“We’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name…” so goes the song (written by Dewey Bunnell, recorded by America, c.1972)
285 horses to be exact. All courtesy of our Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 3.8 litre V6. 285 bhp
This is it:
285 horses – Yeeha!
Orange is in this year – honestly!
We were riding horsey No. 2 on our epic journey across the great Sharqiyyah Desert, 400 kilometres of sand, sand dunes and more sand. The overall trip was expected to be in the region of 900 kilometres and our journey started from home, heading due south to the meeting point, which was a camp at the start of the great desert.
Blue line to base camp, red line across the desert and green line home
When tarmac gave way to gravel, we knew we were close and saw Camp Al Raha to our left where we were to register and have dinner. True to form, we drove straight past it deciding instead to follow a well worn route taken by local ‘dune bashers’. We finally stopped at a sand dune of some 20 metres in height and considered our options; by a two to one majority we turned around and left the mocking dune in our rear view mirror. It was getting dark so a hasty return was made, dodging other off-roaders plus a camel or two along the way. What would the desert be without a camel or two? The daylight had all but gone and to the tuneful roar of more than a hundred 4×4 cars, quads and bikes we boldly swung into camp Al Raha to find no one expecting us, no directions or information and nothing to eat. We looked around and in the pitch black of the cloudy night sky cloaking a full moon, we saw hundreds of vehicle lights, torches, LEDs and camp fires flickering about the dunes either side of us, dancing back and forth like manic fireflies eager to be seen. As our eyes adjusted we saw before us what may only be described as a ‘Butlin’s holiday camp’, circa 1959, in the desert, catering for middle eastern families. Huts with no furniture, only shelves to form platforms for beds caressing sleeping children while adults sat outside chatting and eating unidentifiable objects from tin-foil packages and smoking from shisha pipes. This is by no means a criticism, just what we saw and experienced. The kids appeared sound asleep and the adults were having a jolly old time. Somewhere in the distance a local band played and sang traditional songs. Living proof that you really do not need alcohol to have a good time! Eventually, after wandering aimlessly for a while, a recognisable vehicle made its way past us and from it came a white plastic patio table, a string of fairy lights and the figure of our host and guide to be. Being first in line we were offered the Number 2 position and windscreen sticker which we believed would put us immediately behind the lead vehicle, a position that would keep us out of the dust and away from the mayhem. How wrong we were!
After registration, fifty or so vehicles waited as their occupants sat down to eat from a plentiful buffet. Sadly, one of our number had brought along an unwanted guest who was intent at keeping his rear end perched upon the rim of the toilet for as long and as often as possible. So I sat there inhaling the wonderful aroma of middle-eastern cuisine as I drank my desalinated sea-water.
The briefest of briefings followed and there was an expectation that a certain amount of driving advice would be forthcoming, seeing how we were to head into the REAL desert to make camp. It was very, very dark, a lot of families with small children in tow, fifty plus cars and seemingly none of us experienced in sand driving. We were told to relax, enjoy the experience and not to stress. OK! Casually strapped into our bright orange Jeep, the lead driver/guide shot off at a blistering pace and we were left somewhat bewildered and choking on his dust and those that followed in his fat tyre tracks. There was a mad scramble not to be left behind in the dark and not wanting to drive the 70 kilometres to camp in the wake of someone else’s sandstorm, the pedal went to the metal and we were off. I do believe there were screams from my car that were not mechanical but I couldn’t be sure. It was crazy, cars everywhere, not one of them staying in any sort of line order, faster and more experienced drivers overtaking, kicking up dust, sand and stones, visibility was down to ZERO and we were topping 100 kmh! Just a tadge stressful then.
We survived this particular part of the journey, arriving at a sandy area where we were instructed to make camp and party, especially the Dads?!! I watched in awe as our chief tent erector and bed putter upper did her faithful duty and I climbed into my sleeping bag to snuggle down for a good nights kip. Unable to relax, I sat outside to partake of a cup of tea and to photograph my new best friend nibbling at a piece of biscuit I had dunked then missed my mouth. Wild he/she may be, but sitting up on my big old police boot he/she let me stroke his/her glossy coat, hair that was so incredibly soft and smooth. Our bodies now drained of adrenalin, we took to sleep as five hours later we needed to be ready to confront the great desert sand dunes.
