x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The rain in Umm al Qaiwain falls mainly on the plain

Rain in the desert gives a brand new dimension to off-roading and requires a new set of skills for driving.

There is nothing more magical than rain in the desert - in the past, it meant survival: green grasses for the livestock and replenished aquifers underground; but even nowadays the excitement is not much less.

Depending on where the rains fall, many Emiratis and expats will drive there to enjoy the cool weather and celebrate the event. News of the exact location, quantity and intensity of the rainfall spreads like wildfire over the mobile phone network.

If it is deep in the mountains, the wadis heading downhill are the destination. SUVs loaded with the entire family, children galore, head to where the waters speed past, still frothy from the rough ride over rocks. Danger is near, though, and due care is required to keep the vehicle on high ground, so make sure you enjoy the view and not become part of the unfolding drama.

Off-roaders also are drawn to the rain, as it morphs well-known off-roading spots into brand-new dimensions of 4x4 fun.

In the sand dunes, water does not normally collect, because it is absorbed into the sand. In the deep desert, the flats in between dune ranges (the sabkha) can become mud-pits a few days after heavy rains, and the claylike gummy substance glues onto car tyres, making extraction a complicated endeavour without a winch. The fact is, hardly anyone in a 4x4 can resist experiencing a little mud on the rare occasion it does present itself, and so stucks are quite common.

The sand dunes themselves immediately harden, even after a light sprinkling of rain, and this means a vehicle can travel faster, higher and navigate places otherwise out of reach. Even two-wheel-drive sedans have a shot on wet sand.

However, if only the surface is wet, expect the usual soft sand underneath - so it's best to keep moving.

If, instead, the sand is soaked through, then your vehicle will really impress you with its performance!

One word of warning, though. Those few days of rain per year are not only a boon for off-roaders. They are a crucial period for desert plants - all year seeds have been waiting, patiently under the dry sand; and the moisture springs off an amazing transformation, where sprouts rush to the surface, in a timed challenge to mature and propagate before the moisture is gone.

This means seedlings only have an opportunity of a few days and so they must rush - you can literally see them growing before your eyes. It is therefore important to keep your vehicle's tyres on the tracks as much as possible during this crucial time.

You will very clearly see young green grasses covering a dune area, and none whatsoever in the tracks left by an SUV. Just keep your tyres in the same tracks and give the desert plants the chance they need to continue their life cycle, because if a plant cannot seed, there will be no seeds for the next rains.

Desert animals would normally also thrive on this abundance of water. Just as Bedouin herders would set off for a long day's trek to an area where rain clouds were spotted from afar, hoping to reach the grasses while they were still green, desert animals would do the same. Nowadays, their source of water tends to be the many farms, so they no longer rely on the rains for their survival as in the past.