Seek respite from the desert sun in Al Hayer forest

Off the Beaten Path Al Hayer forest offers refreshing shade to both off-road campers and desert-dwelling creatures.

The GMC Acadia Denali may not be suited to sand driving, but it lets you explore Al Hayer forest in complete comfort. Paolo Rossetti for The National
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In the middle of summer, outdoors in the UAE, there is only one thing that comes a precious second to water - shade.

And when you get several hundred ghaf trees in one nice, flat valley between sand dunes and backing into mountains, it is a welcome forest of shelter from the overpowering sun.

This is Al Hayer forest, one of my all-time favourite camping spots.

It's a perfect campground - roughly a third of the way towards Dubai from Al Ain, easily accessible on sand tracks so beginners can get right into the action without feeling left out, yet near an expanse of open sand dunes for an exciting drive for those feeling adventurous.

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I visited most recently at the wheel of the GMC Acadia Denali, an all-wheel-drive SUV that's not particularly recommended for sand driving. Without a low-range differential and, indeed, not even a true split traction to all four wheels, getting stuck in the soft stuff is almost guaranteed.

However, the Al Hayer forest tracks are so forgiving that I was in and out with no issues whatsoever, proving that a rough and tough 4x4 is not absolutely required to enjoy the outdoors. In fact, the GMC Acadia Denali was perfectly fine for the job. As long as you keep moving, the Acadia speeds up and down these sand dunes with gusto.

And a good thing, too - as temperatures hit the low 50s Celsius, getting stuck is not a pleasant experience.

We start from the Adnoc petrol station at Shweib (waypoint 001), where the mountains of Wadi Sharm meet the red dunes. It used to be that the border to nearby Oman was wide open, but now from the UAE side one cannot simply descend into the large wadi, which is mostly dry and impressive when in flood. Instead, we shall have to circle around.

Upon leaving the Adnoc station, turn right and head downhill. There is an elegant blue mosque down near the shops (waypoint 002) but further down, the road is blocked, and so we turn into a well-established desert track before reaching the mosque, at waypoint 003.

This track passes through an automatic barrier and, at a quaint little farm, takes the left fork on a dirt track that runs uphill into the dunes (004 and 005). This track loops around to the left and heads down into the wadi and the border fence. Firstly, though, it passes an open mine at waypoint 006 where they extract, well, sand, I suppose.

Once you reach the open wadi, with a spectacular mountain range in front of you, follow the border fence to the right (007) on a well-used dirt track. In case you're interested, and an explorer at heart, turning left towards Shwaib will take you to a walled canal, but there is no way through.

Follow the border fence south and then west for several kilometres, past waypoint 008, until it suddenly makes a 90-degree turn left at waypoint 009; look to your right, and beyond a farm you should see trees in the distance: the forest.

Waypoint 010 makes an easy entrance to the forest area.

There are two things I must caution with regards to camping at Al Hayer - firstly, if you look around you will notice that there aren't any young trees. Not even a sapling. Not even a sprout.

I asked the Abu Dhabi Conservation Rangers some time back why this is the case, and they explained it is because, in the past 30 years, there has been an explosion in the population of camels - they eat everything that tries to grow.

So once these mature trees - and there are some old grannies at Al Hayer - are gone, there is no new generation to take over.

And if you think, as I did, that perhaps fencing the young growth might help, consider that camels have very long necks, enough weight to crush rickety fences and the determination of a desert survivor to reach those juicy, fresh shoots. The only way is to fence off the entire area with a concrete-base fence, as the authorities are carrying out with dedicated conservation areas.

For us at Al Hayer, what this means is that every single tree is precious and non-renewable. Absolutely do not even consider breaking off branches for firewood - please plan in advance and bring your own wood to burn. Scavenging dead branches off the ground is sometimes possible, as the herders cut off the top branches and leave them on the ground for the camels to forage on. Once the leaves are eaten, the branches dry out and make very good firewood. Still, please only use as much as necessary.

The second caution is that as much as Al Hayer forest seems a miracle among the dunes to us, imagine how astounded desert critters must be when they catch first glimpse of the expanse of trees!

The wooded area is, in fact, a magnet to all sorts of desert creatures in the area. I have spotted owls, foxes, bats, hares, and - ready? - numerous scorpions. Now, there are two kinds of reactions to scorpions: "Cool!" is one; a sharp intake of air and a gulp of fear is the other.

As a matter of fact, scorpions are just stinging insects that inhabit arid regions and, with a little due care, they are not as dangerous as you might expect. Some precautions to take: children must be taught about scorpions, and specifically urged to keep their shoes on at all times; to stay away from the trees and bushes, and to refrain from picking up objects from the ground without first turning them over with a stick.

In the morning - and I say this because it is true, not to play the sensational safari guide - do not kneel down to roll up the tent. First, lift it and move it. And have a good look to see if you can spot a little sandy feather-like scorpion scooting along the sand. No kidding - we are now past counting 20 on the times we have had a scorpion burrow under during the night.

Once only, and in Al Hayer, a member of our camp got stung on her knee as she rolled up her tent. The result was described as a very severe wasp sting, and a swollen and painful knee for the next three days. And that was through her jeans.

For children, the elderly and people who are allergic, it could be much more serious, and a prompt visit to the hospital would be in order. Our own camper didn't bother.

When we do spot a scorpion, I scoop it carefully into a cup so everyone can have a good look at it without it running all over camp. The worst thing is losing track of it as it scampers among chairs and camping gear.

Scorpion caution aside, Al Hayer is a unique camping spot and, thanks to its shady trees, it is also a good destination for the hotter months, when at night the temperatures drop to a comfortable and humidity-free level.

To leave the forest I suggest you follow the tracks to the west through the trees and along the slipface, away from the mountains.

Stay down in the valley as you may become disorientated if you climb up into the open dunes, and keep your heading towards waypoint 011, where a well-travelled sand track snakes through farms (012) until it becomes tarmac (013) and eventually joins the Al Ain-Dubai motorway at waypoint 014. The direction of travel is towards Dubai, so Abu Dhabi residents will have to take the first exit, then make an about-turn under the flyover to reverse course.

Find more of Paolo's adventures at Off the Beaten Path.