There is a certain, unequaled thrill sitting in the front seat of a four-wheel drive SUV, its engine roaring like a locomotive as it churns its way up a 15-foot sand dune and slides diagonally down the other side, only to bounce across a valley, take aim again and repeat the scream-inducing ride all over again.
This is dune-bashing in the Sharjah Desert outside of Dubai. The passengers in the two back rows have an even more harrowing experience.
Sharjah is one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. You probably haven’t heard of it, or any of them except Dubai and perhaps Abu Dhabi. But a 50-minute ride on a four-lane, well-marked highway out of Dubai brings you to Sharjah’s desert. Dubai, which is much larger than the city and extends from the Persian Gulf to a border with Oman to the south, also has a vast desert and also features dune-bashing for tourists, but this ride was in Sharjah.
It’s land owned — or leased, it’s unclear which — specifically for the ground-bound rollercoaster-like ride in 100-degree heat. One cannot help but scream as the Toyota Land Cruiser — usually, but Chevies and GMCs are also abundant out here — criss-crosses the dunes looking for steeper challenges. The driver maniacally guns the engine to shoot up the wall of sand. At the crest, there appears to be no path down the other side. It just drops off, and the screams are inevitable. Just when all looks hopeless, he will crank the wheel, tide the top, and slide almost sideways down the other side.
For some reason, it doesn’t stop the screams. And the screams are always followed by laughter, and then demands for more.
Take that, Schlitterbahn.
There are a dozen or so other SUVs out here, all doing the same thing, too.
Just when you think your stomach will give up and drop to your toes, the driver stops for a photo op in the sand. That’s a good excuse to pause, but the real reason becomes immediately evident. The driver opens the hood, and lets the over-worked engine cool down, as much as that’s possible in the late-day heat of the Middle East.
After about 20 minutes the ride continues just as frentic, but eventually a large, rough enclosure appears over the next dune. It’s time for a camel ride (or another photo op for those who’s ridden one before and decided once is enough). For a fee, one can rent an ATV and take off across the dunes. Death wish comes to mind. But eventually there’s dinner of miniature donuts, rice, vegetables, grilled chicken and kofta (spiced ground lamb on a skewer), accompanied by traditional Arabic dances, and if you wish, a couple of pulls on shisha, sweet, fruit-flavored tobacco through a tall water pipe.
There is, of course, a paradox here. While the ride is thrilling, these companies, and there are several dozen of them across the desert, are using a beautiful natural resource for something it wasn’t made for. A brisk wind blows across the fine, tiny-grained sand at sundown every night. Many of the ruts are repaired as the sand slithers across the dunes, and the dunes themselves creep across the landscape.
There must be crews that come out occasionally to pick up the hundreds of plastic water bottles dropped out of windows during the rides. But the desert is littered with them nonetheless.
So often, our fun comes at the expense of something — or someone — that can’t defend itself. This is a relatively small activity in the vast expanse of a desert that seems endless. Maybe this once we can enjoy it without guilt. It sure was fun.