Wahiba Challenge 2007

November 2007 (English only)

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Crossing the massive Wahiba (Al Sharquia ) sand dunes in the wrong direction with a good mix of people and cars. 

Thanks to Bijan Nabavi, Arjen Tjalma, Martin Kelly, Alasdair Mackenzie, Jean-Paul Koninx, Dirk Horstmann and Johnny de Leeuw


The Plan

The Wahiba Challenge is a great event that has an unchanged basic plan for 10 years already now: crossing the great Wahiba (Al Sharqiya Sands) dunes, from East to West. Not the easiest way of doing it, but that is what this event is all about. To quote the instructions from the organising Ras Al Hamra Offroad Adventure Club:

"The Wahiba Challenge is not a race. It is intended as a test of driving and navigational skills. The goal of the Challenge is to make the journey from the Eastern margin of the Wahiba Sands, via a pre-determined Campsite, to the Western margin.  You are expected to plan the crossing yourselves, including equipment, optimal navigation, recovery techniques and timing"

The Wahiba (Al Sharquiya) Sands; a bit of geography.

If you want to know a bit more about these sands check-out the "Sharquiya sands; a window into the past".

The Wahiba Sands comprise a large dune area of some 12,000 square kilometres in east/central Oman (see map below). It is characterised by almost north-south trending large linear dunes, generally some 60 to 80 metres high, with a regular spacing of 2 to 3 kilometres.

The longitudinal dunes that are the backbone of the Wahiba sands are aligned in the direction of the strong winds of the SW Monsoon some 100,000 years ago at the end of the last glaciation. The dunes are modified by current wind circulation patterns with gentler winds of the northern monsoon that blows in the Wahiba area from the east during the early months of the year. The eastern winds developed the asymmetry of the large dunes with a steep slipface facing west.  The sands that are blown together in the Wahiba’s show variations in composition and rounding providing clues to their origin. The mainly quartz sands have carbonate grains that decrease in quantity from south to north. They are thought to have at least partly been blown from an exposed shelf of what is now the Arabian Gulf during the low sea level associated with the last glaciation.

The sands in the northern part of the Whahiba’s are rich in ophiolite grains, derived from the magmatic rocks draping the Oman mountains. The modern Wahiba sands are deposited on top of older aeolian sands that are dated at 160,000 to 130,000 BP. These cemented sands, or aeolionites, are also rich in fossil and carbonate fragments suggesting they are derived from the continental shelf of Arabia during glacial periods when sea levels were significantly lower. When sea level rose in the interglacials, the sand supply was cut off and the southern dunes in the Wahiba’s were blown away to supply sand to the dune systems further north.

Bushes on the dunes trap sand and can build large sand mounds (called dikaka’s) in their quest for survival. Some interdune areas seem to have hosted temporal lakes during wetter conditions.

Amazing enough one can spend rather chilly nights in the Sands, waking-up in the early morning in a soaking sleeping-bag. At certain places and time of year dew and mist yield enough precipitation to support lichens. An amazing equivalent of half a millimeter of rainfall has been measured as precipitation from dew in a single night (and that's what we experienced during the 2007 Challenge).

The Al Sharquiya (formerly Wahiba) sands in East-central Oman, just south of the Eastern Hajar Mountains and above the island of Masirah. Notice the darker sand in the north near wadi Batha and the ophiolites.
 

Survival of the fittest.

This time the largest group of participating cars and the longest distance to cover ever, with 25 teams, 100+ vehicles and 200+ participants. The predetermined campsite location in the middle of the sands and the location of the finishing point are only handed out just before the start in Al Kamil. It turned out to be also the best organised Wahiba Challenge ever, but maybe that's because we actually made it. My 2006 Wahiba Challenge was a memorable event as well, but this time I could actually appreciate why the second half of the challenge is a lot easier.

The map below (courtesy Arjen Tjalma, our team navigator) shows it all: the dunes seen on satellite image, running north south, like a bundle of muscles. Two days to do it and a central camp to get to on the first day before darkness.

Here is the story of the Sandwitch Hunters Team. The marked track below already shows there was no straight way of doing it.

 

View Larger Map
 

 

Google map that allows you to inspect the Wahiba (Al Sharqiya sands) as you wish, zoming in and out to get a better view of the dunes.

The Story

This year I intended to participate in the Wahiba Challenge with my Defender as the old yellow Nissan Patrol would probably not survive another attempt (but the Old is Gold Team would be trying this year again, see 2006 Wahiba Challenge story). As there was an All Landrover (110) team being assembled, I hoped to get into that one. Me being slow I found that the 110 team was already full. The rules for the challenge are very clear: a minimum of three and a maximum of five cars. I did not know we had so many Defender 110's in Muscat....

There was Dirk, with the same type of Defender, also without team and eager to join. Two cars already. Why not starting a new team? To cut a long story short: that is exactly what happened. It became a real mix: Bijan and Arjen joined with a blue/white jeep wrangler. How Arjen could convince his wife to part with her car I don't know, but it probably was for the better (for the car at least). Arjen convinced Martin to join with a massive Nissan Patrol and co-driver Alasdair assuming probably that being used to the left side of the road would be a competetive advantage. Dirk with his green Defender was joined by Jean-Paul, most certainly because of a German link.... And then there was of course my silver Defender (all know that this is midlife) and Johnny to help pushing and driving it through (he had never done it so he was in for anything).

