Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Liwa - The Empty Quarter

Area: Liwa a huge expanse of desert at the borders of UAE and Saudi Arabia. It is the enterance to The Empty Quarter - Rab Al Kheli

Distance Covered:

Offroad :

In our Vehicle:
Myself, Tariq (my friend) and Sajeel (my 11 years old son)

Vehicle used:
Jeep Wrangler Sahara


Liwa has been calling us for the last few weeks and everyone was preparing himself for the trip. I find it more of preparing yourself mentally for some adventure. Rest of the preparations are advice driven e.g. someone tells you to make your 4x4 ready for such a drive and someone posts a list of essentials and you fill up your trunk with the stuff. The most important ingredient is the mindset, if that is there then you would challenge anything. So that was the key in this trip the mindset was right and energy was very high. All participants showed leadership skills, patience, and endurance and off course everyone was giving.

This was a great trip and who makes it great are the participants. This was an amazing two days of learning and enjoyment. Mr. Kiyani has proven himself yet again a Superman of Liwa. It was a lifetime enjoyment indeed. The sand falls that we attempted were full of joy and very brave.

Anyone who is involved in desert driving considers Liwa the most entertaining as well as the most challenging amongst all the sand dunes in the region. It becomes a must to do for any serious offroader and remains at the top of the list.

At 0800 Hrs we assembled at the gas station at Jebel Ali just before entering into the State of Abu Dhabi, a few members were late so we utilized that time for our breakfast and had the parathas my wife made for us.

The convoy left once all 12 4x4s were assembled after a short briefing. The first stop was the car museum on the way to Hameem that we reached after two hours of driving. We filled up Jeep's tanks and got some extra fuel for the our little jeep in the jerry can , which turned out to be very handy eventually. First day desert drive was influenced by the UAE Desert Challenge Racers as we drove most of the time on the same track they drove on or around it. It gave everybody a special feeling as if they were participating in the Desert Challenge.

Desert Challenge is an International event and drivers and vehicles from all over the world participate in the tough competition. The day we traveled was the last day of the Desert Challenge.

We had a few hiccups as Mr. Naved’s Land Cruiser started giving a little trouble but that LC never wanted to give up and it kept going until we gave up and it was decided to send it to the road for a well deserved rest. This happened right after the wonderful lunch courtesy Mr. Kiyani comprising of Parathas, Aalu Bhujia, Omelete etc. etc. The food was served at the Five Star (as I would call it in the middle of nowhere) govt. camp in the middle of nowhere. The camp is established for the people working (labour) in the area for massive plantation projects by the Govt. Of Abu Dhabi. We used their dining room (a room with some chairs and a table) as our lunch camp. I should not miss out the greenery that they’ve developed there, is amazing with chickens running around and other birds having their nests in the trees. We saw Camels ad Gazelles on the way as well. We tried best to pluck a couple from the natural scenery and bring them back to the city but those animals proved to be too good for us.

Sajeel had a different experience of being chased by a Hen whose chicks he was trying to play with. The Hen made sure that he goes far away from her little chicks. Our fuel tank was consumed very fast as compared to the other vehicles and being the only Jeep in the convoy we had to carry the extra fuel. At this stop we filled up the tank and were more than half tank after refueling, at this point.

This phase of driving was very fast as we were trying to catch up the distance that we lost due to a few stucks. We drove furiously in the sand dunes and our engines roared. We were doing great at the second position in the convoy but had to stop again because of the over heating problems in one LC. It was decided to send that vehicle out on the road. Another vehicle carrying Ali in the driver’s seat and Ahmed on the navigation was dispatched along with Mr. Naved to drop the LC at a safe place and bring him to the overnight camp. This pair of vehicles tried their best to get lost in the wilderness of Liwa and to sneak into Saudi but then the poor souls Mr. Kiyani and Mr. Gaurav were sent out for the rescue leaving everyone at the campsite hungry and tired. This only happened after our several calls on the radios and cell phones and finally reaching them. They had been lost in the desert since we left them to find their way to the road which looked simple in the GPS but they faced some very high dunes on the way and lost their direction. They were unable to reach the tarmac and it was already dark. Xterra consumed all its fuel in the course and we had to send our poor jerry can for help and it proved its worth.

In the mean time we made it to the road, refueled and collected some supplies, and had reached the campsite about 4 kms from the road in the desert. We had pitched our camps; chairs and tables were put out and we had sharpened the teeth for the feast promised by Mr. Kiyani.

