Pole Position: The dangers of desert safaris

The desert is not something to be taken lightly even by professional off-roaders, as it can be a dangerous place for the careless.

Although we are blessed with two race circuits and five kart circuits in the UAE, the off-road bikers among us have something much better. The desert.

It is the ultimate playground and offers a sense of freedom and wonderment that is unrivalled. However, it is not something to be taken lightly as, like the ocean, it can be a dangerous place for the half-witted and careless.

Having raced both motorcycles and cars, and earning my living running a motorsport business, I can assure you that I have spent more time than most thinking about safety.

My views on desert riding are qualified by 10 years of intense off-road experience in the Emirates, albeit some years ago. During that time, we raced motocross every winter and ran enduros in the summer. If we weren't racing, then the weekend inevitably included a long, early morning desert ride which needed to be concluded by 10am given the heat of the summer.

Talking to people that currently ride in the desert, it is evident that their pursuit has become more dangerous than it used to be and the number of injuries has risen astronomically. This is a real shame as I still class desert riding as my all-time favourite pastime.

So what has changed?

For a start, the most obvious change is the sheer numbers of people now taking part. We imported the first Japanese motocross bikes here in 1978 - when the total population of the UAE was less than one million. We would typically ride for around three hours, covering perhaps 100km, and would be lucky to see anything more than a couple of camels and perhaps a lone Bedouin making his way inexplicably across a vast, empty desert landscape.

The point is that now the desert is overrun by commercial 4x4s carrying tourists and huge numbers of residents driving pickup trucks and quads, often with no safety equipment whatsoever.

One of the issues for my biker friends is that while the desert terrain is ideal, when it gets churned up by fat-wheeled 4x4s, it becomes soft and unpredictable and can easily unseat a rider.

A golden rule of safety is to never ride alone and, just as importantly, never ride in a group of more than four people - the ideal number is three. The reason for this is that three riders can keep an eye on each other, a key and necessary discipline of desert riding. If a rider falls or goes "off-piste" without being noticed, the consequences can be disastrous. And the buddy system just doesn't work with 10 riders.

With the advent of helmet-mounted GoPro cameras you can get a view of how the current generation of riders approach their desert rides on YouTube. The most striking aspect is that not only do the groups tend to be too big, but their rides tend to turn into desert races. And this brings me to another golden rule - never make a jump if you cannot see the landing area.

This may make me sound like a killjoy but, believe me, there is nothing finer than a good desert ride, providing you come home in one piece.

Pole Position is written by Barry Hope, a director of GulfSport Racing, which is hoping to find an Arab F1 driver through the FG1000 race series. Join the UAE racing community online a www.gulf-sport.com or on Facebook at GulfSportRacing.