Driving the Qatari Desert (Doha, Qatar)
Doha, the capital of tiny Qatar, is a hub waiting to happen. The glistening Arabian Peninsula city, full of ritzy hotels, restaurants, and boutiques sits within eight hours' flying time of over three-quarters of the world's population. Right now it is primarily a business stopover, but skyscraper-filled Doha offers a chance at desert adventure for visitors willing to drive away from the steel, glass, and marble, and into the sands of the "Inland Sea," where off-roading is referred to as "Dune Bashing."
It's a 45-kilometer drive south from Doha to the desert town of Masaieed, and the Sealine Resort, which serves as a staging post for desert adventures. This is where drivers working for various outfitters – including Qatar Inbound Tours, and Qatar Adventure – deflate the tires of their Toyota Land Cruisers to about 11 psi, crank up the AC, and head out into the oblique light of the dunes.
As their passengers hold on for dear life, drivers flirt with the dunes' ridges and dips, then slam on the gas pedal, rocketing up and over unmarked crests. SUVs hang in the air and crash back to Earth as grips tighten and hearts lurch. Drivers then plunges down the far side of the amber wave and grind into the brown belly of the salt flats at its feet. Most drivers "Tokyo drift" along the pan before hurtling up another steep dune for a traverse along its face. Vehicles feel as though they are about to turn over and spit out sand like a blender churning through flour. Trust Allah, but buckle your seat belt.
The drivers, each skilled and experienced, can be prevailed upon to stop at the crest of the largest dunes so that passengers can step out into the wind, which makes a scratchy drumming sound – caused by the piezoelectric properties of crystalline quartz, the same way a needle on a phonograph translates vibrations into sound. The dunes seem to be shifting, migrating. Just over the rise is Saudi Arabia, the so-called "Empty Quarter," and what British explorer Wilfred Thesiger called "this cruel land."
Then it's back into the truck, which fishtails over the poured geometry of each silvery drift. The driver continues bashing, launching his vehicle ever higher and swinging in circles until the landscape resembles the whorls of gigantic fingertips.
The end of the rides are timed to coincide with sunset, so bashers can take in a meal at a Bedouin camp near the Arabian Gulf. Across the water, and out of sight, sits Dubai, where this sort of desert adventure was dreamt up in the first place. What makes the Doha experience better is that fewer tourists have arrived on this sunburnt peninsula.
As the dunes turn rose-red, tea is served, and limbs are checked for bruises. Camels strut at the water's edge. Soon it's back to the neon, the jazz, the museums, and the high thread-counts of Doha, where the sand visitors track into their rooms is vacuumed up by conscientious maids.
More information: British Airway, American Airlines, US Airways, KLM, Turkish Airlines, Delta Air Lines, And ANA all fly into Doha. A dune-bashing trip generally costs around $100, though more luxurious and inclusive trips may run $300.