Dubai: The UAE is home to an abundance of sand dunes and rocky terrains.
As a result, nature enthusiasts have been off-roading in the UAE for decades. Whether it’s in the desert or the rocky mountainous regions, it isn’t a surprise that the adventure sport is a favourite weekend pastime, for visitors and expats alike, here in the UAE.
Why the UAE?
What makes it so popular in the UAE is a unique combination of favourable conditions; low-cost petrol, access to an excellent variety of SUVs, and some of the world’s finest deserts literally at our doorstep.
But what truly makes off-roading so much fun and so appealing to a variety of people in the UAE is the variety of options for seasoned drivers and beginners. When the winter season hits, experienced off-roaders venture out and explore the furthest reaches of the UAE but the novice driver also has plenty of spots to get out on the beaten track without too much hassle and enjoy the UAE’s fabulous sandy playgrounds.
'Rejuvenation of mind and soul'
Deep in the desert, it is pure and clean and there are no distractions. It’s peaceful and a great place to go and recharge your batteries, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. You are surrounded by the beauty of nature, and this is why everyone loves getting out there as often as they can.
“Since my childhood, I have been a motorhead,” Rajesh Paul said to Gulf News.”The pleasure you get doing this adventure sport and getting that adrenaline rush is like nothing else. It’s fun to drive over rocks and sand terrains in the UAE. It’s a sort of rejuvenation of your mind and soul. I love doing desert expeditions and finding a track where you have never driven.
“The confidence you get to overcome any situation is an awesome feeling and you get more knowledge about your vehicle not to mention problem-solving skills if your ride breaks down.
Rajesh also made many new friends from off-roading. “You also make fond memories and you reconnect with nature. It is total freedom, no distractions – it is just you, your vehicle and nature.
Rajesh described to Gulf News how every outing teaches you something new and unknowingly your personality develops too in a positive way, when you go out in a group you become a team player and your ego goes away. “My father is an enthusiast too and he has a big passion for cars. When people see him fixing his bikes and cars they are really impressed and encouraged by him.”
Practice, experience is essential
While off-roading has a wide variety of types, the community is all about pushing limits, exploring, and beating the mundane.Off-roading and the reasons for going are different for everyone. You may be seeking an up-close-and-personal look at nature, or just need to unwind – and in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, it continues to be incredibly popular because you can’t practice social distancing any better than being miles away from anyone else in the middle of nowhere.
However, as the old saying goes, you need to learn to walk before you can run and that applies to off-roading too. Beginners often have the temptation to scamper off into the desert in search of adventure and this is a huge no-no as it can lead to them getting hopelessly lost in the middle of nowhere.
The dangers of off-roading are numerous; from being ejected from a vehicle to rollovers, you’ve got to know what you are doing before you venture out there. You have to be fully switched on and aware of what are your surroundings and what you are riding on. Driving on sand means less damage to the vehicle (as long as you are driving in a safe manner) while rocks tend to affect your tyres and the ride is as not as comfortable. In the desert, you have a softer ride and it is more of a thrill and scenic.
“It was the early summer of 2015, we had planned a picnic outing to Hatta Oman but things didn’t work out as planned and destiny steered us toward the magnificent “Fossil Rock” instead,” said Laila Taha, a desert marshal. “As soon as I arrived I was mesmerized by the dunes and I really had this urge to drive on them.” So Laila met with a group of experienced off-roaders and they helped her deflate her tyres. “I continued driving feeling the car movement – steering left and right and keeping the momentum. I was soaring high and conquering fresh dunes and I was in the tranquillity of motion and that this was meant to be for me.
“I went off-roading on a weekly basis and I could sense the terrain and drive accordingly, the skill of course needed to be developed, I was lucky enough to learn from experts and mostly by trial and error.” She participated in various big events like the Gulf News Fun Drive, and the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, and her roles progressed throughout the years from marshal, co-marshal, sweep team, recovery and navigation. “Since I am a trained first-aider and a fire marshal, I have grown a great interest in safety while off-roading and I have been doing many safety-rescue drives.
"I drive a Dodge Durango which is not a very common off-road vehicle and it’s quite compatible in the desert and on the road. It goes everywhere even keeping pace with pre-runner trucks at rallies. I would encourage anyone who is interested to try unwinding in the desert and to go for a ride on the dunes as long as they ensure self, passenger and most importantly environment safety - keep the desert clean. It’s all about my passion for motorbikes and cars and I am always craving for an adrenaline rush.”
