Rachel Johnson and Hugh Weldon came to Al Ain from the UK, via South America. Intrepid explorers as they are, it seemed fitting that their choice of transport would be rugged, practical and primed for adventure. Hugh is a nurse manager at Al Ain Hospital, while Rachel is assistant dean and associate professor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at UAE University. They married last year in their hometown of Nottingham in the UK. "Our wedding reception required everyone to camp out in a field, put on their Wellington boots and play three-legged races in fancy dress. It ended with singing round a campfire," recalls Rachel.
When they arrived in the Emirates, petrol prices in the UK had reached the equivalent of Dh9 a litre, but with fuel at a fraction of the price in Al Ain, the couple could afford not one off-roader, but two. "Hugh and I love to explore the wilderness, observe nature, camp and hike. A 4x4 is a must for that." Hugh, however, is not into "driving around for the sake of it", preferring instead to "use my vehicle to arrive somewhere that is little visited but interesting and beautiful."
His blue Nissan Xterra SE is a hulk of mighty proportions, with all the functionality and none of the pretensions of a fashion off-roader. "It's good on and off the road, has a powerful engine and actually looks like a car, not a Dinky toy." "My husband was one of the first Xterra owners in Al Ain," adds Rachel proudly. "He has the impression that local Jeep owners secretly admire his car." This clearly pleases her husband, who responds with a grin as wide as the grille on his Nissan.
Rachel's wagon is the expat favourite Jeep Wrangler Sahara. The 2008 model was bought at a bargain second-hand price of Dh100,000 with only 2,000km on the clock. According to the pair, there is something of a craze for off-roading occurring in the emirate. "The Jeep-to-expat ratio is really high at the university where I work and at Hugh's hospital," says Rachel. "Sometimes, at the Falaj Hazza campus, we have a multiple Jeep line up; different colours, different models, some with winches, some more covered than others, but they are a definite presence. But all have front bumpers that are handy to put a cup of coffee or student assignment on when you're trying to find your car keys."
Better as drivers than passengers, the couple drive both cars in convoy if they are taking a sojourn in nearby Oman. "We went out there for a weekend with two friends, the Xterra, the Jeep and an FJ Cruiser. We called it 'Carbon Footprint Camping'." To offset their ecologically unsound camping trip, they took other people's litter home with them, "as an apology to the environment." As for the benefits of driving in Al Ain compared to Dubai, its noisier and more boisterous cousin, Rachel lays out the irrefutable facts: "In Al Ain, the rush hour lasts about 15 minutes and amounts to a possible four-car queue and a two minute wait at roundabouts."
And as for the apparent joy of the SUV-driving experience, according to Rachel, it's "just a car. Having said that," she continues, "I do like being high up inside a fairly tough box." Indeed. email@example.com