It can be an unforgiving terrain where the slightest error is punished, yet the vast expanses of Oman’s deserts still hold a fascination. Knowing how to conquer the sand and keep safe is crucial, discover Adam Hurrell and Kate Ginn
Battered and covered in sand, the empty Hummer stands silently between two dunes. Debris is scattered all around; a black bin bag, cardboard box of mineral water, clothes and what looks like a sandal have been catapulted out by force when the vehicle apparently rolled. Of the young driver, there is no sign. He is said to have died after being thrown out of the car. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, according to stories circulated around the campfire later on.
The accident happened while Y was there, but the young man was not one of our party. It was a stark reminder of an environment that commands respect and can change at a second’s notice, like the shifting sands that make up its landscape. “The important thing to remember in the desert is that safety should always come before fun,” says Rebecca Mayston, an experienced desert driver who works for The Guide Oman running off-road expeditions and has navigated across the dunes of Oman dozens of times. In eight years of desert driving, she, nor The Guide Oman have ever had a major accident.
“You have to remember that you are taking part in an extreme sport, with risks that you must be willing to accept. As individuals, we should all work towards reducing these.” No one suggests, of course, that the young driver who tragically died last weekend at Wahiba Sands – a popular dune bashing spot – was in any way at fault. As anyone who has ever undertaken a desert crossing will know only too well, it can be unpredictable and demanding, brutal and sweet, as well as both physically and mentally challenging. A weekend of fun can quickly turn into a weekend of tragedy in the desert. A moment of carelessness can have a high cost.
Rebecca, who leads parties through some of the most challenging regions Oman has to offer agrees: “Driving in sand is a definite skill that one has to master in order to cross through sand dunes with minimal assistance.”
As novices on the sand, we quickly realised how true this was. Wheels skid and slide beneath you, as if you were on ice at times, and your concentration cannot slip even for a second. It’s intense, draining and incredible fun, a powerful and addictive adrenaline rush like nothing else we’ve experienced. A golden rule of desert driving is to never go into the sand with less than two vehicles, in case one gets stuck or breaks down.
Being part of a convoy of 60 4x4s that set off as part of a Team Pajero Adventure to Wahiba Sands organised by Mitsubishi at least gave us reassurance in numbers. Fellow novice Chris Alexis was there, as he says, to “find out what an SUV was capable of.”
Being prepared for whatever this might be is vital, according to Rebecca Mayston. “When driving off-road one always needs to be prepared for the worst-case scenario and the inevitability of getting stuck,” she says. “It’s one thing entering the desert on the Bedouin highways – you can still get into trouble – however, cutting new paths through uncharted sand dunes most certainly brings its challenges. Getting stuck is inevitable. It happens to the best of us.”
These are sentiments echoed by Ayman al Balushi, an experienced off-roader, who has been desert driving since 2009. “Safety is of paramount importance,” he says. “I have been lucky and never had any accidents in the dunes. “For me, the enduring appeal is that each time you drive in the desert you face a new challenge – whether it is the weather or the dunes themselves, every trip is different.”
Dune bashing is about discovering the capabilities of your car, but it is also about learning to appreciate the incredible natural beauty Oman has to offer. It seems though, that this beauty is under serious threat from people who visit the desert and then leave all their rubbish behind. Wherever the convoy drove there were vast amounts of glass bottles, plastic bags and other detritus from weekend campouts. Rubbish was piled up as camels grazed close by. These careless individuals are contributing to the destruction of the desert environment.
Senior Mitsubishi sales executive and seasoned off-road driver, Khalil al Oufi agrees, saying “It makes me feel very sad [to see people] making the place a disaster, I hope people understand how to treat [the] place like their home.” Something needs to be done before the desert becomes Oman’s greatest landfill site.
For a first foray into desert driving, it’s all about finding your feet on the sand. The route our convoy took was tough without ever feeling too dangerous. As Mitsubishi’s national marketing manager, Rajesh Sharma points out: “The track is meticulously planned with the right amount of challenges for the first timers, because we understand we cannot leave anything to chance.”
Approaching a steep dune – some towered as high as 75m – one Pajero did get stuck and needed to be towed out as its wheels spun furiously, whipping up sprays of sand into the air. Even experienced off-roaders can come a cropper. On one desert trip Rebecca Mayston went to the aid of a car bogged in the sand only to become stuck herself, requiring a third vehicle to come to the rescue. “We had no choice but to radio for assistance and then wait – and wait.
“I am sure anyone who has been there can relate to sitting in a terrain, surrounded by sand dunes stretching out for as far as the eye can see in all directions and waiting patiently for the sight of a car on the horizon. “I know for myself, it really highlighted the security of having someone else with you.”
Al Oufi has been visiting the desert for over 20 years and he highlights how essential it is to carry extra water and fuel when driving in the desert and never to venture out on your own. He also recommends taking two keys for any vehicle, in case one is lost. When you’re in the desert, time seems to run away from you, like a fine powdered sand slipping through your fingers. Night can fall quickly, dropping like a black velvet blanket.
As the sun slipped from view and darkness descended upon the Al Raha Camp, al Oufi sums up the day quite aptly.
“Dune bashing is a good sport. It makes you feel young and active. The best thing in the desert is that you will experience peace of mind, especially during the nights when we can see the wonderful beauty of the skies with all the stars. It reminds us that we are just tiny people in this universe.”
It is important to remember that the desert is a precious ecosystem. Here are a few small things to keep in mind while you are there:
● Stay on the established path, do not unnecessarily create new tracks
● Plant life is scarce in the desert, try not to drive on or destroy it
● Always ensure the path is clear before you attempt to cross the dunes
● Rubbish: No one wants to see a dirty desert or see the desert destroyed by our participation. It is each participant’s responsibility to dispose of their own litter properly
Source: The Guide Oman
Tips for safe off-road driving:
● Drive with lights on at all times
● Always offer to help someone in need
● Seat belts should be worn at all times, this includes passengers in the front and the back
● Avoid walking around plant life barefoot, some creepy crawlies have a nasty bite
● Avoid plant life when setting up your tent
● If you are not healthy, have back injuries or heart issues, do not participate – a doctor/first aider is not always enough
● Think about investing in satellite communication phones, just in case they are needed
Basic Requirements of your selected 4×4 Vehicle:
● Some vehicles hold sub tanks, if yours does not, you will possibly need a fuel can
● MUST have good quality tyres, along with at least one good quality spare
● MUST be in a good state of repair and regularly maintained and checked
● Advised to not have bumper extensions – front and back – they tend to catch the sand and are the most common damages. You can remove bumpers for the trip
Sand Surfing… In your 4×4:
● Always be sensible and patient
● Deflating your tyres increases your traction. Let your tyres down to between 15-20psi (depending on the type of car)
● Drive in 4WD mode, High Range when venturing off the Bedouin road
● Only use 4WD LOW RANGE when you’re stuck
●Follow the gravity of the car, Gravity will always win! Do not turn against the direction the vehicle wants to travel. As a driver you are there to guide the car
● Gentle is the name of the game. Heavy braking and acceleration will only dig your tires deep into the sand
● Maintain a safe distance between cars, and always ensure the path is clear
● Keep 20 to 30 metres between cars when driving
● Parking and stopping: Always stop on a firm spot. Stop your car on a slope so that gravity will help you move
● Watch cars similar to yours and note how they react on dunes. Note the speed and angle needed to conquer the dune
Source: The Guide Oman