Liwa is for the experienced ones
Once you have plenty of experience under your belt, you simply have to check out Liwa. The 800km round trip from Dubai means you’ll have to stay overnight but you may end up spending several days there as it is just breathtaking and unlike any other desert in the Northern Emirates. Here you will find the largest sand dunes in the world and there’s no better thrill than flooring the throttle in your off-road vehicle and trying to climb them.
But sometimes, slow and steady is the way to go. “As a motorsport professional and FIA Grade-A accredited High-Performance Driving Coach, I actually get immense pleasure from spending time at slower speeds exploring the Arabian Dunes while challenging my vehicle and my wits to traverse from one side of the land to the other,” Sean Simpson, a pro-off-roader, said to Gulf News. “Besides the majestic dunes of the UAE, the Hajar Mountain range which runs North to East along the Eastern Arabian Peninsula offers a different type of off-road driving. Traversing through wadi’s across shale and rocky pathways offers a little more of an intense adventure once again testing your wits and mechanical performance of your vehicle."
"This type of driving is somewhat more technical and requires patience and a good understanding of what your vehicle is capable of achieving – not quite as peaceful and calm as in the beautiful dune plateaus. During the winter months, I have the pleasure of sharing my off-road driving skills and knowledge with many private individuals and first-time off-road vehicle owners who purchase their vehicles from one of the largest manufacturing distributors within the UAE.”
It’s never too hot to ride
I love offroading. I love the freedom it brings. I love it so much that my job is all about cars...
“My Jeep group goes almost every Friday during summer, but we make it a later drive from 4pm onwards,” said Hakob Harutyunyan, the General Manager at Offroad zone in Dubai. “The summer heat doesn’t stop us.” The UAE is home to many hot deserts - hot arid areas with little rainfall, high temperatures, and sparse vegetation.
Generally, the deserts that are found in the sub-tropical regions (north and south of the equator) are hot deserts. Temperatures are higher with mild winters and extremely hot summers. Some of the best deserts in the world for dune bashing include the Arabian Desert, the Sahara Desert and the Namib Desert to name a few.
The UAE’s subtropical desert climate is characterised by mild winters and very hot summers, in which the humidity of the Arabian Gulf, which could make the heat unbearable between June and September, yet people still don’t take a break from heading into the desert in the dead of summer. Hakop has been offroading for the past 25 years. “I love offroading. I love the freedom it brings. I love it so much that my job is all about cars, modifying them for offroading and then I organise weekly or bi-weekly trips to the desert with my company Offroad Zone. We go out for drives every Friday. It is free and we welcoming all our costumers and friends.”
Even the auto market creates cars specifically for off-roading
Many people purchase SUVs because they want the off-roading capabilities to travel through wild, unpaved areas and there are countless models available that will be able to do this without any hassle but did you know that the auto industry has actually built several models specifically for the UAE and its beautiful landscape?
Well, you do now! For instance, Nissan’s Patrol Super Safari five-door went down rather well with off-roading fans but nothing beats a three-door variant and so the carmaker responded to demands of the Gulf’s off-road loving motorists by offering a three-door version of it. It was packed with features designed with comfort, practicality, style, and desert performance in mind. It rode on machine cut, black 17in wheels framed by grey fenders and eye-catching red Super Safari graphics. Power came from a 4.8-litre inline-six-cylinder DOHC unit which made 280 horses and 451Nm of torque and was mated to a five-speed automatic.
The UAE market also released the Patrol Safari Ganas - an Arabic word, which translates to ‘hunting’ - edition in the 90s that came equipped with sand tyres and water tanks in place of the third seat row seats. It was designed for those who wanted to go deep into the wilderness to indulge in some traditional pastime while the Patrol Safari Falcon and Gazelle were built for the serious off-roader. These two variants were designed as weekend toys rather than as daily drivers and rather than being packed with all sorts of modern amenities they were both comprehensively stacked vehicles aimed at doing one thing well, bashing dunes. The Gazelle even had a snorkel! The duo was assembled and validated in the UAE, and Nissan guaranteed they would pass all RTA requirements in spite of all the off-roading goodies fitted to them.
