x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Off the Beaten Path: Enjoy spring as it sprouts in Awafi

Awafi, near Ras al Khaimah, offers steep dunes, lush forests, wildlife and a family favourite picnic spot.

A thick forested area extends south of Awafi. Paolo Rossetti for The National
A thick forested area extends south of Awafi. Paolo Rossetti for The National

Ras al Khaimah, translated as "the head of the tent", is well-known for its wild mountains and the many driveable tracks that criss-cross them, often tapering off into spectacular and challenging hiking trails. However, for this edition of Off the Beaten Path, we'll take a different and surprising look at the territory of Ras al Khaimah - the forest side.

The itinerary proposed is a gentle meander on well-worn sand tracks, although more adventurous drivers simply need to make their own track a few hundred metres to the right. In the 2011 Honda Pilot, we enjoyed a very smooth motorway run and were happy to feel this jack-of-all-trades also keep up the performance off-road. It is perhaps an underestimated SUV in a very tight competitive market segment, but it shines in many regards.

We start the drive from the famed Awafi dune, a dramatic and sheer slipface host to the annual dune-climbing festival, and centre of attraction for dune drivers in the entire region. The seating stands are off-limits except during events, but the slipface itself is open to the public, and most visitors in a 4x4 cannot resist trying their mettle and seeing how far they can climb up.

Do not be disappointed if your pride and joy chugs up but a few metres: Awafi is unique in the sharpness of its gradient, and only highly-modified cars stand a chance. Quads and motorbikes are a different species, with much higher power-to-weight ratios, and so they fare much better in the quest to conquer Awafi.

From Awafi we then head south, skirting Ras al Khaimah airport on a delightful route first through forested areas dotted with camel farms, and later through agricultural lands. Particularly in early spring, after some good rains, this route is so different from any other in the UAE that you'll think you've been transported to greener lands - hundreds of trees will offer welcome shade and flowering grasses might carpet the ground. But like the weather man, I make no guarantees: try and time your visit for a week or so after a major rainfall in that area.

So, let us begin from waypoint 1 on our interactive map and its downloadable GPS track, from Airport Road in Ras al Khaimah, where the entrance to Awafi is marked with a bright red street sign, just after a handy Emarat petrol station.

The tarmac road snakes through a residential area, so following it and waypoints 2 to 5 will bring you to the foot of Awafi at waypoint 6. Directly in front of the spectator stands lies the beast, and waypoint 7 is the precise starting point for the racers. While Awafi is not the tallest of dunes, it is certainly one of the steepest. The slipface is short and stark - a straight run-up to the sky.

If you choose to drive on such steep inclines, please make sure your vehicle remains pointing straight up or down, never sideways. This is because a car will not usually be able to topple over forwards or backwards even at very sharp angles, but sideways an angle of around 35 degrees is sufficient to send it rolly-polly down the hill.

Once you have satisfied your curiosity at Awafi, circle around it anti-clockwise towards waypoint 8, which will bring you to an area of quad rentals at waypoint 9, should you and your children like to ride. We have read quite extensively on the dangers of quad rentals, but I maintain that the danger lies more with the renters than the quads themselves - so take a few minutes to instruct your children and teach them at least the very basic safety points of staying on the given track, riding all in the same direction, and limiting speed to a rate where you can comfortably stop should you have to.

Besides quad rentals, the area south of Awafi has blossomed into a family attraction of sorts, and horse riding, animal petting zoos and all other kinds of entrepreneurial kiosks have sprung up as a response to the steady flow of visitors.

We plan to navigate on any given track in a southerly direction - destination, the Ras al Khaimah camel racetrack. But for your convenience, the marked waypoints can guide you. Do not worry if you stray from the track as long as you are heading south. At waypoint 11, skirt left around the large villa before you, and waypoint 12 and 13 runs you along one of the main tracks.

View Awafi in a larger map

At waypoint 14 you will have reached the camel race track, around which you can navigate to the right, following waypoint 15, to bring you still in a southerly direction, coasting a large continuous slipface on your right. Many tracks lead up if you wish to leave the track and find your own way across the desert. Waypoint 16 signals one such climb, where you'll see a lookout tower and will have to seek permission to pass through the farm to the desert beyond. Further south, marked waypoint 17 is a lovely picnic spot and another opportunity to drive up the slipface to the open dunes above.

We normally take our time at spots that appeal to us, and we carry enough gear to make a stay of a couple of hours very comfortable. Folding tables and camping chairs keep us off the ground, which in these forested areas can be covered in sharp twigs and all sorts of ravenous insects. Along similar lines, the children have strict instructions not to pick up anything with their bare hands - if they really must pick something up, first roll it over a few times with a stick and only then touch it with the hands. Shoes on at all times is another smart rule.

As a matter of interest, you might notice that all trees are cropped flat both at the lower and higher branches - this is because foraging camels will trim the lower branches up to the point they can reach with their necks fully extended; and the tops are cut off by the camel farmers, either climbing up long ladders or scrambling up best they can, to then drop the cut-offs down to the ground below for the camels to feast on.

As you work your way south, either along the given path or making your own way, your interim destination is waypoint 18, where you will have to leave the camel racetrack and head deep into a forested area, which will eventually give way to agricultural land of green cultivated fields, following waypoints 19 to 27, which will deliver you onto a tarmac road, where right will connect you to Emirates Road, and left will take you towards Ras al Khaimah airport.

Click here to download Paolo's kml file.