Desert Challenge 2012

Setting off for AD on Sunday, JJ packed with gear

 The first week of April we took a week’s “holiday” in the sands of Rub’_al_Khali, one of the largest if not the largest sand deserts in the world (why this could not be considered a holiday in the usual sense of the word will become apparent shortly). We were there to join a marshalling team of ME4x4 members manning checkpoints and more during the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
We’ve been on day trips to the area around  the Liwa Oasis before and had even camped just off the Arada Rd to the SW of the huge crescent shaped oasis early last year. Away from the moisture of Liwa, the sands are mostly empty of vegetation, camels and human life but even so vary a lot in character as you move from east to west.

Luxury Camping

Our first duty as a team (not counting Kevin & I’s contribution at the Special Stage run on an empty lot by the sea in Abu Dhabi (AD) on Sunday afternoon) was to run a passage control at a pipeline crossing some 180 km south of AD. We met the night before in the DC bivouac (a tented town adjacent to the Al Qasr Sarab desert resort) and requisitioned one of the square old fashioned tents as our accommodation, though Ram & Sujit decided to sleep in their cars as they hadn’t packed camp beds. Fortunately JJ’s load included some food and our camping stove. The Bivouac would not be fully operational until the following day when the competitors arrived so tents but not food was on offer. After a bit of a delay the portacabin showers and loo’s were connected to a water supply so we went to bed clean in preparation for an early start the next morning.

Welcome Shade

Monday set the pattern for our days…. up early, refuel the cars, collect some boxes of bottled water, breakfast on the hoof, a bit of road driving followed by a track or two to our appointed location somewhere in the desert. In amongst all the stuff packed into JJ we’d signs to erect to inform passing traffic that the rally was crossing the pipeline “road”, red flags (on loan from F1 in AD) to wave to stop said traffic plus a series of signs to indicate to competitors where to enter the passage control, where to pause to get their cards stamped and where to exit. And a radio with which to communicate with Race Control when atmosheric conditions and location permitted, oddly during the week we often found that driving to the top of the nearest dune and making a mobile phone call was more effective!

Pipeline Construction – The DC’s SAR Helicopter parked nearby

Our first task on Monday was to drive down the stage route from the pipeline crossing as three weeks of recent sandstorms had all but obliterated it. Sujit & I with GPS in hand and accompanied by Ram headed off in two cars leaving Kevin to meet & greet the pipeline safety team. Once back there was a long, hot wait for the competitors who were finding the stage very hard going with powder soft sand, due to the sandstorms. Eventually around noon the first bike appeared and we dutifully stamped their pink card with a number three, recording the passage time on the yellow record cards we had been provided with. By late afternoon all the motor bikes, quads, cars and buggies, about 75 in total, still in the race had passed, there seemed to have been a high rate of attrition as barely half the cars & buggies made it to us from their start near Abu Dhabi. The highlight of our day had been yesterday papers & coffee provided by Doug the South African Safety Manager and a visit from one of the rally’s SAR helicopters. We also pulled a VIP car out of the sand directly in front of our post and saw several huge rig trucks with wheels taller than most of us trundling past on their way to or from a new gas drilling rig. Interestingly the latter were sharing their track with the competitors. On the other hand the pipeline track was like a busy main road with other traffic to and from the workers camp; buses, cranes, refrigerated lorries carrying food and water tankers as well as saloon cars. The red flags were needed!

Once we were signed off by Race Control we packed the gear and were free to play…. soon we discovered that the local sand was really really soft and rapidly called it a day after a hose on Ram’s car came unclipped causing him to loose most of the cooling water. Tired, sweaty and suffering from mild dehydration we headed to a popular lorry drivers cafe in Humeem for a cup of chi before making tracks for the bivouac, a quick supper, a beer or two (to combat the dehydration you understand) and our beds.

Hanging Around Waiting for Competitors to Arrive

Tuesday the team changed, Ram had headed home to Dubai after supper so just three of us in tow cars drove the full length of the Liwa Crescent road to a point on a gash track somewhere west of Arada, not far north of the border with Saudi. Dev, officially our team leader and Sudhir drove out from Dubai to join us soon after we had set up. We watched the first bike fail to follow the correct route and have to double back to make the passage control, then every one else seemed to follow his track in the sand until a group of spectators on quads drove the correct route but even then we still got the odd competitor doing an abrupt about turn as they hit the gash track some 200m north of our position! The cars with their navigators mostly got it right. One of our visitors during the day kindly brought coffee and the previous day’s papers – we were beginning to enjoy this lifestyle!

