x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

4x4s the new ships of the desert

Dune bashing enthusiasts rise early in the morning to manouevre their four-wheel drive cars over rough patches of sand in the desert.

Drivers make their way across the dunes a few kilometres off the Hatta road near the village of Tawi Nizwa, Sharjah.
Drivers make their way across the dunes a few kilometres off the Hatta road near the village of Tawi Nizwa, Sharjah.

DUBAI // As the sun slowly rises at 5.30am on a Friday, a group of cars assembles in Tawi Nizwa village on the Dubai-Hatta Road.

The quiet is broken by the whirring of engines outside a line of mostly shut cafeterias. This is a well-known meeting place for dune bashers.

These enthusiasts brave the summer heat in their four-wheel drive vehicles, some without air conditioning, to explore sand dunes and for the thrill of the ride.

But before the adventure begins, they greet each other over sweetened milk tea served by an eager restaurant owner who assures them breakfast will be served soon.

The large gathering chatters away and first-timers introduce themselves over piping hot parathas (Indian bread) with scrambled egg stuffings. In the spirit of camaraderie, someone picks up the tab.

The enthusiastic group from the Arabian Offroad Academy, mostly amateurs and beginners, set off for three hours of driving.

The most important element of off-roading is knowing your car well, says Mohsin Rawal, a founder of the group.

The motorists deflate their tyres after entering the closest desert strip. Buckling their seat belts and dividing into groups, they follow a lead driver who maps the route and makes sure the group members do not get lost.

"It is the lead driver's responsibility to ensure that the cars following … have an exciting time," says Mr Rawal.

Driving at between 20kph and 30kph, they take on the smaller dunes first. The bigger, more exciting dunes off the Dubai-Hatta Road are called the Iftar Bowl, Super Bowl, Big Red, Area 53 and the Pyramids.

The routine is fairly simple and disciplined. Drivers are instructed not to reverse or go back on the same dune without informing other drivers. This prevents accidents and ensures everybody has their chance at the fun.

Each car has a red flag mounted on the back, a tow rope, a GPS device, a tool kit and plenty of water.

It is imperative the vehicles maintain a safe distance, keep up the momentum and switch to the right gears. Drivers also have to familiarise themselves with the sand's texture, their car's abilities and learn about each dune's slopes and crests before attacking it.

The adventure is not without its mishaps as cars sometimes become stuck in the sand, wheel rims pop out and engines overheat. It can be very difficult to fix a hot car in the desert sun.

So what drives these people to wake up early every Friday to sweat it out in the desert?

"It is about responsibility and commitment," Mr Rawal says.

For the new drivers, he says, it is the excitement of learning something new.

"They are happy that they and their car can perform in the desert," Mr Rawal says.

For Aishwarya Shivkumar, one of the few female drivers, it is a taste of adventure.

"It is great to take advantage of living around deserts and learn something new," says Ms Shivkumar, who joined the group four months ago. "It is more of a man's sport, but I like the fun and adventure."

Off-roading also helps break social barriers, says James Gayan, a regular at the sport.

"It's a diverse society and you get to know more people," says Mr Gayan, who is also a rally driver. "We don't just go on drives. Sometimes we go to a meeting point and have a barbecue."

In fact, the Iftar Bowl earned its name because it is a gathering point for different dune-bashing groups during Ramadan when they break the fast together.

This year, more than 300 drivers and their families, from different nationalities, met last Friday to share iftar.

pkannan@thenational.ae

* The Arabian Offroad Academy can be contacted at facebook.com/ArabianOffroad