Last month in Off the Beaten Path, we briefly discussed the dangers of heading into the desert alone - now let's look at what can go wrong.
A mechanical problem is bound to occur at some point, and I have seen many. In the worst I saw a vehicle left stranded for an entire week while a mechanic was hired to conduct repairs on location. Sometimes it is possible to tow the stricken vehicle to a garage, and other times it can be coaxed out under its own power, perhaps with a quick temporary fix just to get it out.
The main point is that there is always more than one vehicle, so a mechanical issue is rarely serious enough to cause more than frustration and a lighter wallet. Carrying a good tool kit can help make the difference between a lengthy repair involving several trips back and forth, and a routine visit to the mechanic.
A common issue is when a vehicle "pops" a tyre - that happens when the tyre is deflated to a pressure too low to keep the bead sealed onto the rim, and so the tyre pops off and all air escapes. It can be re-seated when taken off the ground (carry a wooden board to place under your jack, or it will simply sink into the sand - or drive the popped wheel over a crest and dig out the sand from underneath it). In any case an air compressor will be required as you hold the tyre centred.
Injuries can be far more serious, but luckily not as bad as those that can happen on the road. From car incidents, we've had a broken nose (not wearing his seatbelt), a concussion and a cracked collarbone (roll-overs). We've also had burns from stepping on bonfire coals, a scorpion bite to the knee and a large peanut stuck up a two-year-old's nostril (tweezers saved the day), but otherwise nothing a good first aid kit can take care of.
Only once in more than 10 years of off-roading in the UAE have we had to leave the desert by the pre-arranged emergency exit: a visitor from Europe collapsed from dehydration late at night as a result of not drinking enough water coupled with a case of diarrhoea, courtesy of a Dubai-Al Ain restaurant stop the day before. As cramps set in, we left camp and were at the hospital in just more than an hour - the next day she was released and recovered rapidly.
Getting lost and unexpected delays are almost a regular fixture of every trip, and so being prepared emotionally is also very important. The mind can be your worst enemy, especially when placed in a stressful situation. And so choosing like-minded companions and clearly sharing expectations go a long way in making sure the trip is a pleasant experience for all. I have witnessed a grown man break down into a teary panic attack after suffering a series of difficult stucks, and I have also dealt with fights between participants. However, by far the most common eventuality is having someone driving in a dangerous manner, with no regards for their own - and everyone else's - safety.
It is therefore a good idea to have a trip leader assigned specifically to manage any of the above incidents with fair authority. Above all else, calm and common sense will be your best friends when things go wrong.