James Langton turns off the tourist trail and into a dusty enclave of Umm al Qaiwain aboard a vintage Land Rover.
Old warriors on patrol
"Seat belts?" Ahmed Mohd Ghanem gives a broad grin as he guns the engine of the elderly Land Rover Series One. "No seats belts! Your hands are your seat belts." There is not much of anything else either in the 1951 vehicle. The front passenger seats are squares of foam-filled vinyl. The dashboard consists of a tiny speedometer, a petrol gauge and a couple of mysterious lights. The only protection against collision is to grab the doors. As for the roof, well, there isn't one. There are three Land Rovers in the convoy parked by the side of a dusty road in the desert hinterland of Umm al Qaiwain. All are well into their sixth decade but still roaring with life. Two are painted in the dark green livery of the Trucial Coast Force, the military unit which guarded the region prior to the creation of the UAE army in 1971. They wear the livery with honour - old warriors of the desert patrol.
Today, they have a different role, escorting small groups into the seemingly endless dunes that stretch out towards Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah. The experience is like stepping into a time machine. The drivers are even wearing replica uniforms of the Trucial Scouts, meticulously sourced down to the red webbing belts and lanyards. This is another world from the cliched dune bashing offered to most tourists - a roller-coaster ride through the dunes, followed by an "authentic" banquet that owes more to Beiruti than Bedouin cuisine and a belly dancer who most likely hails from Moscow or Minsk.
"This is the real 1950s experience," says Ahmed, the man behind Classic Safaris. "It's very different from a new luxury car with a comfy seat, air conditioning and music. You might as well be driving on the highway as the desert. These are different. They are open and noisy." And great fun. Ahmed throws his car into first gear with a sound like a bucket of rocks being thrown into a crusher. The convoy heads down the main street of Falaj al Moalla to a chorus of cheery honks from other motorists. A short distance out of town, we head off road and bounce down a dirt track towards a tall ridge of rust-coloured dunes.
In a moment, everything is transformed. The Land Rover's modest 1.6L engine is roaring in a way that suggests the lack of a rev counter can only be a good thing. The freshening breeze that streams over the windscreen is suddenly filled with an orange dust that rapidly coats everything. The contact lens wearers in the group grab for the goggles provided with every vehicle. This is how it must have been when Dubai was a huddle of low barasti houses around the creek and the trip to Abu Dhabi took eight bone-shaking hours along a dirt track. Today, we are soldiers patrolling the borders of the emirates, or prospecting for oil or even perhaps following the entourage of Sheikh Zayed, whose personal fleet in the 1950s consisted of three of these vehicles.
The Land Rover Series One might have been built for the rigours of the Gulf. It remains one of the most extraordinary vehicles in motoring history. Inspired by the original American Willys Jeep, it was the child of post-Second World War austerity, when a shortage of raw materials made the production of luxury cars in Britain impossible. The first models came off the line at Rover's Solihull factory on the outskirts of Birmingham in 1948 and were anything but luxurious. The Series One was designed for agricultural use, with a steel chassis joined to lightweight aluminium body. The four-wheel-drive system employed a freewheel transmission more commonly seen in farm machinery. The basic model was so, well, basic that tops for the doors and a roof were sold as optional extras.
Rover only planned to keep the Land Rover in production for two to three years to generate sufficient cash to restart production of other models. Instead, such were their appeal, that Land Rovers continued to roll off the assembly line until 1985, when it was superceded by the much larger Defender model. Rover no longer exists and Land Rover is now owned by India's Tata Motors. But the company estimates that 70 per cent of the first three series, built between 1948 and 1985, are still driving around.
An astonishing 80 of those belong to Ahmed, who began assembling his fleet less than a decade ago. As backup he has a warehouse of spares, some so difficult to obtain that he gets orders from owners in the UK. Many of the cars saw service in the local armed forces, first with the Trucial Scouts and then with the UAE military. They arrive a little battered but ready for duty. "They only need work with the gear box and the paint," says Ahmed. "Only once was there a problem with the engine."
For Classic Safari, the company he launched just under a year ago, Ahmed has assembled 10 vehicles, all fully restored, and has plans to double the fleet next year. Each car can carry just four passengers, two perched on bench seats over the rear wheels. The company offers day excursions or an overnight stop at a campsite with a traditional Bedouin feast and breakfast and non-traditional air-conditioned rooms and cotton sheets.
There are no belly dancers for miles, just a camp fire, companionship and a billion stars. Today's trip sees Ahmed leading the convoy down a winding desert track. The dunes on either side are scarred with tyre-tracks from heaver vehicles, but the Land Rovers are gentler on the environment. Ahmed has been driving since he was 10, taught by a relative. He can instantly recall his first car: "A Suzuki LJ50. It had three cylinders." These days he drives a BMW, but seems utterly at ease behind the wheel of a 1951 Series One Land Rover.
Following the trail over the crest of a dune, Ahmed picks his way skillfully between patches of softer and harder sand. The Land Rover has none of the sophisticated traction settings of new off-road vehicles. Four-wheel-drive is engaged by pressing down a large yellow knob near the gearlever. A five hour safari might cover just 45 kilometres, but then speed is hardly the point. At the top of one ridge, the vehicle stalls in soft sand. For a few seconds there is silence. Inches below the passenger door, a lizard scurries to safety.
On the far horizon the caramel peaks of the Hajar mountains shimmer in and out of focus. The engine guns back to life and the cars drop down a steep incline. No other group of pensioners on a weekend outing was ever this sprightly. A young camel appears out of nowhere and briefly sprints in front of the lead Land Rover before disappearing in the desert. Later, a group of three curious wild donkeys runs towards the convoy, wheeling away from the intruders at the last minute.
From the front seat of a Land Rover, the desert seems much closer than the air-conditioned comfort of a modern 4x4; the difference perhaps between land roving and land cruising. At a dry lake bed, we stop for a water break served in elegant silver cups. There are flasks of traditional qahwa and sweet black tea. In the west, the sun is beginning to drop towards the horizon and the sky is turning cobalt blue. "My grandfather lived near here,"Ahmed says. "All his life he lived in the desert."
Ahmed has one final trick. He finds the catch and drops the windscreen flat to the bonnet. As the wheels turn, the desert rushes towards us, engulfing every sense. The last veil between machine and nature has vanished. firstname.lastname@example.org For more details of Classic Safari and how to book visit www.classicsafari.com or telephone +971 6 881 1755