x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

On the Al Wagan trail

There is still time for outdoor adventure before the summer sun will empty the desert.

In the cooler evenings, trainers with racing camels are a common sight in the Al Wagan area.
In the cooler evenings, trainers with racing camels are a common sight in the Al Wagan area.

As a final rumble before the heat of summer makes even a short trip into the sands a difficult expedition, this issue will propose a deep desert loop in the pristine wilderness of the Al Wagan area. You might recall a visit to Al Wagan in the November 14th issue of Motoring, where we stopped short of entering the desert proper - well, this time we dive in! Al Wagan is a spectacular desert destination of amazing pristine dunes populated by gazelle, with the added benefit of long flat sabkhas (salt flats) running east-west and making an unplanned exit easy.

In May, the sun is already very powerful, although nights are quite pleasant due to the rapid drop of temperature and absence of humidity, and so it is best to plan to arrive at the campsite just before sunset and to start the trip at dawn. As heat softens the sands and makes even a simple stuck tyre a tiring affair, and adding the possibility of heat exhaustion and dehydration, I would suggest only experienced drivers in convoy attempt this trip. I hedged my bets by teaming up with my good friends, the Desert Lions, a club of off-roading pros from Dubai.

Al Wagan is about an hour's drive south of Al Ain, and we'll start our itinerary from the signposted Al Wagan West turn off the motorway (waypoint 1) where you will immediately turn left to run parallel to the motorway to reach the Adnoc petrol station, where you should fill your vehicle (waypoint 2). Leaving the petrol station to the right, you will soon rejoin the motorway, where after around 10km you will spot a gate on your right entering the sabkha (waypoint 3) and where you will find the last grocery store if you want to buy some last minute provisions - please take plenty of extra water.

The road before you will be heading west past camel farms and a popular camel racing track - in the evening, you will see camels training as the sun sets (waypoint4). When the sabkha gives way to the sand dunes, we find a camp site and enjoy a barbecue (waypoint 5). The vehicle I'm driving is a Jeep Cherokee, which gave me a comfortable ride down the motorway but in its modern incarnation does not carry a strong off-roading reputation, so I was a little worried how it would cope once the going got fierce. I eyed the plastic bumpers with suspicion, and I pulled the fuse to disable the electronic traction control systems. The tyres seemed a little skinny and the ground clearance was not especially auspicious.

At night the wind picked up and we left our campsite at the break of dawn, after emerging from our cots (we slept in the open, no tents in summer) covered in freshly blown sand. This was bad news, as not only does a sandstorm complicate navigation and visibility, but the recently-swept sand is ultra-soft and car-traps are everywhere downwind of dunes. We headed in a south-westerly direction, using an Etisalat pylon as entry into the dune ranges (waypoint 6). The layout of the terrain is as follows: the long sabkha we had entered forms the northern border, and to the south is another main sabkha, this one with a tarmac road. And to the far west, a well-established north-south track cuts off the rectangle, making sure that our loop is well within this box of safety.

You therefore have four natural exit points, if needed - they are fenced, so a gate must be found to cross them, but they are a convenient safety feature of this route. The loop runs down to these tracks. As for ourselves, we found out pretty quickly that the desert is never to be underestimated. The sandstorm worsened and the conditions became very difficult. The Jeep Cherokee struggled in comparison to the modified 4x4 vehicles of the Lions, but it felt strong enough to fight through and so I decided to continue. As the day progressed, my feeling of unease with the Cherokee was replaced by awe at its prowess in the dunes. The Lions were also pushed to their limits, and at one point we had four out of five cars stuck.

Two other friends had joined us on their quad bikes, and they were suffering the blasting sand more than we were. Crossing dune ranges and sabkhas, we finally reached the southern track, where we found shelter in two abandoned huts (waypoint 9). We could have exited, but the spirits were high, so we turned along the fence on the second stage of the loop and headed west, further into the desert, but keeping beside the fence.

As we clawed our way through the sand, on occasion we spotted a single vehicle in the distance, and we wondered who in their right mind (besides us, of course) would venture out into the desert, and alone. As we continued the loop skirting the north-south track and heading back in a circular loop, we stopped by a gate for a breather, and the mystery vehicle appeared. It was a pair of officers from the Abu Dhabi Environment Protection Agency, who came forward with the key to the gate, and who had been shadowing us all morning - in case we needed help. Such is the kindness of the desert folk and it was reassuring that they had spotted a convoy of expats venturing into deep desert and had taken it upon themselves to be our guardian angels - our respect and appreciation to them.

View Wagan, May in a larger map From Gate No. 2 (waypoint 10), we turned east, and began working our way back towards our campsite of the night before. A quick stop to brew some iced tea - simply brew a strong sweet tea with minimum water in a kettle, and then pour into a bottle of frozen water prepared from home. I assure you that you have never tasted anything so fantastically refreshing in your life. As we reached our destination, the camel racing track of the day before (waypoint 13), the Cherokee showed no signs of the duress it had been submitted to - no overheating, no bumpers hanging off, no hard knocks beyond what was acceptable for a tough ride in the Al Wagan dunes.

We left the desert directly, having inhaled enough sand and our eyes reddened from the constant blasting grit, content that we had completed yet another great off-roading adventure. At times, it is when under extreme conditions that the character of a person is defined, and that is why it is important to undertake such trips with like-minded people, whom you can trust and who band together; and such is the camaraderie and professionalism of the Desert Lions.

The desert is a facet of nature to be respected and accepted for what it is, on a clear morning or in the inferno of a midday sandstorm. The experience one gains each trip is precious and cannot be bought, but it is with due care that I must advise you to abort the trip if you encounter sandstorm conditions, unless you are well-prepared both mechanically and mentally for such extremes. As summer will truly be upon us, in the next few articles in the series, we will focus on mountain wadi destinations, where shade and cool water pools help keep trips pleasant and reasonably safe. in the next Off the Beaten Path, we travel to Wadi Jazira to climb a few waterfalls. motoring@thenational.ae