Once you’ve got the basics of off-roading down, it’s time to get out there and enjoy the desert.
But first, a safety warning, courtesy Mitch Perera, a veteran of the Gulf News fun drive. This year, his 33rd Fun Drive, sees him in project leader mode.
‘One of the biggest issues with any type of driving is the common sense element --which is not so common,’ he said when we gave him a call this week. ‘You just need to be fully aware, fully switched on, be aware of what are your surroundings and what you are riding on.’
He adds that many people don’t always understand what their vehicle is capable of. ‘A lot of people get into the vehicle and push it to its limits.’ He advises those taking a lesson in their own vehicle (which you can do with instructiors here, including Emirates Driving Institute) to get a walkaround of the vehicle with the instructor. ‘There are some vehicles that don’t have a good approach angle,’ for example. ‘And suspension is key.’
That said, he says there are plenty of cars on the market that perform decently in the sand - so if you don’t have a Jeep Wrangler or Nissan Patrol, give it a go, too.
There are two kinds of off-roading locations in the UAE: Desert and wadi, and Perera is in the sand camp.
Driving on sand means less damage to the vehicle (as long as you are driving in a safe manner), for example. ‘Rocks tend to affect your tyres, the ride is as not as comfortable, and it’s dusty,’ he says. ‘There is not a lot of rainfall as of late, so going to wadis is kind of boring. After the first hour you get tired of rocky terrain and the speeds are slow. In the desert, you have a softer ride and it’s more of a thrill and it’s scenic, you can see a much wider scale, and once you get on top of a high view you can see the entire area.’
But where can you go?
‘There have been some new rules that have come into effect - some no-go restricted areas,’ warns Perera, singling out the mountainous areas around Hatta and Wadi Bih, which have border restrictions in place. If it’s wadi off-roading you want, he suggests you go across the border into Oman.
If you’re around the Northern Emirates, Bidyer - known as Big Red, is a good option. ‘Going from Dubai to Hatta, I do not venture to the left side of the road, as it’s used by tour companies. We go south of Big Red.’
Also ticking Perera’s sand box are Sweihan and Al Saqah (on the other side of Al Maha resort on Al Ain highway, on the right hand side when heading to Al Ain. ‘These are the [areas] that are left untouched, where people can drive confidently. These are challenging, so not for the novice.’
Novice drivers should head for Fossil and Camel rocks, although ‘the latest news from that area is that it’s now a heritage site and you can’t camp out and you can’t light campfires.’
And finally, the ultimate - Liwa. The 800km round trip from Dubai means overnighting is recommended. ‘It’s breathtaking, not like any other desert in the Northern Emirates. These are the largest sand dunes in the world.’
If you’re wondering about exactly where you can turn off the road, look for gates in fences (which are mostly there for the camels). ‘If there is no lock, you can open and go through. The rule is you can go into a gate but you must close it behind you. In Abu Dhabi, there are gates with weight-control devices, so the minute your 4x4 goes on it, it automatically opens. Those are the ones you want to use.’
One last piece of advice, and it’s one we take as seriously as safety: ‘Take back the litter.’