As I pull up outside the Toyota showroom in Festival City for an afternoon of desert driving, two different scenarios make me wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I could chew.
The first is Dubai92’s all-too perfectly timed radio warning to listeners to avoid prolonged periods of outdoor activity in the high temperatures. The other is the ‘Extreme’ FJ Cruiser that will taxi crankandpiston to the starting point of our route, from which stepped a broad-shouldered gentleman wearing army fatigues and dark sunglasses, and whose hearty handshake could bring fully-grown men to their knees in a matter of seconds.
The gentleman in question is Hjalti V. Hjaltason, Production/Sales Manager of Arctic Trucks and (alongside fellow-Icelandic Palli) resident expert for the day for both crankandpiston lensman James and I. And we’ve been looking forward to this. We are about to spend the afternoon with an Arctic Trucks-prepared Toyota Hilux that has previously appeared on BBC’s Top Gear.
The enthusiasts among you may remember James May’s journey to Iceland a few years ago when he drove up the side of an active volcano in a specially-prepared Toyota Hilux AT38. Yep. THIS specially-prepared Toyota Hilux AT38. Having braved volcanic ash, the 4×4 has now arrived in Dubai to tackle desert terrain and scorching 50-degree temperatures. And we couldn’t wait to get our grubby mitts on it.
There’s been a fair few modifications made to this AT38 model to ensure it can handle even the toughest of terrains – including reinforced suspension, massively adjusted ride-height and wheelbase dimensions, and the enormous AT405 tyres – all of which mean it is no longer road legal. But a quick blast in the Cruiser down Dubai’s perimeter highway, most of which is spent discussing BBC programming, arctic exploration and – since two of us are British – the weather, and we soon roll up in an empty car park just outside Al Badayer where the Hilux is waiting for us.
It’s certainly an impressive beast, and as Palli sets about letting the air out of the Cruiser’s tyres, Hjalti walks me through some of the finer details of the Hilux. There’s a 3.0l diesel engine under the bonnet, a 160l fuel tank, and a back-up 12V battery. But the eight-year-old in me has spotted the gun boot attached to the rear fender, and that’s pretty much it for the technical specs.
Our convoy gets underway down an adjoining track towards the plains, with me accompanying Hjalti in the right-hand drive Hilux, and James and Palli following in the support FJ Cruiser. Soon we leave asphalt behind altogether and start hearing the soft thud of sand being thrown about the enormous wheel arches. Given Hjalti’s experience of off-road driving and his familiarity with the Hilux, he takes the first stint behind the wheel.
We leap from dune to dune almost effortlessly, the road slowly disappearing from view as we head further into semi-chartered terrain. There’s some frantic sawing action at the wheel as Hjalti works to get the front pointed where he wants it, but he’s certainly not concerned enough to stop our conversation. He recounts his time as part of the BBC support crew during the Top Gear arctic episode, all while I listen intently from the other side of the wildly jostling cabin.
Every so often in the deeper sand, the Hilux – which Hjalti has affectionately named Ingrid after an Icelandic princess of the same name – slowly grinds to a halt as the tyres lose grip and dig in. Selecting reverse gear and rocking the steering wheel back and forth to kick start the vehicle’s inertia ensure these are just temporary hold-ups though, and we quickly resume bouncing over the dunes. After an introductory ten-minute stint, Hjalti pulls up and we swap places.