The desert is beautiful and enchanting, yet it is a very inhospitable and unforgiving environment. It’s important never to underestimate the risks and the, pardon me, s**t that can happen on a desert expedition and plan accordingly to make the trip enjoyable and memorable for all the right reasons.
Managing the Risk 1: Pick the right people to go with
There are many good offroad clubs in the UAE running weekend trips where you can learn desert driving from more experienced people. Some clubs use the “coaching” technique, ie stop at obstacles, explain how to negotiate them safely, demonstrate, then let the rookies have a go; other clubs have a “follow the leader and you’ll pick it up as you go along approach”. Choose one that meets your preference. There are also lots of individuals out there who are quite happy to take friends offroading and so long as they are suitably experienced in recovery and survival techniques a weekend camping trip is one of the best ways to spend Friday and Saturday here.Never, ever go out on your own. Even good drivers make mistakes, lose concentration momentarily and get stuck or in trouble. If you only have one car on the trip and it breaks down, how are you going to get out of the desert safely?
This picture above was taken from Emirates 24/7 last November, 3 young men from Saudi were travelling from Dubai to their home 600kms across the desert and became stuck. It took a month to locate the car and their bodies inside.
Even if you go out with friends, it’s important to limit yourselves to dunes and obstacles you have the skill for. Thankfully the young man in this video lived to tell the tale – and I am especially grateful that he has put this up on youtube as a warning to others – but what is incredible to me is that his friends didn’t realise the potential seriousness of the situation and rush to the other side of the dune to see he was ok. So, go out with people who know what they are doing.
Managing the Risk 2: Have a minimum of three cars.
Now I know that my husband and I frequently go offroading in remote locations with only two cars but we have an immense amount of desert experience between us, well kitted out cars including one with a winch, and as ex-fire service in the UK, Neil is well equipped to cope with emergencies. So please do as I say, not as I do, at least until you get a few thousand kilometres of pure sand under your tyres!
The thinking behind the minimum number of cars is this – if you have three cars and one breaks down, at least you have two left to get out of the desert. Similarly if one gets stuck, and the second one also gets stuck recovering the first, you then have the choice to use the third car to pull the other two out, or get out of the desert safely.
Managing the Risk 3: Check the weather forecast.
If you don’t live here you will no doubt expect that we have perpetual sunshine for 12 hours a day, all year round but the reality is somewhat different. In the summer we often do have baking hot sun all day which brings the temperature up to 45-50C most days. It also makes the sand rather hot so always wear boots/trainers or closed in shoes. You can get hit by a sandstorm any time of year which greatly reduces visibility and makes recoveries difficult for those who have to get out of their cars. It’s definitely not the best weather for driving if you have a topless Jeep!
During the winter any area in the UAE can have morning and evening fog, with zero visibility. Driving in fog is more dangerous than driving in the dark, you could literally slip off the side of a high dune in fog as you have no idea of the terrain around you.
Managing the Risk 4: Take plenty of food and water with you.
At least 6 litres of water per person on an all day trip and plenty of snacks such as nuts, crips, breakfast bars, boiled sweets and tinned fruit. Take water in smallish bottles – if it’s in 5 litre cooler bottles they may break when going over a bump.
Always take a mat to sit on, sand is often very hot or damp (but never both!) and if you can, something to rig up some shade if you need it – we use bashas bought from British military surplus stores on ebay. The picture below is of our friends Wallie and Raynhard who were marshals with us at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge this year – by the last day we had our passage control set up down to a fine art and the bashas gave us a lot of shade in temps of 38-40C. Wallie was also one of the friends trusted with our route and potential rescue see #7.
Remember to pack a first aid kit and fire extinguisher too!
Managing the Risk 5: Make sure your car is properly prepared.
You must have heavy-duty recovery hooks on both the front and rear of your vehicle. It should be up to date with servicing; remember here in the desert it needs an oil change every 5000kms. All known defects should be sorted before you take it on the sand, if it’s making wierd noises on the blacktop then offroading will do it no good at all. It demands a lot of skill to tow cars out of the sand but I’ve done it a few times as it is almost impossible to get a recovery truck in the sand to do the job.
Tyres are so important, these should be deflated to a maximum of 15psi, and re-checked after 15 minutes running that they haven’t increased in pressure due to heat/friction. If you are badly stuck sometimes it is necessary to deflate to as low as 10psi, this can make a difference but remember to drive carefully until you get a chance to inflate them.
It’s not a good idea to go out with old or defective tyres or ones with damage to the valves as unreliable tyres can be dangerous. Sometimes if you hit a plant side on with the tyre it will come off the rim, called a popout, although these are normally quickly sorted. You must have a spare wheel in good condition, at full inflation which matches the ones on the car. I’ve seen a few tyre blowouts, where the sidewall has been unknowingly pierced by a piece of metal or wire and after running on it flat for only a short while the tyre will completely disintegrate.
Managing the Risk 6: Have at least one GPS device in your group.
It is essential that at least one or two of the group have a good GPS which tracks where you have been – and someone should know how to use it! Plan a trip using Google Earth before you go, if only to put in a start and finish point and one or two intermediate waypoints. NB: If you have to abandon a car due to breakdown etc, remember to mark on your GPS where you have left it!
Managing the Risk 7: Ensure good communication
Always carry your mobile phone in the desert – the favourite areas for offroading have almost 100% coverage. Remember to charge them up before you go AND take your car charger for them too.
Leave word with your friends where you are going. In the summer, when Neil and I drove in Liwa in Ramadan, we left our route with two friends who could come and get us if we got into extreme trouble or raise the alarm if we were overdue checking in with them.
If you are going into an extremely remote area, consider buying or renting a satellite phone.
Managing the Risk 8: Take extra for long overlander expeditions
When we are going to out of the way places, recently rural Oman, we always take some extra items –
Spare fluids for car – oil, brake fluid, coolant
Spare belts for both cars
Spare fuel if we anticipate using over 2/3 of our tanks on the drive
Laptop with route loaded onto google earth so you can see exactly where you are if you need to – this was invaluable when we were at the edge of the Umm As Sameem.
Food and water for an extra 48 hours over our planned stay
A cautionary tale
Now you are all prepared and ready to go, can I share this story about one of my offroad friends with you. Thankfully no-one was hurt in this accident, but the car was a write-off. I am happy to report that the driver has got a new FJ and is back on the sand, enjoying the desert.
Now I’ve said earlier that cars can roll over, often when the driver is taking a route that is beyond their skills and experience. Occasionally it also happens to expert drivers who make a mistake, are confronted by something completely unavoidable, such as a dune which has been dug away by an excavator, or in the case of the above picture, was surprised by a sabkah which had a hidden drop. Thanks to Shafiq Jan for allowing me to use this picture – you can read his own account of the accident here.
Rollovers are rare but you see quite a few minor accidents, hitting a dune too hard and damaging bumpers, sliding into fences and wells, or even failing handbrakes causing one car to roll into another! If a bodywork damaging accident does happen in the UAE or Oman desert, it needs to be reported to the police so you can get an accident report which will enable you to get your vehicle sorted.
The desert requests the pleasure of your company…
I hope I haven’t scared you off coming out in the desert, it’s such a wonderful environment and for most expats, so different from our homelands. Know the dangers, treat it with respect and you could find yourself having a love affair with the largest sand desert in the world.
I hope some of my readers will let me share my passion for the sand with them and come out on a trip with me someday!