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Horsepower hunting in the Middle East: part two, exploring the dune-riding scene

18 July 2015


We cap off our unforgattable Middle Eastern excursion by checking out Qatar’s fearless and extreme dune-riders, and their trusted vehicles

Ain’t it strange how you fall into stuff sometimes, and nervously chuckle your way through, only to come out the other side and think, “Wow, that was madness — got to do that again …” Well back in January, it happened while I was in Qatar. Having been to a beer conference in Dublin (yeah I know, large cliché going there), my trip home just happened to coincide with some soft, sandy heaven in the Middle East.

The opportunity for a stopover in the dunes arose when I discovered that AirBnB would allow cheap accommodation in an area of our world normally reserved for $500 rooms. A random comment to my AirBnB host linked me with a 10-year veteran of the dunes, and some world-standard drag racing at a facility which makes Meremere look like a goat track. 

I had nothing more than an expectation of a leisurely drive into the desert, little did I know that Thursdays start the Arab world’s weekend, so every man and his cat was out for a bash. We’re not talking a casual 50kph wallow in the sand here — as soon as we hit the dunes our speedo went to 140 while watching many, many other bashers sprint by as if we were standing still. It was at about this time that our driver, aptly named Jihad, turned and asked; “Do you scare easily?” I have a penchant for giggling like a schoolgirl when things get a bit hairy, so through my laughter the answer was; “No, get on with it, this looks like fun.”

With that, we plummeted over what felt like a 50-meter, 70 degree steep cliff face, and at this point I realized that this was going to be more than a leisurely tourist drive in a Nissan Patrol. I never actually asked Jihad if he’d done any work to his 4×4, but my instinct says it was fairly warm. 

The area we visited was near Doha’s Sealine Beach Resort, not far from the border with Saudi Arabia. This south-eastern corner of Qatar is certainly an adventure playground for locals, and kilometres of quad, jeep, buggy and even camel rides greet you while dunes approach in the distance. After a quick stop for a cup of mint tea and to take pics of camels while tyre pressures were dropped to a lowly 10psi, we were off, leaving a wake of sand behind us. 
Half an hour of rim riding and diving over the edge when least expecting it had the chuckles flowing thick and fast. Some of the action was most certainly YouTube-worthy. Do yourself a favour and search out “Qatar sand dune bashing,” that should give you an indicator of the fun we had. 

As the sun began to drop, a casual comment from Jihad about Friday being race day didn’t go unnoticed. 

Surprisingly, in among what appear to be never-ending mountains of sand, Qatar has an area that sits below sea level. So  when the tide rises, so too do inland seas. However, at low tide, the flatbeds become the quickest corridors for travel. I found this out en route to our Friday destination. It struck me while doing 140kph, sliding sideways through traffic, that those mad Arab drifting videos we secretly admire are a little more practiced than you might realize. With a solid 45-degree angle of attack, the locals all appear to maintain composure as they toss the wheel, change music on their iPods, light a cigarette, and hold a conversation at the same time — never even looking as if sweat could bead on their foreheads. 

I hadn’t a hint of what to expect, but in what seemed like no time, we approached a virtual herd of machines gathered in a dune valley. Dropping over another near-vertical sandbank to be greeted by 1000 off-roaders was not something you’ll forget any time soon. Sure the dunes had plenty of traffic, but this gathering was mind blowing — and all were parked as if they had arrived for a drive-in movie. 

Once again the giggling began as 4×4 after dune buggy after glorified golf cart after daily-driven work ute ploughed headlong at a single dune that was easily 100 meters high. To this day I still don’t understand the competition, but it appeared that he who rode the rim (or close to it) for the longest time went home with the largest dune cred. 

Most competitors were running harshly-boosted sixes, with the occasional LSX on duty too. Limiters and wastegates were abused most of the time. With anything from two to six occupants all laughing their way across the sand in each vehicle, roll cages were at a minimum. But even so, the spectacle of a sideways drift at 70 degrees with a 10-metre sandy rooster tail in its wake is still something you have to experience in the flesh. 

As night fell, so too did the madness that is Qatar dune bashing. A procession of four-wheel drives headed for Doha, or one of many encampments in the dunes. And yes, I was still giggling as we weaved our way through the lunacy of Arabian motorway traffic. 

After a day out in the sand, I came to realize there was method in the apparent randomness of the driving. Yes, it appears to be chaos at all times, yet when everyone drives in the same manner it becomes normal.

Along with its annual International ADRL drag-racing series (which we covered in part one), the Qatar Racing Club (QRC) also work closely with the Qatar royal family to draw suspect activities off the streets. This includes a full drifting arena down the bottom end of their track. I didn’t catch any of the action unfortunately, but that just gives me another excuse to go back. Then there’s the Qatar mile land-speed racing, along with plenty of sand drag racing and dune climbing, as well as an exotic-car graveyard rumoured to measure five square kilometres just outside of Doha. Add these and a couple of crazy car museums to the list … did I say I am going back? Too right I am!

Photos: Cameron Sharft and Snappa Reid