x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Off the road and on the rocks at the Dubai Jeep Jamboree

Even an unwilling passenger can't spoil all the fun for Kevin Hackett on the Jeep Jamboree.

A Jeep Wrangler tries to scramble up the rocky passage at Kharn Murrah while a rear passenger clings on for dear life.
A Jeep Wrangler tries to scramble up the rocky passage at Kharn Murrah while a rear passenger clings on for dear life.

Oh dear. I'm in the middle of the desert hinterland surrounding Dubai, with a passenger who wants to get out. A passenger who wants to go home, wants to be absolutely anywhere other than where she is right now. And I'm starting to feel the same. If there was an ejector seat in this Jeep Wrangler then I'd have used it by now. Because it's stressful enough trying to battle your way over sand dunes without a passenger saying, in no uncertain terms, that they wished they'd stayed at home. What was supposed to be a pleasant day out is rapidly plunging into stress overload. The prognosis is not good.

To be fair, I should have explained more explicitly what would be involved. Off-roading, something I've had a fair amount of experience in, in all manner of conditions, is not the most relaxing of activities. It requires a strong stomach for when the going gets tough, not to mention an ability to go hours on end without a toilet break. It's a team exercise and each occupant of the vehicle in question needs to be committed - some would argue in more sense than one.

This is the 15th Dubai Jeep Jamboree and I've been looking forward to it for weeks. On paper, at least, it seemed like a brilliant event, with roughly 200 Jeeps all being driven in an organised, official event that would prove the capabilities of the evergreen American brand. Jeep has kindly given me a new Wrangler for the day and, while it looks nowhere near as tough as some of the modified machinery here, its credentials are beyond question; its relatively skinny tyres are much more suited to traversing sand dunes than the fat, bad-boy rubber the other cars have.

But the event doesn't get off to the best of starts. While the desert is obviously a big old place, having dozens of experienced dune bashers setting out from the same place was always going to be a bit of a shock to the system. Lunatics whizz around us as we take our first tentative steps into the unknown and the inevitable happened: loads of vehicles immediately go off-piste, marshals get cross, drivers end up stuck in the soft dusty stuff and have to resort to shovelling their way free, just seconds into proceedings. We are on the verge of being crashed into by other Jeeps more times than I care to remember.

Still, I try to reason, once the event gets under way properly, the tight packs of cars will thin out and things will become easier as the serial nutjobs storm off in a cloud of sand. It's the same with any event where so many vehicles are involved and, sure enough, it does get easier. Because we do the decent thing and get lost.

Jamboree means "celebration", and this really is quite an accurate description of today's event. It's a celebration of the diversity of Jeep as a brand, the enthusiasm of Jeep owners throughout the region and the desert enclaves that provide the fun. For this is the natural habitat of these vehicles - doing rough stuff is what they were built for. So my lack of preparation is nobody's fault but my own and I'm determined to crack on and turn things around. We will have fun, and that's the end of it.

As much as anything else, today is about me trying out the newest Wrangler. I admit that my experiences so far with Jeep have been limited to my father's old Grand Cherokee back in the UK. It drank fuel at an alarming rate and broke down more often than Halle Berry in an Oscar acceptance speech, so this is a chance to see if things have improved. And indeed, they have. For while the Wrangler is overtly utilitarian, it's been a thoroughly pleasant thing to drive so far and, more importantly, has shown itself to be a Land Rover's equal when it comes to the business of crossing terrain that would have most "off-roaders" throwing in the towel. I rather like it and I find myself thinking that, if I could just get my accomplice to enjoy herself, I could quite happily own one of these, albeit with a few macho modifications.

The latest Wrangler has Chrysler's award-winning 3.6L V6 Pentastar engine and, with 285hp, it's certainly powerful enough to get it through some pretty awful conditions. And while I have ended up getting stuck at times, not once have I had to disembark and manually dig the Jeep free. With a bit of steering lock and (what I like to think of as) intelligent throttle input, the car manages to wriggle itself free every time. As a serial car nut, this is what I enjoy: experiencing a vehicle in the right conditions. These things aren't built for the daily commute; they're built to do exactly this.

We climb over a steep ridge of sand and the empty nothingness spreads in front of us, seemingly with no end. We can see for miles and, off in the distance, the unmistakable boxy shape of another Wrangler gives a handy reference point. I get the power down and plough over the dunes, ignoring the screams and yelling that emerge from the passenger seat, and soon we're on his tail. Then we see more of them, all in a ramshackle convoy, all possibly as lost as we are. And this highlights another major flaw in my plan for a nice day out: I hadn't told her she'd need to navigate us using the (off) road book provided before we set off this morning.

The book uses "tulip diagrams" to show the way through each of the day's five driving sections. I've used these in the past, on classic car rallies and new car launches, so I naively assumed it would be just as simple. What hadn't dawned on me is that, in the desert, there aren't exactly many reference points. So when the book says things like "buildings" or "camel camp", they could be right behind the dune to our left and, because we're following a track that might be the wrong one, we're able to miss them. Fortunately, my co-driver has worked out that the GPS readings quoted under some of the diagrams can be checked against the compass function on my iPhone. Steve Jobs, I salute you. We might be a little bit off (as are the people we're following) but we're close to where we need to be. Though she still isn't enjoying it.

The last time I did something similar to this, I was with my teenage son and, from time to time, I see areas we covered back in August. One of them, though, causes me to have mild palpitations. We're at a standstill, at the bottom of a steep rocky channel that will take us over the top of Kharn Murrah. I've climbed it before and, going on my experiences so far today, this is going to be terrifying for her.

I let the heroes go first, waiting in line for our turn. The success rate for getting up the channel in one go is about 50 per cent, with many reaching two thirds of the way up before losing traction, sometimes stalling and rolling back down the hill. I offer to make the ascent on my own but apparently it's too hot to make it up on foot while I tackle it within the Wrangler. So, when our time comes, I take a deep breath, engage low ratio and put my foot down. Rocks clatter against the Jeep's undercarriage, sand shoots up from all four corners and we're thrown all over the place. Miraculously, we make it up in one go, to applause from the gathered onlookers. I turn to my right, expecting a whole load of grief but she says it was fun. See? Told you we'd have fun.

It isn't to last, though, and soon enough we're lost yet again and the "stupid" route book apparently isn't to be trusted. My natural inclination is, if we're lost, to home in on another Jeep and follow it, but that's a bad idea according to my companion. So another disagreement ensues and I reluctantly admit that, yes, it's "a man thing" and that I should have found myself a passenger that would have enjoyed "this kind of thing".

It's not for everyone, but the Jeep Jamboree is a celebration of the marque. It's cheap, too, costing just Dh149 per head, and that includes a goody bag, breakfast, a packed lunch and a barbecue dinner at the end. As a marketing exercise, it works brilliantly, because it allows Jeep to put its money where its mouth is. While I'm incapable of enduring any more earache, the Wrangler is more than capable of rolling up its sleeves and getting on with the dirty work.

Not wishing to damage this relationship any more than I already have today, I make an executive decision and head back to base (at Al Badia Golf Club) earlier than planned. It's been an experience all right (and I'd definitely do it again), but if I'd just thought ahead to the potential problems that ensue from having a passenger who's not enjoying the drive, it would have been one to savour. At least if you're on a race track, you can make your way to the pits in a minute or two and eject someone who wants to get out. In the desert, that's not really an option, is it? Live and learn, Hackett. Live and learn.