The scene could be straight out of Lawrence of Arabia, with pristine sand dunes stretching as far as the eye can see. The sky is taking on an orange hue as the sun disappears behind a mountain of sand. Okay, the sunset isn’t quite so spectacular by desert standards, but it’s a satisfying end to an eventful day. And what a day it’s been! We’ve spent the better part of an afternoon under a 40-degree sun in the middle of nowhere, conquering massive sand dunes in a Jeep Wrangler. Except that we’re not quite in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard to believe that less than an hour away from the fabulous high-rises and shopping malls of Dubai, you can find yourself in a windblown expanse of sand that’s devoid of any civilisation. It’s a surreal experience, which is why ‘dune bashing’, as it is known in Dubai, is hugely popular. The touristy thing to do is go for a passenger ride with one of the many tour operators that offer roller coaster rides over the dunes in Land Cruisers. But nothing beats driving yourself, even if inexperience risks you getting stuck.
It’s quite fitting to have come to tackle the dunes in the Wrangler because Jeep has a long history of conquering deserts, right since the days of the Desert Rats – the 7th Armoured Division of the British Army that used Jeeps in their heroic campaigns in the African desert during World War II. Besides, the Wrangler’s rugged, utilitarian, go-anywhere character and squared-off design stays faithful to the character of the World War II original. The body-on-frame construction, selectable low-range gear ratio, relatively short wheelbase, fantastic wheel articulation and sharp approach and departure angles make it ideally suited for serious off-roading on trails that would shake other 4x4s to bits. But driving in the desert is an altogether different ball game. The soft sand isn’t hard on the car, but it’s not exactly terra firma, and can swallow any 4x4 down to its axles if you get it wrong. I have to admit that I’m no pro when it comes to driving on soft sand and my experience is limited to a handful of ‘Great Escapes’, Mahindra’s off-road jamborees in Rajasthan. But the Thar dunes are puny compared to what I have in front of me. In fact, the Scorpios, Boleros and Thars I drove are also puny compared to the 285hp, 3.6-litre, petrol V6 Wrangler. Follow certain rules and there’s a good chance you can stay out of trouble. It also helps to have a guide who’s done this stuff before; follow him blindly.
Rule number one, and possibly the most important, is to lower tyre pressure to as little as 15-16psi. Lowering tyre pressure increases the tyre footprint and spreads the car’s weight to let you ‘float’ on the sand and not cut through it. This hugely improves your traction and can mean the difference between getting hopelessly bogged down and ploughing through the loose stuff. I then push the Wrangler’s stubby lever into low range to make full use of the 3.6 V6’s 347Nm of torque.
Rule number two is to maintain momentum, especially when going up a steep dune, but this is easier said than done. Even with the throttle pedal pinned to the floorboard, I could feel the V6 struggling to maintain revs. But you quickly learn to anticipate the terrain ahead and gun the motor in advance to give you enough speed to get through a soft patch. Also, a trick I learnt is to stick to the tracks of the vehicle in front, which will have compacted the sand to make it
a firmer surface.
Once you get into a rhythm, roller-coasting over the dunes is one of the best experiences on four wheels. Powering up a 50-degree, four-storey high bank of sand with just the sky filling your windscreen and then dropping down the other side, wheels momentarily in the air, is a real adrenaline rush. The best bit is, because there’s nothing to hit and the sand is so soft, you don’t have to worry about damaging the car. The only time it gets really hairy is when you go sideways across a steep dune, which angles you precariously close to a rollover. No, it’s best to charge straight up or down a dune.
The fun in the Wrangler is a bit short-lived. Getting overconfident, I stop where I shouldn’t and sink a few inches into the sand. Then I make the cardinal mistake of trying to take off with too much gas and, with a rooster tail spray of sand from my spinning wheels, I am well and truly stuck down to the floorboard. I try everything from flicking quickly between first gear and reverse to rock the car free, to getting our whole contingent of people to push me out. But nothing works. Then our guide runs off and comes back with a pair of sand channels. All we need is something solid under the wheels to get me unstuck. Luckily, the channels provide enough traction for me to break free and, to avoid getting stuck again, I perch the Wrangler on a dune facing downhill. That’s another trick. If you have to stop, do it on a slope facing down and let gravity pull you out.
Hot and tired, we unwind in the fabulous Bab Al Shams resort, which resembles a traditional Arabian village set in the middle of the desert to give you a taste of Bedouin life. Except it’s all five-star hospitality now and after a long day of driving, we are treated to dinner and dancing. A great way to unwind.