Dunes less travelled: Driving with an exclusive off-road club in Dubai's desert

Our writer spends a day in Dubai with a secret dune-riding collective called Desert Nation

Desert Safari in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Getty Images
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It is 6.30am, and we're at a secret rendezvous just outside Dubai. It is a stretch of wasteland, doubling as a car park, flanked by a downmarket, paint-worn, miniature amusement arcade. With three doe-eyed camels on sabbatical.

A rumbling V6 symphonic-bravado sound slam dunks the reverie. One by one, off-road 4x4s sweep into view, synchronised, and then left-right precision park.

"We is cool, bro," I imagine as unaspirated speech from the rolled-down windows.

This is Desert Nation: an organised and disciplined off-road dune-riding membership club, now in its fifth year. Purring engines idle on staccato-reverb as drivers exit to join the newbie – me.

Would-be boy-racer types do not last long in the group because they compromise safety. It is simply not tolerated

Air is released to 14-15 pounds per square inch depending on vehicle and tyre, and pressure is checked by drivers to ensure better sand traction and manoeuvrability – safety is number one, after all.

We are called into a circle of trust before setting out. Arif Limbada, one of the founding members, with walkie-talkie in hand, steps forward smiling. He has the relaxed aura of someone in control. "Seat belts at all times," he says. "Children in the back, secure in seat belts. Stay in convoy according to your position. Listen to the marshals – each has a walkie-talkie. Stop if in difficulty and ask for help. Follow the tracks laid out in front of you by the leading vehicle."

His demeanour sets the tone for the forthcoming experience, establishing professional safety standards to anchor the group's mind-set. Newcomers sign the waiver sheets with a flourish. Engines growl impatiently. Alluring burnt-orange dunes only a handful of sand's-throw away await us patiently. Without further ado, I promptly hurl myself into my chariot, shotgun to Sajid, chief marshal. His vehicle of choice is a jet-black Jeep Wrangler, the acknowledged Cool Hand(ling) Luke of all the off-roaders. We are in "sweep" position, keeping the convoy of six cars in check. With the dips, angular turns and sudden drops of the undulating dunes, one out-rider marshal cannot sensibly be expected to monitor all vehicles.

Desert Nation, an exclusive off-road dune-riding membership club. Courtesy Desert Nation

In convoy, they are majestic: a vision of shimmering chassis in sunlit splendour. Four-wheel drive marques snaking through the dunes, trailing sand-spray fanfares while they secure uphill traction. No owner has pimped their ride; there are no crush-velvet purple dashboards on display or any garish stripes. These are just ordinary vehicles striding through the desert alongside their dune-bound buddies.

They're the same vehicles you see on the roads of UAE, except the wheel arches are higher. This is duly explained by Sajid – raconteur, philosopher and master driver – while training the marshals for the convoys. There's a beginner, intermediate and advanced chassis adjustment for better dune-handling, according to experts. Would-be boy-racer types do not last long in the group because they compromise the safety aspect. Sajid tells me it is simply not tolerated.  

With so many hills and turns in any extended dune trip, when to execute each move is all about experience and muscle memory. With Sajid it is evident that countless wheel-turns have fine-tuned his driving into auto-pilot manoeuvres that look easy. But don't be fooled: they're not.

For the enlightened driver learning from the safety-first Desert Nation ethos, there is a foil to combat the testosterone-fuelled behaviour one sees on our roads

"What we are talking about is nothing more than physics," Sajid says. "It's torque. The weight distribution in the vehicle is established by the engine, making the front heavier. When you drive, you know this and use it, working with the horsepower of the engine; knowing just how much power or accelerator to use and when."

The perfect illustration presented itself seconds later as a vehicle gets stuck on a dune peak. "So, imagine that underneath my thigh is the point at which I know to accelerate or decelerate as the vehicle hits the top of the dune," Sajidsays. "To use the weight of the vehicle to get over the peak and continue, and how much deceleration to know the momentum is enough to get over without lurching forward into a more dangerous leap."

