There is a line of three four-wheel drives with trailers attached parked outside a Subway in Dubai's International City. On the trailers are dirt bikes and the owners have parked so they can keep an eye on them while they have a coffee and chat. It could be any given Friday in the Emirates, a group of guys getting together for a weekend warrior desert ride, the good-natured banter flying thick and fast. But the purpose of this ride is serious - this is a training session for the UAE Charity Challenge team for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. The five-day, 2,200km race isn't until the end of March, but the team is as serious about training for the ride as well as raising money for charity. Sean Curnow, an Australian, and Paul Anselmo, a South African, competed in a four-man team in this year's challenge and raised money for the Dubai Centre for Special Needs and the Malaria Consortium, a project that aims to eradicate malaria from Uganda.
The funds went towards a bus for the special needs centre, with the presentation of a cheque for Dh185,400, and the distribution of special mosquito nets for a remote Ugandan community. These nets cost up to Dh20 each and are treated with a slow-release substance that wards off mosquitoes. Dh138,300 was raised for the Malaria Consortium and the nets were distributed to the remote Lake Albert area. It is a cause that has involved Curnow's employer, Heritage Oil and Gas, an international company with a Dubai office. The company has a Lake Albert base and Uganda-based staff have assisted with net distribution.
Curnow explains the rationale for the team to ride for a good cause rather than just personal glory. "Rather than simply make this about ourselves, we decided we would use this opportunity to raise some money for charity," he says. "We all live pretty good lives in the UAE and we felt it was time to give something back - and so the UAE Charity Challenge was born." For the 2010 event, Curnow and Anselmo are back with two new riders, Fransua Rachmann and Darryn Keast, both from South Africa. One of the riders from the last race, Jonathan Quan, will this year be the team's bookkeeper.
"We are fully auditable," says Curnow, adding that this is important for the team's credibility and means that sponsors and people who make personal donations can be confident that the money will end up in the right place. Once again, the team's fundraising efforts will support the Malaria Consortium and, because the event has been renamed the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the Future Centre for Special Needs in Abu Dhabi.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," says Curnow of this year's race. "It's a minimum of seven hours on the bike for five days in a row." This year's event featured daily rides ranging in distance from 350km to 500km. The bikes are set up with GPS navigation as well as a road book that Curnow says looks like "a big roll of toilet paper" with arrows to direct the riders in the often bewildering desert.
"It helps if the people in front of you have made a track," says Curnow. But on a windy day in the desert, the tracks can disappear almost as quickly as they were created. "It will be held in March this time, which is a windier time of year than the last one when it was so windy that after five minutes the tracks would be gone." Curnow and Anselmo agree that the team was lucky last year not to suffer any major disasters and all four bikes finished the event.
"Last time, everybody came off their bike at some point, and I ran out of fuel about 2km from a fuel point, but I was able to get enough fuel from another bike to allow me to get there," says Curnow. "They were minor, minor problems - we thought it was bad but there was one bike that was burnt to a crisp and another guy broke both his arms and legs." A laugh erupted between them at the memory of that incident, but it was tempered by the guys admitting that wives and girlfriends probably do not need to hear tales of near-misses and dune bravado. Safety is paramount and Curnow says that innovations such as wireless satellite tracking of all competitors' vehicles increases the safety of the race.
"We have the satellite navigation on all bikes, and there is a button to press if there's an emergency and the safety officials will be on the scene so quickly," says Curnow. "A siren goes off if there is any danger and it is the only off-road race that is fully supported by helicopters - when that guy broke both his arms and legs, the helicopter was there within eight minutes." The physical rigours of the event mean the team is taking their fitness training very seriously. "We do about 75 per cent cardio and about 25 per cent weight training," Curnow explains. "We do exercises that work the muscles that we use when we're riding, so the rowing machine and cycling are good for simulating the effects of being on the bike."
Gecko Motorcycles has given the team technical and mechanical support in the last race and will do so again this year. "The Gecko mechanics are amazing," says Rachmann. "They supported the race last year and there was only one bike that did not finish." After coffee, we drive in convoy towards the Omani border, past the Al Madam meeting point where UAE off-road enthusiasts congregate every weekend to take on the majestic dune known as "Big Red". We push on further, take a turn-off signposted in Arabic, drive over a cattle grid and head towards Eccles Ridge, an imposing block of rugged rock looming on the horizon.
The SUVs are parked and the bikes come off the trailers. With little regard for modesty, the riders change into their protective kit, a process that takes about 20 minutes and leads to Keast, resplendent in black and white, being compared to Buzz Lightyear. We are now properly in the desert. The tyres on the photographer's FJ Cruiser have been let down and soon the guys to start their engines and churn up some sand.
Under a harsh sun and a cloudless blue-grey sky, they pose patiently for some portrait shots, but then it's time to show off a few tricks. Soon all four are jumping over dunes and swirling their bikes around bowls of hot, powdery sand. "We're the walking wounded," Curnow jokes as they discuss assorted shoulder, back and knee ailments. It is Anselmo's first ride since shoulder surgery. "The doctor said the only way to tell if it's OK is to go for a ride," says Anselmo, as he steels his nerves at the top of a dune and prepares to leap some other dunes for the camera.
He takes the jumps with ease. It looks like he has recovered well and, after a few more tricks, the team decides to head off for a long ride before the sun goes down. Over the next four months, before they gather at Liwa for the start of the 2010 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the amiable foursome will focus on training and fundraising in equal measure. It is not about breaking world records but completing a feat of endurance for a good cause.
"The key is to pace yourself," says Curnow. "You have to ride over six days and for us, the objective is to finish." During the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, Sean Curnow will be blogging for The National on each day of the race. For more information on the team and information on how make donations, log on to www.uaecharitychallenge.com firstname.lastname@example.org