A mix of BP, Oxy and PDO. Also a mix of German, German-Dutch, Friesian (Dutch tribe), Iranian, Scottish-American/Zambian, Limburg (another Dutch Tribe) and pure Dutch. Combining stubborn Friesians with fast jeeps and meticulous German/Dutch with very British Landrovers, let alone Scottish-American with the technologically most advanced Nissan car in the team? That  is weird if one comes to think about it, but that is what we had and it worked.

The organisation was faced with a big number of applications and following tradition organised a qualification event. All ladies-teams and old-car teams did not need to qualify (don't ask me what the relation between old cars and ladies teams is). Looking at the list of participants before and after qualification it is not clear what the qualification achieved as all teams seemed to qualify, despite seeing one group getting lost in Pakistan (according to their GPS).  Teams got coordinates of a point in the area -of course the Bausher dunes- to collect further instructions. To quote Bijam "… it was unspeakably tough but it looks like teamwork won through: Arjen and Martin raced to the sandy checkpoint, then handed over to Jan and I who cruised to glory outside Nawras’s head office". Unplanned coordination, typical for the rest of the event, at least for our team.

The teams participating: DuneDŽivers, CTU Sandracers, The OneTen, Dirty Bike Team, What a Load of Junk!, NAFTAOTZC, Ice Cold in Mintrib, Jocks in Jeeps, Wahiba Divas, Daihatsu dune raiders, Team Sakhliyah, PDO Pirates Team, Jeeps R’Us, Wahiba Virgins, El Loco, Cruisers and Wranglers, Old-is-Gold, Sandwitch Hunters, Free Wheelie, Half Full, MOLOM, DuneJumpers, Proud Prado’sm Desert Muscateers, Nawras Team

Jean Paul (JP) came up with a name and logo for the team and that's what we became: the Sandwitch Hunters.

Left: The now famous Sand-Witch Hunter Logo

Below: The team; from left to right: Dirk & Jean Paul with their green Defender 110 5Tdi, Arjen and Bijan flanking their vintage blue-white Jeep Wrangler, Alasdair and Martin with the white and massive Nissan Patrol and Johnny and Jan with another Defender 110 5Tdi.

Our Sand Witches

Above: Zuweina, the Jeep Witch

Right: Noor, the Nissan Witch

Left Below: Fatma the Green 110 Wittch

Right Below: Penelope, the Silver 110 Witch

Day 1, Al Mintrib

After a cold and wet night, gearing up for the start in front of the police station in Al Mintrib


Instructions at the start in Al Mintrib

The team lined up for the start

After receiving the camp coordinates Arjen has to admit defeat. The coordinates do not fit on his carefully prepared map. This year the day 1 camp is way south.... So much for our planning. Jan estimates our chance of success at 41% as at least we made it all to the startpoint.

At the edge of the real dunes. Deflating the tires to 12-15 Psi. An opportunity for the local residents to have their tires inflated.

Soon a common sight, nose down. Slow progress.

So much space left and right, but the bush happened to be there

Kinetic rope recovery; great stuff

Even Nissans have their limit
But slowly we got the hang of it, enjoying the spectacular slides downwards. Early-on the jeep lost one tire and we were just lucky that the rest kept hanging-on as this little miracle car got most of the beating exploring the route up front.
At At some stage we needed all ropes connected together to pull from a safe place, some 30m of cable.
We actually started thinking about making it to the camp. Wishful thinking as is also expressed in the absolute lack of pictures as from 15:00 hrs.We all seemed to have stopped taking photographs as the last dunes were absolutely difficult.


The composite picture above made by Arjen shows the last dune before the camp where we got  seriously stuck. With three cars through the last dune before the camp Johnny won the day by crawling through as well. Our struggle saved at least three other groups from taking the same difficult route, including the marvelous little Daihatsu Jeeps.

Yes we made it to camp before sunset. Chance of success now 80%.

What a nice sight, little groups of cars camped around, people waving and enjoying their well deserved drinks. The organising committee had outdone themselves. Nawras sponsorship was very visible with a BBQ in the making.

A check of the mobile phone indicated that even a mobile phone company has no connection in the middle of nowhere.

The "pirates" had set-up an impressive show. They also helped us to get the jeep's tire back on the rim again with their big compressor.

Day 2, Base camp

A very wet night, no dune to be seen, even the rest of the groups disappearing in the soaking mist. We were all out by 6:00 hrs, but it took a bit more to get everything sorted out, but were one of the first groups to leave camp. A check on the map indicated that we would need to cover some 52 km to the finish, a whapping 20 km more compared to day 1. As the dunes could not be seen we decided to ignore them and head north, waiting for the sun to clear the fog. Good plan, but the dunes were still there......

It became a smooth drive. Somehow the dunes are still as impressive but there is less loose sand and the direction is following the natural grain of the dunes.

Bold enough to organise a line-up where we would have been stuck the day before.

Spectacular slipfaces.

  Jeeps keep loosing tires, but having seen the trick and with a bit of soap and water it took three man pulling the tire back on the rim when the big pump popped it back at 20 Psi.
Still surprises. A kink in the middle of the slipface ended the glorious descend of the Nissan and for once the Defender could prove its muscles edging above the next steep slope down.

The Finish

The men and their cars, dusty, hot, but with the big sandpit now conquered behind them. There are other and better ways of driving through these dunes, but this is a special way and a great experience.


Dirk and Jean-Paul

Arjen and Bijan

Alasdair and Martin

Johnny and Jan
At the finish @14:30hrs. Pumping tires.

Still a long drive home.

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@ J. Schreurs November 2007