Quad biking on the sand can be exhilarating but it requires concentration, supreme skill and a sense of fearlessness.
Off The Beaten Path: Quad bike delight on the dunes of Salamat, Al Ain
This is a hardcore edition of Off The Beaten Path, so if you want to know what the falcon sees as he skims effortlessly over dune-tops and immediately follow that by creating your own insane roller-coaster ride, skimming the dune crest and dropping several hundred feet down to ground level in a breathtaking but controlled skid, then keep reading.
Please do note that you will need advanced dune-riding skills and a powerful quad bike for this terrain; a car will not cut it, although you may take a different approach and avoid the high dune tops.
I was test riding the new Yamaha Raptor 700R and so lack of power was not my concern - riding the edge while trying to avoid being thrown off was. When on what are termed "technical" dunes, the stress is intense, and I could hardly blink from the concentration I was exerting.
I would advise you to take the same approach at the Salamat dunes, an area of enormous dunes on the western outskirts of Al Ain, behind its airport.
There are several areas in the Emirates where dune riding enthusiasts gather; such as Big Red (Al Bidayer), which is the closest for Dubai and Sharjah-based riders; Ras Al Khaimah has Awafi; and Abu Dhabi residents either travel towards Al Ain or down south to the great sand playground of Liwa and the Empty Quarter. But those in Al Ain have it easy; they open the house door and red sand blows in.
Salamat is a small township on the outskirts of Al Ain, and historically important as the village facing Abu Dhabi - either the first step of the journey seaward, or the point of arrival on the way inland towards the oasis.
In modern times, nestled between the Al Ain Airport and the motorway leading from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi, it is a tranquil park setting with residential development under way - tranquil until the weekend, that is.
In fact, Salamat is crowned by an impressive dune range which runs east to west, split by the motorway, and along the neighbouring towns of Al Yaher and Al Saad, where an annual hill climb challenge is held.
Instead of a pathway for you to follow, in the downloadable GPS file found on The National website, you will have a starting point and a finishing point. It will be up to you and your fellow riders to choose the exact path of navigation according to your assessment of the terrain, your riding skills, the conditions on the day and the capabilities of the machine you're riding.
On the new Yamaha Raptor, the limits were purely from my side - it will climb anything you point it at, with gusto.
Before we start, a little primer: as with any extreme sport, you are putting your safety and trust in the machine and any mechanical failure can lead to severe injury, or worse. So, the quad must be in top condition. Maintenance on many of the quads you see roaming the dunes is close to non-existent. The machines are run into the ground and only fixed following a breakdown.
Just as you don't run tyres until they burst, preventative maintenance is crucial, particularly with machines pushed to their limits.
At the technical level offered by the Salamat dunes, safety gear is a must: helmet, chest and back protector, gloves, boots, at the minimum. I had forgotten my gloves and very almost paid the price for it as I came over a tight crest. Crossing over at a 45-degree angle, I landed the front tyre a little harder than expected on the other side, and my downhill hand slipped, launching my body forward and very closely tipping me over. It was close, but luckily I escaped from punishment for my mistake - had I been wearing gloves, my hand might not have slipped.
It is the little things that count when pushing hard over "technical" terrain. Shifting the rider's weight from one footrest to the other, swinging the hips out a few inches, aiming the wheel just over the crest, giving petrol at the precise split-second to spin the rear around - and indeed it is that precision in execution that makes a hardcore ride an intensely fun experience.
If you follow the GPS file online, I guarantee you that you will emerge at the end of the ride breathless and speechless - and safe and sound, hopefully.
So, from Abu Dhabi, reaching the Salamat main roundabout (waypoint 1) is very easy: the very first exit from the motorway as you reach Al Ain is signposted to Salamat and the airport. And after you swing over the exit ramp, the first roundabout is Salamat.
From Dubai, you will need to avoid entering central Al Ain so, as you enter the city, keep in the left lanes, following signs to the airport. Once you reach the airport roundabout, follow the sign to Salamat on your left.
From the Salamat roundabout - waypoint 1 - you will certainly notice the towering dunes to the north - that's your destination. There are numerous places to park your trailer; I simply offload the quad and park the trailer at waypoint 2.
Now, as you gaze at the dune tops and realise the steepness of the slipfaces and the intricate crossing-over of the crests, you know you are about to enter quad paradise.
The dune range is the line of tallest peaks, running east-west, and to your left (west) will be the motorway, closed off by a fence, of course. To your far right (east) will be the airport, also fenced off, and in between is around 10km of beautiful dunes (waypoints 3 to 4). You are closed in by civilisation, so there is no need to worry about getting lost; instead, focus on the terrain, as it is tricky and will require skill.
Another consideration to think about is that, if it is the weekend, you are not going to be the only rider in the area, and the local boys know every centimetre of those dunes, so they push hard and fast. In short, stay out of their way. You'll spot them right away - black balaclavas instead of helmets, and extremely fast.
I would advise you not to engage in any racing with them as you'll struggle to keep up. If you thought you were a good rider, think again - these guys have been riding these dunes fearlessly since they first learnt to sit upright. Friday mornings are excellent if you prefer a solitary ride for your group.
And if you are about to give Salamat a go, you are an experienced rider and therefore do not need further directions or instructions - ride hard, and stay safe.
View Salamat in a larger map
Click here to download Paolo's kml file.