Ahmad Al Balouchi is known throughout the UAE ‘sand’ community as the daredevil of desert off-roading. The Emirati marshal with the UAE Offroaders club pushes himself and his Nissan Patrol to the extreme, climbing and crossing massive dunes at speeds and angles that only a handful dare try.
He started driving in the sand in 1985, when he was just 12 years old, in a sedan car, a Datsun 120Y. He was driving mostly in his ‘back yard’, the massive dunes between Al Yahar and Salamat, near Al Ain.
‘Back then, there were no houses or roads, only desert. Sometimes, we would drive as much as 20km off-road and, of course, there was no GPS navigation, no mobile phones, no recovery equipment, but we never got lost,’ says Ahmad.
‘For sure, we got stuck and we had to get the car out the hard way, by digging the sand. Sometimes we would have to leave the car there and go get more help. We would never drive just one car in the desert, there were at least two or three’.
Ahmad’s story is not unique. Ever since the first car imports arrived, by boat, on Abu Dhabi’s shores in the 1950s – bought and driven straight off the beach – Emiratis have had a never-ending love affair with desert driving. It started off as a necessity, but the challenge of driving a Mercedes from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain in the pre-tarmac days ignited a passion that only grows stronger with each generation.
Nowadays, after work hours, every industrial zone in the country is crowded by Emiratis either modifying their 4x4s or discussing lights, bumpers, suspensions, lift kits and everything else that would improve their vehicles’ performance in the sand.
From November until May, the Moreb dune in Liwa, the Nagra dune in Swaihan and the Superbowl in Sharjah are where all these modified cars can be seen in action. Every weekend these areas are packed not just with die-hard off-roaders, but people, including families, who come just to watch the four-wheelers’ show. And, for some time now, the dunes have not just been an Emirati world.
The first off-roading clubs began to appear about a decade ago. Most are free of charge and welcome everyone, regardless of nationality, gender, culture, religion or driving skills. All you need to join them is a 4x4 vehicle. They run desert trips from rookie to advanced, upgrading members as their skills improve. There are about half a dozen well-known clubs in the country and, over the past few years, they’ve become increasingly popular.
People looking for a break from city life, looking to enjoy the unique nature of the UAE, to make friends and forget about problems and stress, make these clubs popular. It’s not just the off-roading part, which usually takes place for several hours during daylight, that is alluring; it’s the after-driving gathering that ends with a camp fire, barbecues, laughter and chatter well into the small hours of the night.
Sometimes there is camping too, birthday celebrations and themed trips, such as the Pink Drive (for breast cancer awareness), the Halloween drive, when both drivers and their vehicles look their scariest, or Santa in the Sand, complete with a Christmas tree set up in the desert and Santa Claus giving gifts to the kids. Despite the summer heat and humidity, Ramadan nights are always special, as off-roaders go out on night drives, ending with suhour in the desert. For a few years now, there has been an iftar feast in Badayer dunes, on the border between Dubai and Sharjah, where all UAE off-roading clubs gather.
‘So often you hear about the police having to rescue people from the desert because they go driving alone and are not experienced. That is why we always recommend people to join a club if they want to explore the desert. They really teach you how to off-road safely. We have rules about driving in a convoy meant to keep everyone safe. We also have equipment to deal with [getting stuck] and all sorts of other situations,’ explains Faris Al Kuwaiti, a marshal with the UAE Offroaders.
One of the oldest and largest clubs in the country, the UAE Offroaders has reached over 2,000 members. The club was set up in September 2009 by a bunch of friends who enjoyed off-roading together. Lee Al Romaithi, Saeed Al Hamli, brothers Amro and Emad Al Tamimi, Khaled and Taher Magboul and the only non-Emirati, John Crofts of New Zealand, used to find people stuck in the desert and thought it would be a good idea to set up a club and teach others how to drive in the sand.
In their first meeting, they were joined by Ali Al Junaibi and Nasser Al Kurby, the first two marshals of the club, and on October 10, 2009, Ali led a convoy of 15 cars on the club’s first desert trip. Since then, there was hardly a Friday without a desert trip. Sometimes, there are wadis, mountain and beach camping trips, as well as regular social gatherings for members to get to know each other better.
A constitution and safety rules were set up and computer expert Ayoob Ali was charged with designing the club’s ‘headquarters’, uaeoffroaders.com, which has just been updated and enhanced by another of the club’s ‘brainiacs’, Imthiaz Rafiq.
As the UAE Offroaders founders put it, the club has two seasons: one from October until May and one from May until October. Be it rain or sand storm, freezing temperatures or steamy, barely breathable 50 degrees Celsius, these guys never miss a weekend in the desert. They are addicted, and not just to off-roading, but to the strong friendships and brotherhood among them.
