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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Giving UAE's dunes a bash: our guide to off-roading in the desert

Sebastian Husseini, an off-road expert who runs Dubai’s classic four-wheel-drive restoration company Sebsports, has these top tips for staying safe in the desert when you hit the dunes:

If you’re going to tackle the desert, first of all, you need to have a ­decent off-road car.

There are many “soft-­roaders”, which are great on gravel tracks, mountain roads and in wadis, but they don’t handle the dunes so well.

So you have to make sure you’re in a proper 4x4 with good tyres that aren’t worn out. You also need to ensure your cooling system is working properly so the car doesn’t overheat, but there’s more to consider, too.

Each car needs to be self-sufficient. You need to have your own recovery equipment including an air compressor and a spare tyre, to repair and pump, should the need arise. Ensure you have a full tank of petrol. Don’t enter the desert with half a tank, because chances are you’re going to run out. Fuel consumption will increase when you’re off-roading.

Always go out with at least one other car, because if you get stuck and you’re not able to get yourself out, you will need somebody to pull you through. A tow rope is non-negotiable – go for one that is at least 10 metres long, and elastic, because the solid tow ropes don’t work as well.

There are many areas of the desert where there is no phone signal, so personally, I have a satellite phone in case I go anywhere too tricky, but most of the time we have a second car.

Sebastian Husseini with a 1983 Toyota Land Cuiser at the Sebsports workshop in Al Quoz, Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National
Sebastian Husseini with a 1983 Toyota Land Cuiser at the Sebsports workshop in Al Quoz, Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National

Always wear your seat belt. If you cross the dunes at slightly the wrong angle, it’s going to bite you, and if you roll the car and you’re not wearing your seat belt, you’re going to get thrown out the window – and that’s not good. Make sure your big, heavy items are strapped down in the back. If you take a nosedive or make an unexpected move, you don’t want a big, heavy cool box hitting you in the back of the head.

Generally, I drive with the tyre pressure at about 15psi. Any softer than that you risk popping a tyre off the wheel. If you do, a standard car jack won’t work so well in the sand – it will sink. So you’ll need a big plank or piece of wood that will distribute the load of the car.

Make sure you cross the dunes in the safest possible manner. You have to think of it like water flowing in a river: choose the path of least resistance. If you’re going up a dune sideways and feel that the car is being pulled down, don’t fight it – let the car pull you downhill. If you try to fight it or try to go uphill, either you’re going to get stuck or flip the car sideways. Don’t resist what the car wants to do.

The Ram Rebel TRX concept. Ram
The Ram Rebel TRX concept. Ram

I use the Off-Road Explorer guidebook quite a lot, which is great. Outdoor UAE magazine always has nice routes as well. The evening before you go on a trip, go on Google Maps, plan your route, lay out a few waypoints and go and explore. Ask your friends for suggestions – the best places are not in the guidebooks.

Take care of the place that you visit – take your rubbish with you and don’t leave anything behind. Ensure you leave the desert in the condition you found it, so you can come back and enjoy it again.

The best time of year is between November and April. In May, it starts getting hot again. A lot of people go out into the desert in the summertime, but you have to be very careful. Dehydration is a big risk. Make sure you have more than enough water. Take an emergency supply – at least three litres on top of your usual drinking water.

Generally, if you get stuck, stay with your car. You can be tracked by your phone signal, and if you don’t have any mobile-phone reception, the police are still able to track your phone by GPS. Wear closed shoes, because the sand can get so hot it could burn or blister your feet. Over-the-ankle shoes that are well sealed from the sand are ideal.

It's going to be another hot day in the UAE. Alex Atack for The National
It's going to be another hot day in the UAE. Alex Atack for The National

If you do end up damaging your car in the desert, go to the nearest police station and get a report.

Practise your skills close to the city and work your way up in dune size. There are different levels: the desert out near Al Qudra, then further out towards Al Ain and Sweihan is just beautiful. There are also bigger dunes out there. Just be careful – a lot the busy areas, on Fridays and Saturday, are packed and there are cars, quad bikes and buggies coming from every direction. Make sure you have a big flag on top of your car so you can be spotted behind the dunes.

Why do I love off-roading? Out in the desert, it’s pure and it’s clean. You don’t have any distractions out there. It’s a great place to go and recharge your batteries, away from the hectic hustle and bustle of the city, surrounded by the beauty of nature. A lot of people see it as just a sandy wasteland, but there’s so much in the desert.

Off-roading: Some trails to try in the UAE and Oman

Awafi, near Ras Al Khaimah

Steep dunes, lush forests, wildlife and a family favourite picnic spot

Salamat, Al Ain

Quad biking on the sand can be exhilarating but it requires concentration

Oman's Indian Ocean coastline

The seemingly endless stretch of beaches between Sohar and Muscat offer much to explore

Farthest reaches of the Arabian Peninsula

Sea turtles and you in splendid isolation

UAE east coast

A rewarding experience that doesn't require the mobility of a 4x4

Liwa region

Venturing into the desert is never just a ride

Al Hayer Forest

Wadi Al Hayer offers refreshing shade to both off-road campers and desert-dwelling creatures

Wadi Al Helo, Sharjah

A steep, narrow and shale-paved ascent is worth the effort if you have a sturdy vehicle for a summer camping trip in Sharjah

Wadi Sharm, Oman

Sandwiched between the flowing red dunes of the UAE and the stark mountains of Oman

Al Khatim, Al Ain

Going off-road in this spot near Al Ain you can search for gazelles

Long drive to Salalah

Driving the green miles