Posted by: englishdubai | April 21, 2007

Into The Empty Quarter

One of the nice things about working with a number of rugged South African colleagues is that they all like camping. Every time I talk to them about vacations in Africa I am often told about their time in Mozambique out in the wilderness with nothing but the stars for company. It seems that they often yearn for this type of wilderness and so there are often trips organized to the far reaches of Oman and the UAE.

Last weekend saw us take a trip Liwa also known as the Empty Quarter home of the largest sand desert on the planet. The directions from Dubai are straightforward. Drive to Abu Dhabi then bear left and then drive 200km into the desert (if you reach the Saudi border you have gone too far)

Liwa is the home of some mighty 200-300m sand dunes and as a good friend puts it “Liwa is the proper desert” and as such requires the right amount of respect and safety precautions. Before setting off – I checked I had all my recovery gear, my GPS was working, walkie talkies were charged and I had a car charger for my cell phone. I was also careful to ensure keep my vehicle fueled up at every opportunity. After a long drive (nicely broken up by a trip to the car museum) we arrived at Moreeb Hill.

Moreeb Hill is the home to annual hill climb challenge and on seeing it I can see why people turn up with 1000BHP vehicles. Apparently the hill climb record is 12 seconds. I would love to see that – but have my doubts about being in the vehicle! Here Carol has a go in her Nissan Patrol:

I did not even bother trying it in the Hummer as I had the worlds amount of camping gear in the car – and it is not the most powerful vehicle, even unencumbered. After Carol had finished playing on the hill, we aired down our tires, then drove into the dunes searching for a suitable camping spot. After 30 minutes of the trickiest dune driving I have yet to encounter, we found a fairly flat spot and proceeded to set up camp:

There was no escaping the fact we were in the desert as the sun beat down hard upon us. The temperature was registering 42c with precious little shade available to offer us protection. While setting up I heard a noise that I could only describe as a helicopter. However what crested a dune was something much more impressive. It was a Chevrolet Avalanche 2500 – it sports an EIGHT point one liter engine and with no muffler the awesome engine and exhaust notes echo off the dunes giving an attack helicopter like sound. The Avalanche is owned by a very jovial gentleman called Jamal who is a committee member of the Dubai 4×4 forums. Carol was pleased he arrived as he was able to lead our afternoon drive through the dunes of Liwa.

I had taken one look at the dunes and made the decision that I was not going to drive this time. I felt I still do not possess the desert driving skills yet and the Hummer is not the ideal vehicle for some of the climbs that are required. Also perhaps the more compelling reason was I could get to ride along in the Avalanche!

Once camp was done we set off in seven car convoy. We drove through some very tricky dunes and bowls. The avalanche was so powerful it just ate up steep inclines with ease. However it was challenged by not only its huge weight and long wheel base but the the transfer case would not engage into four wheel drive. Jamal’s twenty plus year of desert driving experience soon put pay to these hindrances however we still had a few “stucks”:

Shaukie (another long time Dubai 4×4 member) who drove a heavily modified red wrangler was the recovery vehicle “par excellence” – these guys simply do not hang around. Shaukie shoots up to the scene of the stuck, the recovery rope was out and shackled up. A quick beep of the horn, the tow was engaged and the vehicle was recovered. Average time was probably less than five minutes. One recovery was not quite as smooth:

On one particularly tricky bowl Craig in his diesel turbo Land Cruiser had a nasty stuck with the vehicle in danger of tipping over:

Shuakie and Jamal got on the walkie talkies in a flash and instantly started issuing safety instructions. Four guys provided counterbalance by standing on the running rails of the Land Cruiser while Shaukie towed out the car. Here is the recovery in progress:

Some of the standout moments during the four hour desert drive was descending several 200m tall slip faces:

Seeing a real camel train snaking its way through the desert. A truly memorable site:

A land based oil rig burning off the natural gas in the still of the night:

Once we got back to camp we fired up the barbecue and recounted tales of the day until long into the night. I am no real fan of camping but the stars you can see late at night and the seemingly endless sea of sand dunes that presents itself in the morning makes the discomfort worthwhile.

I was a little disappointed not to be with Chris and the drive through Area 53 – but the pull of seeing Liwa before the summer sets in making it too hot camp was irresistible. Liwa was an unforgettable experience, but it made me realize I am not really a die hard outdoor type – however once a year I will go back and remind myself of the beauty of the desert.


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