Desert border crossings – passports optional

For once, a real desert ditty…. and epic adventure! Marina Bruce, my old school friend sent me a message a couple of weeks ago. Those that read my first ever blog post will remember that Marina introduced me to blogging.  She blogs mostly about off-roading and her life in Al Ain. Her husband Neil and fellow off-roader Vince were going on a rather ambitious overnight off-road trip to the UAE, Oman and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia confluence point.  Was I interested in going as a passenger?  To earn my passage, I was to be the expedition “winch wench”, trip snapper and camp bar tender.  It took me about a nano second to say “yes”. I have always found physical land borders rather fascinating, probably because I come from an island nation and our international border is of course the ocean  My interest heightened after working in post conflict countries.  Borders, like language and national anthems, are part of an internationally recognised tangible definition of individual sovereignty.  The last time I got close to a confluence point of three countries was when I visited Banja Bansko , a thermal spa resort in the far South East of Macedonia, close to the Greek and Bulgarian borders.  Since that trip I have always wondered what three borders meeting would actually look like. Now I had my chance to find out. Day 1

The starting point for the trip was in the shadow of Jebel Hafeet on the Oman side of the border. Here is Marina with Neil and Vince after final preparations, which includes deflating tyres and installing dune bashing flags.

The plan was to follow the border line down to the confluence point, taking a route that was within 2km or the border fence, or thereabouts. We generally managed this, although we did go a bit further at one point.

The first day we made good progress, driving 88kms, covering 50kms of the distance to the confluence point.  We were driving for just under 4 hours and there was plenty of stunning desert scenery.  Regular stops for navigation checks using google earth and GPS, “stucks” and discussions on technical aspects of tricky passages enabled me to admire the amazing desert landscape views.
The first and only camels we saw the entire trip…
A number of larger dunes have multiple faces and from the air they look like starfish. This one is called “Starfish 15” in the Starfish Dunes route written by ex-military map maker Mike Nott, in his book “Advanced Offroad Adventure Routes UAE and Oman”.

Setting up camp As soon as the sun got low and the light began to fade, we started to look for a suitable campsite.

It didn’t take long – a flat spot with a bit of shelter from the wind. Behind the dune to the right was the ladies, behind  the dune to the left was the gents! My tent is the blue one – it had been a while since I had used it, so was grateful for Neil and Vince’s assistance in putting it up.  And the useless camp bed – sleeping on a mat over the sand was far more comfortable it turned out.
Unfortunately it was just a bit too windy to light a campfire.  In November it does get a bit chilly in the desert, so as New Zealander Vince put it “We’ll just have to rug up a bit”. We had a rather nice feast of chicken, salad and crisps, washed down with some bacardi and coke and I listened to Marina, Neil and Vince talk about the day and future trips with Oasis Offroaders, a new club they have helped to recently form.

Soon we crashed out, and before we knew it, the big firey ball in the sky was knocking on our tent doors. Day 2 Our silent alarm call:

After de-camping and getting on the road, we had a refuelling stop at the first patch of sabkah, areas of hard compact sand and gravel. For a trip this length, extra fuel is brought in jerry cans.  Neil is a fire officer offshore so all the right drills and precautions were followed!
Many reading this may wonder what there is to actually see in such a vast and inhospitable area.  I have to admit, when you look a bit beyond the sand dunes, there are signs of life.  Plus, desert life is changing in this part of the world and we all know the reason …..
Oil has had a profound impact on many aspects of desert life, not just the areas within the oil fields. The UAE has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world (US$ 40,00 – 64,000).  The UAE border fence has been put up to deter the illegal entry of non-GCC economic migrants, although I am sure there are also geo-political reasons too.  In erecting this fence however, it has effectively restricted the very traditional nomadic nature of bedouin life. Not all locals come from oil rich families, so there is a significant amount of  everyday “business as usual” in the desert. There were three “GCC national” border crossings along the 180km stretch we covered, but all along the route we found evidence that the fence has changed life for those living along this area.