“Growing up, I was never really into off-roading,” said Hashim Vahedna a Nissan Patrol owner. “Back in 2017, one of my Emirati friends took me in his car into the desert where he drove around then made a bonfire and we had a BBQ and I found the whole experience quite amazing. I started taking my Range Rover in the dunes and within a year I fell in love with off-roading. That’s when I decided to build a project car just for the dunes. I bought a 1996 Nissan Patrol and upgraded the whole thing. I swapped the engine, suspension – in fact, you could say that apart from the body, nothing is stock in that car.”
Toyota’s Land Cruiser set the benchmark in the SUV segment and was built to survive the harshest of terrains which have made it a firm favourite in the GCC but an even more extreme version was built, called the Xtreme which made the Toyota look like it was injected with steroids. Icelandic firm Arctic Trucks were the brainchild while all of the modifications were carried out in the UAE and you got a full UAE dealer warranty from Al-Futtaim Motors too.
In 2018 GMC revealed the Desert Fox Middle East concept which was based on the Sierra 1500 and it sure looked the part what with its massive front grille, performance exhaust system, LED roof lights, off-road front and rear bumpers, Baja style fenders, desert terrain tyres, Beadlock wheels and front recovery winch.
Last year in 2020, the Ram 2500 Power Wagon arrived in the Middle East and it paid homage to its illustrious forebear of the Fifties and Sixties which had a reputation of being a tough desert workhorse. The new model was powered by a 6.4-litre Hemi V8 mated to an eight-speed automatic making 410 horsepower. It also comes equipped with electronic range select, the Ram Articulink suspension with factory lift and Bilstein performance-tuned shock absorbers, locking front and rear differentials and a disconnecting sway bar.
Where to offroad in the UAE: If you love the desert
Bidayer a.k.a Big Red Desert
Why you should visit: Big Red is located just at the border between Sharjah and Dubai, via Hatta Road (E44). It is a magnificent open dessert that's open and accessible to everyone. You'll notice that the further you drive away from the city, the deeper the red colour of the dessert becomes. Then you’ll get to Big Red, a pretty popular spot for bashing dunes, but a beautiful and picturesque desert away from the hustle of Dubai. This is one of the most popular dune bashing sites in the UAE. This spot is always filled with those looking for an adrenaline rush. This desert has the easiest dunes that can be manoeuvred by both amateurs and professionals. On weekends and holidays, the area is swarming with motorists looking to show off the latest tricks in motorbikes, buggies, quad bikes and jeeps.
Location: Dubai, 24.969919230283388, 55.72327668101903
Liwa Desert a.k.a Rub Al Khali
Why you should visit: Also known as “The Empty Quarter” only the very experienced dune-bashers go here. Liwa desert is known for the festivals and challenges that are conducted annually. Bordering Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen, myths and folklore narrate the story of an ancient city that once resided in the middle of the Rub Al Khali, but it was lost to the sands of time and till date, no one has been able to locate the ruins. It is the largest desert in the Arabian Peninsula. Spread over a wide area, with very soft sand, Liwa desert shares its border with Saudi Arabia. Stretching beyond Abu Dhabi’s lush Liwa Oasis, with the Moreeb dune — the tallest in the UAE — a feat to behold. But novice drivers beware, it is easy to lose one’s way in the Rub Al Khali, hence it’s advisable to go as part of a convoy or with an expert guide. The desert offers a welcome blanket to set up camp but striking out solo deep into the Rub Al Khali should be avoided. While there, do take time to explore the town of Liwa, one of the few places that offer a brief glimpse into the origins of the country and its historical heritage.
Location: Abu Dhabi, 22.848392331340335, 53.98949205387927
Buried Village of Al Madam
Why you should visit: Al Madam is an abandoned village, dating a few decades back. The village now lies half-buried in sand, and nobody is exactly sure why. Located just on the edge of the Dubai border, it is worth the trip, just so you can see how the houses have been engulfed by the desert. Affectionately known as the “Madam Ghost Town” this area was built in the 70s, as part of a housing project. You will notice that all of the houses are the same. The village is made up of just two rows of identical houses and a mosque in the far corner. The village, according to locals, was once inhabited by Al Kutbi tribe, one of the three prominent tribes residing in and around Al Madam, a small town governed by the Sharjah emirate. The local legend goes that jinns were the reason for the villager’s departure from the area. Jinns are supernatural creatures that Muslims believe exist in this world but are not visible to human eyes.