Here’s how they describe it.
Amro Al Tamimi, UAE Offroaders founder and marshal
Off-roading is for everyone at entry level. At intermediate level, though, only those with a real passion for the desert can master the skills, and at expert level, khalas! You have to have desert driving in your blood. In our senior drives we go out in most challenging areas, sometimes at night, and we drive really fast. If you don’t know your car and how to drive it, and if you don’t react very fast, you can easily get stuck or roll your car.
I started driving in the sand before I got a driving license. My brother Emad was teaching me and the first place I drove in the sand was Nashala, one of the most challenging deserts of Abu Dhabi. I remember I was driving a 1993 Nissan Patrol, which I borrowed without permission from my other brother.
For me off-roading is relaxation, even addiction. Any time I drive in the desert I forget all problems I have, I feel free. I tried once to quit but I couldn’t stay away.
I drove with other clubs too, but UAE Offroaders really is special. I enjoy the quality of the drives, the people and the barbecue nights. There is a great atmosphere at our gatherings and great food too. We have a lot of really good chefs.
I also love the brotherhood and camaraderie among members, the way they help and support each other, not just during off-roading trips, but privately too. We really are a family. It’s a very big family with different nationalities and different cultures.
Lee Al Romaithi, UAE Offroaders founder and marshal
As an avid photographer, I bought my four-wheel drive vehicle as an extension to my camera bag. I knew there are all these places out there that I wanted to go and explore. Now, to have the equipment is one thing, but to have the ability to drive is something else, so I learnt how to drive.
We want to get people out in the environment, to responsibly enjoy the nature. It’s nice to be in the city during the week, but to really relax you need to come out into the desert.
The responsibility part of it is yes, we drive big four-wheel drives with big petrol engines, however, we leave the places we enjoy cleaner than when we arrive and we ensure that we don’t disturb wildlife. We avoid driving over bushes and trees because there’s wildlife that live in them; they survive on the minimum amount of water, which they store within them. You go driving over a bush, you end up depleting the water within its eco-system and you end up killing off these plants. Wherever we go is with a conscientious approach of preserving the wildlife and teaching our members to appreciate it.
The same goes with our barbecue spots. We always clean up before we leave. It’s not just an aesthetic issue. There are camels and other animals around and the last thing we want on our conscience is for them to eat our garbage. So many camels die a painful death because of eating plastic bags.
Jenny Drayton, UAE Offroaders marshal
When I first came to the UAE, in 2009, I looked around and I thought if I’m going to see this country I’m going to need a four-wheel drive, so when I got my work contract, the first thing I did was went out and bought a 4x4. Soon after, a friend told me about a rookie trip, which happened to be with the UAE Offroaders and run by a woman off-roader, Marina Bruce.
My plan initially was that I would go out with this club, they will teach me how to drive in the sand, then I’ll go by myself off-roading in Oman and other places, but I got out there and I was absolutely hooked from the very beginning.
In those days – and even now – there weren’t that many women in the club. Marina was a marshal and that helped a little bit. Also, initially, my friend Sheree used to come out as a passenger, so there were two of us. My first trips were all in Al Ain area, where I live, run by Marina. Once I was a bit more confident I started to branch out and go further, with different marshals.
The club’s guys were very welcoming and they really didn’t have too much of an issue with women drivers. I think they thought I was a terrible driver for a long time, and to add to it, I had one of those little Liberty Jeeps, which is only six inches off the ground, but I learnt to drive very well in it.
So yes, as a woman I felt a bit intimidated to start with. I think if I didn’t have a passenger I wouldn’t necessarily have gone, but I got over that feeling. The thing about being a woman in the desert with these guys, you are over-protected. If something happens, like you get a wheel pop out from the rim, they would insist on fixing it for you. They wouldn’t let you do anything. The first time I got to fix a pop-out was when we did a ladies trip.
There are lots of things that keep me hooked. Part of it is that this is the outdoor environment here, and I do love being outdoors. The desert has its own kind of beauty, and you’re not going to see this really anywhere else in the world. It’s nothing like driving over a dune and the desert is stretched out in front of you. It’s such a beautiful sight.
Another thing is the rhythm. Sometimes, if I’m in the mood for a thrilling drive, I go out there and just drive, and it’s fun and exciting, it’s fast and you do all these things that are quite scary, so the adrenaline is going.
The third thing is the people you’re out there with. I know these people now for many years and I love to go and hang out with them in the desert.
The other thing that’s been really enjoyable about this club over the years is the skills I’ve learnt from all these people; you learn a lot of problem solving, team work and so on, and this helps you in your job and the rest of your life in ways that you don’t really realise.