The looming shadows

Liwa is a gateway to great desert adventures, and the journey to get there is just the beginning, writes Paolo Rossetti.

If you've been following Off The Beaten Path, you will have travelled to fantastic off-road destinations in the region, but in this issue we graduate to a different level. The Rub al Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter, is the planet's largest continuous sand dune desert, spreading from Yemen in the south of the Arabian Peninsula to Saudi Arabia in the west and Oman in the east. At the highest north-eastern corner, it occupies a large area of the United Arab Emirates: Liwa.

You may have seen ranges of sand dunes elsewhere in the UAE, or even the world, but nothing is like the Liwa desert. It's like comparing a beach bungalow to a skyscraper. A bit far-fetched you say? Well, if we assume a storey of a building is about three metres, then our destination is a 36-storey building of pure red sand. In fact, Tal Moreeb is a sand mountain almost 110m tall, and just one of many to be found in the area north of the Saudi-UAE border up to a tarmac motorway that borders the north, known as the Liwa Crescent.

I've arranged for three routes, of differing difficulty levels, all starting from Tal Moreeb, which is reachable by a tarmac street - so, from first-timer to expert driver, this destination will be an unforgettable experience for all. The BMW X5M is one of the most technically perfect cars I've driven - and this is why: let's take an average SUV, in fact, any of the most popular models you see on the roads. They are not built for the speeds routine in the Emirates - yes, they can easily manage to cruise at 120kph, but the suspension, the choice of tyres, the chassis, the entire car is a compromise.

You will realise this when a quick swerve is required: the car will sway, the traction is compromised, the brakes are soft. But just look at the disc brakes found on the BMW X5M, and you will see what I mean - they fill the entire 20-inch rims. This car offers fantastic performance on the tarmac, equal to many sports cars. Plus, although not its finest point, it does offer at least some of the dual-purpose we expect from an SUV. Having said that, it is definitely not suited for dune bashing, with its low fascia and bumpers and lowered suspension. But that's OK for this trip, because it's all smooth tarmac to the Moreeb Dune.

We start from the outskirts of the city of Abu Dhabi, and join the E11 motorway, which leads to the Western Region, and is signposted Al Ghweifat (waypoint 2). Just before that, I fill up at the Adnoc that's on my way, in this case at waypoint 1 if you're coming from Al Ain. The first major turn-off from the E11 is at waypoint 3 and is signposted Hameem, the town on the eastern-most corner of the Liwa Crescent. It is not the main route into Liwa, but it is a nice and fast motorway with no photo radars and with the added benefit of passing by H E Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan's National Auto Museum, which is graciously open to the public (waypoint 4).

I would rank this as a must-see: inside the pyramid structure, Sheikh Hamad, nicknamed The Rainbow Sheikh, has displayed a varied collection of his cars - including a selection of Mercedes painted in the colours of the rainbow. Along with this amazing collection, the pièce de résistance is a gigantic Dodge pickup truck, which was built to tow an enormous caravan that was built as the replica of the Earth and is now parked out front.

Once you've reached Hameem, you are in Liwa, and the enormous dunes greet your arrival. I again fill up at the Adnoc station, waypoint 5, as it's always good to have a full tank when off the beaten path. Opposite the petrol station, at waypoint 6, there are a number of tracks that lead into the oases, and that is our first stop after the long drive. Liwa is in fact an important agricultural area, and a large number of historical oases for centuries have made good use of the abundant groundwater. Further along as you travel westward, you may be surprised at the scale of the cultivations (waypoint 7, for example), and a visit into the privately owned oases is often possible if you announce your presence and ask for permission to enter the fenced areas.

The fresh, verdant oases will make a dramatic contrast to the stark reality of the open desert once you are in the dunes proper. Continue westward along the tarmac, past the Liwa Hotel, until you arrive at waypoint 8, where you will turn left, following the signs for Moreeb. The street will narrow and you will soon enter the dunes, while still driving along on tarmac. The road was built as access to Moreeb Dune (Tal Moreeb in Arabic, meaning Hill of Fear) which is the venue for the Hill-Climbing Championships, an official Liwa Festival event under the supervision of the Abu Dhabi Motors Club.