Location: Sharjah, 24.894612, 55.763894
Al Faya Desert
Why you should visit: Riding along the Sharjah-Kalba Road, towards the east-coast exclaves, will lead you to a spectacular desert of ruby sand: Al Faya Desert. Both amateurs and skilled drivers favour it due to its dunes, which are bigger than Al Bidayer. As a matter of fact, the popular opinion is that one can find the biggest dunes to ride down here, and hence is known under the name “Big Fall” also. This is a popular tourist spot to set up camp under the stars.
Location: Sharjah, 24.300305395033043, 54.9669999886588
Why you should visit: Known for its spectacular red sands, Lahbab is a popular night-time haunt for new campers. Many start off close to the familiar Fossil Rock that’s also a great place for stargazing. A barbecue in this weather is the best thing to do while attempting the ‘Big Red’, a 300-foot high sand dune, is a dune basher’s delight. You could also head over to the sleepy village of Madam just before the Hatta border crossing for more camping spots where you may have some wandering camels from local farms for company.
Location: Dubai, 25.050124501814, 55.59266294671861
Why you should visit: Located in Abu Dhabi, it is on the border of three cities: Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain. Sweihan is known as “Little Liwa” since it is the practising ground of Liwa enthusiasts. Sweihan is different from the other deserts and is only advised for experienced drivers, due to its big dunes and soft sands. With proper guiding and GPS, one can see an abundance of camels and lone Emiratis with their falcons here. Naqrah is a sand dune located deep in the Sweihan desert, which needs to be tried at least once by dune bashing buffs.
Location: Abu Dhabi, 24.399723724671137, 55.28281904885302
Why you should visit: The desert stretch between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi is an off-roader’s delight, promising an unwavering desert vista that’s usually devoid of too many vehicles. Although, it is advisable to have a convoy of two to three vehicles if you happen to be a novice off-roader. Also, pack warm clothes as the temperatures are known to dip at night, bringing on some serious chills. Al Khaznah is also on the route of many desert safaris and camps in case the solo trip isn’t too appealing.
Location: Abu Dhabi, N24°26.004, E54°49.579
Al Hayer Forest
Why you should visit: Often overlooked by some of the more popular spots around the UAE, this gem on the Dubai-Al Ain stretch offers a green patch and easy manoeuvring for those who want to stay close to the highway but yet experience the desert adventure. The green patch is a delight to camp at after the rains but beware of critters that call this place home.
Location: Abu Dhabi, 55.800970, 24.741969
If you love a rocky terrain
Why you should visit: Heading out of Sharjah city towards Kalba will bring you to this spectacular point, officially called Jebel Maleihah. It is more widely popular as fossil rock. The beauty of this point is that marine fossils can be found here. Millions of years ago much of Arabia was under the ocean - the Tethys Ocean to be precise. Fossil Rock is simply beautiful. Many of the fossils there are said to be over 80 million years old. To get there you need to drive down the Dubai-Hatta road through to Al Awir. Once you arrive at Fossil Rock, take a moment to sit among fossils that are over millions of years old, enjoy clear blue skies, rocky hills and pristine desert sand in one of the UAE's natural wonders.
Location: Sharjah, 25.14215750623173, 55.833796239758954
Why you should visit: It's a superb, 16.8km off-road track. From the village of Al Ghail, this route goes through secluded villages, small pools, greenery. The off-road track meanders between falaj’s and dams – all on a solid rock bed. Drive till you reach Aasimah on the other end of the 16.8km track. You need a 4WD vehicle.
Location: Ras Al Khaimah, 25.416001825998865, 56.10058342332582
Wadi Al Bih
Why you should visit: Affectionately known as the Grand Canyon of the UAE, Wadi Bih is a deep ravine with a distance of 1 kilometre. The top of the wadi gives you some of the best views of the UAE. The whole thing spans from the Ras Al Khaimah clock tower all the way near the UAE border checkpoint. You can start your trip by exploring the National Museum of RAK or even soak up some sun on the beaches of Dibba.