Curry Supper on Day 4

After a long day Sujit headed home to Dubai whilst the rest of the team decided to drive the stage route back towards the bivouac where we could refuel & restock on water again. It was a great drive over steep yellowy dunes with some superb slip faces. A few stucks ensued when we foolishly tried to follow the bike path but all in all it was great fun. After refuelling we then drove back the direction we’d come but this time along the tarmac, making first for Mizaira’a and supper in a Bangladeshi restaurant there before heading for the Liwa Rest House. The Rest House is a government provided B&B, it’s a little run down & basic, the beds are more than a bit hard but it is very, very clean and cheap whilst the avocado ensuite bathroom provided lashings of hot water to rinse all the sand off. It was to be our home for three nights.

Sunrise in Rub Al Khali

Wednesday we were sent out into the desert to man the first PC of the day so it was an early, early start. The post was in a flattish bowl so when the SAR helicopter arrived it tried a couple of spots before choosing the dunes well above us to land so they had comms with HQ. When Sudhir drove up to take a look, one of the crew hitched a lift down to us. Gareth turned out to be a Professor of Physiology in Ulster who was conducting a study on behalf of FIM into the dehydration or otherwise of the marshalling teams. The four of us gave up urine & blood samples as well as having our temperature and other measurements taken. It appeared we were fairly well hydrated, probably because as a group we are used to being in the desert. We had made amends for the start of the week and were now drinking a lot of fluid as well as including regular doses of isotonic powder in the water we consumed in addition to eating plenty of salty snacks. When the last competitor had passed us, the reward for our early start was an amazing drive eastwards all afternoon followed by another curry supper in Mizaira’a and an early night.

Helicopter  on Manouevres

Thursday was a change of plan, the Chief Marshal asked us to take on another remote posting rather than a round about close to the Resthouse, so we arranged to meet Azim and his wife Sona in her Jeep on the Gayathi Road which runs north-south some several hundred kilometres west of AD to join the Liwa Crescent at its western end. This was a longish drive from the rest house so we set off in the dark. Around day break we came across the tanker intended for the competitors service stop, it was some 20k short of its intended position. After a quick phone call we escorted it to the right location as we too needed its services! Then we carried on north to meet up with our new team mates and were soon heading off the tarmac, south westerly into the sands for the day’s PC, our remotest spot yet.

Stamping Competitors Cards is a Dusty Business

This was a route we’d driven before on a Confluence Drive back in October (a confluence is where the Lat and Long are round numbers, in this case N23, E053). The dunes here in the west of the UAE are like a red Salisbury Plain, gently rolling and very flat making high speed driving very easy. Until the next slip face that is, so you always have to be careful. Apart from a couple of quad bikes who retired at our PC bringing the sweep team to us to truck their bikes back to the bivouac we saw very few people except competitors during the morning… too remote a point even to be noted on the maps provided to spectators. Hence it was great to greet friends from the ME4x4 club when the sweep team arrived even if their stopover was short and they were very busy manhandling quads onto pick-ups. Another day and another spectacular desert drive with a curry supper to round it off. We all recognised how privileged we are to have the opportunity to drive in these remote areas.

Day 5 – the very last day of the Desert Challenge 2012 and we ended it back where we’d started, at the pipeline…this time no PC just managing the traffic on the pipeline track, oh and driving the stage from PC1 to the pipeline before the competitors started racing at 07:00.  Hence another early morning drive in the dark from the Resthouse across the Crescent to refuel at the Bivouac before heading up the gash track to open up the route. We did however manage to grab breakfast at 05:30 in the Bivouac and say hi to many friends that we’d hardly seen all week.

Oops – Dev wished he’d not landed just there

The early start meant time for another play in the desert when our duties were done. We were due in AD for the awards ceremony at 16:30 so the six of us in four cars decided once more to follow the stage route until we hit a road. The dunes here were short and steep and very chewed up by the competitors, more than once we were forced to find an alternative path. On the way we met a competitor car where driver & co-driver were just finishing reattaching bumpers with cable ties & duck tape after they’d hit the sand rather hard. Shortly after we came across a ME 4×4 friend Mike R, one of the sweep team. Mike has a large white GMC pickup, it was very stuck. After helping him out, together we went in search of his partner in crime Streaky, who was stuck on the other side of the same dune! For a while they joined with us until duty called and they had to go in search of a bike or two abandoned further up the course.

JJ at the Dc’s Mobile Service Station

Eventually we hit the tarmac and made AD just in time for the start of the awards in the grounds of Yas Marina YC. Afterwards there was a party for all at the Rotana. Kevin & I were staying in a nearby hotel so proffered our facilities to Sudhir, Dev, Azim & Sona so they too could freshen up and change. Amazingly the Staybridge staff did not bat an eyelid when we requested extra towels at check in nor when we later asked that the room be serviced whilst we were out at the party and no one queried the large amount of sand on the carpet and in the bath after the six of us had showered and put on our party clothes.  It had been an amazing if exhausting week doing something completely different and all of us had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

At the Awards Ceremony

The Winning Car from France