I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had many memorable moments in the 10 years since I arrived in Abu Dhabi back on 1st June 2009. I have always forged my own path in life and living here has allowed me to do this to extreme, from camping in the desert on my own, early morning visits to traditional markets in Oman (Sinaw Thursday market, if you haven’t been already, please add it to your bucket list) and driving a group of Bedu ladies out to their farm in the desert, to mention just a few. Here are 10 highlights – things that have changed my life.
1) Learning to offroad
The start of every journey begins with a few small steps and so it was in June 2009, just 21 days after arriving, I took to the sand with AD4X4 in our FJ Cruiser. Despite originating from the UK, the birthplace of the Land Rover, I had never driven offroad there and I had much to learn! I was frequently terrified and often stuck but after many drives I progressed up to intermediate. My friends formed UAE Offroaders and I followed them and by late summer 2010 I was a marshal for them, leading trips on my own.
I thought I was a great driver and was asked to join a driving project where I soon realised I was not as good as I thought; however there, in Liwa, I met a charming young Emirati man who taught me the finer points of self-recovery and how to drive through the desert like a Bedu!
2) Founding Oasis Offroad
After 3 years of driving with other clubs I found that I preferred longer drives in more remote areas than those just outside Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, so with the help of a couple of my friends and my husband I formed Oasis Offroad. I love teaching people the basic steps in offroad driving and I think that over the years, at least 500 people must have taken their first trip in the sand with me. Once we had enough Oasis Offroad drivers who were competent in self-recovery then the Liwa listing trips started!
Oasis Offroad still flourishes in Al Ain, led by my friend Mike Galvin and you can read about the club in OutdoorUAE October 2015 edition.
We first visited Liwa back in January 2009 before I even lived here; we’d just got our new FJ during one of my holidays in the UAE (my husband started working here in June 2007) and at the end of my break we decided to go to Dubai Airport from Al Ain via Liwa. Surely no-one can be unimpressed by the awesome dunescapes there; in my case it was love at first sight and for the last 10 years I have enjoyed a love affair with this wonderful desert to the north of the Rub Al Khali. It took me almost two years to return there offroad, following a club marshal who originates from there, these days there are not many dunes in the wider area which have not borne my tyretracks at some time!
I have been fortunate to live in the area too, firstly in 2016 and returning in 2018. How lucky am I to be able to reach the gorgeous dunes in less than 10 minutes from my home!
I have written a number of articles about Liwa including Diggers, Dhaubs and Dunes (October 2013) Zodiac Liwa (September 2014), Liwa in Summer (August 2015), Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge (May 2016), Liwa Crescent Onroad (July 2017) and Crossing The Crescent (February 2017). If you haven’t already visited this amazing area I suggest you go soon to make your own adventure story!
I may not have offroaded before landing here but I brought a lot of camping experience gained in the UK and France with me. It seemed a bit strange, though ultimately delightful, to wild camp; we looked for official camping sites but there were none. We were lucky in that we had a Canadian friend who took us out on our foray into the desert; he soon had us converted into wild campers and I recommend you take your first foray into desert camping with someone who knows what they are doing!
At first I forgot to take important things with me (like matches and a lighter), then I went through a phase of taking everything but the kitchen sink; nowadays I have slimmed down my camping kit which takes up less room and clatters less when going over dunes – I have also created a firebox with silicon gloves, firelights and of course an all important lighter!
It’s taken some years bt Iike to think I have perfected the art of camping in the dunes, and over the years have delighted in taking many friends and customers out for a night by the campfire, under a canopy of 5 million stars.
5) Motorsport marshalling
In 2011 I signed up for a day›s marshalling at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge; little did I know how much it would change my life! I enjoyed it so much that after the initial day I opted to stay on for the rest of the week and this event has been a fixture in my calendar ever since!
The ADDC is arguably one of the most difficult events in the World Cup for Cross Country Rallies series with almost all of the offroad route sections crossing sand dunes and it is wonderful to see the very best drivers in the world take on the Abu Dhabi desert. Marshalling is a great way to get close to the action and through my involvement in this and also the Emirates Desert Challenge I have met many interesting people, discovered long distance desert driving and discovered a whole new passion!
6) Dark Skies Challenge 2014-2018
Inspired by the great work some Oman based friends do with the Wahiba Challenge, I created my own event, in the most remote area of the UAE – the desert west of Ghayathi. I say event as it was so much more than a point to point driving challenge; we had photo competitions in 7 categories, always with OutdoorUAE magazine as one of the sponsors; a prize quiz in the middle of the desert; our teams also had 5kms bonus for collecting treasure which I’d buried in the desert the week before.