You can set up camp in Wadi Bih itself. Remember to check the weather before heading out there, because you don’t want to be caught in a wadi during a flash flood. Try and set up camp at a higher elevation in the Hajar Mountains, and do pack a cushy sleep bag because the rocks can prove to be killers for your back. Visitors of Wadi Al Bih can go hiking, mountain biking and camping in the area. Wadi al Bih also has some very interesting sights nearby such as the infamous deserted villages of RAK, other smaller wadi areas and some unexpected amount of natural greenery as well as gorgeous views of a great outdoors that we don’t get to experience much while living in the city
You can start your trip by exploring the National Museum of RAK or even soak up some sun on the beaches of Dibba. You can set up camp in Wadi Bih itself. Remember to check the weather before heading out there, because you don’t want to be caught in a wadi during a flash flood. Try and set up camp at a higher elevation in the Hajar Mountains, and do pack a cushy sleep bag because the rocks can prove to be killers for your back.
Location: Ras Al Khaimah, 25.81758920962426, 56.15298963848324
Why you should visit: The rugged terrain of Ras Al Khaimah’s mountain range that stretches into Oman is a weekender’s delight — and nightmare, if the weather forecast is not taken into consideration. While a number of wadis are crying to be explored, but Wadi Naqab holds a personal place in our hearts for offering a bit of everything, also catering to those travelling with young ones in the backseat. There are also several hiking trails for those looking for that added bit of adventure. But keep in mind, the area is prone to flash flooding so do take in the weather before heading out on a trail. Veterans on the trail will be able to tell you of a hike that takes you past a bat cave.
Location: Ras Al Khaimah, 25.70384,56.0662
Why you should visit: Hatta is the perfect getaway from the city lights, providing an opportunity to get back to nature as well as to experience a wide range of activities. You could go mountain biking or hiking in the Hajar Mountains – also known for its stunning views – or enjoy wadi-bashing in the riverbeds and even go kayaking in the Hatta Dam. The Hatta Wadi Hub offers visitors experiences such as a 10-metre high climbing wall that includes five lanes, a slingshot that propels those looking for adventure, fun and suspense to a height of up to 50 meters, and paragliding.
Location: Dubai, 24.789697065050316, 56.119514087516066
Why you should visit: Ajman, the smallest emirate in the UAE is a surprisingly refreshing escape from the city bustle and heat. Masfout is one of the city’s 2 hours outside of Ajman is a favourite local escape and a beautiful summer retreat. Because the area is at a higher altitude and at a nice two-hour distance from the city centre, there are cooler climates with a pollution-free fresh breeze. Ajman’s unexpected rocky countryside is a perfect spot for off-roading. The robust setting has some beautiful flora and fauna and before the city was built used to be home to leopards, gazelles and foxes. The area has no tourism yet, as there are no hotels in Masfout yet, so now may be the best chance to check these places out.
Location: Ajman, 24.81636680064756, 56.09703684514431
Jebel Hafeet Desert Park
Why you should visit: Al Ain’s Jebel Hafeet Desert Park is one of Abu Dhabi’s newest cultural and outdoor adventure attractions. Located at the foot of Jebel Hafeet Mountain, the park offers guests a mix of history, culture, and stunning natural landscapes. The park’s cultural and natural features are one of the cultural sites of Al Ain that make up the UAE’s first designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is operated by Barari Natural Resources, the environmental management organisation that conserves and manages forests and nature reserves across the emirate of Abu Dhabi, including Sir Bani Yas Island and Telal Resort. There are a number of fun things to do in Jebel Hafeet Desert Park. Whether you like to explore the desert on wheels, on foot or the traditional way – on a camel.
Location: Abu Dhabi, 24.044473021228047, 55.836862026987816
Cost: Dh350 to access the public campsite, Dh500 for a night in the tent
Why you should visit: Located just 45 minutes away from Dubai, Wadi Showka has become a popular spot for many UAE residents looking to escape the bustle of the city. You can go hiking in the mountains, biking on certain trails as well as a kids' playground, and the Shawka dam. Currently open for tourists with some facilities. Wadi Shawka is the ideal family recreational and picnic location. A dam was built following the instructions of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 2001. At 120mm, Wadi Shawka receives one of the highest rainfalls in the country and the dam helps harvest rainwater.
Location: Ras Al Khaimah, 25.134655936788846, 56.04162185423917