ADVENTURE GUIDE: Liwa
The Empty Quarter is certainly well named. The second you leave behind the green smudges of Liwa Oasis, the crescent of palm groves and plantations that follow the underground water reserves in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region, you are surrounded by nothing more than sand. Miles and miles of pink-hued sand.
It loops and folds and curls itself into stunning formations, and as the sun starts to set, it will generate a million memorable photographs as the ridges and reliefs are defined by the lengthening shadows. For experienced 4x4 drivers, it is also one enormous playground, offering the kind of dune bashing that no 30-minute Friday Groupon special can match.
If you want an authentic desert experience, this is ought to be high up on your UAE to-do list.
How to get there
The Empty Quarter (in Arabic: “Al Ruba’ Al Khali”) is the biggest sand desert in the world and stretches across parts of the UAE, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Liwa, a town built around an oasis, is the last settlement in the UAE before it begins.
The drive to Liwa from Dubai takes approximately four hours and around 90 minutes from Abu Dhabi. There are two roads that access it, both of which are perpendicular to the main E11 highway that you will have used from Dubai. The first you’ll come to is also the newest: the pencil-straight E65 that leads to the small settlement of Hameem (the signs for which you should be looking for) on the northern-most edge of Liwa Oasis, which is also the jumping off point for the luxury Qasr al-Sarab resort. This road, however, has a lower speed limit and is punctuated by various speed control measures.
The second is the E45 that turns off E11 just before the town of Tarif and should be marked by signs for Madinat Zayed. Beyond this town, the road leads to the Liwa township and the heart of the oasis.
What to expect
On either road, you will start to see human activity receding and the sand dunes climbing the closer you get to Liwa. Arriving via Madinat Zayed, you will be in Liwa’s main town of Mezairaa. E45 will end in a large T-junction and turning right at the roundabout here takes you to E90 and, two roundabouts later, the turn-off for Tel More’eb... literally “scary mountain”.
The road itself is worth the exploration. The narrow, two-lane highway snakes between huge dunes, and is often submerged by huge piles of rippling sand. Eventually, the road ends in a giant loop, the middle of which is a carpark lined with a few small shops and 4x4 outfitters. Above you is Tel More’eb, a 1.6-kilomtere-long dune whose 50-degree slip face climbs to 120 meters. It is the perfect spot for sand-drag racing and it is the home for the annual hill climb challenge. Tel More’eb coordinates are: N22 58.594 E53 47.357.
It is recommended to reach More’eb before sunset not only to see it at its best but also in order to witness ATVs, dune buggies and modified SUVs competing to reach the top of the hill first.
This is the place to enter the massive desert: you can literally go in any direction you want and drive for hours without seeing any form of life except for maybe a few camels, oryx and, if you’re lucky, the gerbil-like Lesser Egyptian jerboa.
The local community of Liwa, though, are extremely hospitable. You might bump into them playing around in the desert and they will gladly invite you for tea or lunch in their winter cottage (Arabic: “Izbeh”), and take you around to the massive dunes on their own dune buggies.
Where to camp
There’s probably no specific spot that is better than another, but here are a few things to keep in mind when looking for a place to bed down for the night:
1. The flatter the better: It just makes it easier to set up the tents and prepare your meals.
2. Try to find somewhere surrounded by high dunes in order to block the strong winds at night and keep your tents upright and your face sand-free.
3. A high dune on the east side of where you are sleeping is a plus to avoid being hit by direct sunlight early in the morning.
4. Make sure you are not very close to the bottom of the dunes.
5. Make sure you are visible to approaching drivers crossing the surrounding dunes.
Sand driving tips
It does take some skill and plenty of practice to master driving over the dunes. Here are some pointers for those wanting to start:
1. Make sure your car is in good working condition: Always check your oil, tires, engine coolant, breaks, etc.
2. Do not drive in Liwa unless you have enough desert driving experience. Get some practice closer to home first.
3. Never drive in the desert alone, it is recommended to go in 3 or more cars just in case someone gets stuck or breaks down for some reason.
4. Make sure to deflate your tyres before getting into the sand. It is recommended to go down to 15psi, although this might vary based on the type and size of tyres you have. This is done to increase the size of your car’s “footprint”, thus improving your traction and reduce the amount of strain on your vehicle.
5. Do not overload your with stuff as the lighter the car, the better the performance on the sand.
6. Don’t brake suddenly. This will cause a mound to build up in front of all wheels which might prevent your vehicle from taking off.
7. Rapid acceleration will make your wheels dig and might cause you to get stuck.
What you will need
Thanks to the tarmac road, you can reach the foot of Tel More’eb in a regular saloon these days, but if you want to explore the desert wilderness in a 4x4, it’s recommended you take the following with you:
- Tow ropes (a vehicle with a winch is a plus)
- Spare tyre
- Walkie talkies (although this will require a special permit)
- Car insurance that covers Off-Road
- Plenty of drinking water (always overestimate)
- An icebox with lots of ice
- All the food, snacks and drinks you’ll need for two days
- Tent, sleeping bag and mattress
- Jumper cables
- First aid kit
- Sand tracks
- Air compressor
- Tyre Pressure Gauge
- Jerry can
- An off-road flag (Recommended to see if the track is clear from the cars in front of you)
- Hi-lift jack (In case of a tire pop-out)