Off-roading through UAE's Liwa desert
The UAE Offroaders Club team takes to the vast desert in Liwa with its everchanging sand dunes and powder-soft sand, a dream come true for any off-roader. -Supplied photos
Silvia Radan, an off-roader, joins Dark Skies Challenge with Bumble Bee, her yellow FJ Cruiser. Lonely roads, dunes, flat tyres, sirlion steaks, shawermas and two days later, she returns to tell the story.
With dirty broken nails and sand-filled ears, with piles of empty jerrycans of petrol, with stories to keep even our grandchildren going and, oh, with one car missing, we've made it back to the tarmac after two full days of desert crossing.
From our desert exit point in the far, far West of Abu Dhabi, we drove 110 kilometres on what seemed to be the loneliest road in the UAE, to Madinat Zayed, where we sat around one last meal together, at the green and white chairs cafe next to the petrol station, recommended to us for its great shawermas and falafels.
"It was awesome," said one of my teammates, summarising the trip, speaking for everyone.
I have been an off-roader for three years, but I have never attempted anything like this. Mine was one of the 73 cars signed up for the Dark Skies Challenge, a 150km as the crow flies 4x4 dune crossing in the mightiest desert of them all: Liwa!
|What is Dark Skies Challenge|
The challenge is a 150km 4x4 dune crossing in the mightiest desert of them all - Liwa. Is all about having fun, exploring the UAE's landscape and boldly going where no one - not even the majority of Emiratis - have gone before. The challenge is open to any UAE resident with a four-wheel drive car and minimum off-roading experience.
Organised by Marina Bruce, aka the Desert Diva, founder of the Oasis Off-road Club in Al Ain, the Dark Skies Challenge is open to any UAE resident with a four-wheel drive car and minimum off-roading experience. It's all about having fun, exploring the essence of UAE's landscape and boldly going where no one - not even the majority of Emiratis - have gone before.
"I'm originally from Scotland, I lived in Al Ain for six years and now I reside in Madinat Zayed, in the Western Region," said Marina.
"I love driving long distance - the inevitable changes in terrain and ever changing scenery are what fuels my passion for off-roading".
She started the Challenge in October 2014, but the weather was still too hot for comfort and the notoriously soft Liwa sand was too powdery even for the best 4x4 engines and off-road tyres.
The second event came in February last year, and the conditions proved much better, so the date is now set in the annual UAE off-roading calendar.
As previously, the 73 cars, split in 15 teams, gathered at the first camping spot in the dunes behind Arada village, at the west end of Liwa oasis. We all had to be there on Thursday night, February 18, ready for a 6.30am next day challenge start.
As per Marina's rules, we each had to have at least two jerry cans of 20 litres each of fuel, ropes, shackles, radios, shovels, GPS, air compressors and jack lifts to deal with any sand stuck situation, in addition to our camping gear, food and fire wood for two days.
On Friday, the first day of the challenge, we were to cover 100km in straight line and on the second 50km before exiting the desert near Ghayathi, one of the last towns before the border with Saudi Arabia.
The challenge was not speed, but to manage the route in the straightest line possible. Quiz nights and treasure hunting were also part of the fun.
"Each team is self-sufficient and must be led by someone who is a trip leader in an offroad club. When things go wrong however, such as a vehicle breakdown, we have two sweep teams to offer advice and assistance," explained Marina.
Our team, representing UAE Offroaders Club, was led by Jenny Drayton, proud owner of the mighty short wheel Nissan Patrol Safari, accompanied by Heather Churchill as passenger; in second lead was Anton Delsink, riding a Nissan Xterra Offroad; third car was David Webb in a highly performant, but also quite moody Jeep Wrangler Sport; and in the last sweeping position was myself and Bumble Bee, a 2008 yellow FJ Cruiser, a beasty offroad machine.
