As he picks at his breakfast plate, Roger Kane-Berman sips his water and looks over the early morning mist lingering over the Hatta mountains. "This is probably the harshest terrain I've ever seen," he muses.
The South African should know. Kane-Berman is a BMW GS Trophy rider and off-road motorcycling trainer who has travelled the world and experienced the most rugged landscapes on the back of a bike. On the last weekend of January, he was at the Hatta Fort Hotel, along with fellow countryman Chez Van Dikj, to pass on their extensive off-road experience to UAE motorcyclists at a clinic designed for riders of larger, adventure-type motorcycles who want to enjoy the beautiful landscape here.
The course was run in conjunction with the Dubai BMW dealership and 2xWheeler Adventures, a local firm. The weekend covered levels 1 and 2 - introductions to off-roading - while last weekend was the more advanced lessons of level 3.
There were 15 riders for the first weekend of levels 1 and 2, and it was quite a mix; though the class was open to riders with any kind of bike, all there were riding some kind of BMW. Most had the larger R1200 GS models, but a few had the smaller F 800 GS and others were riding the F 650 GS single-cylinder bikes like mine.
The classes were set up on a dirt area on the Hatta Fort Hotel grounds; it was a perfect mix of flat, gravel terrain, rugged hills and sand pits that the instructors used for their various lessons.
Shadi Awad, head of 2xWheeler, also deals in the popular Touratech aftermarket parts and will be opening a shop in Motor City next month. He organised the event partly for his own benefit.
"You know, myself and many of my friends, we buy these big bikes and we just stay on the road with them; we don't know what we can do off road," he says. "So I thought this would be a good way to teach us what we can do with these bikes."
The bikes he's talking about are the larger R 1200 GS Adventures, weighing more than 250kg; that's more than double the weight of smaller motocross bikes popular with sand-dune adventurers here. It's quite a heft to keep upright when the terrain is loose and uneven, but Van Dikj, a full-time motorcycle trainer for BMW in South Africa, thinks otherwise.
"A lot of people think you can't ride these off road, but they're wrong," he says at the start of the first class. "It's all about balance; that's what we'll teach you here."
To demonstrate, one of the first lessons was taking the bike off the kickstand and walking around it, keeping it upright with just two fingers in contact at all times. Everyone found it difficult at first, but it proved Van Dikj's point.
The rest of the day focussed on these principles, but in practice on the bike. At one point, it began to feel like circus training, as we travelled in circles behind one another, balancing one foot on a peg - or both up on the seat.
It was tough going, finding this balance, both mentally and physically. And if anyone was worried about keeping their bikes in pristine condition, it was a rude awakening as they dropped them to the ground.
Luckily, another of the lessons was how to pick up the heavy bikes properly - standing with your back to the seat and lifting with your legs. Dana Miskulnig, 17, brought a big 1200 GS back up to a round of cheering from the rest of the riders.
Miskulnig was joined by her mother, Maria, two of three women in the class. They ride with Dana's father, Joseph, in the desert on smaller motocross bikes, but were there to hone their off-roading skills. "I do ride a lot, but I was looking to get better," says Dana. "And I can already feel that I'm a better rider from what we've learnt today."
As the lessons went on, we began to feel the stress on our muscles, and most were exhausted by the end of the day. But it was a good feeling, a sense of accomplishment.
The next day progressed further, including some hill climbing and practising tight, slow turns. But all of this culminated in a longer ride into the hills of Hatta, following rocky, dusty roads and trails that sometimes fall into shadows of the surrounding rock formations. It was tougher than any of the lessons, but those lessons found their true value as we meandered on the challenging landscape, putting them to practical use.
Stephane Rejasse is a long-time biker but new to off-roading; in fact, he took delivery of his new Adventure just at the beginning of the classes. He also did the level 3 course.
"I've been a rider for quite a while, but don't plan on doing a lot of off-roading," says Rejasse, a managing director for Fujitsu Industries in Dubai. "But I'm planning a lot of trips to Oman and all over with my wife, and if I encounter dirt roads or bad terrain, I wanted to be prepared. And these classes have really been good for that."
Friday, February 4, was the start of level 3 and there were a few new faces; some riders from the previous weekend had opted out of the advanced class, while the new ones had already completed the first courses previously. Both weekends, Awad had a truck full of Touratech parts that the riders scavenged over before classes began; he did good business.
We started off again with Kane-Burman and Van Dikj leading us in more balance lessons - standing on the pegs with a hand in the air, standing with one foot on the outside of the bike, putting our feet up on the seat, and those slow, tight turns. But it was not any easier from the previous week; these are lessons that take plenty of practice to get right.
The lessons became much more difficult: more hill riding, but on steeper slopes with loose gravel and rocks. The exercise was intimidating, and the riders applauded and encouraged each other; there was a real sense of bonding with everyone.
Mark Ghorayeb, an American-Lebanese on an F 800 GS, pushed people on. "C'mon, guys, if we want to stay in our comfort zone, we wouldn't ride motorcycles," he barked.
The two instructors were also encouraging; their patience and humour were commendable, especially with the varying degrees of skill among the group.
But two incidents on the weekend showed just how dangerous motorcycling can be, and why the training is so important. During one exercise, a biker lost control and hit another, breaking that rider's knee. And on an off-road excursion into the mountains, another biker fell and broke his ankle; his injury would have been avoided had he been wearing proper boots instead of trainers. The two were taken to hospital and will not be riding for a while; unfortunate examples of the value of good riding gear and proper skills and just simple bad luck.
And while the two incidents were sobering for the class, it didn't deter the riders from continuing. Everyone who rides a motorcycle knows the dangers involved; yet they also know the thrill and exhilaration of being on a bike. It is an unspoken link that riders everywhere share, and it is certainly there with this group today.
The last lesson of the weekend took the class to a desert area between Hatta and Dubai. Here is the part many people were dreading, especially those with heavy bikes: riding on soft sand. Not coincidentally, the first lesson is how to dig your bike out when it gets stuck.
Some opted not to partake, but most gave it a try and let down their tyres before taking off in the low, rolling dunes of sand. It was very challenging, but it was beautiful; the weather was clear and cool, and wind softly blew sheets of sand over the hills. There was a sense of freedom coming from being unencumbered by roads or trails. Occasionally, two or three riders would stop and turn off their machines, chatting quietly or listening to the wind. At one point, Kane-Berman borrowed a lighter 800 and put on a masterful display of sand riding.
When the class was over and the sun began to set over the dunes, Kane-Berman and Van Dikj handed out certificates and chatted with everyone amiably; the group was nowhere near their level of skill, but it was apparent everyone enjoyed themselves.
We filled our tyres back up and a few of us formed a group as we hit the tarmac on the way to Dubai. We were exhausted again, but we didn't care; these classes had opened up a whole new world of adventure for us all.
The next set of BMW off-road courses is planned for November, at Dh1,600 for levels 1 and 2 and Dh2,200 for level 3. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for details