Despite safety protocols, the desert challenge lives up to its name.
The Desert Challenge is a test against time and fate
The rider of the KTM motorcycle is spent. Exhausted, his almost limp body is finding it difficult to coordinate movements at the checkpoint where, like everyone else, he has had to stop for time-checking purposes. Unlike the others, however, he has stopped his engine and he can't seem to start it again. The electronic ignition is struggling so he tries to kick-start it. The bike thunders into life but its rider stalls it almost immediately. After the fifth attempt, he manages to keep it running and off he goes; off into a world of hurt for another punishing few hours of hard riding under an increasingly harsh midday sun.
The annual Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is, as the name suggests, a test of man (in some cases woman) and machine, whether it be two-wheeled or four, in the face of some of the most extreme conditions in the world. And seeing that rider almost slumped over his fuel tank, almost ready to call time on his participation, it's impossible not to be moved by the sheer scale - the epic enormity - of what he and his fellow competitors have volunteered to take on. And these are not just local people, either, with a huge number of teams from all over the world heading to these parts in search of victory - or even just to finish.
Last night, at the bivouac area a short distance away from the grand splendour of the Qasr Al Sarab resort, competitors gathered to listen to the briefing of the day's events. Ronan Morgan, Motorsport Director for the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE), addressed the ensemble to explain the following day's activities, announce the winners of the various categories from the day just ended and, harrowingly, tell us about an unfortunate motorcycle rider who had been involved in a horrific incident. His bike caught fire as he was riding it across a particularly desolate area, and it exploded, throwing him clear but not before he had suffered serious burns.
Quite apart from giving everybody a frightening reminder about how dangerous motorsport can be, Morgan also heaped praise upon the team that stopped to help, keeping the poor rider shaded and hydrated while they waited for the emergency helicopter to arrive and evacuate him to hospital. This, he reiterated, was the spirit of the event, where competitors view the welfare of others as more important than any time penalty. The victim was, he added, recovering but later, when I saw what little was left of his motorcycle, I was shocked to think that anyone could have survived.
"Only the occupants of cars on the competition are required to wear Nomex [fire retardant] suits," Matthew Norman tells me. "For bike and quad riders it's different." Norman is Motorsport Manager for the ATCUAE and has many years of experience in planning and regulating events such as this, and he explains to me that safety has come a very long way in recent times.
"Every vehicle is constantly monitored and we know exactly where everyone is at any given time, how fast they're going, if they're stopped, whatever. So when a helicopter has to get to someone fast, the pilot knows exactly where to head, all guided by GPS [Global Positioning System]. Not only that," he continues, "but we introduced what's called the 'Sentinel' system a while back and that allows every competitor to alert us when there's a problem. And that rider who was burnt, even if nobody had been there to help him, would have been able to communicate with the guys at the base to tell them what had happened. That way we can scramble the right helicopter with the right injury specialists on board, which has the right amount of fuel to enable them to reach the victim and get him or her to the right hospital."
It's incredible technology that exists to keep people alive and well, rather than detract from the excitement of one of the world's top-level motorsports. Dubai-based husband and wife team, Ian and Sheila Barker, also sing its praises to me after the briefing is over. "Before we had the use of that system," says Ian, "we could be leaping over a dune, completely unaware of a stranded vehicle down below on the other side. Now we are all alerted to the proximity of other teams so there's little chance of ploughing into someone you can't see. It's pretty dusty out there, too, so having this as a guidance back up is excellent."
Ian and Sheila have been competing in events such as this for more than 10 years, all over the Gulf region. "We're hoping to be able to compete in the Qatar rally next week," Sheila mentions, evidently not fed up with being thrown around just yet. But had there been any difficulties, either with their Nissan Patrol or their man-and-wife teamwork? "We damaged the car today, not seriously," says Ian, "it's a shock that needs replacing. Feels a bit difficult at times but it's at least driveable. As for our teamwork, well we're still here, still married, still smiling," he laughs. "And there's at least one other female competitor on this year's event," added Sheila, evidently glad of the comradeship.
The couple has used Nissan Patrols for years, coming to the model after a succession of different cars. "They're brilliant," Ian tells me. "Wouldn't go back to anything else. And the guys at Arabian Automobiles have been great with us too, especially when it comes to supplying spares and parts we need for the events we take part in."
In fact, the Nissan Patrol has much to do with the Desert Challenge, having been the official vehicle for the support teams and organisers for the past 10 years. And the stage where I've just witnessed that exhausted motorcyclist head off into the sandy yonder is part of the Nissan leg, with the company actually sponsoring this fourth (and apparently most difficult) day of cross-desert riding and driving.
As that rider disappears in a trail of dust, the marshal's shrill whistles pierce the silence of the dunes just south of Liwa. Another vehicle is approaching and they need to get ready to carry out its time check and make sure nobody has strayed onto the ground that the car will be using to head on to its next destination. As it homes into view, it turns out to be a Mini. Well, I say Mini, but there's nothing diminutive about it. It's the Countryman (or what's left of it after some heavy modifications) driven by Spain's Nani Roma, who at this stage looks as though he could become the overall winner.
The yellow-and-black car is plastered with sponsorship decals and it's hurtling towards us at a remarkable pace. Time check complete, it tears away kicking up plumes of fine dust and sand, engine sounding furious. Roma doesn't hang about and, as he hurtles along the rudimentary desert track, I'm left deeply impressed at how much of a hammering these cars are able to take.
What follows is a mixed bag of quads, motorcycles and cars that often look so odd I have no idea what they started out life as. It must be extremely tough to tackle this event in a car, never mind on a quad or bike, and the riders, exposed to the heat and dust, appear to be soaked through, their suits drenched. Why do they put themselves through this agony? Ask any one of them and they'll tell you the same thing: it's what they live for.
The Abu Dhabi Police is present here, keeping the small section of public road that needs to be passed clear of traffic, and the organisers are full of praise for the way the authorities keep everything working, everything trouble-free. It's a stark contrast to certain other countries, where these sorts of events are viewed from on high as a massive pain in the neck. The Desert Challenge, however, is a very big deal for Abu Dhabi, attracting teams and visitors from pretty much everywhere.
Today's competition started early and will finish early, so I head for the finish line, about 30 minutes away from this stage, taking the main road. On a huge, flat basin at the foot of some seriously massive dunes, sits a makeshift shelter. It's the finish, where times are finally checked and teams are finally free to head back to the bivouac area on tarmac.
The Moreeb area of the Empty Quarter is staggeringly beautiful, majestic, and quite terrifying to me. It's an unforgiving place that takes no prisoners if you end up in trouble, and my healthy respect for the dangers it possesses means I tend to keep it at arms' length most of the time. The same cannot be said for these intrepid competitors, who fearlessly travel across these harsh environs in pursuit of the ultimate goal.
On this year's event they have had to contend with rain and sandstorms, as well as the searing heat of the sun. It's been a challenge in every sense of the word and, speaking to some of the exhausted team members later in the day, that's exactly the way they like it.
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