x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Deserted playground

Slide show The empty sandy plains near Sharjah are, of all things, peaceful on a noisy quad bike.

For at least three millennia, the travellers of Sharjah's desert have had no choice but to traverse its laborious, unforgiving terrain on the backs of camels. For a new breed of desert explorer, however, the picture couldn't be more different. Rather than present an arduous task, the seemingly unending landscape and rising dunes have now transformed into a playground for thrill-seekers. Dirt bikes, dune buggies and 4x4s are all worthy encroachers on the sandy plains, with the former needing a substantial amount of nerve and skill, and the latter two presenting safer, yet still fun, options. Quad bikes are a mix of the sport: four wheels to help keep you upright, but still a danger of crashing with no protection for the rider. Eager to experience the thrills for myself, I headed to Sharjah for a day with Sandtrax Rentals. Leaving the outskirts of Dubai, the shift in scenery is as dramatic as it is sudden. Stretching out from either side of the road along the emirate of Dubai, a surprising amount of varying vegetation and wildlife prevails. The white sands are also unexpectedly level but, as the road cuts through the border, marked by a line of imposing rock, the milieu completely changes.

The sands turn a deep, almost red orange, and rising up into the distance a sea of dunes of varying sizes rise and fall. My chatty guide Gavin from Sandtrax tells me it's barely 15 minutes to the quad bike camp. After strapping on the safety gear and having a quick lesson in how to handle our quads, with a mostly common-sense safety briefing ("don't drive too close to the guy in front, watch the drops you can't see" etc), we jumped on our bikes. With my helmet and chest plate, I felt pretty safe, but it's a fact that, even with experienced riders, accidents can happen. Part of the thrill of the sport for many is the danger involved, especially when pushing the boundaries of speed and control.

Weighing in at a quarter of a ton and reaching speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour, the 450-cubic-centimetre quad is a heavy duty machine, perfect for speeding across flats and able to easily power up steeply sloped dunes. We started out on the trek slowly, with the guides not wanting to push us too much until we were comfortable handling ourselves. But soon, the group had sped up and started racing along the sand, revving up the steep climbs and falling into stomach-jolting drops down the other sides. Occasionally, birds would flap out of a bush as we rumbled by. Amazingly, at one point we had to slow to a crawl through a long herd of camels that treated our intrusion with curiosity rather than fear.

The quads have a great feature of choosing between four-wheel drive and two-wheel drive. After starting out in 4x4 mode, I flicked the little red switch on my handle and put the bike into two-wheel drive, the effect being that the bikes' rear tyres would slide out on the turns as normal, but instead of all four wheels then churning into the sand, the bike could drift around the corners, taking them faster.

This was great fun, but leaving it in two-wheel drive when climbing a particularly steep dune resulted in getting bogged down in the sand. No matter; one quick reverse and I was out again - though, not before spraying an embarrassing amount of sand into the air and into the photographer's face. As we shot across the desert, juddering over bumps and power-sliding around corners, I started to really enjoy myself and feel more confident. So I was taken a little off-guard when I shot over the top of one innocuous-looking dune and crashed into the earth on the other side. Swerving to the right, I scraped the sand and desperately hung on with one hand. Luckily, the heavy quad didn't tip. After this near-fall, seen by my guide, I laughed sheepishly. "That was close," he chuckled as he pulled up to see if I was alright. Yes; embarrassingly so.

On top of another dune, the group stopped and climbed off the bikes to take in the peaceful, sweeping plains surrounding us. Laid out in front of us were kilometres of desert, while another herd of camels walked slowly along with a striking, all-white Bedouin village in the distance. After riding all day with the ear-splitting engines at full throttle, the scene was rather tranquil. It was, without a doubt, the most breathtaking view of the desert I've seen.

In fact, it was one of the most exciting days I've had in the Emirates. Exploring the desert on a quad bike offers a taste of the solitude you would imagine the Bedouin found centuries ago - with a lot more thrills than any camel can bring. pdriscoll@thenational.ae