Pedal to the metal on desert drive

By Richard Edwards

A driver's dream: 500km of open road with a 140km/h speed limit

Driving across Dubai's sandblasted landscape is both thrilling and intimidating.Photo / Richard Edwards
Driving across Dubai's sandblasted landscape is both thrilling and intimidating.Photo / Richard Edwards

When contemplating a brief holiday to Dubai, I had no intention of driving anything. My mind was more focused on white sand beaches, shopping malls and the $220 brunch on the 27th floor of the seven-star Burj al Arab.

So it was with intrigue that an industry exec suggested getting a car and going for a drive - more specifically to what some have called one of the world's great driving roads.

So after a night's sleep I headed to the airport to land a car worthy of such a road. A little bazaar-style negotiation and I drove out in a brand new Jaguar XF fitted with Ford's 2-litre Ecoboost engine; a premium ride in New Zealand, but rented for less than the cost of a midsize SUV in New Zealand.

While the entry point to the XF line, the Eco-boost model proved almost perfect for the trip, which included some 500km of motorway. The 177kW turbocharged engine never felt short of power, even when exploring the 140km/h speed limits out in the desert.

In keeping with any fine British motor car, it was a delightfully comfortable cruiser - and used an almost disappointingly small amount of the 61c a litre fuel.

Dubai's traffic and driving were by no means as bad as warnings had indicated, but were still a challenge. Chevrolet Tahoes, Range Rovers and Land Cruisers with pitch-black-tinted windows wove down the highways well above the limit. If they came up behind me flashing their lights, no matter how fast I was charging, I got out of their way.

I took the indirect route, via Abu Dhabi, down the E11 highway that spreads 12 lanes wide, and back out on the E22 from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain. The E11 is a marvel of man's influence on this part of the world, studded with skyscrapers, while the E22 crosses the desert, at times surrounded by windblown-dunes.

The mountain sits at the edge of the city of Al Ain, split by the border with Oman and, despite it being 1240m-high, you do not see it until relatively close.

It is preceded by multiple 50m- to 100m-high rock shards, rising from the sand on the industrial outskirts of the suburbs. You pass down a palm-lined boulevard, before turning and heading straight up the base of the mountain.

The exact story of the mountain road is a little hazy, but it was cut in the late-1980s by German engineers for what was rumoured to be US$100 million. It was built to allow the construction of a palace for the United Arab Emirates' first president, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Over 11.7km, the road climbs to just short of the summit. It certainly is an impressive engineering effort - perfectly smooth tarmac, 60 well crafted corners, and barriers protecting vehicles from stunningly sheer cliffs - all covered with an unfortunate - and ignored - 40km/h speed limit.

At the summit is a rather unglamorous "Top of the mountain" cafe - ignore it.

The views in all directions are spectacular, both of the desert, and down to the weaving tapestry of the mountain road.

The view also serves to accentuate how much this lump of rock juts from a paper-flat landscape.

The real treat is heading down the mountain, as I did, into a setting sun. On the drive up the focus is on the ribbon of tarmac ahead, driving down it is all view.

As you weave from one direction to the next, you shift from small, sharp peaks, to Al Ain in the distance, and late in the afternoon with dust in the air, the colours - despite the fact that most of the country is monotonously brown - turn surprisingly spectacular.

Is it one of the world's greatest driving roads? Not even close. But for the sheer uniqueness of the location and experience, it is well worth the drive.

- NZ Herald

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