On his first real off-roading foray, Steven McCombe battles the rugged terrain, and his own trepidations, in a Ford pickup truck.
Ford F-150 takes to the lunar landscape of the Hajar mountains
Driving is a major part of life in the UAE, whether it's using a vehicle for a daily commute, doing the school run, or even for more recreational pursuits, such as showing off your supercar at the mall or taking your wheels out on a race track for a spin.
Regardless the use, the necessity for cars in this harsh climate, which makes longer distances unwalkable, cannot be disputed. And we're fortunate that the roads of this country are some of the finest in the world; flat as a pancake with very few potholes around to ruin your tyres and nice alloys (try driving in any major city in the UK these days and you'll be thankful for the quality of the roads here).
Aside from some severely dodgy driving habits, we've got it quite good here in the UAE; great roads that wind through some simply stunning scenery. And even when you take that nice, smooth tarmac away, apparently it's a hotspot for off-roading, too.
For many of us in the UAE, including those who own 4x4s, off-roading isn't even on the radar and most wouldn't have a clue what to do when thrust into an off-roading situation. That's the position I found myself in recently when invited on a Ford off-road driving event in the border region near Hatta. Asked whether I'd like to attend, I hastily opted for the answer yes before fully thinking things through. You see, being a city boy from Glasgow, in Scotland, I've never properly experienced driving off-road. And, likewise, I've never properly experienced driving a gas-guzzling monster machine (with petrol prices in the UK, who could afford it?) And certainly not driving it in the wilderness on a rough adventure.
Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the wonders of the outdoors but my experience is limited to driving a small two-wheel-drive hatchback up to a designated camping site, paying the nice man for a tent pitch and setting about cooking up some sausages on my portable gas grill.
So it was with trepidation that I set out early the next morning for Hatta, where Ford was showcasing its 2012 F-Series trucks that it hopes will penetrate the huge market for pickups in the UAE. The fact the company has been the market leader for these types of vehicles in the US for the past 35 years buoyed me slightly, at least until I reached the ominous sight of the towering Hajar Mountains, where the activities were to take place. With temperatures in the high 40s Celsius and in a remote wilderness surrounded by craggy peaks, it's hard to imagine a more inhospitable environment. There's no doubt that, in this part of the world, Ford's trucks would be put to the test - just why did it have to be me?
Arriving slightly late at the Built Ford Tough base camp due to the hastily arranged nature of my trip, I find that I've missed the briefing (not for the first time in my career) and the assembled journalists are hurriedly being ushered into several awaiting F-150 King Ranch vehicles. If there's an ideal method to learning how to drive off-road, this is not it, but I'm at least thankful that I'm not driving first. I'm whisked into the back seat of the gargantuan King Ranch that is nicely furnished with brown leather and find I'm alongside three non-English speaking men. Not a word is said before we take off out of camp in a procession following a lead car around a challenging, almost lunar landscape.
My first taste of off-roading takes an unusual turn when the driver randomly starts screaming into the GoPro camera mounted on the inside windscreen, as the other two chortle heartily while I look on in dismay.
As we approach what seems like from the back seat an endless drop downwards, my confidence is rattled further when our intrepid driver starts loudly singing The Beatles' I Want To Hold Your Hand. I'm unnerved and slightly frazzled when we make it back to base camp to change drivers.
I jump out and make my way to the farthest away F-150, giving the King Ranch guys the wide berth they merit. I find myself alongside a Kuwaiti hack and a knowledgeable New Zealander named Carlin, who helps guide my feet and hands to the right places. We set off and it's all fairly flat and easy going at first; so far, so good. Then we come to a steep and slanted ascent and the driver up ahead in the Ford Ranger, a commercial vehicle, is struggling, throwing up dirt and stones everywhere as the back wheels rotate at a furious speed. It becomes obvious to everyone apart from him that he doesn't have 4WD engaged but, when informed, he switches modes and the Ranger dutifully climbs.
Of course, he has churned up the surface as I approach but, pointing the F-150 away from his tracks and inputting a steady throttle, I find it gobbles up the hillside with minimal fuss. It's amazing the ease with which this 5.0L V8 behemoth devours the landscape before it while keeping its passengers insulated from noise and undue bobbling around. I was later to find that this is, in part, due to how Ford outspends its rivals when it comes to putting these machines together but, for now, I have a gradually ascending and narrowing path up ahead.
Growing in confidence, I drive on to the point where the rocky path we've been ascending ends and we have to take a tight turn left to go down - way down. I manage to turn too late and face the prospect of having to engage reverse while the vehicle stands on the precipice of a fair-sized drop. I get back in position ready to descend when Carlin informs me of the helpful "hill descent" mode that he's sure the F-150 has and which requires the driver to take his foot off the break. I start off and quickly realise that the truck's electrics aren't slowly guiding it down the slope as he thought they would; instead we're careering down and I have to plant my foot on the brake to regain control. Phew. Disaster averted and, taking Carlin's advice with more of a pinch of salt, we power on, with the F-150 making the whole off-road experience far more manageable and fun than I'd imagined.
Later, another steep descent nearly sees our rotund Kuwaiti friend through the windscreen, as he's not paying attention and isn't wearing his seatbelt, but he laughs it off, to everyone's amusement.
The experience comes to an end and I feel a sense of achievement. In the afternoon, I also get to try out the 6.2L V8 Harley-Davidson edition F-150, which is a menacing-looking brute of a machine with the power to match. With a payload of one tonne of concrete in the back, this thing can still charge up the steep mountain road at pace and with ease. It contains the daddy of the family of three engines that also includes the 3.7L V6 and the 5.0L V8. Each has best-in-class horsepower and fuel economy when compared with competitors, according to Ford, but the key success of these engines for the trucks they power is the torque available at low rpms - 377Nm at just 4,000rpm - which ensures that they're up to the off-roading challenge.
Ford hasn't been in the Middle East pickup truck market for too long and it's only now through events like this one that the company is trying to make its mark in the region. Undoubtedly, they are well-built machines but they don't come cheaply; the top spec 6.2L V8 Raptor is priced at Dh270,000 compared with Dh184,900 for a rival Dodge Ram V8. It also remains to be seen if buyers in this region will care whether the innards of the truck they buy are sturdier and better designed as aesthetics matter a lot here but, nevertheless, these Fords are likely to make their mark.
And it turns out my fear of off-roading was misplaced. I thoroughly enjoyed my first attempt through the impressive Hajar Mountains, though I was still thankful to arrive back on that smooth UAE tarmac.