The Basics of Desert Driving
In my years of my trips to Morocco with a fantastic group of experienced adventurers to this country, there are many things that I learned and that gave me a very different approach to the many traditional off-road routes that I had done before in my life.
There are three basic driving challenges in the Moroccan deserts. The dunes, the hamadas and the dry rivers of sand. Each one poses different conditions and requires a different approach to overcome. All are in different ways dangerous, and certainly fun to drive!
As a general rule, if you are driving with other vehicles, always keep your distance with the 4×4 in front of you. Far enough to allow you to read and predict the terrain with the reactions of the car and driver in front of you and not fall into the same predicament, and close enough not to lose sight of him. This practice will be of great importance if the first vehicle requires rescue. Not a good idea if you both get stuck in the same hole!
Dune Driving for beginners or not?
The first thing that usually comes to our mind when thinking about the Sahara are the dunes, of course. If you have not had the opportunity to experience dune driving before, this is something completely different than anything we may have experienced before and will require much practice to learn. Don’t be misled if you’ve had experience in driving beach dunes at home in northern latitudes. The dunes of the Sahara are another world. The first thing that will strike you is the sheer size of some of these dunes!
Some dunes are as high as a good size mountain range at home. Like these, they don’t shift with the wind either. I recommend that to really enjoy the adrenalin rush of dune driving, you should start out by following an experienced driver and be in constant contact with CB radios to receive advice and warnings.
The time of the day for dune driving is very important. For starters, the perfect time of the day, I mean the best being the crack of dawn and the worst being at midday. The reasons are simple. In the morning the night humidity has turned the surface sand into a harder crust and will greatly reduce the risk of digging into the sand and getting stuck. In second place, the low sun will project well the shadows of the dunes and allow you to read the terrain much more accurately. This is much more important than you could imagine, and you’ll come to realize this as the sun rises and all signs of terrain irregularities disappear under the blazing sunlight and soft sand as the night humidity evaporates.
The above is very important because dune driving requires specific driving techniques and not being able to read the terrain correctly may cause you to make a costly mistake and suffer some troubles. Believe me, I know this from firsthand experience! Ha, ha.
As the dunes warm up, the moisture evaporates and the wind starts to blow the sand. This causes the dunes to be what is called combed away from the prevailing winds, one side with a softer slope and the downwind side a steeper slope. Try to always go up the softer slope and down the steeper slope.
Can an inexperienced driver drive through the dunes?
In general, for the novice driver dunes should be driven up and down in the most perpendicular angle as possible to avoid lateral inclinations that could lead to a roll over.
On long downhills like the picture above, use a mid-range low gear and a slight throttle will keep you pointed in the right direction. If you start to deviate from your intended track, give it some more gas.
Extremely important to remember that while your inclination angle may seem fine for starters and doable on an uphill or downhill lateral approach, if your downhill wheels start to dig in, your lateral inclination angle may dramatically shift in seconds. If this happens, stop and evaluate, you may need assistance to secure your 4×4 to avoid a roll over.
As a general rule, you must attempt to return the vehicle to a position perpendicular to the slope. This will mean turning the wheels and slowly moving forward or backwards to achieve this. A helping hand with another 4×4 with tow strap fixed and tensed on the high corner of your vehicle may help prevent further danger and aid in your straightening out as you move.
As you gain experience, lateral slopes should be taken with enough inertia so the centripetal force helps you to keep you on all four wheels. If inertia fails in any instance and you feel that you are either running out of power or digging in, immediately turn downhill before you run out of momentum.
How to deal with Crests and Craters (sand pits)?
No, don’t think I’m talking about another planet. Sand dunes can have all kinds of landforms, ridges, craters or pits, camel grass, tourists, etc. These terms may sound unfamiliar on the first day, but as your experience sharpens you will be able to follow the thread of the conversation like the experts.
Dune Crests and Pits. The first should always be taken with caution and the second avoided all together. As one goes over a crest, you never know what’s on the other side and a pause, brief or long, should be taken for a visual evaluation. You should calculate to pause or stop your 4×4 so that you are in a downhill inclination just after the crest. Avoid stopping right on the crest and ending up with all four wheels in the air!
This will allow you to start up again downhill and avoid an uphill start with the risk of digging in. This is true with any stop in the dunes, always leave the car pointing downhill.
At the crest you should quickly lookout for potential dangers. Keep an eye out for people and other vehicles. Although it’s a desert, fatal coincidences happen more often than you may think. Grassy mounds (Camel grass) are to be avoided at all times as they are quite hard and are like running into a rock. Keep an eye out for people or other vehicles. Although it’s a desert, fatal coincidences are more common than you might imagine. The second danger brings us to our second danger, craters.
Sand Pits are just that, a hole without any way out but up. Many times, it is difficult to get out as one may not have enough space to gain enough speed to get up and out of the hole. If you do fall into one of these wide pits, your only resource is to start circling around and around to gain enough speed to finally drive up and out. Make very sure you exit to a safe side of the crater! If not, you may be driving from the frying pan into the fire!
Despite all this, you should not be overwhelmed and afraid of making the trip because you will always have the most experienced companions who will help you get out of trouble.
What are Hamadas?
Hamadas are the large expanses of very flat desert that are really dry lake beds. These open flats invite you step on the gas pedal to the metal! I’ve driven at speeds up to 140 Km/hr. but it’s quite risky.
Among the dangers that you can have there are two main dangers. The most common is to run into a dry stream bed that is no longer a flat ride, with no time to stop in time. No need to explain what this might mean. At minimum a twisted steering rod or bent axel.
The second danger is finding out by surprise that the hamada is not as dry as it appears due to a recent rain in the nearby, or not so nearby, mountains and what was as hard as a parking lot becomes a bog and you sink up to your axels in soft muck. In this case you may well need help from a friend if travelling two or more 4×4. That is why it’s important to keep enough distance between vehicles as you would want to avoid that everybody ends up in the same mud bath!
The white mineral deposits should have alerted the driver of a potential wet spot.
Rare moment, Auberge Yasmina lake with water. In a few days a potential mud trap!
Dry rivers are just that, dry river beds often used to drive from one place to another. They are long sections of sandy river beds whose sand is usually a lot softer than dune sand. Sometimes the sand is like chalk and the dust can literally blind drivers behind for a long time in absence of wind if following to close. In some instances, it can be difficult to follow the driver ahead as one has to leave so much distance that you lose sight of the right track to follow. As a general rule, one has to keep a good deal of momentum and up on the engine revolutions for torque, as this sand is quite soft and prone to getting you stuck. Be careful though not to jump out of the tracks as these dry rivers do have river banks and could cause you to roll if you lose control.
First of all, have fun and enjoy!
This is just the basics based on my own experience. I have to tell you that before immersing yourself in driving in the Dunes and the Hamadas etc., expert guides, those who have years of experience in these fields, will give you some accelerated “mini-courses” that will update you on what you are going to find and how you will be able to face them. Practice will not make you perfect but I guess that’s why we keep coming back and they call it an adventure.
An adventure without mishaps is not an adventure. Always keep that in mind when encountered with a problem great or small. Keep cool and enjoy the ride. These are the experiences you will remember for a lifetime!