Although their world record attempt was thwarted, a quad bike adventure across the Emirates meant more than mere accolades for three brothers.
Chasing the dream
Marco Rossetti lays his tent out on the sand, completing a triangle made up of his brothers Paolo and Andrea's tents. They are all 10 metres away from the other, pitched into the sweeping rust-red dunes of Al Gharbia. The distance is a precaution, so that no one brother is woken by another snoring during the night.
The Rossettis are right to take care. The last thing they want, when they are sitting on the back of a quad bike for hours, tackling enormous dunes and travelling up to 200 kilometres a day, is to feel tired. Riding such long distances without the comfort of flat tarmac takes its toll on the body, a toll reflected in the length of time it takes Andrea to get up once he sits down at the desert camp 30km into the desert from Liwa.
The brothers are two days into an epic trek that takes them along the Saudi border from the western-most tip of the UAE, then along the Omani border, to Fujairah. It was planned to be a 1,200-kilometre journey and a world record quad biking attempt, but circumstances, and border police officers, dictated they must go out of their way unexpectedly and see the record bid potentially scuppered. Their epic journey eventually came to an end last weekend in Fujairah, six days after this stop near Liwa. All made it to the end safely, despite being stopped by police four times, being chased by wild dogs and enduring freezing temperatures later in the journey.
Paolo, a resident of Al Ain for the last nine years, works as a student development co-ordinator at UAE University and is the organiser of the group. At 40, he is the eldest of the brothers, and looms large over the other two. A keen adventurer, who once spent two weeks living in the rough in Salalah, Oman, he said the trip was "the pinnacle of my desert career". "People don't know just how spectacular the desert is," he said. "It is so foreign to most people. People see it as so far, so alone, and don't have the time to explore it.
"But for me, the more you understand something, the more your passion grows. I was very lucky that when I first came here, I had a buddy who had been here for eight years who became my desert guy. "A lot of people start out too hard. They go to the most difficult dune possible and it turns them off. For me, it was very gradual and I learnt the skills needed. In Al Ain too, the desert is on your doorstep."
The brothers admit that it is a little strange for three non-Emiratis to be conducting such an epic trek in the UAE, but say it is a sign of their love and respect for the untamed landscape. All say that the great motivation for such a trek is not to set a world record, but rather to spend time with family they do not get to see very often. Travelling by quad bike has also ensured that no land or dune is off limits. The support vehicle usually stays on nearby tracks within viewing distance and joins the bikes every few hours.
While admitting that part of the journey took them through "flat, cold and evil" parts of borderland, the brothers speak of their admiration for the vast nothingness they encounter. Andrea, 38, who works for a fibreglass company in Milan, said: "We were raised in Saudi Arabia, and I have always had these beautiful memories of the desert. It is a place that is so harsh, so difficult to live in. "But you look closely and you see amazing things. There is life all over. With the quads, everything has run away by the time you arrive, but camp out and you see gazelles, lizards, everything.
"You reach a peace of mind in the desert. There is no sound, nothing, just the wind." In orderly, brotherly fashion, the three took turns to ride the two quad bikes, each one spending two hours on the bikes then one hour driving the Ford Expedition support car that carried their equipment. The vehicles left the camps after dawn every day and always stayed within range of civilisation, although far enough away to enjoy the isolation.
Marco, a 32-year-old who could pass for Andrea's twin, said: "It is so wild, so unexplored. You can go in there and there is no trace of anybody. And that is the real fun part. "You can see nothing for hours, but then get sad when you come across a track or something." The brothers insist that preparation was the key for such an ambitious trip. Theirs required months of planning, high-profile sponsorship and up-to-the-minute technology such as satellite mapping.
Paolo said: "It is all fun and games when everything goes well, but the moment anything goes wrong and there is a problem, it is 100 per cent more serious in a remote place than it would be somewhere else. "What if your mobile phone stops working or you drop your keys? You take it for granted and you are in serious, serious trouble. That is why you plan." Apart from obtaining letters of support, no other permission was necessary for crossing vast tracts of open land. Paolo said: "It is everybody's desert."
The Ford support vehicle had to be raised and fitted with larger tyres to tackle the bumpier dunes, and the strain on the 450cc and 525cc KTM quad bikes, as well as their drivers, is also immense. The challenge for the drivers is not to be distracted by the views around them. Their mission is made even more difficult by recent rain in the desert that has left the top layer of sand much tougher than usual. In winter, nature is unforgiving on those sitting down for hours on end.
Andrea said: "You feel numb all over. Your knees, your back are always hurting. On the dunes, you are always shifting and balancing - you are never still. "You have to be concentrating 100 per cent of the time. If you don't, that is when you get hurt. Sometimes, you want to be looking around at the landscape around you, but it is difficult. In the flat parts, it is difficult too because it is boring. In the dunes, you can't not concentrate because every second, there is something new to concentrate on."
Regardless of whether their record bid is ever acknowledged, the greatest legacy for Paolo is to see others inspired by his journey. "I work with 4,500 young adults aged 18 and 19-years-old, so I want to show them there are so many opportunities in life that you just have to go for. If you have a dream, you have to go for it. "The students have hopes, but for a lot of them, there is not the motivation or the drive to stretch themselves beyond everyday life, which is a bit of a shame. They have been able to see at first hand how I have been preparing for this, and they have been able to help me too."
Torches are lit and the sun drops down to be replaced by the biting cold of the Liwa sands. Tomorrow's dawn will herald another gruelling day of dunebashing. But the brothers will not have it any other way. Paolo sits and contemplates the endless sands before him and ponders: "What would be a greater challenge than this?" How about a quad bike trip across the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, I suggest. "Maybe," he contemplates, then chuckles. "Maybe."