Tightly-packed red dunes extend before us, as far as the eye can see. It’s now or never, I think, and nod to Bruno to deflate Totoyaya’s tires. We’re heading into these dunes, into the desert of Arabia. I feel anxious.
There’s a reason for my anxiety. Totoyaya hasn’t been performing well on the Arabian Peninsula. We’d already gotten stuck in a post-rain glaze outside of Abu Dhabi and on a sandy beach in Oman before we ventured into Oman’s Sharquiya Sands Desert. We had planned to drive through it from south to north, as a shortcut to the Jebel Akhdar Mountains. There were a few dirt tracks in the map and on the GPS.
Our venture into the Sharquiya Sands was short. Tiny tracks zig-zagged all over the bush-studded hills and we didn’t know which was the main track. The sand was the bad kind – light-colored, soft, and loose – so Bruno was forced to drive as quickly as possible, without stopping, ever. He had to make lightning-fast decisions as to which way to turn and which path seemed best. The single-lane tracks were like choppy waves, and I bumped and slid around, nervously encouraging Totoyaya up the hills.
We didn’t quite make it up one of them. We didn’t have enough speed and power (we’re only four cylinder, and we’re heavily loaded with diesel and water) to make it up one hill, and because of the fine sand, we got stuck. Backing down the hill didn’t help – we got stuck further. Bruno was forced to deflate his tires (which he hates doing – we don’t have our own compressor to reflate them after), and I busied myself smoothing and digging out the sand behind the tires so that we could back down the hill. We had to drive backwards through the dunes for a long time before finding a safe spot to reverse. We decided that our south-north desert dunes trip was foolhardy, set up camp at the edge of the Sands for the night, and took the tarred road around the desert the following day.
This sand looks denser, I say to myself, as I analyze the auburn dunes before us. I’ve come to know my types of sand these past few months, and this one supports rather than sinks a vehicle. Nonetheless, there is no real track to where we want to go, and it is hill after sandy hill – real, raw, uncut desert. Butterflies are flittering in my stomach.
We hear the sound of an engine. Two vehicles carting tourists speed past us – they obviously know their way around these dunes. They aren’t the only engines we will hear during our twenty-four hours in the desert. Sometimes the engine will come from overhead, and be a plane or a helicopter, reminding us we’re not that far from civilization after all. Sometimes the engine will be a land vehicle, be it a dune buggy, a quad, a motorbike, or a 4WD truck.
There’s a surprising amount of traffic in the deserts of Arabia, and most of it is for pleasure. Young Arabic men love to play with their cars – they do donuts in parking lots, rev their engines at red lights, drive up and down beaches, race their cars down highways, and dune-bash. Bruno read an article about rich young Saudis buying Lamborghinis and racing them through the desert. The winner was he who broke his car first. They all got airlifted out of the desert, free to repurchase new Lamborghinis for their next dune-bashing adventure.
I don’t get this pastime at all – offroading, for me, involves holding my breath, clenching my butt, and praying the track will get better soon.
That’s what I’m doing now, as we follow the tracks the two tourist vehicles have left us in the red sand. We go up and down a few small dunes. When the tracks diverge, Bruno gets out to investigate. I watch him tap on the sand, climb a dune, and disappear for a few minutes. He’s obviously looking for the safest and easiest route. He comes back to the car, revs the engine, and rolls over a few more dunes.
Just as I’m de-clenching my bottom, a dune, with a deeply-inclined side-slope, emerges out of nowhere. Bruno can’t stop – he’ll get stuck in the sand – so he speeds over it. I feel the back of our car coming out from behind us, falling down the hill to the right, just like that time in the glaze near Abu Dhabi. And just like that time, Bruno puts the emergency brake on just in time so that we don’t topple down the hill.
But we’re stuck in the sand. Again. This sub-continent is kicking our ass.
In the Sharquiya Sands, Bruno and I calmly got to work at getting ourselves out of the sand. Here, though, I am scared. We’re tilted dangerously to the right, and I’m afraid that if he tries to rev us out of here, we’ll fall over. Bruno ignores me and begins to unwrap the sand channels from below the car. I forgot we had those. He sticks them under the back tires then deflates all four tires to their minimum capacity. While I am busy fussing over his t-shirt getting greasy and his hair being full of sand and his back getting sunburnt, Bruno drives us out of our sticky situation. I’d probably die in the desert without Bruno.