Tired and cold, none of us were looking forward to a 6am wake up call on Friday and couldnt be happier the next morning when we saw the thick fog; it meant delaying the start till visibility was at least 500 metres. Plenty of time for an improvised shower and a breakfast of coffee, paratha and eggs.
By 10am, the sky cleared and we headed south-west. The route took us into technical dunes, with steep climbs and narrow valleys that took no time to claim their first victims. We passed several cars stuck up to their chassis in the powder-soft sand.
As the first car in our convoy, our team leader Jenny got stuck several times herself, but nothing her Patrol in 4x4 low gear and deferential locks couldn't handle.
With all the camping gear and extra petrol, my FJ was much heavier to handle and I found low gear ideal, though it meant consuming a lot more petrol.
Some 30km into the drive, we distanced ourselves from other teams, enjoying the desert in all its splendour and quietness: a "sea" of rolling golden red dunes, some reaching 100 meters height.
By lunchtime, we crossed the first set of technical dunes and we stopped on a high plateau for a half our sandwich break.
"It's a lot of hard work, camping for two nights, carrying a lot of equipment, why do you do it," I asked my teammates.
"Many people like camping and go offroading to do so, but those of us who love offroading so much that we have to camp, go to the Dark Skies Challenge," replied Anton, in a some what philosophical mood.
Break over, we continued towards our Friday night campsite. Jenny broke the silence.
"We are four kilometres from the buried treasure," she announced.
Marina had buried a treasure in the sand for every team and gave us each the GPS coordinates to find it. But as it happened, we never made it to the treasure spot.
"I need help," announced David on the radio. As I was behind him, I got out to help him, but his Jeep wouldn't move an inch.
We called the official recovery team. For us, the Dark Skies Challenge was over, but the rescue Jeep mission just started.
Using a winch and two cars to pull the Wrangler, we eventually got the car to a flat area of sand. And the rescue team directed us towards the desert exit point and left.
No clutch meant the car couldn't accelerate, it couldn't move by itself and towing it "uphill" through desert dunes was a worrying prospect.
To start with, though, we got lucky. We were on a flat area of a "desert highway" and for the first few kilometres everything went smoothly. As the sun was ready to set, we decided to call it the night and set up camp.
Tents up and fire roaring, we quickly warmed up and the sirloin steaks, lamb chops and South African sausages boosted our mood.
Next morning I woke up to a flat tyre, which just wouldn't inflate.
With the help of Jenny and Heather, using a jack lift plate and a compressor, we lifted the car and popped the tyre back on the rim.
By now it was already 10am. Time to move on, as a long day lay ahead.
As soon as we started, we found our first dune obstacle.
"Let's try doing the train," said Anton. It did work, though. For several more kilometres, the route was fairly flat and we managed a few more kilometres. But then came the stumbling-block: a massive dune to climb. We decided to leave the Jeep, get out of the desert, drive to Ghayathi, fill up the tanks and jerry cans and return.
In half an hour we reached the road, scouting for an easy route out on the way, inflated our tyres and drove the 40 kilometres to Ghayathi, the nearest petrol station.
Marina, who was already informed of our troubles was already there. We rushed back and by 4pm we were back in the sand. We now had four cars ready to pull him out.
"That is why I cannot stress enough how important it is never to go out in the desert alone," said Jenny. Tired, hungry and sweaty, we were finally out just as the sun was setting.
Nearly two hours and 110 kilometres later, as we were enjoying our shawerma and falafel in Madinat Zayed, we received news from David.
"The truck just arrived and we are now moving towards Madinat Zayed, but it's too late to fix the car tonight," he told us.
It took three days and Dh2,000 to fix a new clutch and by now David has his full working Jeep back.
"I still had a great time," he said.
Anton and David help Jenny pull the vehicle out of the powder-soft sand.
The FJ Cruiser all set to take on the dune with two jerry cans of 20 litres each, ropes, radios, shovels, GPS, air compressors and jack lifts.