The Qatar peninsula combines soft and hard terrain, surrounded by the Persian Gulf. The land north of Doha, the capital city, is mostly dust blowing over compact bedrock, where ground excavation requires huge hydraulic jack hammers. The southern region east of Salwa road, the only authorized expressway into Saudi Arabia, is an expedition through enormous slopes of sand.
When driving between continuous sand dunes, the monochromatic landscape looks nearly the same in every direction. Color consistencies camouflage steep cliffs – from a few feet to several hundred meters high – which easily tip unprepared motorists. At times, the only way to penetrate a patch of sand is to build up momentum. Inexperienced drivers who blindly hit the gas are likely to spin out of control and crash.
Qatar’s most popular arena for dune bashing is located about 50 miles south of Doha – 10 miles south of Umm Sa’id municipality. Drivers familiar with the terrain are commonly seen leading convoys of amateurs. On Fridays, Arabs gather to exhibit vehicles maneuvering massive walls of sand and showcasing spinouts.Siam, 27, has organized desert safaris for seven years with Qatar International Adventures. The rides, known as “sand bashing,” are like a rollercoaster without a track. The only certainty of safety is relying on a driver’s experience. Siam says he’s well acquainted with Qatar’s remote sand dunes, enough to navigate them at night.
“Don’t worry,” he says to his passengers with a smirk of confidence. “I know what I’m doing.”
Before leaving the security of hard asphalt, drivers must release some pressure from street-optimized tires, says Siam. Airing down the tires widens the tread’s foot print, which delays wheel slip by increasing ground contact. Tires are more apt to exceed the sand that collects in front of them; when fully inflated, they are narrower and quickly sink. A drop down to roughly 10-15 pounds-per-square-inch is necessary, exact deflation depends on tire size and vehicle weight.
Trucks used for sand bashing need to have eight-cylinder engines with four-wheel drive systems, says Siam. Great torque and traction is required to avoid getting stuck in Qatar’s remote areas. Inferior cars risk endlessly spinning their wheels. Furthermore, he recommends Toyota over Nissan, citing improved handling and shock absorption. In Qatar, it’s not uncommon to see a luxury-class sports utility vehicle taking on a desert safari – such as a Lexus, Mercedes or BMW. Amazingly, Qatari accidents are rare in the desert. It’s a controlled chaos of four-wheel drive power.QIA provides camp grounds about 10 miles from the inland sea that separates Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The salty ocean air mixes with the aromas of camp fires and Shisha pipes, which burn flavored tobaccos. Chicken, beef and lamb kebabs are barbecued and served with salad, flat bread and hummus. The camp contains tents for shade and overnight stays, along with fire pits, snorkeling gear and all-terrain vehicles. More traditional travels are offered by a couple camels, each anchored on the beach using ropes and sand bags.
Ironically, while driving on the paved roads entering Doha, a traffic patrolman cited Siam for not wearing a seat belt.