Offroaders combine two passions with drive-in movies in the desert

SUV owners across the UAE are exchanging concession stands for barbecue to spend an evening under the stars.

Sharjah, December 23, 2011 - Members of the Dubai Offroaders watch X-Men First Class a few kilometers off the Dubai to Hatta road and 70 kilometers east of Dubai near the village of Tawi Nizwa, Sharjah, December 23, 2011. The group regularly travels to this area for weekend movies, BBQ and overnight camping. (Jeff Topping/The National)
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My college professor drummed one simple mantra into my impressionable head: never trust anything you find on the internet.

Of all the tiny bits of non-advice I've stored up over the years, I never thought that particular phrase would come back to haunt me.

But here I am, perched atop an unknown dune at night with only two off-roading novices for company and headlights that pierce but a few forlorn feet into the inky vastness. And it's hard not to think, maybe the guy had a point.

It all started innocently enough, with a post on one of the many internet forums dedicated to the peculiar madness that is weekend off-roading in the Middle East. Amid all the innocuous posts for trips into the wild, one stood out: Midnight Desert Movie Night and BBQ, All Welcome. As a devotee of the dying artform that is the drive-in cinema, I'm powerless to resist.

Duly adding my name to the roster, I'm supplied with a rudimentary set of directions which essentially boils down to, "drive halfway to Hatta and then stop". Roughly halfway to Hatta, as many will know, is the site of the famous Big Red dune, and conquering its red peak is a rite of passage for every budding off-roader.

It's eight o'clock when I arrive at Halfway to Hatta, which turns out to be the Nazwa Grocery. And the Nazwa Cafeteria, and Nazwa Tyre Shop; in fact, in this area you'd be hard-pressed to find anything that isn't named after the locale, Tawi Nizwa. I miss the first and second convoys of drivers going out to the camp, but a marshal kindly doubles back to fetch me and a few stragglers.

That marshal turns out to be the jocund and incorrigibly upbeat Aliasgar Rokadia, owner of a suitably butch lifted Nissan Patrol kitted with enough PIAA lights to illuminate a sports stadium. By day, he's the proprietor of a thriving construction materials supply business, but when the weekend arrives he dons his thick desert boots to become one of the chief marshals for the Dubai Offroaders club, and our cinema host for the evening.

Getting to the venue shouldn't be a problem. "The camp is only 1.4km into the dunes," he indicates, while helping to deflate our tyres to a more footprint-friendly 15psi. "We designed the route to use the existing flat track, so almost any 4x4 can get there with no difficulty."

It's only a quarter after eight, but there's already a biting chill in the air. With the temperature gauge in my Land Cruiser showing just 20° Celsius, we set off into the night in search of high adventure and fine cinema, slipping into the darkness behind the Nazwa Grocery.

Quickly, several things become apparent. First, Rokadia's "flat track" is anything but, with soft sand, hidden drops and deep, denture-displacing ruts all too eager to catch out the unwary.

Secondly, this is proper 4x4 territory; while I've no doubt a soft-roading crossover could make it through in the hands of a good driver, you make life so much easier for yourself if you hit the sands in something with good ground clearance, a meaty V6 and a low-range gearbox.

And third, we got lost almost immediately. Fact is, travelling in the desert at night is difficult even for the most experienced drivers and ironically more so when you're in convoy, dependent on the tail lights of your predecessor for guidance. When one of the two inexperienced drivers in front of me takes too long to clear a stubbornly steep hill, he loses sight of Rokadia entirely. We circle our wagons - so to speak - and take stock. Do we have enough food? Water? Blankets? Do we even know which way goes back to the main road? The answer to all of the above, is 'no.'

But with the UAE's excellent cellular network, there's little reason to worry, and a quick phone call summons the cavalry. As it turns out, we were less than 200 metres from the site of the screening.

Truth be told, I expected little more than a couple of laptops perched on tailgates, a small bonfire, and hopefully some marshmallows. So colour me surprised when we crested the final ridge to discover an immaculately built campsite nestled in a deep bowl with nearly 30 parked cars and double the number of people comfortably settled around several BBQ pits. Portable Klieg lights chase the darkness away, while tents lie off in the distance ready for weary cinemagoers. Amateur hour, this is definitely not.

And taking centre stage was the screen; a giant metal frame enclosing a tarpaulin supported by the bulk of two giant Nissans, while a projector supplied the moving pictures; a laptop fed the films digitally to the projector and booming sound came courtesy of two home theatre speakers sunk into the sand. A horde of children sat transfixed before a giant temple of light that played Kung Fu Panda 2. Frankly, if you asked me to pony up AED30 to sit down and watch, I wouldn't have complained.

With the mercury now having dipped into the 12s, it's bitterly cold, but few seem to notice. Rokadia is master of ceremonies, his name constantly being called as marshals seek his help in guiding in new cars every few minutes. The crowd is unexpectedly diverse: there are the usual Indians, Pakistanis and Emiratis, but also Chileans, Uruguayans and Spaniards in attendance.

Ahmed Pervez is there, too; the IT specialist based in Dubai is the founder of the Dubai Offroaders. "I've been doing offroading for the last 14 years with a group of friends," he says. "At some point I decided that there might be a lot of like-minded people out there, so I started an online forum for them to get together. We had about 40 members in the beginning. Today, we have 704!"

Numbers vary, but at least 50 diehards come out each weekend to test themselves against the might of the dunes, the faces changing with the seasons. Why are so many drawn to the sand? Rokadia believes it's a chance to escape the stifling routine.

"Most probably end up going to malls on Friday," he explains. "But there's another life over here in the sand. Desert safaris are one thing. There's a difference between sitting in the passenger seat while someone else drives, and driving yourself; in the latter, you can feel proud about doing something that not everybody else can do, that itself is a high!"

Considering the high percentage of SUV owners in the UAE, it seems odd that more people aren't involved in clubs like Dubai Offroaders. As Rokadia notes, many people are under the impression that they need to take an expensive course before they are qualified to hit the sands.

"That's a reason why this free club exists: for experienced people like us to teach others for free. We're not charging anything, it's just a chance for us to give the passion that we have to other people, they enjoy themselves, and then can teach other people."

"We take the fear away," says Imran Khan, another marshal. "It's scary, but at the same time, you know that there are professionals out there to help you out if you get in trouble."

This is only the second year that Dubai Offroaders has staged a film screening in the desert, and they remain alone amongst the myriad offroad clubs to attempt such an ambitious undertaking.

"In the first year we had 18 cars present," recollects Khan. "This year it's about 27 to 30 cars. It's only promoted through word of mouth and the website, so the turnout is really exceptional."

"I must give credit to our members Tushar Surve and Satwinder," adds Rokadia, "who came up with a very vague idea that we should watch a movie in the desert. Ironically, everything turned out very well - I had a generator, lights, I actually made the screen myself sitting in the office."

As the night wears on, the crowd gets increasingly raucous. Truth be told, no one's really watching the films that play on in the background; they're all too busy exchanging stories and finishing off the last of the cooked meat. Puffs of aromatic shisha smoke begin to replace the smell of burning timber, and blankets are brought out as the reality of the night chill finally settles in. Watching from a distance, the always-enigmatic Pervez, surveying the satisfied scene, attempts to sum up why he and so many of his friends keep returning to the desert every week.

"I'm an IT guy. A PC keeps on running, and gets slower as time passes. What do you do, when it gets too slow? You reset it. This is very simply, our reset button every Friday."

That's certainly one bit of advice my college professor didn't provide - and if not for the Internet, I'd never have had to chance to hear it.