I have no recollection of the rest of our desert dune drive, only of reaching Fossil Rock, our destination. Fossil Rock’s name is self-evident, I think – it’s a rock in the middle of the desert that is filled with fossils. Millions of years ago, the entire Arabian Peninsula was underwater. In this rock is proof. Fossils of sea shells (snails, oysters, etc.) are stuck within this rock, petrified memories of an era long-ago.
Bruno came here a decade ago and had a hey-day climbing the rock and searching for fossils. This is Bruno’s kind of place – he loves digging and searching the earth for cool, old stuff. He has fond memories of Fossil Rock, especially of the entire snails that were everywhere stuck into its surface.
When we go looking, there are some swirled fossils of shells, but no snails, only indentations in the rock where snails had once been. Perhaps tourists had cut them out, to take them home as keep-sakes. What is more likely is that locals cut out the fossils and sold them in a Dubai souq to tourists who would never come here. Most of the snails Bruno so fondly remembers are probably sitting on dusty shelves or in forgotten shoe boxes.
Still, it’s incredible to think that this piece of scorched earth was once under the sea. That fish were swimming around the giant rock formation in front of us. That sea grass floated up from the red sand dunes. I wish this piece of scorched earth were still under the sea. It would be refreshing. It’s hot as hell here. The air is flat and still. Nothing moves, except for the flies that glue themselves to us the moment we set up camp. They are too good at finding any sign of life in the desert. We spend the afternoon sitting in the shade of our car waiting for the occasional breeze that passes by. I don’t envy the Bedouins or the camels that call this place home. The desert is not for the faint-of-heart.
Yet, it is beautiful here. The tracks in the sand – of birds and dung-beetles, of camels, snakes and lizards – show that the desert is anything but deserted. The wind that picks up in the afternoon wipes away the traces and shifts the dunes so that it seems that they are traveling somewhere, slowly but surely. The endless dunes, the sand whipped up and floating by, the slate wiped clean every night – the desert is certainly mesmerizing.
Still, I don’t want to stay here forever. But unless we find another route out of here – one that doesn’t involve 45 degree angle side-sloping dunes – we’ll have to call this desert home. When the heat abates, Bruno and I scope out another path on foot. We climb up dunes, analyzing the height and angle, and piecing together a safe route out. We use a few scattered trees, a pile of scrap metal, and our tire tracks to mark our chosen exit. We sleep well in the peaceful, cool desert night.
Of course, the wind does her job that night, and the next morning our old tracks have been erased. Worse, the dunes whose height and angle we’d so meticulously analyzed look different now, bigger somehow. Has the wind shifted that much sand onto our dunes in a single night?
I become the official route-scout. I am to run ahead of the car, scope out the next part of our route, and guide Bruno through it. It’s hot already and my back is dripping sweat, but I’m secretly happy not to be sitting in the car. I’m not a good off-road passenger. Bruno and I take our time, getting Totoyaya through each section of our route slowly but surely. We are careful to avoid yesterday’s danger spot, and, besides one time where Bruno doesn’t have enough power to get over one dune and has to back up and try again, we make it out of the desert unscathed.
I’m happy to see a gravel road again. The desert is not a playground, at least for me. I’m guessing the men of the Arabian Peninsula wouldn’t agree with me…
Tips for Driving in the Sand (from a laywoman off- roader):
1. Note the type of sand. Are the previous tire tracks deep? Does the sand look fluffy or well-stacked?
2. Deflate your tires. This increases surface area of tires, therefore balancing the weight of the vehicle and “lightening” its weight.
3. Drive fast through the sand, with high, consistent revs, and don’t slow down or stop. If you feel your car getting stuck, though, don’t hit the accelerator too quickly as it will sink your tires deeper into the sand. It’s kind of like driving in snow, for you Canadians out there!
4. If you get stuck in the sand, try backing out. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to place something under the tires for traction, be it wood planks or metal sand channels. Removing the sand directly in front and behind the tires will help too. Drive out slowly.