Once you leave the thoroughly modern cities in the UAE, you immediately enter vast tracts of sandy desert with a few scattered villages and homes. Although the roads are few, they're beautifully paved, with trees planted alongside. In most areas, there are relatively new saplings that haven't yet grown more than a few feet. Apparently, there's plenty of water available to irrigate millions of trees. The rulers believe that planting enough trees can change the climate, helping make the country even more attractive.

We were advised to maintain the speed limit of 90 kph; imagine our surprise when we saw a pickup truck gaining speed on us from behind. We let it pass, to discover it was a local farmer with a camel in the truck bed.

In the heat haze up ahead, we spotted a pyramid. Upon hearing it was a car museum under construction, we stopped for a look. Inside, there was an enormous Dodge Power Wagon, a four-times full-scale model that actually runs. Although we weren't allowed in, we were told there are four bedrooms, six bathrooms, a kitchen, and a large living area inside, making it the largest motorhome in the world. Outside, there was an even larger trailer home, officially the world's largest, according to the "Guinness Book of World Records." It's a sphere with the earth painted on it, containing eight bedrooms and nine bathrooms. Owned by the "Rainbow" Sheikh, the museum will house his fleet of cars, including seven customized Mercedes painted and trimmed in the colors of the rainbow.

Our caravan of VW Touaregs ventured on, nearing the race's base camp. The UAE Desert Challenge is one of six rounds of the international FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies. The rules allow the same cars and trucks that run in the Dakar rally to compete here as well. Because of that, the Challenge is used by many manufacturers as a shakedown test for Dakar, which takes place three months later.

We passed a palace set on a lush green hill and left the main highway. The group took a rough road covered by blowing sand and proceeded to a Wadi (dry lake). Here, a bivouac was erected for the contestants who'd camped there for four days. They ran long competitive timed stages from the camp into the dunes and back each day. We arrived just in time to see the leaders finding their way over pure sand dunes, with no visible tracks in most places. In this terrain, the going is tough, and it's all too easy to navigate the wrong way around a dune and end up sinking into the soft sand. The secret is to keep momentum and have low air pressure in the tires.