Thursday, October 4, 2012

Pump, Crank, Reverse: Rocking Out In The Desert

Last month, I accompanied my husband on a business trip to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

As part of a team building exercise with his colleagues from other countries, we went on a desert safari. Let me tell you that riding around in the desert made me a little bit nauseous. We drove straight up dunes and slid down the back side sideways. Several times the sand flew over the top of the vehicle and I was profoundly grateful for roll bars but also perplexed as to why the vehicles weren't rolling down the dunes.

I thought I knew how gravity worked. Apparently not, because the rules in sand seemed to operate completely different than what I expected. Just look at the sand spray in the photo above. That's what sliding down sideways looks like. Now look at the lead vehicle in the rear view mirror shot. How does it not flip? What do these drivers know that I don't???

A couple of days later, I got to find out. While my husband attended his business meetings, I headed to Dubai to attend a desert driving class with Emirates Driving Institute.

Wow. This class was the highlight of my trip and I'm so happy that they accommodated my request for a class since the only day I could do it was a week before their official desert driving season began. (It's too hot to do a class in the desert in the summer heat.) I was the only student that day, which was perfect. I could ask all the questions I wanted to and got a few hours of actual driving time in the desert. And the weather was...well hot...over 100 and we immediately started sweating if we got out of the vehicle.

The first thing my instructor Rafiq did for me was drive straight into the side of a dune and get stuck. As in wheels spinning. No traction. Then we traded places and he told me to get our vehicle out. Nice. Notice the sand on the windshield. And half the front wheels disappeared into the sand. I've never worked so hard behind the wheel in my life. I pumped that clutch and cranked that wheel from side to side until the sand lost its hold on me and I could reverse out of there.

Properly trained drivers get unstuck through driving techniques. Inside the car. With air conditioning. Rafiq told me that those who teach themselves through trial and error often find themselves outside of the vehicle trying to dig themselves out when they get stuck. Although sometimes I like to figure out new skills for myself, I'm grateful I didn't in this circumstance. I would have died without Rafiq's expertise coaching me.
Rafiq and his trainer, the driver of the second vehicle (a safety net).
How Gravity Really Works
Vehicles can drive across slopes, even though it seems like gravity would pull them down. They are being pulled toward the earth. I understood gravity better through this experience...especially since the concept was hard for my mind to wrap around. But like electricity, I don't have to understand how it works exactly to use it. The digest version is this: If a desert driver slides down a dune and turns the wheels to the top then the vehicle will roll. But if the driver goes with the natural downward flow of the land then the sliding doesn't actually defy gravity. Nice.

I got us stuck several other times during the course of my training and my back was fairly sore at the end of the day from working so hard but I am confident that I can get out of most sticky situations. This photo shows the worst situation I got into.

I almost fell out of the vehicle when I opened the door. We're sideways. My foot is deep in the sand. I tried to get us unstuck, but had a lot of trouble. We ended up getting out of the vehicle and stepping on the sand to encourage it to roll down the side of the dune. Then Rafiq got us was the only time he took control of the wheel.
Random camels grazing on a small oasis of bushes.

After lunch we found our way to a new area and went cruising up and down the dunes. It was really fun...we picked up so much speed that I could shift from first to second gear! There was something different about our this new area. Not only were camels grazing nearby (Rafiq's never had a student take so many photos), but the slopes were quite a bit gentler and I never got stuck.

I asked Rafiq about the ease of the course. It would make sense to me to start off with the easy and then build up to the harder terrain. His answer has kept me thinking for the last couple of weeks.
"If I had started you out here, you would have given up when we got to the really hard places."
Hmm...I've used that same logic when advising parents to have their teens learn to drive in the fall and winter. Those students are rarely afraid of driving on a dark and rainy night. When driving in adverse conditions, new drivers can relax knowing that their driving instructor is sitting next to them, and prepared to help when their own inexperience threatens their lives. Thank you Rafiq. There is wisdom in your teaching style.


  1. Oh, I'm jealous! That sounds so fun! Great post.

    1. Thanks Katie. One day, I hope you'll have an opportunity like this. It was way fun.

  2. What a pretty awesome way to bond! I'm pretty sure your adrenaline rush was never so high on that day. Awesome cars too.

    1. The best feeling was when I momentarily lost control and then regained it. There was such a sense of satisfaction when I learned that skill.

  3. It sounds really fun! Good thing you had air conditioning inside the vehicle.

    1. I think we would have died without air conditioning. Seriously. It was hot.

  4. No doubt ,in Abu Dhabi Desert Safari
    safety is first and that's why have all the safety measurements for their guests in desert....


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