Lessons learned

Desert Nation's version of drivers' education is all about imparting these lessons. There is no one right way of doing it – you just learn how to make the choices through experience, selecting an ideal line according to the incline, slope and often bonkers angle-of-address. The amount of pressure on the pedal, or brake, determines how the wheels engage with the sand for optimum traction. And so perhaps, for the enlightened driver learning from the safety-first Desert Nation ethos, there is a foil to combat the testosterone-fuelled behaviour one sees on our roads.

Everyone gets stuck on the dunes eventually. The rule of thumb is to stop and not to keep trying to throttle your way out – the wheels and car just sink in deeper. Help is sent via the closest appropriate vehicle in the convoy, which will bring with it the necessary tow rope.

As I get to know this affable fraternity, I see the social, avuncular aspect of their coming together

As we climb another wonky vertical, I am conscious of the unmitigated experience of the front-seat passenger. It is part rally, part fairground ride, but total adrenalin rush. The windscreen field of focus is rarely on the horizontal plane, with the dune-scape resembling a technophobic grandma's handiwork with a camera – lots of angled sky minus a subject. I suddenly realise there isn't much gear-changing going on. "Not much gear-changing required, bro," says Sajid. He does it mainly to extend the life of the gearbox, by not leaving it in the same gear. Another useful lesson to learn.

As I get to know this affable fraternity, I come to see them develop, socially. "People grow by being part of the group," Hameed tells me. "Some who didn't speak up before, grow in confidence from what they do out here, encouraged by their own increasing prowess and decision-making skills."

Life's lessons, it seems, are played out on sand, through an early-morning, four-hour, sensory-charged, strictly controlled joy-ride. Ultimately, this dune-driving desert collective allows all the "boys with toys" cliches to disappear in the dust. Leaders, proteges, professionals, doctors, lawyers, oil and gas men, software engineers and entrepreneurs are all part of this group. And yet, no matter their differences, they are seemingly all friends for life.

Desert Nation, an exclusive off-road dune-riding membership club. Courtesy Desert Nation

The unheralded hero of the day is Owais. His self-effacing, boy-man demeanour belies his convoy leadership achievement. Sajid is understandably proud of his protege, who has clearly put his coaching into practice. Owais's father, Iqbal, who has a winning moustache, also beams with pride. The pair are vindicated, as the learning is passed on.

As the sun goes down, and I de-clutter unrequired sand deposits from hidden cracks, I reflect on my dune-drive takeaways. During our mid-morning break, Sajid had given me a one-on-one masterclass, using the tried and tested finger-drawing-in-the-sand method. How else to learn about the crucial elements being dealt with, such as vehicle chassis, torque and the challenging properties of shifting sands when tackling a dune peak?

His four-wheeled drawing showed the weight, determined by the engine, at the front of the vehicle. A line drawn across the front of the vehicle, illustrated where the dune peak and the chassis front meet – the crucial pivot point. He explains what must be understood first, before being put into practice when descending the dune. He then draws the wheels in right-turn mode in the sand, as if to turn right on exiting the imaginary dune slope.

Sajid also emphasises the importance of waiting for the weight of the vehicle to take it down and allow it to straighten itself, almost. The biggest rookie mistake is to try to stop the process too soon by turning the wheels left. Instinct to do so will be strong, but it must be resisted, however counter-intuitive it may feel. By prematurely turning left, the vehicle's weight will shift to the right, unbalancing it. And just at the critical moment, it will topple over.    

I understand now why dune-driving is an activity not to be underestimated, and it is sheer folly to think it might be an easy thing to do simply because you know how to drive. You need to practise and develop your own muscle memory. Learn some physics and understand how a vehicle in motion on sand behaves. You must trust gravity and the unwritten off-the-road law of the dunes. And, if you can do this and remain as humble as this lot, you might just have one of the most exhilarating, unforgettable experiences of your life. 

To discover where this shifting-sands vehicular bromance takes place every Friday, ask the Desert Nation brotherhood, or a passing camel.

In other words: if you know, you know.