Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Driving

Kevin & Asif our EDI Desert Driving Instructor
Having done the calculations, purchasing a car becomes cheaper than a renting one within about a year so we've bought a three year old Wrangler Jeep with some seventy thousand kilometres on the clock. The transaction was fairly simple and fortunately the guy at the showroom in the Automarket was happy to drive Kevin around in our new vehicle to obtain a registration plate, insurance certificate, MOT and Salik tag. Kevin having previously signed up for insurance online. The Salik tag is for the tolls on Sheik Zayed Road, the main artery through Dubai. We avoid driving on it as each time you pass under a gate it costs 5 AED (about £1) and in the short time since arriving late December we'd averaged about £40 per month in tolls according to the analysis and bill provided by the car hire company. This is partly because we live near one of the over head toll gates and it lies between us and the supermarket! Now we are a little more canny and drive the back roads to Mall of the Emirates or anywhere else we go regularly.

Kevin got well and truely stuck
We've both purchased Emirati driving licences (mandatory if you have a residents visa) and also spent a saturday in the desert learning how to drive in the sand and more importantly how to get ou if you are stuck so now we feel set to go camping in some of the more remote parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Jeanie Jeep (our lovely purpley-charcoal coloured Wrangler Sahara with its powerful 3.5 litre engine) has proved great fun too. We had a little run down to Abu Dhabi last Friday (petrol is cheap and it is about an hour drive) and explored along the creeks north of the city. I'd read about life there in the 70's in the wonderful book Mother Without A Mask  (highly recommended for its insights into Arabic life) so it was fascinating to see the area with its clear water, islands and mangroves albeit that there are now many waterside villas. Lots of people were out enjoying the sandy banks and the water; European, Asian and local familes indulging in their common passions for fishing, paddling and BBQ'ing and cars. There were people being ferried across to the islands on what looked like floating pontoons barely big enough for a large 4x4. Also alongside the water were several walled Ladies Swimming Pools presumably so local ladies can bathe in the creeks away from prying eyes.

Rest Stop: Jeanie Jeep, Kevin & Dave
Then, on Saturday, together with a former UK colleague of Kevin's, Dave D who lives here too, we headed for the hills. Or rather a ghaf forest then the rocky mountains taking on two routes from the UAE Off Road guide. The book has been described as the ultimate off-road accessory, that may be a bit over the top but it is pretty comprehensive and there is another for Oman sitting on our coffee table calling us too! We did discover the UAE one was a bit out of date despite having the 2010 fully revised edition and weren't able to complete the rocky mountain drive as described as the military have closed the road long before the final haul up the mountain.

Plenty of Wildlife
Driving on sand is huge fun as long as your tyres are soft and you are well equipped. As with a boat you need to take everything with you - food, water, tools and essentials to assist with basic repairs as well as means to navigate and communicate. The latter in case a rescue is needed (our insurance covers this type of receovery but you might have to wait a while for someone to arrive). Jeanie Jeep was loaded with everything except, as we discovered mid-morning, drinking vessels! We had remembered the kettle, t-bags, soft drinks, milk, ice, fois gras, sandwiches, rugs, cushions, water, suntan lotion, first aid kit, iPod, camera and more. The morning took us along some reasonably firm gravely roads in the sand past the camel race tracks into totally quiet countryside, no engines, no airplanes nothing except the occasional bird. At our morning break we spotted all sorts of animal tracks in the sand including a snakes S shaped trail over the sand.We later saw a large lizard by the trackside but failed to photograph it before it disappeared into a burrow.

Tyre deflation was not necessary according to the book but cresting a rise and getting a little confused between the route as described, the GPS coordinates and what we were actually seeing, a passing 4x4 truck made us realise that the route lay covered with blown sand. After a couple of attempts down and up the dune in low geared four wheel drive the three of us set about deflating the tyres by almost half to around 17 PSI. Suddenly the steep sand was easy to climb, Jeanie Jeep roared over the top and onto the firmer track once more. Kevin carefully negotiated us over the main road (not good for soft tyres) and back onto our track this time in amongst the irrigated green fields that give their name to the area Falaj (meaning irrigated) Al Moalla. Beyond them we were in the ghaf forest where finding a shady spot under a patch of trees not too overlooked by farms or modern villas, we picniced whilst reinflating the tyres much to the amusement of the locals for whom the track was the village high street. They initially kept stopping to see if we had broken down but eventually just passed with a cheery wave. One young teen confidently driving alone in a tatty pickup truck with no registration plates - he'll not cost his parents much in driving lessons when he's old enough to take his test.

Ghaf Trees -
amazing how much actually grows in the desert
After lunch we headed further east to the rocky mountains that divide the UAE from Oman for a drive up Jebel Yibir, the tallest mountain in the UAE at 1527m . As we climbed out of Wadi Khabb from the village of Tawain the views were spectacular but our pleasure was short lived when we found a green and yellow military sign marking the closed border area blocking our way. We couldn't get even to the 1350 metre mark promised in the guide. Dave was driving and headed off to our left up a fairly major track. We soon discovered that construction lorries used this route and instead of stopping at a campsite described in the guide, the newly cut track carried on through to the tarmac road we'd set off from. The towering grey and pink mountains devoid of all but the most hardy trees and goats are incredible. More amazing was that we passed from time to time, at least on our way in, small farms with a few goats and the odd camel or donkey. The wadi itself must be an awesome sight when it rains judging by the mangled debris scattered along its banks.

Arid mountain view - all grey and pink rock
We plan plenty more trips into the desert and for some serious dune and wadi bashing have joined a 4x4 club as solo trips into the real sand are not advised. Our first club outing will be a day trip for families combined with a picnic later this month to the New Shwaib area close to the Omani mountains (again). Can't wait although we do need to add some deck chairs to our equipment and this time I'll remember to pack some mugs!

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