January 14, 2013
For the number of years that I have lived in the UAE, I have always been fascinated by desert driving and overnight camping. Even afther I started driving a 4 wheel drive vehicle, I never gathered courage nor did I have the confidence to venture into the desert, driving by myself.
When the local newspaper announced their overnighter Desert Fun Drive, I thought this is my chance to try out something that I had always longed and aspired for.
On the cold and rainy morning of 11th January 2013, a total of over a 1000 4WD vehicles gathered on the Dubai Al Ain highway, all ready and set to enter the desert, looking and hoping for an amazing drive into the fiercest sand dunes of the country. And truly an amazing drive it was ! I was accompanied by my wife and our two children on our Mitsubishi Nativa, 3.0 litre vehicle.
The organizers had planned the route for the first time through a major Animal Conservation area, which ran a total of 197 kms into the desert until the overnight camp site, which was also located in the middle of the desert.
The route was divided into 9 separate zones, of which the drivers had to negotiate at least 7 of them and could opt out of the last two, if they chose to return to camp. The most fiercest and the challenging was the sector 5 (CP5) where the track took you through some very hostile sand areas and dunes that caught most of the drivers by surprise.
There was an attempt to break the Guinness Book of World records under the category of the longest convoy of vehicles in the desert. But owing to the vast number of inexperienced drivers, the convoy broke up very early during the drive . The attempt to break the world record had to be aborted.
I have experienced many times in the past, the dune bashing, the desert safaris but driving the vehicle yourself is a different experience and cannot be compared to the rides that you do with other experienced drivers. This desert drive has not only given me confidence but also helped me learn so many intricate details of difficult desert driving techniques, desert recovery and overnight camping.
At the outset, there are some basic things you need to consider before you sign up for dare devil adventures like this. You must ensure that you have a powerful 4WD vehicle which has been well maintained. Do not rent or borrow a vehicle as you need to really know your vehicle before you start off. Check your vehicle for all fluid levels, leakages, brakes, belts and replace them if they show stress or wearing. Ensure that you are going along with at least one trained and experienced driver and navigator. This sport is fun but can be a nightmare if you have not planned it well and have no emergency support. The desert is beautiful and calm but it can be as fierce and hostile as the raging ocean or a snow-covered high mountain. It is largely recommended that children below the age of 5, pregnant women, people with heart conditions and back problems do not venture into this sport.
The most essential requirements needed are the following : A shovel, a tough tow rope or cable, tyre pressure gauge, a potable compressor pump to inflate your tyres, a spare tyre. At least 10 liters or more of fresh water to use it to cool an overheated car or to keep you sustained until help arrives. Enough non perishable foods like fruis, biscuit and the like. A GPS system. Although no GPS models can guide you through the desert, it can tell you the coordinates and in the event of a recovery or rescue, the rescue team can pin point your position easily. Carry at least 2 mobile phones, one of which must be kept switched off to avoid draining of the battery. It is not easy to get signals inside a desert. So you may need to try climbing various high points from the area that you are either lost or stuck until you contact someone for help.
Although this organized event had all basic amenities at the camp site, we decided to overnight with our own camping tent. That added to the joy of the whole event. Unfortunately the temperatures that night fell to 6 degrees and was bitterly cold. Even the blankets and sleeping bags were not enough to beat the severe cold. A basic 6 sleeper tent is essential to accommodate 4 adults . Carry plenty of warm clothes like jackets, mufflers, monkey caps, sleeping bags and gloves. The desert can turn bitterly cold at nights. A camp fire is also recommended provided you ensure you set the fire in the middle of a dug out pit in the sand and not on plane surfaces. This will avoid the cinders from flying onto your tents or your vehicle.
Desert driving techniques will come by only with experience and not by watching someone do it or read in books or watch on television. Before you enter the desert, deflate all four tyres to a minimum of 16psi, which is actually half of what it would take to run the same vehicle on normal roads. In my case, while I got stuck in the deep well of a sand dune, the Marshalls who came to my rescue asked me to further reduce the tyre pressure to a further 10 psi, so that the tyres got more surface area to get out of the rut. The desert sands vary from hard, firm, gravel, soft and powdery. The driver has to carefully gauge the type of sand he is driving over. One has to decide on the type of gear shift that needs to be engaged and the power and speed your vehicle will need to negotiate the hostile terrain. At the beginning, seeing so many others getting stuck in the sand, I did the mistake of engaging my Aitomatic transmission vehicle on high power (L). Interestingly, this will not help you negotiate on soft soil as it is not only the power of your machine that allows you to cross over but also speed. A low geared 4 wheel engage cannot give you momentum and even the most powerful vehicles can get stuck in these sands. With the advice of one of the Marshalls on the spot, I used a semi 4H and drove on 2 for the rest of the route.