My newest, bestest friend (a gerbil I think?)
We awoke to a glorious sunrise in an outstanding area of natural beauty and serenity. Apart from the fifty plus vehicles and the hundred or so people wandering around, we were isolated in the desert, an idyllic place to be, at one with nature and the elements.
Breakfast was devoured and then later regretted. Spicy beef sausages, onions, beans and egg were not the right foods to introduce to my tender and shrunken tum-tum. I soldiered on in silence. Like hell I did!
A briefing was held with some general advice about driving in the desert and on the sand. We deflated our tyres to 10psi and reminded ourselves that the desert never caused anyone to roll their vehicle. Apparently, it was always the driver who caused their vehicles to roll and not the terrain. I considered that if we rolled our vehicle, not only would I blame the desert, I would also lose my accident excess deposit.
Once again, in the mistaken belief that we would head off in an orderly fashion, a Le Mans race start ensued and every driver jockeyed for position, overtaking and zig-zagging to get ahead, a battle to be at the front or at the very least, in front of us it would seem. Battling with the mental decisions of 4 wheel drive high ratio or low, we reluctantly took part in the wacky race to get ahead of someone, anyone, as long as we overtook someone else we would be happy. Several hours later the line was nicely strung out and there was enough distance between each vehicle to prevent bunching and rear-ending. Surprisingly however, it was still a necessity to keep checking the rear-view mirror as often, out of nowhere, a roaring off-roader would fly by with engine roaring and wheels whipping up the super-soft sand. The desert unfolded before us and if you haven’t seen it before, it isn’t flat at all!
Rolling dunes of the Sharqiyyah desert
The dunes rose and fell for as far as the eye could see, all the way to the ocean.
Some of the smaller dunes
Fortunately, the vehicles give some idea of how big these dunes really are. Unfortunately, the photos do not give you any idea of how BIG these dunes are!
Look in the centre of the picture – the small black dot is the lead vehicle
It was a rip-roaring extravaganza of dune-bashing mayhem, roaring engines, slipping wheels and a chassis or two sliding sideways into a sand abyss. The secret was MOMENTUM, keep rolling and not to get stuck in the sand. If you did happen to stop, do NOT spin the wheels as this will only dig you in deeper. Select the correct, LOW ratio gear and gingerly negotiate your way out with plenty of steering-wheel waggle and forward/reverse manoeuvring. Well, just imagine how we laughed…
Oh dear! Someone didn’t listen to the driving advice.
Isn’t that me in the passenger seat? No? I guess it was me that got us stuck then. Actually, it was not so bad as the dunes are notoriously unforgiving. Just about everyone had to be towed out at some time or other. Many had to undergo this embarrassment several times an hour. Even the guides, in their souped-up, hot-rodding off-roaders fell foul of the desert’s wrath. Don’t get me wrong here, it was exhilarating, exciting and darn good fun. It was the ride of our lives and the adrenalin was constantly pumping as we traversed impossible angles, climbed impossibly steep dunes and drove the Jeep ragged with spine-jarring, jaw-rattling, head-banging, body-aching, bone crunching skill and dexterity. Horrendous noises emanated from under the bonnet, under the car, in the car and in my head. It was a white-knuckle ride never, ever before experienced. A ride to surpass anything and everything else which has been sought and experienced on our ‘thrill-seeking’ adventures. A highly recommended experience for the brave and foolhardy. It is better than driving in mud, exceeds driving in water and is so far ahead of driving on snow, ice and slush it does not compare. Sand has everything to make your thrill-dreams come true. Don’t believe me? For those of you coming out to see us and have the stomach for it – you are in for a trip you’ll never, ever, ever forget (and some spinal injuries too, possibly!). Then, to top it all, the stunning scenery leaves you breathless in awe and wonder. Try it, you’ll like it!
HANG ON! Irresponsible parents I hear you cry. You took a child on this trip. Are you mad?
She loved it and as we squealed in vertebrae-crushing agony, she squealed with delight and never once hollered any objections, moans, groans or even the dreaded, “Are we there yet?”
Any objections from the back?
