Desert off-roading final frontier for women in Qatar

Sealine (Qatar) (AFP) –


A female 4X4 enthusiast is blazing a trail in Qatar's traditionally male sport of off-roading and in a rare move has also become a dune driving safety marshal.

"As soon as my tyres touched the sand, I fell in love with the desert," said Marcelle Visser, a South African woman living in Qatar, as her Land Cruiser bounded across the rolling sandscape.

In Qatar, gender separation in social settings remains common in many areas of life, so the appointment of a woman as one of a handful of experts at a prestigious desert club has caused a stir.

Men and women gather separately for prayers and most celebrations and, historically, it was the men who would gather and make camps in the desert as well as off-road together -- hugely popular pastimes in Qatar.

"When you start off with this, you think it's a men's sport. This was keeping me away in the beginning," said Visser.

But Khaled Shash, the chief safety marshal of Qatar's Dune Rider Club, a group bringing together those with a passion for the desert and 4X4 vehicles, sought to nurture Visser's enthusiasm.

"The minute I saw how Marcelle is passionate about off-roading in general I decided to focus with her. It was a plan to make her a marshal," he said.

- 'Don't need physical strength' -

Marshals take responsibility for the safety of group members on desert drives, training participants in off-road driving techniques and assisting those in distress.

More than 4,300 accidents have been reported in Qatar's most popular off-roading area in the past five years, according to interior ministry figures.

Over the winter desert season, authorities have carried out a media blitz with television coverage of safety and recovery initiatives, driver education roadshows, and warning billboards dotted around desert areas.

Dune Riders, like most other clubs, hosts regular workshops for newcomers to promote safety.

At one workshop, Shash, Visser and the other marshals demonstrated desert recovery techniques.

Visser showed a group of young men how to be sure their cars were properly dug out before driving off to avoid spinning their tyres and digging in.

"When we come out to the desert, it's four to six hours per time so it's really intensive training," she said of her marshal training, surrounded by the sides of the deep sand bowl used to demonstrate recovery techniques.

"It's the same for women getting stuck as for the men, because you don't need the physical strength, you just need to follow the right steps."

- 'Not a woman thing?' -

Desert camps and off-roading will be at the forefront of Qatar's offer to fans visiting the Gulf emirate for the 2022 World Cup.

Desert camps are also expected to help pick up the slack for hotels and other more conventional accommodation.

Visser's expertise is clear, but she sometimes has to work to be heard over her more vocal male club members.

"Off-roading always had something of an adrenaline rush, so it's always existed with men -- it's not a woman thing," said Shash, the chief marshal.

But Visser was not deterred, rising from an ordinary group member to a marshal in little over a year.

"That raised a lot of eyebrows," she said.

"When it's a big group and each one has their own way of doing it, being heard over a big group of people is very difficult."

The group, which counts only a handful of women as members -- something Visser has sought to change by encouraging members' wives to give it a try -- has come to embrace the lone female marshal.

"This is the first time that I've seen a woman, who's very bold, very patient. She's really good."