x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Always zigzag to the top

From where I stand Karim Rushdy, the manager of Off-Road Adventures, talks about his love of the desert and why he's sad the Dubai desert has become so polluted.

Karim Rushdy, 47, spends several nights a week camping in the desert near Liwa Oasis.
Karim Rushdy, 47, spends several nights a week camping in the desert near Liwa Oasis.

I was born and grew up in Cairo. After I finished hotel management school I was in Germany for three and a half years and came to Abu Dhabi in 1985. I came to visit my father who was an adviser to the Ministry of Information - the visit was meant to last a week but became 22 years. I like the place. I was impressed by the coastline - in Germany I missed the sea, the beach the sun. I always wanted to live close to the beach. Of course later on I was introduced to the desert. Now, I like both.

In order to travel in the desert you have to understand the sand and the wind. If you have sailing or skiing experience, it helps. When you are climbing the dunes you have to know which is the windward side and which is the lee side, the steep one. So you never climb a lee. You always zigzag until you reach the top.

I was working the night shift at the Hilton in Abu Dhabi and after a couple of years I decided to do something else. There was a tour group starting up and I heard they were looking for a German speaker. In two years they gave me the responsibility to start a safari operation - and I was a total novice, didn't have a clue about deserts or 4x4s. A bigger problem was I didn't have someone who could teach me to drive properly. The two other guys working with me had some experience in the oil companies so they knew some areas, but we didn't know how to conduct a safari for tourists. We had no equipment either. We kept water and kept ropes that could tow a goat or maybe a camel but not a car. When we got stuck we dug the cars out with our hands. We learned by experience.

I stayed with the company until the 1991 Iraq war with Kuwait and then moved to Dubai. I freelanced there a little bit. Soon I started my own travel company and then in 2001 I opened Off-Road Adventures. But September 11 destroyed everything. No tourists came for three months. My investment over the previous six months was ruined. I had to start from scratch and it took me years to break even. Then in 2007 I sold 90 per cent of the company. I found a partner to take over my operations in Dubai, Sharjah and the Northern Emirates and I decided to concentrate on promoting tours around Liwa.

I'm fed up with what's happening in Dubai. The desert's polluted, there's too many cars and ATV's - you cannot camp in peace. The Dubai desert is being too commercialised. And I am a person who has fallen in love with the desert, with nature. I think the future of ecotourism is here in Abu Dhabi. People are escaping the hustle and bustle to find a quiet place to enjoy nature. You can hardly see the stars in Dubai because of the light everywhere. You have convoys of 20, 30, 40 or 50 cars running through the desert and in the long run this causes ecological damage. If we don't see it today we'll realise it in 10 years time. And that's why I promised myself that in Liwa I would have no big groups, three or four cars maximum; I would have no loud entertainment, such as the belly dancers they bring to the desert in Dubai; and I would not allow my guests to take souvenirs from nature. They can only take pictures.

I think if there is one thing that I wish for this country it is to give entrepreneurs more chance to grow. It is very difficult to be a small business here because you always need local support. In terms of tourism to Liwa, you don't need the five-star hotels. You need small local small local villas, bed-and-breakfast style.

I camp in the desert three or four nights a week. Am I sick of camping? No, not at all. Because of what I saw in Dubai: all of the beauty of nature is being swallowed there so here when I have time to enjoy it I do because I don't know when all of this will change.

The excitement for me is meeting different people. People are the most interesting objects on this earth. The interchange of experiences and information is marvellous. When you sit at night under the stars everyone talks about his or her own thing. They only see me one day and maybe they won't see me again so people are free to tell me all of these personal things. There is a kind of trust.

My wife is not like me. She's not an outdoors person. The first time she came to the desert with me she slept in the car. But my kids do enjoy it. My eldest is eight years old and I am trying to take her with me as much as I can.

What is my wish? I want to go to Australia, Asia, Africa, and America in order to cross all of the deserts in the world. A while back a 70-year-old woman from Germany sent me a letter thanking me for her trip. In the letter she called me "sand god". I liked that.

lkummer@thenational.ae