Well after a couple of hours we heard roars and got scarred if they released some loins in the area to take care of the growing population of gazelles. However we were so glad to see the four vehicles coming back with everyone safe and sound far in the dunes. I hiked up to higher elevation and signaled them about our location. But we had yet to wait for the well-deserved dinner as we got Ali’s and Gaurav’s vehicles stuck in a very bad bowl just behind the campsite. This rescue efforts made people even hungrier but not enough to finish even half of the several dishes served at dinner. It took about an hour to recover both the vehicles and then the dinner was served. One could not imagine such a nice home made meal far away from home yet hot from the oven and crisp roghni naans. No words could explain such a feast. Simply Awesome!!

The night had a clear and crisp sky with millions of stars; I saw such a sky after several years. There were no lights around that made the stars to shine bright in the deep dark sky. Myself and Sajeel picked up our folding chairs and walked away from the camp to enjoy the peace and serenity of this location. We were so indulged in it that we spent a long time just watching the stars and spotted two shooting stars as well. The beauty was unimaginable. No sound, no lights, no hustle bustle of the city but just tranquility. I believe everyone got a chance to see a shooting star more than once if they missed to make a wish the first time around. I always love to enjoy the nights at the campsite it gives me peace and some strange strength.

We had an old warrior telling stories to the curious young breed in the shape of Hugh, who kept drinking in front of his tent and kept telling stories to the boys well into the late night. The campfire courtesy Sajeel was not even dead when we left in the morning. This young fellow being the youngest (11 yrs old) member of the group entertained everyone and kept the spirit of the group high by showing very high energy, patience and stamina at the same time. He surely proved his love for the nature yet another time. Finally he went to sleep while listening to everyone out on the mat under the sky. He proudly introduced himself to everyone as Wrangler Junior, an official member of the club. I helped him moving into his sleeping bag in the tent as it was getting bit chilly in the open. 10 4x4s in a circular fashion with their camps setup in a wonderful way showed a very nice view.

The night had come after a long day of driving in the desert but it was one hell of a night. Every moment was captured cleanly into the memories as we were not in an ordinary desert but at the opening of The Empty Quarter - Rab Al Khali.

The Rub' al Khali, which translates as Empty Quarter, is one of the largest sand desert in the world, encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including southern Saudi Arabia, and areas of Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The desert covers some 650,000 square kilometres (250,000 sq mi) (the area between long. 44°30′ −56°30′E., and lat. 16°30′ −23°00′N), more than the combined land areas of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France and almost the land area of Texas. Note:- Definition taken from Wiki


The night was over I got up early in the morning to see the sunrise. Sajeel and Tariq also woke up and followed me. We walked up to the higher ridge to have a better view and saw the yolk rising high into the sky in a few minutes as soon as it showed itself from behind the dunes. Priceless view. Now we saw some other warriors moving around in the campsite that was far visible from our viewing point. We spotted a number of animal tracks around our campsite including lizards, snakes tracks etc. We got a shiver after knowing about our neighbors in the night.

We three then decided to climb the highest dune in the area. Spotted one and conquered. It was a tough hike as walking in the sand is very difficult especially when you are on an inclined surface it becomes even harder. Once we were are the top, we saw dunes all around us without seeing a trace of any habitation. We felt at the top of the world even at a few hundred feet of altitude. But it’s all a state of mind. This feeling was very common in me several years back when I used to go for hiking in the Pakistan’s northern areas.

Everybody packed up after light breakfast and tea. We camped not far from the tarmac last night so that we could refuel and get supplies in the morning. Therefore we headed back to fill up some supplies and started our second day of dunning. I would say this day was the best driving experience, full of learning and adventure that I had so far. We challenged some very tough and high dunes . By now we were seven 4x4s left out of twelve yesterday. Two cars left last night who came for the day trips, the remaining three including the injured LC left in the morning. All these people had better stuff to do during the day.

We had a blast the whole day of desert driving and dune bashing out in the middle of nowhere. Off course lead by a seasoned Liwa expert who kept me at the second pole position having Imran on the sweep with Ali on his front and then Naveen, Hugh and TJ. When we drive in the desert there are three positions that are very crucial for the whole convoy safety and discipline. The leader who takes the first go is the one taking the risk to see the other side of the dune, the second position is critical because this vehicle has to wait for the leader to clear before going ahead. In case the picked track is not good the leader will radio and the second position will take an alternate route for the convoy. So this position is very important for the safety of the convoy. And the sweeper driving at the end is basically responsible for the recoveries at the back and he keep the communication channel open with the first two vehicles to keep them posted about the convoy condition.

