The Back Side Border Expedition

In the UAE when giving directions we don’t say “it’s round the back of”, instead the phrase “go to back side mall” “back side hotel” etc is used.  So last week I ticked off another Middle East Bucket List item when a group of us drove down the “backside” of the UAE border with Oman.

The inspiration for the drive came from the “mijnuna” (crazy) compartment of my mind which has previously brought you

Plant a landcruiser day, Two Little Ducks’ trip and of course those breeks!

For two years now we have travelled to the Liwa area via Al Wagan, Al Qua’a or Umm Al Zamool, and I’ve always admired the dunes on the other side of the fence. I’d often thought “How cool would it be to drive over there”, not a case of the grass being greener, more the dunes looking tantalisingly different.

The objectives were:-
Enter the desert at the foot of Jebel Hafeet mountain 
Drive within 2kms of the border fence all the way to the Oman/UAE/Saudi confluence point.
Discover some new terrain to take our Oasis Offroad members to for Oman trips
Visit a couple of “starfish” dunes as detailed in Mike Nott’s book.


Now the last time I drove behind my husband through the oilfield tracks and sabkahs of the Omani Empty Quarter, I got my car sandblasted for free.  So this time we sprayed our cars with water soluble paint to provide some protection – you see this on Saudi registered cars all the time.  I chose “light red” which my husband swore would turn out pink (yes darling you were right on this occasion; enjoy the moment dear), our friend Vince went for the sandy camouflage look, and Neil chose black – the FJ looked like something out of Mad Max! 

We entered the sand at 2pm on Friday afternoon, and instantly hit some small, technical dunes with soft patches all over the place.  These take a bit more driving effort than the big smooth dunes, so our progress wasn’t particularly fast. 

 We’d anticipated this though, during hours spent perusing the terrain on google earth and soon we were out of the worst stuff and beside a majestical starfish dune!  Check out the “wall” of sand!

And here’s the satellite view.

Our next section was going “with the dunes” and we set a cracking pace with lots of zigzagging.  By nightfall we had put in over 80kms offroad – yet we could still see the streetlights at the top of Jebel Hafeet which was *groan* only 35kms away!

We camped near the UAE border fence (a decision I regretted when I heard someone driving “donuts” on the road at 1.30am) and had a fine supper and a good blether.

I should perhaps introduce my passenger now – my old schoolfriend, Sheena Thomson from Nairn.  After losing touch for more years than I care to admit, we met when she lived in AD, and now she is based in Oman.  She’d been in the Gulf for over 4 years and never been desert camping, so this gave her a chance to experience that as well as a most interesting and varied exploration trip!  She is a very capable lady and took her duties as “winch wench” very seriously!

She’s also handy with the camera, capturing a great sunrise shot here

 as well as me cooking breakfast in the desert.  Haggis, beans and eggs anyone?

We knew we had the most time consuming part of the route behind us and made very good progress from now on.  Larger dunes with sabkhas between, a few tricky crossings and some very deep bowls to power out of giving us all a real buzz when we reached the top in only one attempt (see post about our Liwa jaunt in November).  We detoured to another of Mike’s starfish dunes, which looked huge from a distance but seemed to shrink the closer we got to it.

Further south we found a great starfish dune of our own and took the opportunity to capture the wonderful panoramas from the top.  The UAE is in the distance in this photo.  Just after this we met a border patrol guard on the gatch who just waved bemusedly at us as our cars passed each other.  Surely he doesn’t often see AD registered pink patrols with a lady driver and passenger!

Eventually we had to make the decision to either stay within 2kms of the fence and probably not make the end point, or use some gatch tracks to hasten our progress.  We chose the latter option; imagine driving so far and not making it to the confluence!  I had considered that using gatches might be considered cheating, but the further south we went, the less maintained they became, in fact the last two were about 95% dunes.

We made a big push for the last few kms, having to resort to driving on the border fence track here and there to make sure we could get to the confluence point and out of the desert in daylight. 

