Leave the tent at home. Noel Ebdon finally discovers a camping caravan that goes where you want to.
Caretta: The off-road caravan
Normally I don't mind a friendly chat, but it has taken me ages to get this far out of town. Every time I stop for supplies or pop into the petrol station, I end up locked in deep conversation with complete strangers. I'm due for New Year celebrations in the dunes, but at this rate I won't get there before the end of January.
As I exit one of the roundabouts on the Hatta Road and point the family four-wheel drive towards the desert, hoping to make it before sundown, I'm slowed yet again by someone hanging out of their car window with a camera pointing in our direction.
I'd like to think all this attention comes from my star status, but I know the real reason why everyone is looking is because I am towing what can only be described as one of the world's smallest caravans.
Anyone from Europe or North America will probably have noticed the lack of small, white mobile houses blocking up the UAE's roads every weekend. Traditionally, drivers here have been spared the endless traffic jams that build up behind caravanners heading to popular camping spots over public holidays and summer breaks.
The main drawback with having a caravan in the UAE is the lack of places to go. As far as I know, there are no caravan parks here, and almost all quiet spots are in the desert or down a gravel track. Caravanning is all about the convenience of taking your home with you and pitching up somewhere nice for a few days, before heading on to somewhere else. If the only option is the back of a petrol station or a truck park, the idea somewhat loses its appeal.
The other problem here is that you can drive from one end to the other in just a few hours, so the need to take everything with you is negated slightly by the ability to pop home and collect the item you forgot to pack.
If you really want to explore the best and arguably the most beautiful bits of the country, you need to go off road. But as anyone who has ever had dealings with a caravan will know, their size, weight and design doesn't make them much use in the sand.
Even the toughest of four-wheel drives will either get stuck within a few yards or turn up at their desert spot dragging an unsightly heap of broken fibreglass and metal.
What is needed is a caravan that is light enough to tow without the embarrassment of causing a 10km tailback and compact enough for a decent four-wheel drive to drag into the desert. It needs a bit of ground clearance, low centre of gravity and short rear overhang. Which is exactly what the Caretta caravan has been designed for.
Weighing in at just 375kg and standing about shoulder high to an average-height person, this little house on wheels is the perfect - if slightly cramped - remedy to the world's caravanning woes.
It may look small, but inside you get a double bed that is suitable for all but the tallest sleeper to stretch out in, plus a number of overhead storage cupboards. Behind the headboard, there's yet more storage and a cigarette lighter in case you want to smoke out your companion for a little more sleeping space.
In the centre above the bed, there's a control panel for all the electrics and a slot for a TV/DVD/CD player. Perfect for those moments when you fancy watching the footy, rather than the desert sunset outside. On the roof, there's a limo-style boomerang TV aerial for terrestrial TV.
But the really clever bit is kept for the rear of the trailer. The whole back opens up on gas struts to reveal a fully functioning kitchen, complete with fridge, sink and running water. You also get wipe-down surfaces and loads more storage. I used the sink to finally do some washing up, but the fridge only holds a small amount of supplies, so keep hold of your cool box.
At the front, there's a box for the battery and charging system, as well as a portable toilet. Most people will probably prefer the shovel-and-hole method, but it's there if you want a bit of comfort in the wilderness. It certainly remained unused for this particular test drive.
The electrical system is very clever, allowing you to charge when home and with enough battery power to last a good 24 hours without a top up. You can also run a small generator for longer trips ensuring you're always fully powered up.
The car-style battery runs a small water pump for the sink, the fridge and the lighting, which includes an outside light and a light for the kitchen. You also get an interior light that, with the flick of a switch, becomes a blue mood light for those that don't like to sleep in the dark.
Caretta also makes a slightly larger version with the same specifications; the bigger model is 300cm wider and of course a little heavier, but would be a good idea for larger people.
On the road, in a decent-sized four-wheel-drive, you won't even know the trailer is there, and 120kph towing is a breeze. A droplet of water is the world's most aerodynamic shape and you can really see that in action with this tiny caravan. You do, however, have to be careful over speed ramps to avoid shaking your groceries and fizzy drinks too much.
Driving in the desert with the Caretta is easy enough, although you definitely need to pick your route carefully. You also wouldn't want to reverse with it in the sand or tackle anything but the smallest of dunes.
Where the caravan wins is once you get to where you want to park for the night, you simply find somewhere roughly level and stop. There's no messing around with tent poles and blow-up mattresses. Also, as you are off the cold desert floor it's a lot warmer at night and you get a lot less sand in bed with you, which as anyone who camps will know, is a major asset.
I woke in the morning having had a proper nights' sleep, which is something I don't get when camping normally. The Caretta may look a little odd, but it does exactly what it's been built for. It solves that age-old problem of heavy, cumbersome caravans and allows you to fully explore the UAE.
If you fancy camping in style - and you fancy outdoing friends who have all the camping equipment money can buy, get yourself a Caretta. At Dh27,000, this is the very best in camping accessories. As long as you can put up with being the centre of attention on the highway, it's the right size for exploring the less visited bits of the country.
Just make sure you know your sleeping companion very well.
Find the Caretta at www.uaecamper.com.