I hope you know what you are doing, said the wife. It wasn’t an unfamiliar statement, only this time I wasn’t repairing a household device, but was outdoors, in Fujairah, attempting something for the first time – taking my year-old Pajero off-road for some dune bashing.
I’d read up online about driving in the desert and was convinced that would be enough. After all, my vehicle is a 4X4, we had a couple of bottles of water and some sandwiches in the car, so we were OK, right?
But barely a few minutes into the sands, I quickly realised two things:
1. I wasn’t really sure of what I was doing – my car was getting stuck in the sand
2. Maybe I should listen to the wife more often.
I quickly turned back and headed for the tarmac – familiar ground.
That was nearly two years ago but my appetite for off-roading was whetted. Since then I’ve always wanted to go back on the sands, and last week I got an opportunity. ‘The Gulf News Fun Drive is scheduled for the weekend,’ said the ed. ‘So how about a feature... a guide on off-roading?’
I volunteered and quickly signed up for a desert driving course with the Emirates Driving Institute in Dubai. Coordinated by a team of highly experienced advanced driving trainers, the one-day programme includes a 90-minute theory session followed by around four hours of practical lessons in the desert offered by a qualified desert driving instructor in the institute’s 4X4.
The registration process was quick, after which I was led to a lecture room where Farhan Chowdhary, who has more than a decade of experience in giving advanced driving courses, took me through the theoretical aspects of four-wheel drive vehicles and the techniques required to drive in the desert.
‘First point,’ he said, sipping a cup of tea, ‘never underestimate the desert. It’s beautiful and full of adventure, but you need to treat it with the respect it deserves.’
Aided by a snazzy presentation, Farhan then listed a series of essentials before heading off to the sands.
1. Know your 4X4
‘Very important and plain common sense,’ says Farhan. ‘You must know the machine that’s going to take you into – and bring you back from – the desert safely. First, check if your vehicle is part-time 4X4 – where the system powers only the rear or front wheels while on highways; full time – all four wheels receive power at all times; or automatic – front or rear wheels get power and when one of these starts slipping the system automatically transmits drive to other wheels as well.
‘You’ll be surprised how many people don’t really know their car’s system,’ he says.
More basic lessons on torque, horsepower and differential locks, and Farhan deftly shifted gear to the other important section – the must-haves in your car to avoid potential problems.
First up, recovery rope. Farhan suggests not stinting and opting for the slightly expensive KERR – Kinetic Energy Recovery Rope. ‘It allows for expansion as the towing vehicle starts to pull. When the towing vehicle stops, the rope contracts and the stuck vehicle will be drawn forward.’ A recovery rope must have loops at either end to insert shackles. ‘Never use a recovery rope without shackles,’ he warns. ‘It can damage the rope and even the vehicle.’
Also have to hand:
Industrial type gloves: essential when changing wheels, handling wire winch ropes, etc.
Jack: Farhan suggests practising using the jack before venturing into the desert. He then shows us a base plate – a square piece of wood. ‘Know what this is for?’ he asks. ‘To use under the jack in sandy conditions,’ I volunteer.
‘Yes,’ he says, then adds with a wink: ‘you can also use it to slice vegetables for your salad.’ Other must-haves: Shovel (a space-saving folding type is available), fire extinguisher, tyre pressure gauge and tyre tools, jump leads, a tyre inflation pump, tool kit, a plastic sheet (to spread on the ground to keep the wheel nuts and tools when changing a wheel, lest you lose them in the sand), a compass, first-aid kit (check to see the medicines’ expiry dates), window breaker, a torch and a lump hammer (in case your fender needs to be reshaped to allow wheels to spin freely after a mishap).
‘Most importantly, these items should be stored preferably in one large box securely strapped down in the rear of your car,’ he says. ‘If travelling in a convoy not all vehicles need to have shovels, lump hammers or a tyre inflation pump. They can be shared.’
Food and water: Carry at least four litres of water per person.
‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there,’ says Farhan, with a smile. He then slips into serious mode. ‘The importance of planning cannot be overemphasised.’ The good news is that maps are now available covering the UAE so one can easily plot a route before setting off into the desert. ‘Importantly, never set off alone. Have at the very least one more car accompanying you.’
