Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 30 March 2020

Portrait of a Nation: the warden of the UAE's deserts

David Chambers has lived in Ajman for years but says the country's dunes are his true home

 David Chambers has been a desert rally marshal in the UAE for decades but plans to leave for Europe soon. Chris Whiteoak / The National
 David Chambers has been a desert rally marshal in the UAE for decades but plans to leave for Europe soon. Chris Whiteoak / The National

David Chambers parked his Ford F350 Super Duty in a white sand desert somewhere off the Hameem road and settled in for the night.

He pulled out an awning and hung colourful paper lanterns. A white light shone from a pole above his truck, a beacon in the misty night. The back of his truck was full of blankets for campers who underestimated the chill of a midwinter night in the desert.

“What’s not to like about the desert?” he asked. “It’s one of the first things you should do when you come here. All right, you’ve gotta be prepared.”

He paused and pointed to the Ford. “That’s my apartment.”

For Mr Chambers, these dunes are home.

What’s not to like about the desert?

David Chambers

He is a desert rally marshal who ensures anyone who starts a rally returns home safely. The role requires strong navigation skills, intimate knowledge of the dunes and the know-how to rescue lorries, 4x4s and bikes out of the softest, deepest sand.

Top marshals such as Mr Chambers, 56, are involved in search and rescue alongside medical and helicopter rescue teams and can be first on the scene after a crash.

He has worked at races such as the Emirates Desert Championship, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and Urban Ultra desert running events.

His love for the desert began after he moved from Britain to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to heal a broken heart.

“Basically, I had split up from a relationship in England and I decided to go for the first job that came up, which was running a label print factory in Saudi Arabia.”

Mr Chambers previously worked on newspapers, first with a company that built printing presses and then with Fleet Street newspapers during the golden age of print.

In Riyadh, he oversaw printing of a different kind: self-adhesive labels, aluminium lids for yoghurt and flexible packaging for crisps.

He took his company Jeep Wrangler for his first dune bashing trip.

“I got it stuck up to the wing mirrors,” he said.

“Off-roading was big because, coming from Europe, you don’t get these expanses. We come from a background of mud.”

Mr Chambers lived with nine male nurses from a military hospital.

Saudi Arabia had strict gender segregation but people found ways to socialise. Mr Chambers started Rent-a-Party and set up discos in secluded desert, hours away from the city.

“Rent-a-Party is where we got around 400 or 500 expats into the desert in a huge convoy,” he said. “It wasn’t allowed back then for males and females to mix. We started off with some smaller barbecues and it just grew and grew.”

It was not all dancing. Kite flying was also popular at the events because of strong desert winds.

When Mr Chambers moved to the UAE in 2001, an American neighbour spotted his modified 4x4s and invited him to the sweep team of a popular desert rally. A sweeper follows the rally and ensures no one is left behind.

After that Mr Chambers became a rally marshal.

“It takes time,” he said. “You’ve got to be in it for the driving.”

He was the chief mechanic for the Dubai desert rally group Team Saluki and later joined the Unimog Middle East rally team, testing the boxy, utilitarian vehicles built by Mercedes-Benz on the country’s most unforgiving wadis.

His phone is filled with images of desert rescues, lorries and 4x4s buried deep in dunes.

Mr Chambers is immediately recognisable due to his white Ford F350 Super Duty, a gift from Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan, who owns the Emirates National Auto Museum and the world’s largest pickup truck. The two men forged a friendship through their love of motoring.

When Mr Chambers is not off-roading, he lives at a villa in Ajman with his black cat Buddy. He worked as a technical manager for various printing companies for decades but left his latest job in April.

This is his 30th year in the Gulf. Mr Chambers said he planned to move to Europe in the near future and was also planning a trip to Western Sahara.

His Ford will stay behind in the UAE and should he return, he will always have somewhere to call home.

Updated: January 2, 2020 06:46 PM

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