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 as they went. The first thought that leapt to my mind was that a pack of daredevil circus stuntmen had been let loose in the desert. Nope. This wasn’t a mirage. There I was 30 minutes out of Dubai and there, with their throttles revved up, were the dune-bashers pelting across the desert in their dune buggies.
Dune bashing is often called the ‘white water rafting of the desert’ and it’s a very popular sport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Don’t get worried by the name. Dune bashing isn’t 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 also an adventure.
Since I was new to the activity, I decided to take the soft option: dune bashing with a powerful 250cc buggy and then going for a full-fledged desert drive in a chauffeured Toyota Land Cruiser. Travellers are driven into the desert and taken on an exhilarating ride up and down sand dunes in 4×4 vehicles ? mostly powerful Toyotas or Pajeros.
Our dune-bashing expedition began when we were picked up by our Lebanese desert guide-cum-driver in a ultra-luxury, powerful Toyota Landcruiser from the centre of Dubai city. It was about a half hour drive from the glittering skyscraper city of Dubai to the sandy expanses of Hatta.
As we exited Dubai, we could see a towering range of rocky and sandy mountains of Hajar far away with their pitted and ravaged sides. The Hatta sand dunes, believed to be remnants of an ancient sea, which had once washed over the Emirates, are located just outside Dubai and most dune-bashing tours take off from here.
We stopped at the entry of sand dunes.
You have two hours. You go into the sand and enjoy yourselves,
said our Lebanese driver pointing to the buggies which were available for hire. A dune buggy is a 4X4 vehicle which has a motorcycle saddle and handlebar. Driving a buggy on soft sands can be very tricky and just sheer power isn’t enough to ensure an exciting and fun dune bashing outing.
There’s no getting away from the fact that a dune buggy is an odd looking vehicle. It’s built like a scooter but it has four wheels with fat tyres. And it roars through the desert sending up clouds of sand as it goes. Caravans of buggies ridden by dune-bashing enthusiasts followed by a jeep are a common sight on the dunes around Hatta. From where we were standing in Hatta, we could see scores of buggies and cars tearing around the sand dunes in what seemed like suicidal escapades.
After a few minutes of watching, I was itching to try my hand at it. I jumped on a 250 cc buggy and took off heading for the nearest dune. I tried to race up and down over the dunes like the professionals out there, but took a tumble atop the first triangular shaped dune. After a few more debacles, I got the hang of bashing the dunes without getting bashed into the sand. Going up and down the dunes, raising columns and clouds of sand was an exhilarating experience.
Soon it was time to get back into the Land Cruiser and experience a real desert drive. Our Lebanese driver-cum-guide bundled us in the vehicle and took off into the undulating stretches of sand dunes. Soon the undulations increased as we went over what looked like large sand mountains. The ride became more choppy and felt almost as if we were sailing in a stormy sea and not driving. As our Land Cruiser 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 were we game for more? Of course.
Once he had been reassured, he smiled and swung the wheel right into the sand dunes almost flying across the countryside. After going up and down a few more dunes, he pulled up in front at a place that looked a bit like a farm. This, said our driver, was one of the few farms, which 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 away on the grass! Soon, some more Land Cruisers appeared and lined up alongside our vehicle. Out tumbled tourists of all sizes, shapes and races ? Caucasians, Asians including Indians, and some Africans too. 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 tyres, checking the pressure with a gauge to make sure it was just right. Slightly flat tyres 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 high dunes.
After a short break and when all the Land Cruisers had let out air from their tyres, we started off on our actual adventure through the dunes. The sand dunes rise for as high as 30m-40m, and some were even higher. The powerful vehicle climbed up the sand dune slowly, slipping here and there on the side of the sand pyramid. The windscreen framed a rising slope of sand; we were pushed back into our seats as if we were in an aircraft soaring into the sky.
That first climb was not an easy ride, but it was certainly thrilling and had our adrenaline pumping. And as we reached the knife-edge crest of the dune, we began to plunge down the other side. Heading straight down at breakneck speed, skidding on the sand we had that sinking feeling in the pits of our stomachs. In places where the sand was too soft, the vehicle went sideways, tilting at a slight angle, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. At times, it appeared as if the vehicle would just topple over on its side… but our driver was an expert with over 10 years of experience and he skilfully steered the Land Cruiser through the dunes.
After a two-hour rough-and-tumble ride, we reached a craggy patch of rock in the middle of the desert. Our fleet of five Land Cruisers stopped for a view of the crimson desert sunset. The view was simply amazing and as the sun turned from golden to crimson red to soothing orange, it was a soul-soothing experience.
The caravan of vehicles was ready once again to continue bashing the dunes till nightfall. We continued to bash in the dusk and finally reached the well-lit up desert camp, equipped with piercing lights, blaring Arabian music and stalls where we could photograph ourselves in traditional costumes (kandura for men and burkha for women).
Also, there were plenty of desert delicacies made of dates, dry fruits and honey along with a heady mix of alcoholic cocktails and fruit mocktails. Later as the night passed, we stretched out on carpets and cushions on a round wooden floor resting and enjoying the cool desert breeze. Soon a belly dancer came on stage and entertained us while a hookah aka shisha with scented tobacco was passed around, making us feel like royals enjoying the naach-gana by the dancing girls.
o Where: Throughout Arabian deserts, Liwa Desert, Abu Dhabi, Hatta dunes, Dubai, or anywhere with acres of sand.
o Agencies offering desert drives: Arabian Adventures (www.arabian-adventures.com), Alpha Tours (www.alphatoursdubai.com), Royal Sands Tourism http://www.royalsands.com).
o Prices: Dh160 onwards for desert ride including dinner.