Off course convoy rule for each individual vehicle is to stop if you dont see the vehicle coming behind you and dont leave from the original track. The position numbers are assigned to everyone by the group leader while entering the desert and everyone is suppose to stick to their positions to avoid any mishaps and problems. People have gotten into troubles by not following the basic rules of driving in the desert. Desert is a very dangerous and cruel place. A little displacement from the convoy direction will take you far and far from the convoy and the radio might not work due to high dunes no matter you might be one dune away. In these conditions we climb to the highest dune in the area to signal the convoy. Nowadays GPS coordinates prove to be very handy as if the radio works you could message your coordinates to the rest of the convoy to rescue you. Or you could drive towards you required direction using the GPS.

Great team effort. All the people involved here had shown very high caliber of patience, teamwork and endurance. A big round of applause for everyone. We attempted the sand falls several times and those changed everyone’s blood pressure quite a bit, but gave unexplainable pleasure as soon as you came down one fall.

These falls were specially picked so that everyone would learn and enjoy the incredible experience. The falls are inclines at a very steep angle with soft sand. One has to be extremely careful while coming down. Once you are on the fall, dont apply the brakes or keep your steering wheel straight, if you find it drifting to one side then apply little gas so that the vehicles becomes straight. This is the key or else you would come tumbling down. Desert driving is very different as compared to the road driving. You drive at 15 psi or less to gain traction depending on the type of tires used. Offcourse the 4H is engaged at most of the times except when you are in a tricky situation or climbing high dunes with soft sand when you need to apply 4L. The vehicles equipped with diff locks should apply that then as well. The vehicles are driven at very low rpm when getting stuck or else one would dig into sand rather coming out of it. Softer areas are very tricky for recoveries and it takes several minutes of one recovery. These are small things about desert driving and offcourse the biggest chunk goes to the driving skills and the driver can make any capable vehicle dance on the dunes.

We covered a lot of distance in the desert during the day. Saw several gazelles and camels. We drove after the running gazelles to have a better shot at them. Some plantation projects in the desert are really admirable. The government has started many plantation project well into the deep desert. While driving in the dunes suddenly we were faced by some nice green pasture with trees and plans and some birds and animals. Very commendable effort.

The toughest part was said to be the last one and a half hour when everyone started getting stuck due to very soft sand and indeed due to the fatigue as well which had taken its toll by then. We were at very high dunes and started our descent towards late afternoon. Soon we got to know what we entered into, it was very soft sand and the dunes were real tricky. All the vehicles were having a very tough time negotiating them. We had some very bad stuck in the bowls those were are recovered by such a good team work. Everyone gave their best to help the others getting out of tricky situations. This proved to be a live classroom for learning the desert driving and recoveries. Finally we made it down after 5 different vehicles got stuck on the way down. From there it was an easy ride back to the tarmac.

We reached the road at around 1700 Hrs, refueled vehicles as well as ourselves and moved on with our drives to our respective destinations. The distance covered in this trip is about 950 kilometers out of which there was 300kms of pure offroading in two days.

Everyone left at their own from the small town of Hameem as the rest was all tarmac driving. We were the only Jeep and offcourse we were bit slower then the other newer vehicles and soon they all left us far behind. We had our break at the car museum and filled up gas at the small gas station at the side. Here we discovered that the temperature gauge was getting out of control. We pulled to the side and started our investigation, soon to discover that the water body in the engine was giving way to water. We were still far from our place so myself and Tariq discussed and decided that we will fill up our radiator and will keep as much extra water with us as we could. We had such experience before and noticed when the water body malfunctions the leak would only happen when you stop the vehicle but not when it is driven. Sajeel was sleeping in the back seat after a tiring trip.

We filled up some bottles from the same gas station where we filled up and started our careful driving back home. Our eyes remained on the gauges. Weather outside was not bad so we saved on air-conditioning to give less pressure on the engine and drove at a reasonable speed to cover distance. We took the bypass truck road to avoid the Dubai traffic which would have made us stop for sure that we could not afford. We made it safely home by 2230 hrs after an amazing trip of our lives.

Who dares!!

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