An abandoned farm 500m from the fence – this could be because an Emirati farmer was relocated to inside the “fence”, or an Omani farmer who was no longer able to take his produce to his UAE customers.

Again, evidence of earlier farming activity.  Also as much of this debris is plastic, it will take hundreds of years to disintegrate.
Redundant and weathered signage.  With limited access points, travelling up and down the border is pretty much pointless. Unless you are heading to the confluence point of course, although the writing on the signs had disappeared!
This tree was interesting, not just because it is so unusually large and mature, but on close inspection, it was obviously a previous gathering place.  The remains of a building, assorted debris and barbed wire littered the surrounding area, much of it lurking under a layer of sand.  It was less than one km from the fence, which is in the background – the green line with tower.
As well as admiring the landscape and observing socio-economic change, there was also plenty to do during the long drive. Getting stuck in the dunes is a common occurence and all part of the fun and challenge of off-roading.
Our forward view shortly after a quick tug from Neil and his yellow mega strop :
..and the rear view:
…and one of Vince’s “stucks”… although this was technically a “refusal” as he got himself out of it without the need for a tow or winch 😦
Neil also had a refusal to two too!  On this occassion, he was leading us up towards the line of the large dune in the background:
Here we are almost at the top of that line. Breathtaking views towards the UAE.
The last few hours of driving was on a gatch track, although in places the desert had reclaimed it.  The road did however enable us to speed up a bit so we could get to the confluence point before dark.
27 hours after leaving Jebel Hafeet, we made it to the confluence point at 1615.  We took a short walk by the UAE border fence, over from Oman into Saudi Arabia.  Here we are posing just inside Saudi Arabia by the UAE border fence.  Oman and Saudi Arabia don’t have any fences marking their borders – at least not out here!
According to GPS however, the real confluence point was 900m around the corner, so off we went and found a large pole stuck in the sand.  GPS also indicated we were at the confluence point here.  We decided it was, for expedition and photographic reporting purposes, where the three lines in the sand met.  So Marina and I celebrated with a hokey cokey dance in, what we believed, three countries!
Once Marina had imported our tracked route on to the google earth, it then became clear that this pole was a few hundred metres inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  And not an abeya in sight….
So we crossed the borders into three different countries, were close enough to the confluence point to declare the expedition a success, and we were all really happy to have achieved the expedition objective.  It was a unique feeling stepping so freely across three countries in a matter of minutes – and without passports, rubber stamps and customs inspections!
We then headed out of the desert 17km across the dunes to the Oman oilfields, where an access road would take us 150 kms back to civilisation.
Marina really loves the desert, and driving in the desert.  This was a special trip for her too. She had thought of it and planned it for a while, and had driven a total of 310 kms off road over 2 days,.  On the second day, she achieved a personal; record of 212 kms offroad in one day. Add to that the on road mileage, we clocked up getting to the desert from Al Ain and Muscat, well over 1000kms were driven over 2 days. It was so worth it though!
Thanks for a great trip Marina, the unintentional border crossings and sharing all you love about the desert.  For more technical off road details, have a look at Marina’s blog post for this trip.

10 thoughts on “Desert border crossings – passports optional

  1. Glad you enjoyed your adventure. Desert driving is always fun but not when getting stuck, it can be really painful. The area you drove into have been disputed between the three countires in the past, but now its marked clearly with a fence on the UAE side. Hope you enjoy your future trips and dont get lost.

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  2. Thanks everyone, and thanks Malek – this is why land borders facinate me. There is always a story (or dispute) behind how they are defined. From your comments, it sounds like we only made it into two countries and that the confluence/tri-point is where Neil parked his car by the fence.

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    • Hi – if you are interested in going off-roading into the desert from the UAE, you should contact Marina. She runs a club, Oasis Offroad, and organises regular trips into the desert, although the one I blogged about is only for very experienced drivers with a good knowledge of the area. Here is marina’s blog: http://thedesertdiva.com/

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  5. Brilliant read…….. and has given me itchy feet! Thanks! Great pics add to the experience. I can’t wait to go back. Nick

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