x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How to... navigate around the UAE

The UAE is not a big country, but it contains some of the remotest and most extreme off-roading terrain in the world.

The United Arab Emirates is roughly the size of Portugal or the state of Maine, with a coastline of 700km and a breadth from north to south at around 500km - it's not a big country, but it contains some of the remotest and most extreme off-roading terrain in the world. Due care therefore is required in preparing for off-road trips, and smart decisions while underway can make the difference between a memorable adventure and a disaster.

First in line is the fact that the UAE offers mobile phone connectivity throughout the territory - yes, even in the remotest corner. However, you may have to work your way to high ground for the signal to be strong enough. Secondly, the UAE is fully explored and there are no "unknown" corners - farms and villages, fenced nature reserves and private lands, lines of electricity pylons and tracks are everywhere. Any track will eventually lead to civilisation, be it a desolate farm or strip of tarmac.

Therefore, it is really difficult to be truly lost in the UAE. Due to the nature of the terrain, however, it is easy to be temporarily lost and disoriented. In fact, I get "lost" almost every trip, but I always find my way again. There are many tools and techniques that can aid the navigator. I spent the first few years without a GPS system and can vouch that it is the most useful - I'd even say essential - piece of kit for off-road travel.

Focus on a unit that can communicate and transfer data with your PC at home. Google Earth is hard to beat for the quality of their maps, so all that is missing is being able to link it to a GPS unit, and then you will have your waypoints and routes there in Google Earth, both for the preparation of a trip (downloading data to the GPS unit) and to review the past trip (uploading where you went to the PC).

Naturally, GPS is also vital in giving your location in case of emergency (try explaining to rescue services: "Well, we're in the sand, we passed a farm with some camels - there's a big dune shaped like a banana to my right -") Besides the wonders of GPS, there still is a lot left on your shoulders. The most important is your ability to stay calm under pressure and make rational decisions - the worst off-roading disasters are normally attributable to poor decision making.

The bottom line is that in the UAE you are never far away from a way out. You look for tracks, and follow them in your car. You notice Etisalat or electricity pylons and follow them. Farms are down in the flats in between dunes, not on top of them. Wadis flow downhill towards the flats. Vegetation means water, which in turn means someone's pumping it, and there will be a track. Despite this, you must always travel in a group to be safe.

In the past, Bedouin tribes would cross entire deserts on foot (camels would carry cargo) navigating solely by the stars. Even with our modern devices, we still need to keep a level head when things get dicey. motoring@thenational.ae