The sick bags stuffed into the back of the seat in front indicate this isn’t going to be the smoothest of journeys. We’re not in an airplane, we’re in an off-roader and about to do what the locals call “dune bashing” — driving at high speed across the undulating and constantly changing terrain.
Abu Salaf is a stretch of desert about 30 miles from Abu Dhabi, where waves of sand rise up to obscure the horizon.
Our car is a Chevrolet Tahoe, and the only special features are reinforced fenders and increased ride height; there are no harnesses, and no roll cage. Fouad Saimouah has been taking tourists dune bashing for 21 years, and before that was a night shift storekeeper on the oil fields. He learned to off-road there, and when he got stuck he would have to wait until the sun came up before he could dig himself out. We stop to deflate the tires. Seventeen psi is the required pressure. Too much air and the wheels will spin, losing grip and endangering the clutch.
As the 4x4 snakes across and over the dunes, the sensation is similar to skiing. Even more than snow, the fine surface changes constantly, shaped by the wind. It’s treacherous for the driver, as he has no way of knowing what lies beyond each crest.
Fouad gracefully slides the Tahoe down one dune but, over the next, points the nose downhill. The suspension crashes in the dip as the V8 powers us uphill and airborne over the rise. It lands on the side of a 45 degree dune and it feels like we’re about tip. Fouad steers into the turn, hits the gas, and the crisis is averted.
He claims to have never rolled. “My passengers always ask me about that, because it almost happens every day.” It almost happened several more times that day, and all I could do was marvel at the storeman behind the wheel.