So where is the exact point?  We looked for an Oman/Saudi fence but there was none.  I’ve asked a friend who knows about these things and he tells me that the border marked on google earth should be fairly accurate, however our garmins (and we had two, with slightly different map editions) told us different.  In the end we decided that this pole which had some oil drums nearby would be the point, and it was the nearest marker to what our gps was telling us.(Traditionally oil drums were placed to mark the countries’ boundaries).

Once the tri-country photo shoot was completed – in this photo Sheena had one foot in the UAE and one in Saudi, and mine were planted on Oman and Saudi – Neil led us over some easy smooth dunes and sabkhas til we reached a roundabout on the edge of an oilfield, just as the sun was setting.  It was then 152kms back to Ibri via blacktop, where all but Vince stayed overnight.

As a footnote, Neil and I had a very interesting encounter with an english couple who were on holiday in Oman.  We met them at the Ibri hotel and on hearing we came from Al Ain, they asked if they could cross the border there as their 6 year old Lonely Planet book said it was not possible.  We assured them it was fine, and convoyed them up to the garden city through the Omani and UAE border posts as well as suggesting they go and drive up Jebel Hafeet before they headed back to Dubai for the last day of their holiday.  They were a remarkable couple, if you were to look at their birth certificates you may term them as “elderly”, but despite being 30 years older than us, they were very young at heart where their spirit of adventure endures.  Mike and Joan – we hope you made it back safely, you are an inspiration – long may your travels continue!

Results of the trip:

Drove all the way down the backside border of Oman – success
Stayed within 2kms of fence – failed but we had a good excuse 
See some starfish dunes – success, they are unlike any other dune formations I’ve seen
Visited the confluence point of UAE/Oman/Saudi – success
Introduced Sheena to desert camping – success
Found some new dunes to drive over with Oasis Offroad – success
Drove over 200kms offroad in one day – BIG success – a new record for all of us.
Had fun, explored new places with great company – success

Backside Border Drive – DONE! 

You can read about this trip from a passenger perspective by reading Sheena’s blog.

  1. aletheia kallos says:

    hi again
    not sure my previous reply was received
    loved your adventure & presentation
    tripoint is actually at n22d42m30s2 x e55d12m29s9
    more info if wanted

    • Marina Bruce says:

      Hello Aletheia

      Thanks for stopping by my blog – this is very interesting. I consulted with a senior advisor to the UAE military straight after doing the trip and he advised me of the tripoint location. The one you have given me seems to be wholly in Saudi, certainly according to garmin maps ete. The pole which marked the Saudi border is the one in the photo – there are more further down the Oman/Saudi border. To get to your suggested point might be inadvisable, taking photos even more so. So sorry, I won’t be heading there again, unless someone bankrolls me!

  2. aletheia kallos says:

    thank you again marina for your kind reply

    i am glad we are in touch

    & would like to buy gas & lunch if you ever do decide to revisit the tripoint area & question

    also i am wondering if your uae governmental officials or military sources can be prodded further
    while i realize border stuff can be very hush hush in arabia
    & so would certainly understand if they are unavailable

    but it will be a great breakthru for me to learn with certainty that there has indeed been 3way locational agreement & demarcation of the tripoint
    promised since 2005 but apparently spaced out unless your inside military sources are privy to unpublished info

    at all events my friend keep up the great play

    • Marina Bruce says:

      Hi Aletheia – thank you for your offer of gas and lunch, however I would also incur costs by way of UAE exit visa and Oman entry visa, as well as kenneling for my dogs (you need an import/export licence to take pets to Oman), so it’s not really an option.

      Border stuff is indeed hush hush and just by going near it in places other than official border crossings you are risking being detained for questioning.

      In the early 2000s there was no border fence with Oman so it would have been relatively simple to reach it then – oh for a time machine!

      Thank you for reading my blog, hope you get a chance to visit the UAE someday!

Comments are closed.

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