The article below appeared in OutdoorUAE magazine in November 2014 and it has been updated to reflect some changes. Note these are not ALL the areas you can offroad in Abu Dhabi.
Offroading enthusiasts in the largest Emirate of the UAE are really spoilt for choice when it comes to sand dune driving; some of the most beautiful and challenging desert terrain in the world can be found here – I’ve listed a few of the best areas to visit. You should only offroad if you have a 4×4 in very good condition and I always recommend a minimum of 3 cars for any trip over sand dunes – see “Staying Safe Offroad” in OutdoorUAE September 2013.
The co-ordinates given are for the centre of each area – if you want to drive somewhere in particular you will need to study google earth to find tracks in, or alternatively join an offroading club such as Oasis Offroad who regularly drive all over the Emirate.
- Al Khatim – N24 14.283 E54 58.382 – extremely popular with the Abu Dhabi (AD) offroading community and also tour groups, this area is typified by white sand and small and medium dunes with some extremely technical sections.
- Al Khazna – N24 14.265 E55 11.355 and N24 20.686 E55 12.589 – generally a bit quieter than Al Khatim, you can choose to travel east towards AD or West to the Sweihan area. Head westwards parallel with the walled area and you will come across some massive pale coloured dunes with some challenging climbs along the way. Part of the area is fenced off to protect wildlife but you may still be able to see some gazelle running up the dunes in the unrestricted area.
- Sweihan – N24 23.582 E55 32.383 – Probably the most popular area for offroading in Al Ain, home to the massive “Sand Mountain,” known locally as Nagrah as well as the famous “Old Lady Dune”. The dune lines run from west to east and are interspersed with sabkah, and it is possible to do a “Century Saturday” type trip here with plenty of get-out points as well as varying terrain.
- Zakher – N24 03.166 E55 39.570 – a relatively small spit of sand dunes slowly being encroached upon by the Al Ain Industrial area; for the moment it offers some fun driving and with Jebel Hafeet as a backdrop it offers some great photo opportunities. Al Ain is famed for its red sand dunes and you will find the reddest of them here.
- Himeem Area – N23 05.599 E54 26.858 – much of this area is fenced off with locked gates but there are some areas where access is allowed. You will find all types of driving in this area from sandtrack to undulating dunes as well as some high climbs and 40 metre slipfaces in the south.
- Liwa Crescent – N22 59.250 E53 42.427 – this is where the real Empty Quarter starts and some of the most spectacular dunescapes can be found here. Huge dune massifs rise up from wide expanses of sabkah (salt flat); the driving can be tricky and is not for the novice. There are oil and gas operations to the East of the Moreeb Hill and you should keep well clear of these. The UAE/KSA border fence runs along the south of this area and you should keep off the military road immediately adjacent to it – in fact you should keep as far away from the fence as you can, ideally 2kms or so.
- The Magreb – N23 21.476 E52 42.771 – the most remote area in the UAE offers some great driving over mixed terrain. It’s easiest to tackle this area on a North-South route and two can be found in Mike Nott’s book “Adventure Offroad Routes: UAE and Oman” which is available from the OutdoorUAE online store.
- Madinat Zayed (MZ) – N23 19.576 E53 29.305 – typified by rolling dunes and steep slipfaces, a popular route crosses this patch of desert starting at 18kms south of MZ and proceeding westwards to the Arada-Ghayathi road. There are very few restrictions in the area and a multitude of beautiful places to camp overnight when you really will be “away from it all”.
A 4×4 is required in all cases below and I recommend minimum two cars, with a recovery strap plus a tyre gauge and a means of deflating the tyres. A compressor is useful to have too. Many of these places are accessible by crossover SUVs – but if in doubt walk the track before committing your car. You can read more camping tips in OutdoorUAE April 14 edition.
It is possible to camp almost anywhere that is not cultivated or fenced off but do keep away from local properties and remember it is never a good idea to camp downwind from a camel farm. Please be respectful when camping and take all your garbage home.
- Al Ain – Camel Gatch* – Take the gatch track north from the “Camel Roundabout” N24 15.785 E55 40.249 – note there is a gatch which runs parallel to the “private road” which you should use. Keep going for around 14kms until you are far away from the streetlights of Al Ain. There are gaps in the fence to allow access to farms and the like and the two best ones for camping are at – N24 21.683 E55 37.536 and N24 22.932 E55 37.297.
- Sweihan Gatch –You will find some great places to pitch your tent off the gatch which runs between Al Saad and Sweihan. Enter the desert at Gate 15 – N24 21.631 E55 24.024 then drive along the gatch, carefully cross the pylon gatch, then head along a sandtrack to reach a sabkha at N24 23.532 E55 30.400.
- Liwa Crescent – N23 01.203 E53 44.843 – turn off the main road here then follow the gatch* and sand track for about 3kms, past some farms and onto a beautiful deserted sabkah. The only time this area is likely to be busy and noisy is during the Liwa Festival in Late Dec/Early Jan.
- Magreb – N23 15.861 E53 08.879 – this gatch track leads you to a comms mast, a disused farm and some very easy dunes beyond. Don’t worry about camping near the road – on a busy night you will be lucky to hear 3 cars an hour!
- MZ North East – N23 30.230 E53 44.464. Drive through the disused fodder farm to the gap in the trees at the other side and continue up the gatch. Fork left at N23 27.348 E53 41.507 and follow a gatch with small pylons and you should find many camping opportunities. This area is great for winter camping when you are visiting the Al Dhafra Camel Festival.
- MZ North West – N23 08.050 E53 17.457 – a faint gatch track will take you to a date plantation but beautiful campspots abound from just 1km in from the road. Before pitching your tent in the shelter of one of the deep bowls here, make sure you are 100% confident you can get back out.
- If these are not enough then please check out my 10 Great Spots to Pitch Your Tent in Liwa blogpost
It is a bit hot to go camping at the moment but there is no harm in making some plans, ready for the autumn and a chance to dust off that tent before setting your gps for a desert adventure!
*gatch is the Arabic word for a type of limestone which is used in making hard gravel tracks throughout the desert.