwa for safety reasons. I hope you enjoy this blog and get a chance to go and experience the beauty of Liwa yourselves over the autumn and winter.