11 November 2023
Sam Watson trail blazes through the beautiful but unforgiving virgin dunes of the United Arab Emirates
The northern peninsula of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is bounded to the west by the Persian Gulf and to the east by the Indian Ocean. The peninsula itself is little-developed, with no large cities like nearby Dubai. Instead, it has swathes of sand dunes forming sand seas pressing up against the Hajar mountains, forming a spine to the peninsula.
Author Sam Watson's V8-powered Camel Edition Discovery 1 is superbly able in desert conditions
I’ve lived on the peninsula for seven years, exploring the deserts and mountains of the UAE and Oman in my 1996 Camel Trophy Edition Discovery, and my friend Pieter and I recently crossed the peninsula off-road from west to east with his 1985 110 ‘Jangwa’ (Swahili for desert) and my Disco ‘Bumblebee’.
Sam has spent most of the last 25 years travelling North and East Africa and the Middle East in a variety of Land Rovers, clinging onto the idea that there are still wild and remote places somewhere, untouched
There are few roads running east-west across the peninsula, and fewer tracks. We didn’t anticipate using any tracks in the desert – instead we’d be breaking trail through undriven dunes in a proper exploration. In the mountains we would use a small network of shepherds’ paths – though after a recent cyclone had torn through, we didn’t know how many were actually driveable. Google Earth was excellent for route planning, we took maps from this and then put them into Oziexplorer mapping software which could then give waypoints to our Garmin GPSs.
Ability to carefully control tyre pressures is vital when driving in all types of sand
I live in the eastern Emirate of Fujairah and Pieter lives further away in Dubai, so I was out in the coastal desert first at the western start point of our route, establishing a camp in some low dunes near the beaches of the Persian Gulf. Deflating to 15psi gave more flotation than normal tyre pressures, allowing the Land Rover to skim across the top of the sand rather than digging down into it. My Discovery has a 3.9 V8 with an automatic gearbox, so I left the transfer ’box in low ratio with the centre diff locked for the three days in the desert. After an hour’s drive into the sands, I reached our rendezvous point and drove to a hollow between two dunes, making sure the Disco was level before popping up the roof tent. Venus was rising and the sun was setting as I laid a fire. Desert nights are amazing when there’s no wind in the deep desert – absolute silence – bliss!
Next morning, I heard the drone of Pieter’s 3.5-litre V8 across the desert. I wandered up the dune overlooking camp to give him a wave. Deserts generally lack landmarks – sand moves in the winds – so it’s easy to miss a location in dunes. I saw his white 110 king cab rumbling towards me and soon we were chatting over tea, preparing for the day.
110 was running BF Goodrich all-terrains which tended to dig into soft sand and needed more effort to cope with dune upslopes
Driving in unknown dunes takes concentration. You have to judge the sand consistency in front, and read the slopes, ready to stop or turn immediately if the landscape becomes unexpected or dangerous. YouTube is full of videos of dune bashing in the Dubai deserts where cars roar over dunes, driving along a well-worn playtime route. We were in different circumstances – breaking a trail through unknown dunes, driving carefully through terrain that could snare or even flip cars. Careful speed in such dunes is crucial – you need enough momentum to get across soft patches, but you need also to be able to react to hidden rocks or slopes masked by contours in the sand and bright sunlight.
Desert driving needs alertness and concentration
We took turns to lead – giving each other a chance to take a break from the fierce constant concentration dune driving requires when you are choosing a route. Often, we’d stop and recce ahead on foot – the safest way. Tyre choice made a difference – Pieter was using BF Goodrich all-terrains which tended to dig into soft sand and needed more effort to cope with dune upslopes, whereas my road-biased Michelin ATs had smoother tread, floating more easily on soft going. Equally, in rocky terrain, Pieter powered across rocks with his tough BFGs where I had to tread more carefully.
Pork fillet and eggs over the campfire make desert mornings smell fab
After a day of carefully navigating the dune sea we made camp in a gravel basin. Pieter pitched his tent cot – a camp bed with mesh walls and roof, and I used my roof tent. Sleep came fast under a diamond-scatter of desert stars.
The morning saw us on the trail early, navigating a triple line of north-south dunes whilst heading east. These were recently-carved by strong cyclone winds, so were large and soft. In the trucks was five days’ supply of water, firewood, food and fuel jerry cans (being used at 10mpg in the soft sand by each V8) so we were running quite heavy. We therefore dismounted a lot to recce on foot, before taking the heavy Land Rovers over the imposing dunes, often at strange angles.
The sand changes to gravel and calls for a cautious descent
The next day brought a new landscape – mountains. The dune fields faded to gravel, and then foothills. The Hajar range is a tall, jagged range of mountains with shepherd trails threading through, and we’d mapped a few likely trails on Google Earth before departing. There were a couple of false starts – that cyclone had destroyed a couple of trails – but we eventually found a way through into the Emirate of Fujairah using a narrow trail that ran along the spine of a ridge. Again, recce on foot was the safest way to progress, and we had to rebuild more than a few sections of track to progress.
Disco 1 scouting shepherds' trails through the stunning Hajar mountains
Our last joint camp was in a small canyon at the end of a longish valley, reached by an awkward scrabbly descent. Not somewhere to camp in rainy season, but safe enough now. I woke at 3.00am to a huffing noise outside and dragging footsteps – peering bleary-eyed out of the roof tent, I laughed to see inquisitive camel faces peering back at me! That morning Pieter turned west, heading for tarmac and Dubai. I made my way to the Indian Ocean shore and one last camp on the ocean’s edge, before heading back to base.
Pieter relaxes by the fire at last light in camp in the Hajar mountains
All too soon the trip came to an end. The two old Land Rovers (with a combined age of 64) had dealt happily with some quite extreme desert travel and hard work on steep, rocky and technical trails – as we knew they would. All that remains now is to plan the next trip…
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