That did not however, help me avoid getting stuck further on. In all,I was stuck 6 times, two of them were so bad that I was winched out by Marshall Vehicles. The most fiercest was the fifth sector trail of 27.5 kms which was nicknamed as DEATH WELL and CEMETARY. Rightly so, dozens of vehicles did not manage to make it at first attempt or without external help, including me. While I reached the sector, I parked the car on top of the dune and watched for a long time, other vehicles trying to negotiate. With considerable amount of time spent watching, I managed to gather what the other drivers were not doing right. Finally I took the plunge and boldly got into the almost 90 degree fall, hoping to gather enough speed and climb over to the other side. But alas, my so-called experience failed me again. I did the mistake of climbing to the other side on a straight path. The correct technique would be a spin-around technique where you go out of the dune well by driving along its walls. That not only allows you to maintain the necessary speed on your vehicle but also avoids the carriage from settling into the sand.
Never attempt to follow a driver close behind him while negotiating difficult sectors. It may be possible that the vehicle ahead of you suddenly gets stuck and wants to reverse and make a second attempt. If at that time you are behind him, he cannot do that maneuver nor will you be able to attempt to overtake him or get the necessary momentum to get out of the place. An average of 100 meters distance is recommended between vehicles.
If you feel that your engine is not capable of going further, do not accelerate . By doing so, you will only spin the wheels and dig yourself in further trouble. Stop the vehicle and reverse it as much as your engine can allow you to go back. Attempt to climb again with the right gear and the right speed.
Dunes are edgy and the only way to go over them is to literacy gather speed and fly over them. Slow maneuvers over the dunes will have your vehicle stuck on the chassis with the 4 wheels in the air. Before attempting to take over a dune, it is always wise to walk over first and see if the coast is clear. The high dunes can be blinders and you may not be able to see what is ahead of it. With full power and speed, you will literally fly over the dune end. If at that time there is a vehicle or people at the bottom of the other side of the dune, your vehicle will literally crash over the other vehicle, causing extensive damage or bodily harm or even fatality.
If you are stuck in sand, do not attempt to wriggle out of the place unless you know you are engaging the right technique. By doing it wrong, you will overheat the vehicle or even damage the engine or further get the vehicle into deeper sand. Stay calm, switch off the engine and wait of the Marshalls to arrive. If there is a mobile signal, phone up the hotline and give them your GPS coordinates. If you are alone and you see no possibility of help coming your way,, assess the extent of the wheels that have stuck in sand. Use the shovel to slowly free the wheels from behind the tyres. Your next attempt must never be a forward motion. You must bring back the vehicle and then attempt to try again. Do not over exert while digging. It needs great patience and time to bring a stuck vehicle out . Take turns to dig, if you have a companion. Sip small amounts of water as you work. Take rest for short intervals. You can be dehydrated very soon inside a desert, even in cold weather.
In one of my other experiences when I stuck on a 45 degree slope, the Marshalls directed me to take the vehicle down into the well and then speed up. I first refused stating that I just went through hell getting out of one well a while ago. But they assure me that it was the only option I had. And they were right. They pushed my vehicle sideways, downwards with all their might. That released my wheels and I was able to gather speed and force the vehicle back to a safe area.
Desert driving and overnight camping in the desert is thrilling and fascinating provided you prepare well for it and follow the basic rules. But never attempt to do it yourself. Even if you are on your own, make sure you do not go more than one kilometer from any known main road and ensure that you have a compass that can bring you back to the main road. Do not rely on car tracks or dunes or small shrubs as land marks as they can be covered by blowing sands in minutes. Inform a friend or a family member of your last point before you enter a desert area and set a cut-out time after which they can alert Rescue teams to go after you. Inside the desert, it is like you are in the middle of an ocean with water all round you. You will have no clue as to where you came from and how you can get back. My warm recommendation to daijiworld readers is that you MUST undertake this adventure at least once and experience personally the thrill !