The idea for a desert road trip across the UAE went something like this. Skip the sparkly lights and supercars of Dubai in favour of travelling the backroads to seek out a ghost town, and some dusty classics dead or alive, somewhere out in the sandy bits of the UAE. Inevitably, this would also mean camels.

The natural choice for such a trip would be a Landcruiser. So naturally we gave that a miss and nabbed a Suzuki Jimny, a vehicle that is a legend in its own lifetime as a minimalist offroad terrier that in its current incarnation, is a cheeky pintsized take on a G Wagen.

 It might ape the luxury German  on the outside, but once inside, with your elbow jammed up against the doorframe, the vibe is old Land Rover. There’s just a few chunky switches, a radio and a willing little engine that gets noisy over 65mph.  It’s one of those vehicles that puts a smile on your face. It’s cheap on fuel, fun to drive around town,  and highly competent off road,  but that smile may turn to a grimace on motorway long haul journeys. You can, just, fit four average sized adults in a Jimny, so long as their luggage consists of nothing more than a toothbrush and a bottle of water

Our starting point was the city of Abu Dhabi. In half an hour the Jimny left the shores of the Arabian Gulf  to enter a flat sand scape of  humid beige. High fencing runs alongside the road at times, not so much to keep you out as to keep rogue camels in. If you’ve ever seen what a deer can do to a car, times it by two, and you get the idea. After an hour of playing the world’s most boring game of ‘I Spy’ it was time for a pitstop at a highway service station. It wasn’t only a chance to nab some unleaded at 80p a litre, but an opportunity to stock up on unlikely desert dwelling confectionery. Every petrol station outside the city seems to have the marshmallow chocolate goo that is. Tunnock’s Snowballs.

The temperature had climbed from 28 to 36 degrees in an hour. With my Tunnocks firmly jammed up against the aircon vent we headed for Sweihan, a small town that caters for two things, market gardening and camel racing. One minute there is nothing but sand by the side of the road , the next you are driving past small holdings bursting with date palms and flowers. The Camel racing track sits one side of the highway. On the other, a row of hole in the wall garages sit between a supermarket and a huge cop shop. The one room workshops hold just about everything you could need to conjure up a get you home fix for your ailing motor.

Despite the language barrier, this gent proudly showed off his workspace.  Salvaged parts from dead vehicles packed  the shelves and lined the walls. Radiators, fans, alternators, starter motors and even wiring looms were piled up without a barcode or price tag in sight.

Nothing goes to waste, It’s practical, real world recycling. Next to the garages automotive detritus littered a bumpy sand parking lot. Some of the vehicles were waiting for aid. Some had reached their final destination


This town is  the only place I’ve seen these mini Pajero 4x4s. The Land Rover has been here for over a year, and appears to be undergoing a steady restoration. You do occasionally see old Land Rovers in use. A few are employed as static attractions. The new Defender, meanwhile, is proving a popular choice in the  Chelsea  Dubai tractor role.


This Bedford TK was just one of several in the area. Out here the Bedfords are still hard at work. As well as  general cargo versions, we spotted a water tanker, one sporting a crane, and another working as a  cherry picker. All of them were upstaged by this grand old Dame of a Mercedes Kurzhauber (short bonnet) You find them  all over the Middle East, where nearly every single one is painted orange. I’ve seen them in Africa,  Asia, the US and Europe, but I don’t recall ever seeing one in Britain. This one was suffering from heat exhaustion.

The ghost town of Al Madam lies forty minutes further down the road. We took the long way round  allowing the Jimny to do some light off roading, whilst dodging free roaming camels.  The story of Al Madam is a strange one. A small hamlet of homes complete with its own Mosque, the place was abandoned by its residents sometime in the 1970s, leaving it to be slowly reclaimed by the desert.



  No one knows for sure why the residents gave up on their homes. A local urban legend suggests they left after being haunted by a malevolent desert Djinn. Naturally, this version of events is popular with various Yvette Fielding wannabees who all declare they definitely saw a shadow, heard a noise or “felt a presence” when visiting the ruins. The only haunting presence we experienced came in the form of ravenous desert flies.



 Leaving the abandoned ruins, we weaved  through more camels before finding tarmac, and  a classic car dealership. It was prayer time and those running late for the Mosque were delayed further by a  mad Englishman standing in the road, taking photos in the midday sun, and asking anybody who would listen if the restored 240Z was for sale ( It wasn’t).

The old Mercs gave off the air of gentry fallen on hard times,  the Corvette was dusty, but ready to rumble and the Smart Roadster looked comedic next to a Chevy truck. Of all the cars present, the chopped Mercedes ‘Ute’ screamed 24 hours of Lemons potential. I spent a few minutes mooching about, hoping the garage owner would return without any luck. Back in the Jimny, there was a brown sticky mess on the floormat. At first, I thought an irate camel had left its calling card, before I realised it was the Tunnocks. Newsflash: snowballs melt in the desert.

Past Al Madam the highway cut through a valley floor that resembled the African Savanna. Herds of camels roamed a grassland dotted with shade trees that stretched across the valley to a hazy image of distant mountains. We were getting close to Oman. Up ahead the sky turned an ominous grey.  A random sandstorm was blowing down the valley. The view of mountains disappeared and the visibility reduced down to a couple of hundred metres. We were lucky to be heading away from its path. In  a couple of minutes, we were back under a steel blue sky, climbing into the jagged mountains that mark the edge of the UAE and the border with Oman.

The border town of Hatta is reached via the E44 that twists and turns between the razor sharp peaks.  If you look closely, you can spot mountain goats jumping from ledge to ledge. Hatta is a small town with a Hollywood style sign perched on a mountain.  The old village has a  faded charm about it with murals on house walls and creaky metal gates marking properties.



Water runoff from the mountains feeds a series of irrigation channels built by the villagers, creating a little lush green paradise of Middle Eastern allotments, tucked out of sight behind village walls. You can take a footpath that cuts through the allotments and climbs all the way up to Hatta Dam. At the top you get a view of the  waters that feed Dubai.

You can kayak here, often bumping into curious lake carp, or just watch the mountains change colour with the passage of the sun. We grabbed a victory picture of the Jimny on the Dam, then headed to a hotel bar for a celebratory cold libation. True, we could’ve spent the weekend in Dubai, snapped supercars and swanned round a giant shopping mall; Sorry Habibi, we beg to differ. When’s the last time you dodged camels, were savaged by sandflies, spied old motors, hunted a Djinn,  and watched a snowball melt in the desert?


Images Steve Swanson

About The Author

Steve Swanson

Steve turns any opportunity to write about cars into a roadtrip. It's seen him ride shotgun in a Bentley Blower with Clive Cussler, and cross paths with automotive YouTubers in Canada and the US. His work has been published in Magneto, Classic Cars, Classic American and some magazines that no MotorPunk reader has ever heard of. When he's not writing or driving you can find him kicking tyres at seedy auctions and hawking junk optimistically described as Automobilia

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