x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A drive through the desert is no walk in the park

The Air Bag: The desert is a beautiful and exciting place in the UAE, but only the prepared should venture on trips across the dunes.

By the time you read this, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge will be all over. The dust would have settled, the prizes will have been handed out and the planning for next year's event would be well under way.

It's a wonderful rally, though not really suited to mass spectators, unfortunately – pretty hard to put up a grandstand and sell hot dogs 10km in the desert. But if you can get out there for the next one, it's worth it to see these bikes, quads, cars and massive trucks fly across the dunes, leaving huge plumes of sand in their wake.

The reason the event is so special is not just because of the competitors, but the venue itself: the Liwa desert - and the rest of the desert in the UAE, for that matter - offers some of the most visually stunning areas in the world, but also some of the most dangerous and daunting places to be, especially if you are not experienced in desert driving.

One family found that out the hard way this week, though it could have been much worse. A British family of five was stranded for hours in the desert south of Dubai after their car got stuck on a dune. They had no GPS and were travelling alone; fortunately, the police managed to triangulate their position by tracking their mobile phone signals and used a helicopter to help them out and guide them to safety.

But what would have happened if their mobile phone didn't have a signal? Or, if the truck had rolled and people were injured?

The competitors and organisers of the Desert Challenge know this all too well. Sure, it's a dangerous sport, but they take measures to limit the risks; not only are the competitors highly skilled and experienced in desert travel, but they also have a veritable army for support, including doctors, medics and search and rescue teams, on constant standby should something go awry.

And, have you seen what the racers have for navigation? Of course, part of the difficulty of the rally is that you have to find your own way across the desert from checkpoint to checkpoint, using what they call a road book, a trip meter, and lots of switches, wherewithalls and doodads on their vehicles - really, I have no idea how it works; it's the most intimidating part of the race and the one that makes me hesitate to try it out. Well, that and my complete and utter lack of skill in riding across the dunes.

I've been told that it's easy, once you know what you're doing. But that's the whole point; these guys - and ladies, let's not forget - know exactly what they're doing. And, if they make a mistake, they know that there are people that will help them get out of the desert safely, whether under their own power or as a pickup.

I know, I know; it's so tempting to just head out of the city and hit the dunes on a Friday morning; sometimes it's a bit hard to organise a few people, so why bother for just a couple of hours? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, plenty is the short answer. The desert is a place that demands respect. Unless you have a medical helicopter on personal standby, I suggest you be smart about going out in the dunes. Take a GPS, take some friends in other vehicles, take lots of water, and take your time if you're inexperienced.

And who knows? Maybe someday we'll be reporting on you from the Desert Challenge in these august pages of Motoring.