02 May 2004

Getting round the desert without getting stuck

As the UAE is almost completely desert, and a large percentage of that sand desert, we thought it a good idea to learn how to drive in sand.

As the UAE is almost completely desert, and a large percentage of that sand desert, we thought it a good idea to learn how to drive in sand. We certainly have the right vehicle for it. The Range Rover, even though the vast majority of them never leave the tarmac, is a superb off-road vehicle and we wanted to put it through its paces.

We signed up with one of the several companies that offered such courses (the aptly named ‘Turner Travel’) and met up with the teacher at a shopping centre car park not far from our flat. Luckily, we were the only people on the course – normally they take up to 8 vehicles. We were given a walkie-talkie for communication and followed his Land Cruiser out of town to a spot in the desert. There, we reduced the tyre pressures to about 15psi (to give a greater surface area on the sand) and then had a briefing using toy cars to illustrate the techniques needed to avoid getting stuck or turning the car over.


This is us not getting the car stuck for once.

There were not many teaching points. Driving in a sand desert means constantly crossing over wind blown sand dunes, which means driving up the face of one, over the top and down the often steep slope on the other side. The secret is to keep moving up the slopes and to have enough momentum to carry you over the top, while not going too fast so you get airborne! The main safety point is to make sure you go over the dunes at a right angle, as you can roll the vehicle if you try to cross obliquely.

Before driving off, we raised the suspension to its ‘off-road’ level as ground clearance is highly useful. The vehicle manual also recommends removing the plastic spoiler at the front but the car looked high enough so we left it on.

We started with gentle dunes but they soon gave way to more scary ones. When going down steep dunes you initially think that the car will bury its nose in the sand when you hit the bottom. It does not, but you occasionally take a lot of sand with you. After our first stop to change drivers, we noticed that half the plastic spoiler had been ripped off somewhere so we removed the rest!

It took us both a little while to get the feel for sand driving, mainly keeping the right acceleration to get up the dune without going too fast. If you do not make it, then you reverse down and up the other side as far as possible and run at it again. We both got stuck a couple of times but this technique worked well each time. Our only serious bogging incident came after we came over a dune but had to turn sharp right at the bottom in soft sand. We got well and truly stuck and called for assistance. It was a simple job for Jochen, the tour leader, to winch us out (must get one of those!) and we continued on.

We were both delighted with the course and the car. Fiver had never driven off road before and Stuart had not driven on sand since living in Australia 20 years ago. We now have no fear of driving in the desert – just a healthy respect!

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