An arduous morning gave way to a leisurely lunch break and we gathered in a dune depression to tell tales of derring-do, near accidents and the stupidity of some, but not us. We ate and rested in the shade, exhausted and alive with the spirit of adventure. We waited for the afternoon briefing, sipping water and eating oranges after our sumptuous curry and rice meal.
Lunch for all
More of the same and we were off again.
Expecting bigger dunes and hairier tracks, we were not disappointed. Beautiful scenery passed us by as we nose-dived the Jeep into endless sand ditches, wrenching the chassis up and over dune crests, gingerly balancing upon the ridges, we drove on to the next and the next and the next…
endless dunes, endless fun
As the evening announced its arrival with a fading light, concern began to set in as the file of vehicles became more and more strung out. Hold ups for those buried in the sand who awaited for rescue as well as those stuck in the queue behind them. We managed to lose sight of everyone and became acutely aware that we were now all alone and it was getting dark. We managed to follow a Bedouin trail that led us nowhere, we lost sight of all trails and debated our fate. A hasty decision to backtrack allowed us to pick up with some other stragglers and we followed some distant lights into our second camp just as the moon peeped above the cloudy horizon. Up with the tent and a brew before dinner. The evenings entertainment consisted of games and cinema for the kids, grown up films for the adults, sleep for the weary and partying for the young bucks. We attached ourselves to a pleasant family who had had the foresight to bring copious amounts of alcohol on their trip, so we helped them consume it as we watched the very late arrivals being brought in by search parties who had been despatched to find the lost. Some vehicles had body work missing. All vehicles had occupants who looked tired and in a mild state of shock.
Second camp in the middle of nowhere
The early briefing was held over breakfast and as we discovered our flat tyre, the rest of the group was listening to the forewarning of 50+ metre sand dunes which would require skill and bravery to negotiate. We had lost our tyre bead seal and air was leaking out. Our options were to replace the tyre and lose a place in the drive out or continue on with a slow puncture. Quickly treating the tyre for this type of problem (after advice given, of course), there was the usual mad dash to claim a place in the line of traffic but we soon settled down to watch the forerunners falter on massive dunes, slip of crests and fail miserably at almost every obstacle. Unbelievable angles of approach, ridiculous gradients that twisted and turned as they rose and fell. We took our chance and blew the lid right off of our particular adrenalin levels.
Bigger and bigger they came,more and more they failed
After a few hours of sheer excitement we sighted the coast and the long run for home. But, just when we thought it could not get any better, the final descent from high upon the immense carpet of rolling dunes was a mind numbing, totally insane, descent down an unfeasibly acute slope of powder soft sand, landing nose first upon the flat, sandy prelude to the tarmac road ahead and the tiny village that awaited our arrival and our money. We were greeted by a mass of children who begged for our sweets and fizzy drinks, they then sold them on to the cars behind. Industrious and imaginative. No social handouts for the idle here! Children of no more than three or four years of age selling bracelets and knick-knacks to earn their keep and, possibly, to prevent a beating when they got home. We partook of this ritual and pondered our journey.
The awaiting ‘village’
Give me, give me!
The final destination was of little consequence. It really was the journey that counted. Quickly re-inflating our tyres, we headed for the nearest petrol station. Running on fumes and a prayer we set off for the five hour journey back home.
What can we say about this particular adventure…
It was thrilling, sometimes painful (bones and muscle), a great social event, adventurous and downright AWESOME. It was not a tour. We were merely doing the same thing as others, at that time, in that same place. If we wanted to make our own tracks there was nothing to stop us. We chose where we camped and how and where we drove. At the end of the day, the guides were there in case we needed them. Other than that, we did this on our own.
If you do nothing else in your life, make sure you try this as one of the ‘things to do before you die’. It is immense fun, challenging with breathtaking, beautiful scenery. Highly recommended by us but then, what do we know…?
As always Insha’Allah
PS Sadly, the ever faithful Samsung SL310w did not survive the trip. All pictures now contain a strange batch of bacteria!!
Farewell old friend
Now, all I need from Nikon is a little sponsorship….
PS Take a look at the many photos from my dear old Samsung at http://www.imageximage.wordpress.com/