June 21, 2024
United Arab Emirates
Taking the Dunes

As we heaved and plunged up and down, our driver cheerfully warned us that it’d get worse. Were we okay? And game for more?

It looked, for a moment, like a mirage gone mad. There on the rolling sand dunes were scores of misshapen four-wheelers racing up and down, kicking up clouds of sand. My first thought was that a pack of daredevil circus stuntmen had been let loose in the desert.

Nope. They were dune bashers, pelting across the desert in their dune buggies.

Dune bashing is sometimes likened to whitewater rafting in the desert. It’s a very popular sport here in the United Arab Emirates. It’s not some bizarre violent activity, but a serious adventure sport, which involves driving flashy cars/bikes/buggies into the open desert, and having some serious fun climbing up and down the mountain-sized sand dunes. Of course getting stuck, and extricating yourself, is an adventure too.

Since I was new to this, I decided to take the soft option: a ride in a 250cc buggy, followed by a desert drive. Travelers are driven into the desert and taken on an exhilarating ride, up and down sand dunes in 4×4 vehicles, typically powerful Toyotas or Pajeros.

We were picked up in Dubai city by our Lebanese desert guide-cum-driver, who arrived a luxury Toyota Land Cruiser. It only took a half hour to drive from the glittering skyscraper city to the sandy expanses of Hatta.

Before us, we could see the towering range of Hajar, rocky and sandy mountains with pitted and ravaged sides. The Hatta sand dunes are believed to be remnants of an ancient sea that once washed over the Emirates.

We had two hours to jump on the buggies and race up and down over the dunes. A dune buggy is a 4 x 4 with a motorcycle saddle and handlebars. Driving one on soft sand can be very tricky–and sheer power isn’t enough to ensure excitement and fun.

There’s no getting away from the fact that a dune buggy looks odd. It’s built like a scooter, but has four wheels with fat tires. It roars through the desert, sending up clouds of sand as it goes. Out here, caravans of buggies ridden by dune-bashing enthusiasts, followed by a jeep, are a common sight. We could see scores of buggies and cars tearing around the dunes, in what seemed like suicidal escapades.

I was itching to try it. I took off on the buggy, and headed for the nearest dune. Not knowing how to negotiate it, I took a toss and landed in the soft sand. After a few more debacles, I got the hang of bashing the dunes without getting bashed into the sand. Riding up and down the dunes, raising columns and clouds of sand, was exhilarating.

Then we climbed into the Land Cruiser for a desert drive. Our guide bundled us into the vehicle, and took off into the undulating stretches of sand dunes. Soon the undulations increased, as we traversed what looked like large sand mountains. The ride grew choppier. It felt less like driving, and more like sailing in a stormy sea. As we heaved and plunged up and down the crests and troughs of the dunes, our driver cheerfully warned us that it’d get worse. Were we okay? And game for more? We were.

Reassured, he smiled and swung directly into the dunes. Flying across the landscape, he eventually pulled up in front of a place that looked a little like a farm. This, he said, was one of the few farms that used native Arab practices to breed camels.

The few camels in sight took a quick look at us down their long noses, and went back to munching grass. Soon, more Land Cruisers appeared, and lined up alongside our vehicle. Out tumbled tourists of all sizes, shapes and races: Caucasian, Asian, African. They all headed straight for the camels, ambitiously trying to pet them and take photographs.

Meanwhile our driver began to let some of the air out of the tires, checking the pressure with a gauge to make sure it was just right. Slightly flatter tires would give more surface area contact with the ground, and make for greater trail-grip, he explained, adding that we would need all the traction we could muster to negotiate the next set of high dunes.

After a short break, and when all the Land Cruisers had let out air from their tires, we resumed our trip. The dunes rose at least 100 feet; some were higher. Our vehicle edged slowly up the side of the pyramid, slipping now and again. The windscreen framed a rising slope of sand. We were pushed back into our seats, as if in an aircraft soaring into the sky.

The first climb was a thrill. We reached the knife-edge crest of the dune, then began to plunge down the other side. Heading straight down at breakneck speed, skidding on the sand, we got that sinking feeling. Where the sand was too soft, the vehicle went sideways, tilting at a slight angle, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. Sometimes we worried the vehicle would just topple over on its side. But our driver was an expert.

After two hours of rough-and-tumble, we reached a craggy patch of rock. Our fleet of five stopped for a view of the desert sunset. The sun turned from golden to crimson to soothing orange; after our bone-rattling day, it was a soul-soothing experience.

Then our caravan dune-bashed till nightfall.
Raghavendra, who specializes in writing about adventure travel, has biked some of the world’s highest roads, trekked in the Nepalese Himalayas and motorcycled across the Indian subcontinent.

How to Dune Bash
Where. Throughout the Arabian deserts. It’s great fun in the Liwa Desert, Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates — or anywhere that has acres of sand.
How. Agencies offering desert drives include Arabian Adventures, Alpha Tours and Royal Sands Tourism.
How much. Costs start at U.S. $45, including dinner and a desert ride.

– Srinidhi Raghavendra

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