Desert Dune Bashing

My first insight into the deserts of the Middle East were from reading the aptly named biography of Lady Jane Digby: A A Scandalous Life: The Biography of Jane Digby


It is aptly named because this aristocratic beauty and debutante of 1824 defied all the social mores of her time, with her relationships after her divorce (THE scandal) revealing more an interest in men of passion and interest than of social acceptability.

She toured the desert and fell under its spell, finally marrying Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab and – unusually for a non-Bedouin - becoming accepted - and loved - by his Bedouin tribesmen.

A capable horse rider and animal lover, able to learn languages of the lands where she lived - and to get to know the people on equal terms, her story brought the desert alive to me and I think I would have liked her.

Abu Dhabi Desert dunes in wind

Although Jane’s desert was closer to Damascus than Abu Dhabi, when my colleague invited me to join their weekend desert trip "dune-bashing", I didn’t hesitate.

The road out of Abu Dhabi has sporadic palm plantations but is otherwise rocky and barren, with dunes moving always closer to the highway.

Abu Dhabi Desert route to dunes

At each overpass there are carefully tended patches of green in an attempt to hold back the sands, but as you drive, you can see it is a battle between the ribbon of bitumen and the sand – and you get the sense that in the end the sand will win.

On arrival the drivers let air out of the tyres to give them a flatter footprint and better traction on the sand.

Abu Dhabi Desert Dune bashing – deflating tyres

It is a rule to never travel in an unaccompanied vehicle – for reasons that became even more compelling as the trip unfolded.

The safety of the group depends to a large extent upon the leader. He (or she) must find the route and the other vehicles follow - one at a time.

The next vehicle doesn’t start until the last is clearly visible and out of the way – just in case it gets stuck, has to work its way out of a tough spot, or rolls - and the next vehicle drives into it.

Before starting out into the dunes themselves, the vehicles amassed at a given just “off-road” point.

Abu Dhabi Desert Dune bashing briefing

After a group briefing, we set off.

I was lucky enough to be with a driver who was completely at home with his vehicle. We were second after the leader and although I braced myself with knees tight against the door, despite the seat belt, I was still thrown about the cab as the vehicle “surfed” the sands.

If you had no confidence in the driver it wouldn’t be any fun at all, and I was very glad I was in this particular vehicle with this particular driver.

Abu Dhabi Desert Dune bashing dune top

The ride up, over and down the dunes is not for the faint-hearted, but here as we rolled over the dune top - exhilarating.

The low range of the 4WD growled to the top of the dune and then half drove and half rolled over the knifelike edge to half slide, half skid down the other side.

The trick is to be fast enough down to still keep control and have enough speed for the upward climb on the slope of the next dune.

In the front passenger seat it was at once thrilling and slightly terrifying. But watching the driver was like watching a cowboy on a cutting horse, culling out a particular beast from the herd, with that unique oneness of man and horse.

Our driver and the car seemed one. As we waited for the other vehicles I asked how he learned.

Abu Dhabi Desert Dune bashing – Jeep

Practice - and scaring himself to death, he said! He also said his wife was actually better than he.

In our group, each driver had to signal over walkie talkies that they were starting, and then that they were clear, before the next vehicle could get ready to follow.

As we waited for everyone to reach the next point there was time to get out and admire the view.

Abu Dhabi Desert stretching away

At first we were still on the edge of the sands and as the last vehicle waited for the “all clear”, we could see desert houses and palm plantations, drip fed with water.

Abu Dhabi desert dwellings

Our tracks were fast becoming swept away by the wind as we looked back over our climb.

Abu Dhabi Desert: Dune bashing - desert edge

Saccing where we had just come from it was impossible to see the other vehicles. The importance of the walkie talkies was obvious. There was no other way to know who or what lay over the top as you climbed these walls of sand to crest and flow down the other side.

Abu Dhabi Desert: Criss cross Dunes

The wind was constant as we headed for inner dunes – higher, and more unforgiving on the unwary driver.

Abu Dhabi Desert: Dune wind

On the way we passed this penned camel at a crossroad of desert tracks…

Abu Dhabi desert penned camel

…and further along saw, side-by-side, the two staples of desert travel: camels and a 4WD.

Abu Dhabi Desert: Camels & 4WD

The dunes reflected the markings of the wind…

Abu Dhabi Desert: dune patterns forming

…and tracks of local residents.

Abu Dhabi Desert tracks

We looked back frequently at where we had been…

Abu Dhabi Desert edge

…until finally we were at the highest dune on our route.

Abu Dhabi Desert dune bashing high dune

It is hard to get a dimension of the steepness of the gradients - but here in this picture I am on the crest of the dune, while one of the vehicles travels below, almost literally straight down.

Abu Dhabi Desert atop dune

 The colours of the sands vary.

As we travelled, the light changed as did the amount of wind-borne sand.

Depending upon the filtering of light, the sand colour varied from glaring grey-white to red or yellow ochre coloured, and from starkly outlined to softened by the wind into pastels, so it was like seeing the dunes in soft focus. It all depended upon the direction of your gaze and its perspective relative to the sun.

Abu Dhabi Desert dust haze

I found that the desert was a place that whispered of things past and things possible: a place where dreams drift like mirages out from your soul to dance on the winds and tempt you forward.

I had somehow not counted on the wind. It carries with it the dreams of others, their losses and their joys - and so it reforms not just the dunes over which it plays, but also those it touches.

The Bedouin say:

When you sleep in a house

your thoughts are as high as the ceiling,

when you sleep outside

they are as high as the stars.

Having been so affected by the desert, it was strange that when I was in Doha, Qatar, a very charming Sheikh executive of the client company said to me:

“Paquita, now that we have finished our business discussion – I want to ask how you come to have an Arabic name”.

I responded that I didn’t know I did, for I had always known it as a 'pet' name for Francesca in Spanish, with the equivalent in Mecican being 'Chiquita'.

I was assured that it was, indeed, Arabic. Perhaps the name came with the Moors to Spain.

In the desert Industrial City of Ras Laffan with its refineries and gas plants, I was again asked this question - and this time told that it was not just Arabic, but an old Bedouin name.

It gave me something to think about, here in the desert as the sun glowed hotly into a molten horizon.

Abu Dhabi Desert sunset

It is an ancient belief that names of children should be chosen carefully – for the name defines the life.

I never chose it to be this way, but as it turned out, I have had a very Bedouin life.

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