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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Conquering Jebel Jais in the Lamborghini Aventador

Driving the yet-to-officially-open road up Jebel Jais is a thrill no petrolhead ought to miss.
2014 Lamborghini Aventador roadster. Kevin Hackett / The National
2014 Lamborghini Aventador roadster. Kevin Hackett / The National

If you’ve ever heard a car enthusiast bemoan the lack of decent roads in the UAE, you might have found yourself nodding in agreement. It’s one of the biggest frustrations about driving here – the quality of the actual road surfaces is fine, really fine, but there’s nothing remotely thrilling about driving in a straight line unless you’re piloting a top fuel dragster. Performance cars and motorcycles are made to go around corners and we don’t have too many of them here, do we?

Ah, but what about Jebel Hafeet, I hear you say. It’s true that that particular road, which snakes its way up and down the eponymous peak in Al Ain, is utterly brilliant but, for most of us at least, it still presents a couple of irksome problems: there’s usually a great deal of traffic on it and it’s at the far end of the city, meaning you have to drive for about 90 minutes from either Dubai or Abu Dhabi and negotiate about four million roundabouts before you reach it. Do it on the right day, however, and it can be breathtakingly good but does it have a monopoly on UAE twisties?

Not any more it doesn’t, for in the outer parts of Ras Al Khaimah is a stretch of road that’s yet to be completed. It ascends Jebel Jais, the highest mountain in the UAE (its peak is some 1,930 metres above sea level) and, while it is yet to be officially opened to the public, if you’re of a certain disposition and blessed with the right kind of car, you really do need to seek it out. I’ve been promising myself that I’d make the trek for nearly a year and finally I’m here.

Two things spurred me on. My son is here on a few weeks’ work ­experience to help with his filmmaking degree course at university and he’d beaten me to it, having been here a few days ago helping out on another job. The other thing is that I have at my disposal, for a few precious days, one of the craziest and most extreme production cars available in the world right now: a Lamborghini Aventador Roadster. An epic road and an epic supercar – surely the most successful of motoring matches.

The Aventador has, since it was launched three years ago, been one of my all-time favourite cars. It’s a wildly styled four-wheeled ­contradiction: safe thanks to its four-wheel drive yet wild and ­unpredictable on the limit; modern in its construction and design yet unashamedly old school and brutal in its feel – it’s unique in a landscape of ordinariness, where almost all cars sap you of enjoyment or thrills of any kind, cocooning you in the safest, blandest, most anodyne environment. This Lamborghini couldn’t be more different from that scenario if it tried.

In a way it’s the same as this road: unexplored by the majority, brand new and, in parts at least, perfect in its construction; yet it’s challenging, hard work, sometimes dangerous but always rewarding once you’ve called it a day.

Ras Al Khaimah is one of the UAE’s underrated treasures, making up slightly less than three per cent of this country’s land mass. Yet here, in the eastern part of the emirate, in the 70-million-year-old Ru’us Al Jibal mountain range, which forms part of the Hajar Mountains that start in the Musandam Peninsula and run all the way down to Sur in Oman, it feels like a mighty big place. It feels foreign and I have to keep reminding myself that we’re only 90 minutes away from the mega city of Dubai because these two places are poles apart. And while the tourists are drawn to the skyscrapers of Dubai in their millions each year, the government of Ras Al Khaimah is hoping that Jebel Jais will, too, prove to be the emirate’s biggest draw when this mighty project is complete.

Currently about 150 men are toiling away, carving a road into the side of this craggy mountain and they’re not far from the summit, having built a 36-kilometre stretch of blacktop that snakes its way from Wadi Al Beah, at the foot of Jebel Jais, all the way to a point from which the end is almost in sight. And there’s good reason for this engineering feat because there’s plenty of untapped tourist potential here and plans exist to build a hotel, cable car, paragliding launch ramp and other facilities at the summit, and even a rumoured golf course and ski slope. Yes, it snows up there and the temperatures have been known to dip three degrees below freezing during winter months.

