x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

In search of water and shade

In the first of a monthly feature, Paolo Rossetti gives an in depth, off-road guide to tackling the rugged UAE wilderness.

Motoring brings you a monthly guide to exploring the wilds of the UAE and Oman. Paolo Rossetti, an off-road enthusiast and a long-time resident of Al Ain, will show you the beauty of the back country and how to get there - and home - safely.

It is October, and the temperature is starting to cool but the sun can still be fierce, so our destination will be one with both water and shade - Wadi Mudbah, on the outskirts of Buraimi. About an hour from Al Ain, it can nicely fit into a day trip; combined with either a hike or an exploration of the surrounding area, it can be a wonderful overnight destination. We will start our journey from the Hili Border Crossing (waypoint 1) on the northern face of the town of Al Ain. This is the entry into Buraimi, Oman, so remember your passports. From Dubai, the best way to reach the Hili Border Crossing is to take the first Al Ain roundabout left. From Abu Dhabi, it is easier to take the first Al Ain exit (signposted Salamat) and avoid the Al Ain roundabout maze altogether, instead taking the ring road past the airport.

Once through the border, proceed straight until the old, restored fort and its busy, traditional market appear on the right (waypoint 2). The market is full of dates and plants, and the covered souq beside it has meats and fish (straight from the Indian Ocean) as well as spices and even an interesting antique shop. Beside that is a fresh fruit and vegetable market, also covered from the sun. Here, we normally look for a succulent watermelon, which I will float in the cool, shaded pools of our destination before sharing it with friends. If in season, Buraimi's fresh dates are renowned, especially the ones called nos-nos (literally: half-half) which are fresh and a pale yellow in colour: firm and ripening at one end and soft and oh-so-sweet at the other.

When leaving the fort area from the main entrance road (the same you came in with), aim to drive straight through all roundabouts heading east out of town. When you reach the first intersection without a roundabout, after a speed bump, hang a left (north) followed by the first right (east) to join the main motorway that leads to Sohar. It is not a divided highway, so please adapt your driving style. In the Toyota Land Cruiser VXR I'm driving, the tarmac is devoured with almost over-confidence that is both luxuriant and unnervingly calm - it was easy to go faster than you think you are. This can be dangerous, because even the mighty Land Cruiser must ultimately obey the laws of physics, no matter how solid and powerful it feels on the road.

After passing a Maha petrol station on your right, you will see a solitary hillock on the left side of the highway (waypoint 3) - on the top of this mountain, there is a fabulous 360-degree viewpoint. But I must now warn that advanced off-roading skills will be required to navigate the steep and deteriorating track that climbs up its eastern slope. The last thing I want is for an inexperienced driver in an all-wheel-drive vehicle to roll off the cliff!

Should you feel you have the 4x4 experience and skills required for the climb to the summit, and an appropriate vehicle, then by all means take your decision; if you are unsure, why not take a walk up instead - nothing wrong with a little leg stretching. The Land Cruiser VXR is the V8 engine version, and it is a big, heavy truck. I looked carefully at the ground clearance, and was not particularly impressed. The low stance that allows for a superb highway ride is now a hindrance, and I was a bit worried I would drag the chassis (and worse, the plastic bumpers) over the large rocks on the trail ahead. To make matters worse, recent rains had washed out parts of the track, leaving deep channels.

In fact, the Land Cruiser climbed up the trail with the sure-footedness of a goat. It might seem a bit soft in shape, but there is nothing soft about its four-wheel-drive traction. The central-locking differential ensured each wheel worked together, even on the loose shale. The uphill/downhill electronic control helped keep the ascent manageable. And the 5.7L, 381hp V8 was more than enough for power. We just kept the A/C on and relaxed in comfort inside - except for my wife, who was volunteered to play spotter for us so we wouldn't have to return the car with the rear plastic bumper in the boot!

Returning to the highway, head through the V-cut you'll see through the mountains, and then straight through the roundabout, following the sign to Hafit. The road snakes around to the right, passing by some active farms (waypoint 4) and the alluvial plain for the sharp naked mountains you see on your left (waypoint 5). Eventually, you will come across a blue signpost signalling the turn left towards Wadi Mudbah (waypoint 6).

Here the asphalt ends and a well-used dirt track heads straight towards the mountain range. On these tracks, it is usual to maintain a fairly fast pace, to keep the wheels bouncing over the washboard bumps and not falling within them, resulting in spine-shattering vibrations that can send your dentures bouncing out of your mouth. The Land Cruiser's independent suspension ironed out the track, so we could proceed at a leisurely pace. Since you are now sharing one lane with oncoming traffic, it is a good habit to honk your approach before any blind curves, just to make sure you warn the speeding old, rusty farm truck that could be heading towards you.

As the track winds towards the mountains, be prepared for a very clear junction, where you will turn left, or north (waypoint 7) and then swing right again at the first turn-off (waypoint 8) to slip around the mountain range and get behind it, where you will continue along a smaller track towards the right/south (waypoint 9). Where the trail becomes a stream of rounded rocks, the way I prefer to travel over them is to engage low-range in first gear and then allow the car to slowly crawl over the rocks. This way, each wheel can maintain traction and allow the suspension to roll over each rock, rather than absorbing bumps by travelling too fast. The car's cabin should remain more or less stable as a result.

When the trail opens up into a plateau, you will be approaching the destination (waypoint 10). Take due care, because in front of you will be a deep canyon, and if it's dark, or if you are not paying attention, or you are playing rally driver, then you will seriously regret it. As you park your car, remove all valuables and proceed to the edge of the gorge, down a well-used path. Swing down to the left and follow the gorge until a low and easy passage across the gurgling brook presents itself. Then immediately turn right and follow back until you come across what can only be described as a living miracle: three gorgeous pools of fresh-running water, separated by waterfalls.

Take a moment to contrast this source of life with the surrounding hostile terrain: water is life, and not only for you and the people who live downstream, but also numerous animal species. I beg that you take each and every piece of rubbish out with you. I was there a few weeks ago and there was not one empty water bottle, not one tissue, not one discarded plastic bag - you can see from the photos just what an idyllic spot this is. Please do not ruin such a beautiful place with rubbish. motoring@thenational.ae