Farhan offers more tips: inform at least two friends/family members where you are headed, how long you are going to be away for, and what to do in case you do not turn up after a certain time.
Stick to your plan and route, wear comfortable clothes and shoes, keep emergency numbers handy and, importantly, don’t forget your mobile phone and charger.
Theory part over, and after downing one more cup of tea, we head off to our vehicles for the second part of the course.
4. Out and about
Dressed in a white tee and khaki trousers, Nasir Murad, the instructor, is ready to give me practical lessons in desert driving techniques in EDI’s 4X4. We will be accompanied by lead instructor Maula Baksh in another vehicle. (Remember the minimum two-vehicle rule.)
‘We’ll conduct the training close to Nazwa off the Dubai-Al Ain highway,’ he says.
Less than an hour on the highway and we take a sharp turn off the main road and enter the desert. ‘The first thing to do when you enter the sand is to reduce tyre air pressure to 16psi,’ says Nasir, giving detailed instructions on how to use a deflater and a pressure gauge.
Once done, I slip into the driving seat. Nasir advises me to set the vehicle to 4H, lock differential and turn off traction.
‘OK, shall I now step on the gas?’ I ask.
Not yet, says Nasir. ‘Sit in the ideal driving position – the seat position should be such that the inside of your wrist rests on top of the steering wheel. Next, hold the wheel in the ‘10 to two’ position but unlike while driving on the road, your thumbs should rest along the wheel and not grip the wheel. The reason: you risk dislocating your thumb in case the wheel ‘kicks back’ on hitting an object like a rock.
Hands in position, we set off and in minutes I sight a dune that I want to climb.
‘Before attempting a dune, assess it,’ he says. ‘Choose the line of least resistance’ route, and gain speed and momentum before you arrive at the base of the dune.’ Top tip: do not change gears while climbing; you will lose speed and momentum and chances of getting stuck are high. In case you do not make it to the top, never turn around on a steep dune; the vehicle can topple over. Instead, reverse in a straight line.
Nasir cautions: ‘When in a convoy, ensure the vehicle ahead has successfully descended the slope before you attempt to cross.’
I make a neat climb up a dune and in picture postcard-style churn up sand as I cruise close to the crest of the dune. ‘Bravo,’ says Nasir. ‘Keep the momentum don’t stop.’ I’m truly enjoying this and don’t want to stop. ‘Keep maintaining momentum at all times. But if you have to stop, never do so on top of a dune,’ says my teacher. ‘Go over the dune and have your vehicle facing downwards. Also, never stop in soft sand.’
Busy listening to Nasir, I pause for moment while ascending a pretty steep dune. Big mistake; the car slows and in seconds the front wheels are spinning and the car is motionless. We are stuck. ‘Good time to teach you self-recovery techniques,’ he says. The first involves engaging low range (or reverse gear), setting rpm to 1,000 while constantly turning the steering wheel completely to the right, then to the left. ‘Steering left and right will create enough momentum to get moving,’ he says.
‘Patience is the key. Don’t expect to get your car out in a jiffy. Keep persevering and you will succeed.’
If this fails, you might need to shovel the sand from around the wheels. Top tip: start shovelling from the bottom of the pile of sand you want to remove, the top portion then drops off making it easier for you. I get down and do this.
Another option is to use a jack to raise the wheel and fill the gap between sand and tyre with stones or a mat to gain traction.
‘If that fails, get a friend’s car to tow yours out,’ he says. ‘When towing remember to have both cars in a straight line, if possible. Agree on signals to be used and once towing is complete, return the equipment back to their respective places,’ he says.
More dune bashing and gunning the vehicle over soft sand and it’s lunch time: a sandwiches, water, a soft drink and crisps.
After lunch, another hour of lessons in the sand and we return to the institute where I’m handed a certificate for completing the course.
Back home, I proudly wave it to the wife. ‘Are you sure you can now drive in the desert?’ she asks. Yes, I say. And I mean it.
Emirates Driving Institute offers regular desert driving courses. Check edi-uae.com for details. Belhasa Driving Centre also offers defensive desert driving courses. See bdc.ae for details. The hugely popular annual Gulf News overnighter Fun Drive takes place this weekend.