How to conquer the UAE off-road terrains

From imposing sand dunes to rocky terrains, the UAE is one big playground for daring off roaders. But do you have the right car for the job and are you ready to head out into the wilderness?

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For adventurous drivers, the UAE’s outskirts are home to vast landscapes of rugged surfaces and sand dunes that make for an unusual, thrilling ride.

It’s a unique feature that is in some ways dwarfed by the awe-inspiring architectural structures and modern attractions spread across the country.

“In some parts of the world, they only have one type of terrain,” confides veteran off roader Albert Mahesh, who through his group, Weekends with Albert, organises driving trips and consultations for beginner and expert drivers.

“But here, we have all types of terrains, all types of dunes big and small, and with different types of sand textures and even colours – it’s really beautiful.”

The basics

For the uninitiated, there are two types of off-road environments common in the country: the dunes, which pertain to the sandy, desert locations, and wadis, or the dry and rocky mountains.

There are five locations that Albert singles out as common favourites among the off-roading community because of the interesting topography and picturesque scenery.

Bidayer, located along the Hatta-Oman highway in Sharjah, features big, dark red-coloured sand, earning it the nickname ‘Big Red’.

Fossil Rock is located on the Sharjah-Kalba road. Its name is inspired by the rich presence of marine fossils found here, giving credence to the theory that the region was submerged underwater in pre-historic eras.

Known for its big dunes of ruby-coloured sand, the tourist favourite Al Faya desert is located along the Sharjah-Al Malaiha road.

Meanwhile, bordering Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain is Sweihan, affectionately called ‘Little Liwa’ by enthusiasts for its challenging tall dunes with soft sand.

Rounding up the list is the famous Liwa desert itself, located in Rub Al Khali, Abu Dhabi. Known as the Empty Quarter, it’s home to the massive Moreeb dune, which at over 300 metres high and with steep sections to boot is the ultimate destination for daredevils.

Owing to their contrasting nature, the dunes and wadis each possess different sets of demands for drivers (and engines) to consider and overcome.

Two engine characteristics come into play when talking about off-road driving: horsepower, referring to the ability to sustain speed for a long time, and torque, or the amount of power the vehicle has when turning.

Keep in mind that sand is soft and shifts easily, meaning the engine will be working double overtime to consistently move forward while maintaining balance at the same time.

“In the dune there is momentum and gravity, so you need mostly horsepower,” Albert explains.

“It’s hostile in the dunes especially when you go uphill. So while climbing steep dunes, you need to gain speed; in sand you can drive on higher gears,” adds Albert.

Wadi driving, also called rock crawling, is mostly slow and straight driving so torque is more applicable as this allows the vehicle to keep pace when rolling over rocks and rugged lands without hurting the engine.

Adjusting tyre pressure is also important in off-road driving to ensure that the vehicle
is in the best shape to handle the unusual ground structure.

“For rock crawling, 20 to 15 psi tyre pressure is usually the range, while less than 15 psi is common for dunes,” shares Albert.

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Any 4×4 vehicle can be used for off-road driving. But if you’re thinking of hitting the highlands and desert more frequently then you should consider a car that is specifically built to endure the off-road terrain.

“My personal preference is the Jeep, the Jeep Wrangler in particular, then the Nissan Patrol. Then you have the FJ Cruiser and Land Cruiser,” recommends Albert.

“Japanese cars are very economical to maintain in the long run compared to American cars so you might consider that as well when scouting for a vehicle.”

Albert advises drivers to modify the approach and departure angles of their vehicles for better balance and suspension.

Approach angle is the maximum angle of a ramp onto which a vehicle can climb from a horizontal plane without interference.

The departure angle, meanwhile, is the maximum ramp angle from which the car can descend without damage. Both are essential to ensure better navigation of rough and uneven surfaces and eliminate the chances of damaging the vehicle’s exterior.

As always, make sure to consult with an experienced mechanic or reliable workshop for any vehicle or engine concerns and modifications.

Safety first

While off-road driving can be fun, keep in mind that it’s also a high-risk activity and the unusual conditions carry many potential dangers for drivers and passengers.

“Never go alone,” warns Albert. “There should be a minimum of three cars. Maintain a safe distance between each vehicle so there will be enough help just in case something goes wrong.

“Make sure you have your mobile phones fully charged. Most areas here have telephone signals. In case you’re struggling to get a signal, try to find an elevated area like a small dune.”

It’s also important to bring along basic recovery gear including a tow rope and soft shackles to help pull out a stuck vehicle, a shovel, tyre gauge and deflator in case you need to adjust tyre pressure.

Lastly, Albert reminds drivers to constantly drink water and bring lots of stock water during the journey.

“As simple as it sounds, this will ensure that you stay hydrated in case you get stranded or stuck while waiting for help to arrive.”

Fit for the purpose

Thinking of venturing off road? These 4×4 vehicles are up for the job.

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

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With better suspension and improved four-wheel drive system for more stability, this 4×4 monster is designed to endure rocks, steep slopes and rough conditions. Key features include increased torque for descending sharp inclines, a Dana 44 rear axle Tru-Lock mechanical locker, great for both rugged and slippery surfaces, custom power hood design with functional air vents for extra cooling and a set of rick rails to protect doors from bumps and scratches. Showrooms: Airport Road, Corniche and Al Ain. Visit: dealer mideast.jeep.com/uae/westernmotors

Toyota FJ Cruiser 2017

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Equipped with a four-litre V6 engine, this vehicle boasts the power to conquer rugged surfaces, sand dunes and long-distance driving. This five-seater SUV is also designed with water-repellent seat material and interior coating that ensures easy cleaning of dirt and dust. Showrooms: Mussafah, Airport Road and Madinat Zayed. Visit: toyota.ae

Nissan Patrol V8

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This model is designed for leisure and off-road driving with its polished interior that belies its fondness for bumpy settings. It’s fitted with smart cruise control while the hydraulic body motion control system gives stability and comfort regardless of road conditions. Even more impressive is the off-road monitor, which supplies real-time information on tyre conditions and a compass for peace of mind. Showrooms: Najda, Al Khalidiyah and Al Ain. Visit: en.nissan-abudhabi.com

WORDS Ferdinand Godinez

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