As the mercury falls, being outdoors becomes increasingly more bearable and the great expanse of our beautiful desert seems more inviting, and accepting the invitation are off-road enthusiasts who are looking forward to testing their vehicles and equipment and heading for the dunes.
But if you are new to the region or have bought a 4WD for the first time recently or both and feeling overwhelmed by the idea of venturing into the desert unknown, then you don’t have to, at least not anymore.
This comprehensive guide will help you enjoy without the stress.
To get started, simply assure yourself that your vehicle and its tyres are in good condition.
The options are then to decide how to approach your "initiation". Never ever consider going alone to the desert unless you choose a busy area where others can come to your assistance as, and inevitably, when you get stuck! However, such busy areas come with their own issues and are best avoided.
You may have a friend, neighbour or colleague with off-road experience and skills who may be willing, or persuaded, to "escort" you on your maiden venture and offer advice and extraction in equal measure. However, such qualifications are very subjective and it is vital that your early experiences in the desert are enjoyable, well tutored, safely conducted and instil you with confidence.
Without dwelling on specifics, which should be mostly obvious, it is appropriate at this point to serve a reminder that the desert, while beautiful and entertaining, can be equally cruel and dangerous and must, like the sea, be treated with utmost respect.
Consider joining one of the many off-road clubs that are active locally. Most, if not all, welcome novices and delight in providing advice, coaching, support and desert drives tailored to the proficiency of the participants. These can be easily found on the internet and a degree of research and comparison will lead you to a group who will take pleasure in introducing you to the desert and who will, very likely, over time become close friends. Their programmes are built on extensive experience and are designed to gradually increase your ability and confidence while avoiding any experiences that might discourage the beginner, in any way.
There is a well-known adage that states "All the gear and no idea", and there are many examples cruising the streets. If joining a club, you will need nothing more than a sound vehicle, your phone (ensure it is charged) and enough drinking water.
You will very quickly learn what are the basic essentials and, more importantly, avoid the pitfall of acquiring spurious equipment at not inconsiderable cost. You might even enjoy a discount arrangement on purchases offered by some clubs. Even the mundane shovel comes in various guises and prices and some tow ropes in the market are fit for nothing more than leading your dog on a walk! So take advice from professionals or those knowledgeable in outdoor driving when purchasing gear.
If the "bug" bites – and take this as formal notice that desert driving is highly addictive – you will inevitably acquire all the gear, but don’t rush in. Take your time and consider each acquisition with care. Within any reasonably serious off-road group, there will be all the necessary equipment and the owners of such who are only too willing to show off and utilise their tools and gadgets.
One way to hone your off-road driving skills is to join in the Gulf News Fun Drive, which is about to celebrate its 40th edition. It was conceived to provide an organised desert drive for novice drivers and their families and is growing in popularity every year. The rush for entries is frenetic; a competition in itself. The fortunate 700 or so accepted entries enjoy an adventurous drive under the expert stewardship of the legendary "Fun Drive Marshals" who delight in cajoling the timid, "unstucking" the less fortunate and generally ensuring that a good and safe time is had by all on a drive through some of the less-familiar and remote areas of our desert. The many stories that filter out of the "experience" are as apocryphal as they are entertaining.
It is impossible to give a comprehensive list of tips on driving techniques and a full list would, most likely, strike awe in those contemplating taking to the sand. As they say, to become a concert pianist, one must start with "Chopsticks". However, that is not to say that there are certain Golden Rules which should be respected by the novice. Assuming that the vehicle is good, deflating your tyres to about 16 psi (1.1 Bar) is essential, while never failing to reinflate on leaving the sand, or, at least limiting your speed on tarmac until you can. So now, having chosen a relatively "tame" area of desert, check that all seat belts are securely fastened, check that you have engaged 4WD (that is if the vehicle is not permanent 4WD), release handbrake and off you go.
You must drive with a degree of confidence, albeit imaginary or self-conjured, or you will be stuck before you know it! However, be very aware of the difference in definition of confidence and bravado! Always err on the side of caution. Try and stay on level ground until you have established confidence in the fact that the sand is not your enemy. Avoid climbing slopes and crossing blind ridges. If approaching a ridge and deciding against crossing it, turn while you have some speed and momentum. Whenever possible, roll to a halt rather than braking hard as your wheels will simply dig into the sand and you may well be stuck! Try to come to a halt on a slope, as opposed to a level surface, then gravity will assist your departure.
If facing uphill, it usually pays to gently reverse back to a more "friendly" spot. If you have the slightest inclination that you might be stuck, do nothing… other than to get out and assess the situation. Do not rev the engine, spin the wheels and dig yourself in – it will only lead to more digging! A couple of minutes spent moving sand from in front of the tyres is well worthwhile, even by hand!
John's Golden don’ts
• Don’t go to the desert alone.
• Don’t set off without adequate water, fuel and a phone.
• Don’t drive without fastened seatbelts.
• Don’t get too close to any vehicle that you may be following.
• Don’t over face yourself. When in any doubt, get out, have a look around and plan your onward travel.