With the dawn of the Surly Moonlander, a fat bike with a 5 inch tyre format (100mm rims and +4.7 inch tyres), extraordinary journeys have become possible. In my opinion one of these is the crossing of the Liwa, a journey I have been lucky enough to do twice in the past 12 months. Once in March 2013 as part of a supported team of 4 and then in December 2013 self supported and solo.
In this article (and supporting articles) I aim to give you the route information to consider doing this awesome journey yourself. I will also create a separate gear article detailing my bike set up, GPS unit, spares I decided to carry and other kit recommendations I have for this journey.
The key route planning for both journeys was done by Mike Nott, author of the Advanced Offroad Adventure Routes Guide published by Outdoor UAE, and a font of all knowledge when it comes to getting off the beaten track in the region. Mike was one of the team that completed the initial supported crossing we did.
The Liwa is an area down in the South Western area of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where its border meets both the Saudi and Omani borders. It forms the North Eastern tip of the infamous Empty Quater or Rub' al Khali, historically one of the most inhospitable and uninhabited places on the planet. It is an area of spectacular beauty with huge sand dunes carved into complex curving ridges and bowls. While the massive dunes don't seem to have a straight surface or line to be seen the sabkah sitting below them is bizarrely flat by comparison.
Here is a Google Earth screen dump showing the 2 routes that have so far been used in crossings
You can see the green gps track from the initial March 2013 135km supported crossing. The straighter route shown by the pink route and red gps track is from the December 2013 115km solo crossing.
A GPX file including all the information displayed in the above picture can be downloaded from my dropbox at https://www.dropbox.com/s/uszae3kvoguuy5u/Crossing%20the%20Liwa%20By%20Bicycle.gpx
In the GPX file the GREEN track is from the first crossing, the PINK route is what I had programmed in to my GPS to use for navigation (on the second solo trip I also had the previous trips track showing on my GPS's map page to act as an assisting breadcrumb trail that I knew had been cycled. This proved useful in the early morning fog of the solo crossing). The RED track is mine from the solo crossing.
Starting from the road on the far western side of the Liwa, just 6km from the Saudi Border, you initially roll down onto the sabkah and then link up a series of sand dune col's and sabkah up until waypoint L007. The initial riding is non technical meaning you can start with the first glimpse of dawn approx half an hour before sun rise itself. On our first trip across the weather at dawn was clear. On the solo trip it was eerily foggy and I was very glad of my previous track showing on my gps screen to use as a breadcrumb trail.
As you drop down to waypoint L009 you will see an oil rig on your left. Ensure you give this a wide berth to prevent posing any perceived security risk and associated unwanted attention.
Once clear of the rig pick up the sand track that appears over to your left crossing the pipeline. This goes for quite a way, I think as far as L015. Its energy saping and not a lot of fun but HTFU and grind it out.
Once clear of the sand track your next challenge is the area around L017. Its a particularly complex area of dunes that has us walking just a bit on our first trip plus I've seen Sweep Team vehicles have to fight their way through the area on the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. During the ADDC we recced the area a bit and confirmed our suspicion that a route further left was better. You can see my red track goes further left but I was still forced to walk for 20 meters or so in the area, the only time I had to push during the crossing. I was spitting because I'd really wanted to be dab free for the whole journey :'-(
The cycling is fantastic from here until you drop down to Criss Quarry just after L023 and onto the gatch track.
The Criss Quarry Gatch Track is a key emergency escape and access point. Its relatively accessible for even normal vehicles. The only other option is the earlier sand tracks that come down to L009 but this a lot less convenient.
From the Criss Gatch Track you can either choose to follow it up over the hill and follow our first crossing route or carry straight on through the dunes towards Qasr Al Sarab.
With the easy-ish access via the Criss Gatch Track this last 25km section makes an excellent introduction to Liwa cycling in its own right.
Between Criss Quarry and Qasr Al Sarab the cycling is great but route finding between the QAS gate at L026 and the next waypoint at L027 is tricky. If you study my (RED) track you'll see I made a mistake and dropped down onto a sabkah too far right and had to climb up against the grain of the dunes to get back on track. It was all cyclable (didnt dab!) but at the end of a long day this wasn't particularly what I wanted. My aim is to go back and correct this route finding error in the near future.
On my solo crossing I arrived at Qasr Al Sarab just a few minutes after sunset. 115km in just over 12 hrs (A shade over 10hrs of moving time according to my GPS). I was tired! When I started that morning I knew I wasn't as fit as I would like to have been and certainly not as fit as I had been for the March crossing. Though my fitness was not what I would have liked it was ok and I was confident my technical riding ability, planning plus previous experience riding in the sand both in the Liwa and elsewhere would cut me some slack, which it did! (still it would have been good to be a bit fitter too!!)
In my opinion this journey is outstanding and I would recommend any cyclist to consider putting it on their bucket list. Cycling through this landscape is a fantastic way to experience it. You really feel the wildness of the environment, you feel exposed in its remoteness and your feel conscious of the need to be self sufficient. The bike allows you to travel efficiently and silently under your own power. Its fast and energy efficient enough to cover the ground in a way that is acceptable and safe while being slow enough to savor and contemplate the world you are in. I really really love it.