Like many projects, though, it has run into difficulties thanks to spiralling budgets and unforeseen technical challenges, and the completion date has slipped many times. But the end is literally in sight now and the estimated Dh300 million so far spent to cut away, blast, fill and surface this highway has been money well spent. Approximately 5.2 million cubic metres of rock have been cut out of the side of Jebel Jais (more than double the initial estimate) and this has been used to not only provide a substructure for the road but also create parking areas, building plots and rainwater channels and drainage culverts to prevent the road surface from being flooded when the heavy rains come.

As impressive as all this undoubtedly is, however, I’m here to drive it in this mad Lambo. I know full well that this experiment is likely to end in the conclusion that it’s one of the most unsuitable cars for this kind of route but I don’t care. While a Mini Cooper S or Porsche Cayman would undoubtedly run rings around the Italian on the numerous hairpins, there’s nothing to touch the Aventador’s sense of occasion, drama and sheer ludicrousness. It’ll be fun, if nothing else.

With my son in the passenger seat and the frankly pathetic air conditioning of the Lamborghini struggling to provide anything like a cooled cabin environment, we arrive at the foot of the mountain. Ethan has been here already, as mentioned, but this vista is entirely new to me and my jaw drops at the sheer majesty of this beautiful yet hostile landscape. Vertiginous rock faces with edges that look razor- sharp plummet hundreds of metres into arid, dusty ground and huge holes that have been mined into the land are now full of water. It’s an ­alien world and this car, visually and sonically at least, is a perfect fit.

A long, straight section of perfect tarmac signals the beginning of the famed highway. Dozens and dozens of black rings circle the surface, evidence of tomfoolery at the hands of previous visitors but the Aventador isn’t ideal for performing handbrake turns or donuts so I don’t add to the collection. I stop for Ethan to get his video recording gear ready and two enthusiastic locals roar up behind us, get out of their car and start taking photographs of the spaceship we’ve arrived in. “Very dangerous,” one of them warns when I explain why we’re here. “Road is not finished – very slippery.”

Five minutes later, as I’m tearing through one of the early canyons, his words come back to haunt me. On a bend that I would ordinarily take without slowing down in a car such as this, I feel it struggling to keep composed, despite its full-time four-wheel drive. Dust and grit is strewn across the road and the effect when I drive over it is akin to aquaplaning in torrential rain. Caution will be the order of the day.

The next few minutes reveal not only the road’s technical layout but also, as expected, the limitations of a V12 supercar when it comes to tackling it at speed. With 700 horses constantly straining at the leash, I reckon half that amount would be more than enough. But the stirring sounds as the engine’s war cry bounces off the rock faces and into our ears more than compensate for any perceived loss of flat-out fun.

There are moments, though, when visibility is perfect and the road surface allows for maximum purchase by the car’s staggeringly wide tyres. Grip levels are stratospheric when the conditions are good, the Aventador destroying everything in its path. The route up the mountain is dual-carriageway and there’s barely another vehicle to be seen, meaning I can take advantage of wider and more forgiving apex attack angles in the knowledge that nobody is coming the other way. The route back down is single lane, however, so that will have to be at a more ­sedate pace.

Soon we reach the literal end of the road – just a few concrete blocks and some ramshackle signage before it disappears into the ether. We climb out and survey our surroundings, the road we’ve just ascended zigzagging away to infinity like the world’s longest string of spaghetti. It’s markedly cooler up here, which is a relief after the workout my arms have just had, and the enormity of the project undertaken by these men becomes abundantly clear.

When it is complete, this road will have no peer in the UAE. It isn’t just the way it twists and turns, either. It’s the spectacular views it affords through your windscreen that make it such a joy to use. Unfortunately for us petrolheads, when it’s officially opened, the visitors will ascend and descend in their droves, meaning the guilty pleasures it currently affords will disappear as the facilities start to recoup some of the huge sums spent on its creation.

That’s all fine and dandy, and it will do wonders for Ras Al Khaimah’s economy. But take a day out of your life and drive it before that happens – you’ll be glad you did. For me, both the road and this extraordinary supercar present an extreme take on motoring in these sanitised times. I want to get to know them both a lot better and I know there’ll be a huge grin on my face if I ever get the opportunity. They’re unsuited, yes, but they both represent the very best of their kind and they leave me desperate for more.

• Watch the video of the drive up to Jebel Jais on thenational.ae/video

khackett@thenational.ae

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