Safety is always at the heart of everything I do so I created a strict set of rules to ensure no-one got lost, there was no benefit in trying to complete the challenge in the fastest time, and that everyone would drive safely. In the five years I ran the event we had no mishaps which required a police report!
The first event was in 2014 which was an Oasis Offroad only event with 6 teams, 24 cars and 3 support, it was opened up to other clubs and individuals the following year and eventually increasing in size to 18 teams plus 11 sweep and support.
7) Mike Nott Oman trip
My husband and I were extremely fortunate to have Mike Nott invite us along on his recce trip for new oman routes for the second edition of Advanced Offroad Adventure Routes UAE and Oman. We traveled offroad from Adam in Al Wusta area to within a stone’s throw of Salalah; driving mainly through wadi beds and valleys well off the beaten track we encountered the most awesome of landscapes. This was my first time rock crawling and who better to tutor me than Mike himself!
Our crew of six covered around 1000kms offroad over 8 days and you too can discover the amazing routes in Mike’s book. There are a few route updates and you can find these on the book’s facebook page.
In July 2012 my husband and I headed 1000kms southwards to the seaside city of Salalah in search of rain and cool temperatures; we had seen the signpost “Salalah 1215kms” and heard about the “kareef” – the summer period when the tail end of the Indian monsoon drenches Oman’s second city in rain, turning the area green. The temperature steadily dropped from 42C in Thumrait, 60kms from the coast to a wonderful 27C as the highway twisted and turned its way down towards the sea and I knew then that I would fall in love with this beautiful, relatively quiet city.
It should be on every Middle Eastern expat’s bucket list for at least two visits, one in the cool summer and one in the slightly warmer than the UAE mid-winter! During the Khareef the atmosphere is amazing as Gulf Nationals visit for up to a month to experience temperatures up to 30C cooler than their home towns and to enjoy the rain. As a Scot who hates rain, it always amuses me to see them enjoying picnics during the drizzly weather! One disadvantage of a summer visit is the lack of visibility in the mountains which form a crescent to the west of Salalah; often you are driving inside a cloud so cannot appreciate the beautiful landscape! For this reason a visit in the winter is a must – the winding mountain roads rising out of the city have beautiful vistas at every turn and although the grass may have withered somewhat the trees are still green! My favourite way to get there by road is via the coastal route from Muscat (see OutdoorUAE May 2017) and offroad, by following Mike’s route (see OutdoorUAE Dec 2017).
9) Jebel Akhdar in the summer
I was first introduced to Oman’s Green Mountain by an Emirati friend and was amazed that even in September the temperatures were low and astounded by the number of baskets full of huge red pomegranates for sale by the side of the road! I have been back many many times including trips in October, January and March – as someone who dislikes cold weather it is definitely better to visit during the height of the summer. There at 2000 metres above sea level you can enjoy clean crisp air, temperatures 20C cooler than Dubai and Al Ain. Nights can be cool too – if you have never been it is hard to imagine the need for a campfire, jackets and a thick sleeping bag at 23 degrees north of the equator but trust me, you do! To get a taste of what Oman’s Green Mountain has to offer, check out my articles in June 2016 and December 2018.
10) Rub Al Khali
The Empty Quarter is the largest sand dune desert in the world mostly in KSA, but with sizeable portions in the UAE and Oman too. I’ve already mentioned the UAE part which lies south of the Liwa Crescent road but I’ve also explored and organized trip to the Omani portion. The dunes here are very different to Liwa as they rise in spectacular massifs from the white sabkha, reaching up to 160 metres high; it can be tricky to drive over them as their composition is so complex with lots of bumps and bowls, but nevertheless driving through the sabkha maze with them as the backdrop is an unforgettable experience.
The Rub al Khali has been an obsession since I first read about it in Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and a trip to Saudi to reach the largest part of it is one of the few things left on my Middle East bucket list!
11) Writing for OutdoorUAE
I was delighted when back in 2013, Daniel invited me to submit an article for the August edition of the magazine. A keen writer since my teenage days, this was my first published work and since then he has made me his magazine’s “Offroad Expert” and I have contributed articles regularly since then. I have also created a few offroad routes for the magazine which you can download via their website, as well as having two routes included in the second edition of Mike Nott’s book.
In May 2019 I will become UK based however, plans are in progress for a part time return to Oman and the UAE next winter! Working with a local partner I will bring tourists to Oman for seven-day self-drive adventures and who knows where that will lead! In the meantime I will continue to post on Instagram and Facebook from my immense photo collection – please follow me to see the many beautiful sights to be found in this place my heart calls home! ■
Written by: Marina Bruce
Photos: Marina Bruce
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