I almost threw up the very first time I went dune bashing. It was in the Margham Desert area of Dubai sometime in 2002 and the driver of the 4×4, Yasser, me and a friend were in was apparently the most experienced of the lot in the Desert Safari tour operator we had signed up with. After about half an hour of a literal roller-coaster ride across the dune sands, Yasser took a quick peek at his occupants-four of whom (me included) looked like zombies out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video. We were paired up with first-time European tourists, all of whom hadn’t ever tried this before. Do you want me to continue or head to the camp? he asked.
A minute later, we were at the desert camp! It’s hard to describe the feeling of being thrown about inside a 4×4 for a person with known motion sickness. It was a disaster right from the word go but I endured it just for the experience. I had to try it. This was my introduction to the bumpy world of dune bashing.
I have never driven in the desert so I can’t vouch for anything but the fact that to me it was an unpleasant experience being driven up and down dunes at speed. On multiple subsequent occasions, I have happily declined being driven over dunes in this manner, choosing once to walk 4 km to the highway than dune bash across some nasty-looking dunes. In other words, I am not an ardent supporter of dune-bashing from a personal standpoint, and for environmental reasons.
It was just about daybreak on a fine early morning in October 2011 when I came across an Arabian horned viper lying at the bottom of a low sand dune in the middle of the Sharjah Desert. I was on my usual weekend desert trek and even though on foot, I was just about able to distinguish the shape of the viper as it lay buried in its ambush posture in the desert sand right at the bottom of the dune with only its head sticking out of the sand.
Only later would I realize how easy it would have been for me to have missed its presence. Now imagine being up on a vantage point 6 feet in the air and looking mostly immediately ahead of you rather than below. In other words, sitting on the driver’s seat of a 4×4 vehicle, even the most trained eye would not be able to spot a small depression in the sand where a viper or any other desert creature would have lain.
Add to this a concoction of a bunch of six or more humans hoping for their famed and exalted ‘roller-coaster ride’ in the desert. Well, the right ingredients for all mayhem to break loose on the desert sand. Viper, no viper! – the driver would drive like a maniac totally disregarding the delicate animals and plants of the desert.
His primary goal is to ensure his business runs well by satisfying his customers and getting that extra ‘oomph’ out their excited grunts. The customer’s primary goal is to endure a joyride that they can Facebook or tweet about later: Guys, we went dune-bashing in the middle of the desert yesterday and it was so much fun riding up and down the dunes.
Alas, the reality of the situation is that, tires deflated or not, 4x4s are killer machines on the desert sand and there are plenty of negative repercussions that dune bashing brings about that is clearly visible all across the deserts of the United Arab Emirates. I hope to touch upon some of them in this post.
Impact on wildlife
The deserts are not entirely barren: be it the vast, endless dunes of Liwa or the wind-shaped expansive dunes of Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates. These deserts are host to a variety of wildlife, from mammals to reptiles to insects. These creatures are all superbly built to utilize the desert sand and survive the harsh environment they live in. Dune bashing literally destroys their natural habitat (breeding grounds, holes, activity areas, etc) forcibly displacing them to move deeper into the desert, thereby putting immense pressure on them to survive.
Adding to this, most of these creatures are extremely shy of humans (such as the Arabian red fox and the sand fox) who will take flight just upon seeing humans. Imagine their plight, when a barrage of weird-looking creatures (vehicles) is headed their way.
To them, a 4×4 is a monster and just hearing the sound of the engines revving up and clouds of sand bursting beneath the tires can scare the living wits out of them. Most insects utilize the desert sand to lay their eggs and in fact many reptiles including skinks and snakes dig under the sand for camouflage, to mate, or attract prey.
Driving irresponsibly (as most dune bashers do) over such areas would only crush any creatures unlucky enough to be under the desert sand. These are just a few of the many negative impacts that dune bashing has on animals.
Desert plants are extremely well suited to survive in the harsh desert climate too. They mostly depend on early morning dew to meet their water requirements and many plants remain dormant for years until a good amount of rain falls on the desert sand where after they fruit and flourish in a cyclical manner.
It goes without saying that most of the desert animals are dependent on the flora for their own survival. Dune bashing cases a significant negative environmental impact on plant life especially in inter-dunal plains where most desert plants can be found to flourish. Plants, though, can survive this rampage much more than animals and usually come out of this barrage with just some painful scars but the fact is significant damage does take place.
I am not against driving on the desert sand in a responsible manner. I know personally many individuals who head out on routine desert trips and are respectful of the natural surroundings. I am only critical about how people go about ‘dune bashing’ as in using their powerful 4x4s to run up and down sand dunes in a destructive manner with total disregard to the environment. There is a significant amount of noise and smoke pollution involved with dune bashing too that I must emphasize.
I hope that one day some sort of regulation is brought about by regional authorities and enforced so that irresponsible drivers are taken to task.
By Ajmal Hassan,
Academic Coordinator, Khalifa University